Vauxhall Cavalier

Cars Culture

Martin bought some terrible cars in his younger years...

We called it Charles the First because it was a Cavalier.

These days it’s the sort of vehicular relic you see slumped in the corner of a field at a provincial car boot sale, boot open to reveal old tools or dodgy Star Wars figurines, but the Cavalier was once a corporate thruster’s dream.

It was basically a German-designed Opel. The first one was a handsome shovel-nosed, rear-drive saloon that was better made than the omnipresent Ford Cortina and less wobbly on the bends.

credit: Giles Chapman

The second Cavalier had shockingly modern front-wheel-drive, there were hatchbacks and masochists could opt for one of the nastiest diesel engines ever made. People who thought the Ford Sierra looked peculiar bought Cavaliers instead. Cavalier the third was, more or less, more of the same.

For reasons of serial monogamy I owned three Mk1s and three Mk2s. I’ll concentrate on the first trio, as you will lose the will to live if I bang on about all of them.

Charles the First was a red 2 litre, circa 1976, bought from a local car repair shop for £350 in 1990. It had brand new suspension bushes, tyres, fluids and ignition parts, 130,000 miles on the clock and had been owned from new by a charming lady who’d worked for the Royal School of Needlework.

“I learned to drive on lorries during the Last War so I always double-de-clutch, and know about regular maintenance, because I trained on the lorries,” she said.

The car drove in a way that shrugged off its advancing years and high mileage, and having replaced a Morris Marina I found its dynamics were the last word in sophistication. They weren’t really, but everything’s relative.

Sadly it was also jinxed, because people kept crashing into it. I was changing a number plate bulb and received a smart blow on the head from the boot lid when someone reversed into the front of it. Passing beneath a motorway bridge rocks were dropped from it by marauding teenagers.

More serious smashes finished it off. The first involved a three-lane A-road near Richmond and a very old lady in a Talbot Sunbeam, who dribbled over give way lines into our path. She started on the inside lane and kept going. I swerved to avoid her but failed, kebabbing the Talbot in the outside lane.

I watched the slow-motion tableau as the Cavalier buried itself into the Talbot’s door, whose window glass shattered, and the old lady’s mouth opened in surprise. A Yorkshire terrier with a bow that had been sitting on the parcel shelf flew through the air, legs paddling, and vanished under the dashboard.

Both dog and owner were shaken and unhurt, as were the elderly aunt and uncle who were travelling in my car. The uncle was awaiting heart surgery and appeared to be hyperventilating during the impact.

Two juvenile police persons arrived along with the old lady’s middle-aged daughter. Jabbing her finger at me she screamed: “You were going too fast! You tried to kill my mother!”

My aunt was outraged. “My nephew did not try to kill your mother!” she hissed, and an argument ensued which the police ingénues failed to stop.

Charles the First was battered, unbowed and apparently repairable, something that became more questionable when my girlfriend, who’d just passed her driving test, collected a passing prison officer’s Ford Sierra as a bonnet ornament.

She was driving when the coup de grace came in the form of a builder on Gants Hill roundabout who enthusiastically rear-ended Charles the First with his van.

“I’m always doing that,” he said.

Charles the Second was an entirely knackered Cavalier 1600 L, which stank of burning oil. I sold it to a born again Christian, who paid cash and gave me a blood-curdling Bible reading about the hellfire consequences of telling lies.

Charles the Third was another 2 litre and cost £150 because it hadn’t turned a wheel in a year and had an automotive hair lip thanks to rolling into a wooden post when its owner forgot to engage the handbrake. An MOT-friendly straightening was achieved by wrapping a towrope around a lamppost and the car’s front bumper then reversing smartly.

When the exhaust partially dropped off I repaired it with Gungum, two Jubilee clips and a baked bean can. That car lasted for years, which was a miracle because soon after buying it I nearly totalled the thing emerging too quickly from the Earls Court Road onto the A4. The rear end let go and refused to come to heel. I went sideways for about fifty yards as railings whooshed past the car’s misshapen nose. Then I found myself stationary, pointing the wrong way and facing a fast-approaching herd of taxis and trucks.

“W*nker!” shouted one passing cabbie.

The Mk 1 Cavalier is almost extinct, but miraculously mine survives. I sold it to a friend who eventually gave it to a member of the Cavalier Owner’s Club, and twenty-something years on, it’s still on the DVLA’s books.


header image: Giles Chapman