I was seven years old when the twenty-fifth edition of The Observer’s Book of Automobiles was published. It’s thanks to this book that I will forever go weak at the knees at the sight of a sporty variant of the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2. Forget supercars and sports cars; in 1982 I only had eyes for a two-tone Cavalier.
Gracing the front cover of the book was a Polar White Cavalier SR with Anthracite body mouldings, 14-inch alloy wheels and, although I couldn’t see them through the glass, Recaro seats upholstered in Highland check cloth. Even when I picture it now, four decades on, my heart flutters in the same way it did when I first saw a wuthering Kate Bush on Top of the Pops.
There was more thunder in my heart at the end of the year when Vauxhall announced the arrival of the Cavalier SRi. First shown at the 1982 Motor Show held at the NEC, the SRi arrived in Vauxhall-Opel dealerships alongside the new Cavalier CD on 22 November 1982. Both were available as a four-door saloon or five-door hatchback.
The timing was perfect, with the new fuel-injected models designed to draw attention away from the shock-and-awe Ford Sierra. Thanks to the second-generation Cavalier, which went on sale in September 1981, Vauxhall was enjoying one of its most successful periods. Though still behind Ford (30.5 per cent) and British Leyland (17.8 per cent), Vauxhall had seen its market share increase from 8.6 per cent in 1981 to 11.7 per cent in 1982.
In 1981, the Cavalier was Britain’s fifth best-selling car, with 100,081 finding homes – the first time a Vauxhall model had shifted more than 100,000 units in one year. Better was to come with the arrival of the Nova and the UK’s initial reluctance to embrace Ford’s Cortina replacement. It’s easy to overlook the fact that the Cavalier was the first car to put a dent in Ford’s dominance of the family car market.
A damn good car
For Ford, the Cavalier was no laughing matter. Chris Kelly, managing director of Hertz, said: “I’m afraid I find the Sierra rather unexciting. There is nothing different about it, as there was for instance with the new Escort.” In February 1983, Hertz’s fleet of 4500 rental cars included four times as many Cavaliers as the Sierra.
Ford UK’s chairman, Sam Toy, told The Sunday Times: “Look, I’m not scared of Vauxhall. Okay, so the Cavalier is a damn good car. But look how we have already come good in January  by overtaking the Cavalier.” Toy predicted that the Sierra would end the year as the second best-selling car behind the Escort. He was right.
But there’s no denying that the Cavalier left the Blue Oval looking a little red-faced. As The Sunday Times put it: “Vauxhall caught Ford with its trousers down”. The Cavalier was first to market, spacious, practical, comfortable, economical and, as Ford was happy to admit, a damn good car. It’s worth remembering that the Cavalier outsold the Sierra in 1984 and 1985.
Purposeful and aggressive
Aside from the badge, the Cavalier SRi was visually identical to the SR, which meant 14-inch alloy wheels, low profile tyres, two-tone bodywork and spoilers front and rear. “If you like to cut a dash, you’ll like the new SRi,” was Vauxhall’s claim. According to Motor, the looks fell “somewhere between the purposeful and aggressive”. Or, to this seven-year-old, somewhere between “wow” and “can we sell the Citroën GS and buy one, Dad?” Hey, I was young and easily led by fancy alloys and contrasting side mouldings.
On the inside, the SRi had Recaro front seats, Highland check cloth trim, three-spoke steering wheel and radio-cassette. The SRi also came with full instrumentation, including voltmeter and oil pressure gauge, although these were deleted on later SRi cars.
The big news was the fitment of new 1.8-litre, Bosch LE-Jetronic fuel-injected version of GM’s Family II engine. With 115bhp at 5800rpm, power was comparable to the 2.3-litre engine in the Ford Sierra and delivered a 0-60mph time of around ten seconds. Despite the optimistic 140mph on the dial, the top speed was 114mph.
Motor was impressed, saying: “More conservative cousins of the SRi have hard-to-beat handling. With its wide, flat-tread low profile Pirelli P6 tyres and uprated suspension, the newer car matches the same basic characteristics and with even greater adhesion. It is outstandingly responsive, taut and predictable, with a handling balance that’s close to neutral in fast bends, with understeer becomingly only a little more pronounced in slower turns.”
In a 1984 triple test against the Renault 18 Turbo and MG Montego, CAR gave the Cavalier SRi the nod, but only just. “Its interior trim is grim, its engine lacks low end punch, it cannot match the interior space of the MG and its ride is easily the hardest. But what it does offer is a healthy amount of driving pleasure – thanks to sharp handling and steering, ideal gear ratios and strong top end urge.”
For a sales rep tucking into a Kentucky pancake at a Little Chef, one line would have stood out: “To get real performance from this Cavalier, you have to whip the engine. And then the Cavalier can be made to motor.” He’d take one look at his dreary saloon parked outside, then back at the ‘snazzy’ (Motor’s word) Cavalier in the mag. Driving an SRi could be the key to winning the holiday for two in Jamaica for achieving the best quarterly sales figures. With his ageing company car, he’d end another quarter by making do with a £10 Woolworth gift voucher.
Still want that Sierra?
The Cavalier SRi evolved, gaining gas-filled struts and rear shock absorbers, revised rear springs and a close-ratio gearbox from the Astra GTE. In spring 1987, the 2.0-litre SRi 130 arrived – at the time the fastest Cavalier to leave Luton. According to Motor’s figures, it could hit 60mph in 8.5 seconds, going on to reach a top speed of 120mph.
At the time of the launch of the SRi 130, Vauxhall was selling around 12,000 SRis a year, making it a common sight on the outside lanes of Britain’s motorways. Today, it’s almost extinct, which is why this 1983 example has caught my eye. Seeing it takes me back to the 1980s, when I’d see a White Gold example on my walk to school. It also takes me back to 2016, when it was for sale at KGF Classic Cars for £7000.
The car was recommissioned in 2009 when the car had covered 36,448; that mileage has increased to just 38,409. As an early example, it comes with the full quota of instruments, with the original Philips radio-cassette present and correct.
Hair today, gone tomorrow
I’m not sure the Cavalier SRi gets the credit it deserves. Seven-year-old me would point to the little lip spoiler and the way the bronze tinted glass complements the White Gold paintwork. He’d also mention the delightfully beige interior, which looks like an explosion of Werther’s Originals. Gold and beige – what’s not to like?
The ‘hair metal’ band Cinderella formed around the same time as the first Vauxhall Cavalier SRis were appearing on the roads of Britain. In 1988, they released the power ballad Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till It’s Gone), just as Vauxhall was readying the Cavalier Mk3 for launch.
Tom Keifer’s words ring true about the Cavalier Mk2. While some cars of the 1980s command six-figure price tags and dominate the pages of the classic car media, the Cavalier is the forgotten hero of the family and company car sectors. I’m as guilty as the next person because I’ve allowed the Cavalier SRi to slip off my radar, but the auction has given me a little kick inside.
I doubt I’ll be placing a bid, but I will be dusting off my copy of The Observer’s Book of Automobiles with the Cavalier SR on the cover. If Kate Bush can enjoy a renaissance in 2022, the Cavalier SRi can do the same.