We’ve covered the Greatest Fast Fords recently, now it’s the turn of its arch rival, Vauxhall. While it’s probably fair to say that Ford’s ’70s offerings like the Capri and the RS-badged Escorts have helped it amass a larger cult following, GM-owned Vauxhall has given us some seriously potent – not to mention seriously cool – models over the decades. With this in mind, here’s the rundown of the Greatest Performance Vauxhalls compiled by Jarkle.
The fact that Vauxhall has been part of the sprawling General Motors empire for the vast majority of its existence means that many of its most iconic offerings share much in the way of DNA with Opels and Holdens, hence why he’s taken the liberty of including a number of star cars from these other, closely related car makers.
1) Astra GTE Mk2 16V
The Mk1 Astra GTE was launched in 1983 but was only on sale for 2 years before being replaced by the mechanically similar but visually very different Mk2. The ‘cooking models’ which made up most of the Astra range were popular if unspectacular, but the GTE was always a potent hot hatch and was certainly well received.
Things took a turn for the extreme when Vauxhall took the brave step of bolting in the then new 16v 20XE ‘Redtop’ engine in 1988, one boasting a mighty 150bhp, and the result was the GTE 16v, one of the most extreme hot hatches of the ’80s. No, it didn’t have the build quality or finesse of the Mk2 Golf GTI and lacked the RS Turbo’s forced induction street cred, but the 16v become a true icon, largely thanks to the Redtop itself. Indeed, the XE’s motorsport origins meant that it was hugely tunable, with potential power outputs of 200bhp well within reach and as much as 270bhp not unknown.
2) Astra H VXR
Neither Ford or Vauxhall exactly covered themselves in hot hatch glory in the ’90s thanks to the ever increasing weight of their respective cars, emissions restrictions that did for race-related engines like the Redtop, and spiraling insurance premiums, yet both came back fighting in the middle of the last decade. Vauxhall’s offering was the Astra VXR, a car intended to go up against the Focus ST – and win! It was powered by the Z20LEH, a turbocharged four-pot good for a handy 240bhp, much, much more if you felt the urge to bolt on tuning parts like free-flowing manifolds, intercoolers and turbo kits.
3) Lotus Carlton
Let’s face it, this car was always going to make the cut – it’s just too cool and too significant to not be here! It’s one of those cars that’s gone down in automotive folklore, partly as it was powered by a turbocharged inline-six making 377bhp (enough to see off almost anything on sale at the time and on to 177mph), partly as it generated so much controversy, the tabloids even going so far as to describe it as a ‘reckless invitation to speed.’
The Lotus Carlton might have been massively powerful and pleasingly controversial, but it was also a bit of a GM ‘parts bin special.’ The engine was a highly re-developed version of the naturally aspirated C30SE found in the Carlton GSi3000, the gearbox was a ZF unit taken from the contemporary Corvette and the differential was robbed from the Holden Commodore. Not that any of this stopped it from being one of the most talked about performance cars of the decade, though its rather prosaic underpinnings might have played a part in Vauxhall’s struggle to sell all 950 examples, as did its £48,000 price tag.
4) Carlton TS6000 Thundersaloon
The Lotus variant was the most potent road-going Carlton ever sold, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t more extreme racers, the Carlton Thundersaloon easily the pick of the bunch. Thundersaloons were silhouette racers dressed up to look vaguely like their road going counterparts, though under the skin lurked massive V8s and finely honed chassis.
Vauxhall really did take its Thundersaloon racing seriously, and green lit a pair of racers based upon the Carlton, the second being the most potent. It bore little relation to the road cars, was fitted with a 570bhp V8 sourced from Holden, and was driven to the title by none other than John Cleland, a man we’ll hear more of later in this list. It looked and sounded wild, and was able to deliver Vauxhall the title in 1988.
5) VX220 Turbo
Another tie-up between Vauxhall and Lotus, and another car that proved that the former could produce a desirable, keen handling machine. Based upon the Lotus Elise and therefore both lightweight and a joy to drive, the VX220 was also cheaper than its Hethel relation and, though this is entirely down to personal preference, looked better overall.
Available in both NA and turbocharged variants, it was the latter that proved the more potent package, the Z20LET mounted amidships good for 200bhp, and way, way more via the aftermarket tuning route should the owner so desire.
6) Nova GTE/GSi
The Nova became one of the widely tuned cars in the UK, meaning that it became the unwitting canvass for all manner of automotive styling and tuning exercises, not all of them advisable (remember Delta bodykits?). The GTE and the GSi were the performance versions of the Nova, the cars that many aspiring petrolheads wanted to own more than any other, and the models that countless Merits and SRs were eventually dressed to look like.
Both were powered by 1.6 8v engines and both made use of rudimentary fuel injection systems, meaning that performance was solid if not spectacular (the earlier GTE making 101bhp, the latter GSi 100bhp), hence why so many opted to rip the C20XE Redtop or C20LET out of a Cavalier or Calibra and fit that instead.
7) Insignia VXR
I might be alone in feeling a bit sad that the days of the large, powerful Vauxhall saloon are very much behind us (GM opted not to replace the Omega in 2003), so the next best thing is the Insignia VXR. Based upon the rep’s favourite, the VXR-badged Insignia is easily one of the most overlooked performance Vauxhall offerings, a fact that merely makes it even cooler in our book.
Far more than a mere marketing exercise, the Insignia VXR comes with a tub-thumping 2.8 V6 with a large turbo slung over the side, four-wheel drive, and subtly menacing looks. It’s capable of genuinely startling performance, as much 170mph given enough run-up, and can be tuned to give even more. It’s one of those cars that might not immediately jump out when you consider fast cars, yet the bare stats show that it most certainly is, and more than capable of embarrassing more expensive offerings from German rivals.
8) Opel Manta 400
Built to compete in Group B rallying, the Opel Manta 400 found itself out-gunned and out-tractioned by the likes of the Audi Quattro and Peugeot 205T16 on the world stage, yet drove its way into the hearts of British rally fans thanks to its starring role in the British Rally Championship (BRC) from 1984 to 1986. It’s important to remember that the BRC was a hugely significant championship in the mid ’80s, second only to the WRC in terms of stature and therefore able to draw entries from some of the finest rally drivers around. This meant that the battle between rear-wheel drive, naturally aspirated Manta 400, and turbocharged, four-wheel drive Quattro or T16 was never less than compelling.
The Mantas were driven by the likes of Jimmy McRae, Russell Brookes and Bertie Fisher, and were able to dominate on sealed surface events like the Manx, the circuit of Ireland and the Ulster, but couldn’t match the all-wheel drive opposition on gravel. What the Manta’s lacked in traction and power they made up for in reliability, and the latter proved crucial in Opel drivers netting the BRC title in 1985 and 1986.
9) Baby Bertha
This Firenza had to make the cut thanks to its compelling mixture of looks and performance, and the fact that it was driven by one of the most likable race drivers of all time, Gerry Marshall. Gerry was a larger than life character who possessed phenomenal talent both for driving and for drinking beer, traits that made him a household name amongst British race fans in the ’70s. It was therefore entirely fitting that he achieved most of his on-track successes behind the wheel of Baby Bertha, a Firenza with a V8, wide bodywork and the now iconic Dealer Team Vauxhall livery. The pairing of Bertha and Marshall proved an effective one, and DTV won the Tricentrol Super Saloon series several times before switching its focus to rallying in the late ’70s.
10) John Welch’s Mk2 Astra Rallycross*
The banning of Group B in 1986 fundamentally altered the rally scene and resulted in a slew of massively powerful cars being up for sale at once, and the vast majority of the really powerful stuff wound up competing in European Rallycross, prompting one of the sport’s golden eras.
John Welch was one of the sport’s leading lights and keen to get a piece of the action, though he evidently preferred to do things his own way and ended up buying one of the Kadett Es used by Opel in the 1986 Paris-Dakar rally raid. This made full use of Xtrac’s trick 4×4 system and was therefore well suited for use in Rallycross, though there was simply no way that the NA Manta 400 engine would be able to hold its own against Delta S4s and 205T16s making over 600bhp. Welch worked with Swindon Race Engines and ended up sleeving it down to 2.1l, adding a massive turbo ‘liberated’ from the BMW F1 team and a wastegate from Arrows. The resulting setup was good for 600bhp in race trim and as much as 650bhp in qualifying setup, while liberal use of Kevlar kept weight in check.
Though never able to win the ERC title outright the Astra was always fast and always a contender, allowing John to take a number of victories.
*Huge thanks must go to Darren Hillburn for helping out with this entry, his knowledge of ’80s GM motorsport projects is second to none.
11) 1995 Cavalier BTCC
The Super Touring regulations produced some of the best racing the BTCC has ever seen, and encouraged some of the biggest car makers in the business to take the plunge and start racing. Vauxhall was very much a BTCC stalwart by 1995, the year that it finally took the title outright with the decidedly elderly Mk3 Cavalier. The Cavalier was easily the oldest car on the grid by this point, so much so that by the time John Cleland had sealed the title in autumn, the road car on which it was based had been replaced on the forecourts of the UK by the Vectra B!
It might’ve been older than its rivals from Ford, Alfa Romeo, Volvo, Peugeot, Toyota, Renault, BMW and Honda, a list which merely illustrates just how healthy and popular the BTCC was at the peak of the Super Tourer era, but it was still very fast and impressively reliable. Cleland was also an old hand and knew the Cavalier like, well, the back of his hand, and a stunning season (including a mid-season blitz at Donnington Park and Silverstone) eventually gave him the drivers title and Vauxhall the manufacturers prize.
12) Chevette HSR
British rallying in the 1970s was largely dominated by the Ford Escort, and the success enjoyed by this car – along with the massive marketing opportunities it presented its maker – inspired many rival car firms to have a bash at this Group 4 rallying lark, Vauxhall included. Luton’s entry was the Chevette HS, a car that eventually led to GM’s ultimate ‘better Escort,’ the Chevette HSR.
Wider and with more sophisticated suspension than both the Ford and its HS predecessor, the HSR certainly looked the part. It also went well thanks to its 2.3 ‘slant four’ engine, and the calibre of the drivers GM lured to Luton was never in doubt – Jimmy McRae, Tony Pond and Russell Brookes all did stints behind the wheel, resulting in wins on the Circuit of Ireland, the Scottish Rally, and the Manx. The HSR was fast, but never given enough time to topple the might of the Escort, and in any case the looming presence of the Audi Quattro doomed it to a short works career.
13) Red Victor
The title of the fastest street legal drag car is a hotly contested one, and one of the leading contenders is from right here in the UK. This is fairly surprising for this most American of motorsports, yet what’s even more startling is that the car in question is actually a Vauxhall, Andy Frost’s famous Red Victor. Granted, there isn’t much ‘Victor’ left after almost 4 decades of constant evolution, but it still looks like the classic ’70s Vauxhall and is badged as such, so we’re counting it as one!
Currently in its third iteration and in the middle of a rebuild phase, Red Victor 3 is powered by a twin-turbocharged 8.8l Chevy V8 making over 3000bhp. Despite this monstrous power output and the driving talents of ‘Frostie’ himself, the record for the world’s fastest street legal car was recently taken back by the Americans, meaning the team has dedicated its effort to re-capturing it in 2017.
14) Vauxhall Monaro VXR 500
Vauxhall’s place within the wider GM empire has often hamstrung it and made it slow to react, yet it’s also allowed the firm access to a massive variety of engines and platforms, the Monaro being one of the best examples. Sold by Holden in its native Australia, the Monaro was first imported to Blighty back in 2004 and wasted no time in making waves; it was cheap for what it was, well styled and came with a brawny V8. Things got even better when the VXR boys got their hands on it in 2006, adding a Harrop supercharger to the 6.0LS2 and creating the ultimate slice of Anglo-Aussie cool, the 500bhp Monaro VXR 500!
15) The John Pope Special
I’ve saved the best until last this time around, certainly in terms out outright automotive lunacy. The John Pope Special dates from the mid ’70s, a period that gave us some of the most insane race cars of all time, and yet this wide-arched Magnum is still among the most extreme racers birthed by that decade.
John Pope was a farmer and frustrated club race driver, so when he chanced upon the battered remains of a then-new Aston Martin V8 DBS his mind began to race, and it wasn’t all that long before he’d bought the remains, brewed a cup of tea and set about stuffing its running gear into the front of a massively re-worked Magnum shell. The resulting car was eventually fitted with a pair of AIResearch turbos (a development that some of Aston’s own engineers had a hand in) running 18psi, enough to enable the JPS to make 900bhp. The best bit? It was completely road legal and driven to and from race meetings my John himself, a fact which makes it just about the coolest car on the face of the planet.