1958 Vauxhall Victor; photo by Wikipedia user Charles01. Click image to enlarge
By Bill Vance
Although Vauxhall built cars in England since 1903 and was purchased by General Motors in 1925, it was little-known in North America until the 1950s. The model that popularized it was the Vauxhall Victor sedan that began arriving in 1957. It was soon joined by a station wagon.
Up to that point, General Motors had not considered it necessary to market a small car in North America. But the popularity of the Rambler and rising sales of imports like the German Volkswagen and French Renault Dauphine prompted GM to join the small car game.
It was the golden age of American car design when American styling was seen as the world leader. Under the leadership of legendary styling guru Harley Earl of General Motors, father of the tailfin and wraparound windshield, cars reached new levels of jet plane-inspired garishness, chrome and three-tone paint jobs.
As Vauxhall was a GM subsidiary it’s not surprising that it took on the Detroit look. GM decided the best way to sell imports in North America was to make them look American. Ford was doing it successfully on its American Ford-inspired English Consuls, Zephyrs and Anglias.
The Vauxhall Victor was, therefore, a good example of transferring American styling to an English car. Although not as ostentatious as its U.S. cousins, the Victor did look like a shrunken-down GM car, particularly a Pontiac, which was appropriate since it was sold through Pontiac dealers.
1960 Vauxhall Victor; photo by Wikipedia user Charles01. Click image to enlarge
Thus we find rather massive bumpers for an import, with the very American feature of the exhaust pipe discharging through the right side bullet shaped bumper guard (a fake outlet was added to the left for symmetry). The grille was low and wide with a mesh pattern. There was a wraparound windshield and rear window, and the rear fenders extended into a kind of fin treatment. The hood had Pontiac-like chrome strips.
Although the Victor was Detroit inspired it somehow failed to fully carry off the full American car look. Its short 2,489 mm (98 in.) wheelbase, 4,229 mm (166.5 in) length and 1,575 mm (62 in.) width gave it a tall, narrow look. Like the Anglo-American Nash/American Motors Metropolitan, It came out looking like a shrunken caricature of a big American car.
The American theme was carried through to the interior where the driver faced a rather ornate instrument panel, sat on a bench seat and shifted the all-synchromesh, three-speed transmission with a column-mounted lever. The Victor could carry four passengers comfortably; five would be a little snug. The trunk had good capacity for a small car.
Underneath the unit construction body was a traditional coil spring independent front suspension, with a solid axle and leaf springs at the rear. It rode on tiny 5.60-13 tires.
The Victor had a 1.5-litre (1,507 cc), overhead valve inline four cylinder engine with oversquare bore and stroke dimensions of 79.4 X 76.2 mm (3.125 X 3.0 in.). It developed 55 horsepower at 4,200 rpm, which according to Road & Track (1/’58) could propel the 989 kg (2,180 lb) Vauxhall from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 25.3 seconds and top speed of 121 km/h (75.2 mph). Although leisurely by American standards, it was at least quicker than the popular Volkswagen’s 27.8 seconds and 114 km/h (75 mph).
1961 Vauxhall Victor; photo by Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge
While quicker than the VW, it suffered the usual malady of most small cars of that era: a rear axle ratio of 4.13:1 and lack of an overdrive fourth gear that kept the little engine spinning at a rather busy 3,630 r.p.m. at 96 km/h (60 mph), compared with the VW’s 2,940. Fuel economy was in the 8 L/100 km (35 mpg) range, which was twice as good as big American cars.
For 1959, the Victor received a mild facelift. Its grille changed to a horizontal bar type, bumpers were toned down, the crease on the rear door was removed and the Pontiac-inspired chrome strips were taken off the hood. The exhaust tailpipe was now below the bumper, rather than poking through it.
In its five-year run, over 900,000 of those first generation Victors were produced. While it enjoyed only moderate sales success in the U.S., it was more popular in Canada and other Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand.
The Vauxhall Victor never achieved anything like the popularity of the Volkswagen, but it did wed English mechanicals with Detroit styling, and appealed to those who wanted imported car fuel economy with the look and feel of an American car.