The Vauxhall Cresta was unlike anything before or since, says Giles Chapman

The autumn OF 1957 had a decidedly out-of-this-world feel. The world's biggest radio telescope went into operation at Jodrell Bank, while Russia launched its first space satellite - quickly followed by Sputnik II containing Laika, the first dog in orbit. Alongside these epoch-making events, Vauxhall's image achieved lift-off with a brand new saloon car range: the Vauxhall "PA" Cresta and Velox were little short of space-age.

The autumn OF 1957 had a decidedly out-of-this-world feel. The world's biggest radio telescope went into operation at Jodrell Bank, while Russia launched its first space satellite - quickly followed by Sputnik II containing Laika, the first dog in orbit. Alongside these epoch-making events, Vauxhall's image achieved lift-off with a brand new saloon car range: the Vauxhall "PA" Cresta and Velox were little short of space-age.

Your average large mid-1950s British car - a Humber or a Rover - looked like a submarine crossed with an Edwardian pub - stately and rotund, with pill-box windows and protruding headlamps and mudguards. They were generally built like the Forth Bridge, but handling was cumbersome and acceleration feeble, and they came in solemn colours like black or dark green.

It was a different matter on the other side of the Atlantic. American cars were low, sleek, bright and, while hardly nimble, at least easy and relaxing to drive. It was with capturing a slice of US glamour in mind that the Cresta and Velox, codenamed PA, took shape in Vauxhall's Luton centre in 1955.

Not for the Cresta an upright, narrow radiator grille or a body harking back to pre-war days; the new cars had long, rakish lines, with fashionable fins topping off the rear wings, bold rear-light clusters and a lustrous chrome trim tracing the outline of the low-set front grille and headlights. The effect was of modern Detroit, yet it came on a scale more in tune with Droitwich. Plus, of course, the car had full unitary construction (chassis and body combined); pioneered by Vauxhall in 1937.

More remarkable, however, was the windscreen. It wrapped around the sides of the car to give a truly panoramic view, while at the back a novel three-piece rear window provided outstanding all-round visibility.

Plus, with the gear-lever mounted on the steering column and full-width bench seats in back and front, the new cars could comfortably accommodate six adults .

The familiar part of the car was the 2.2-litre six-cylinder engine, carried over from previous Vauxhalls. This power unit, mated to a three-speed manual gearbox - just imagine enduring that - meant the car hit 60mph in 16sec and had an 89mph top speed. Even then, that was slow.

The steering was light and the roadholding acceptable by contemporary standards. "It's big," wrote The Motor magazine in 1958, "yet not so bulky as to be a nuisance around towns that date back to pre-motoring days, lively and fast yet by no means expensive to run, and offering quite a high standard of refinement."

But the Velox and, more especially, the deluxe Cresta, did more than just soothe driver and passengers: they added some much-needed colour and style to Britain's drab roadscape. You could go for a striking two-tone paint job, or order something simpler but just as vivid, like bright pink or apple green. The Cresta sported white-wall tyres and anodised hubcaps, while the upholstery could be in two-tone leather, herringbone-weave nylon - at that point still something of a wonder product - or hard-wearing "Elastofab".

In late 1958, a Cresta cost £1,073, including £358 purchase tax. It was the kind of car you desperately hoped your dad would get next and, as the M1 opened in 1959, increasing numbers of people looking for relaxed motorway cruisers did. With a youthful Cliff Richard in the charts and coffee bars springing up in every town, these ritzy Vauxhalls were an integral part of modern Britain just before the 1960s exploded.

The company wasn't impervious to the PA's shortcomings, though. A new grille and a wraparound single-piece rear window to match the front one were new for 1960, along with an engine boost to 2.6 litres, and optional overdrive, giving 96mph top speed. A roomy estate version was offered, but those evocative flutes were smoothed out of the wings for a neater look. A couple of months later came the option of automatic transmission, while 1962 cars boasted servo-assisted front disc brakes.

By the time the car was replaced by the far less appealing PB range in 1962, 173,604 PAs had been made. Vauxhall's two millionth vehicle, built in February 1959, was a PA Cresta.

Crestas and Veloxes saw their darkest hours in the 1970s. By then, they were regarded as worthless old bangers, and usually driven by ageing Teddy Boys desperate to keep the spirit of the 1950s alive. That any PAs survived at all is a miracle because the cars' inability to stave off rust was legendary - ironically, it was often the join between the body panels and those wraparound front and rear screens that turned into a highly corrosive gutter.

The cars' lack of genuine robustness quickly scuppered a promising export sales drive; the Canadians, in particular, knew what a real American sedan should be like, and this was an ersatz British copy.

Today, though, they're highly sought after - particularly the rare "three-window" examples, and the estates (one of these was the Queen's favourite car for years at Sandringham), of which probably less than 40 survive. They are worth up to £6,000 in perfect condition. That's classic sports car money.

Just like the Space Race, they're a diverting reminder from the time when Britain finally cheered up after the Second World War, and an automotive icon that's hard not to like, even if secretly.

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