If the Viva lingers in people's affections, it's because it was the Sixties answer to a trusty steed, says Giles Chapman

Vauxhall made its last Viva in 1979 - which, being 27 years ago, is an absolute lifetime if you're Michael Owen. By then, despite the Viva's astonishing reputation for dependability, cars such as the new Vauxhall Astra, with front-wheel drive and a hatchback, were the future.

But, even today, the Viva lingers in people's affections. I discovered this recently when talking to Sheila, who works on an airline switchboard. Her first car, she said, was a bright-green G-reg Viva HB. She called it Vivian, after the punk character in The Young Ones, the early Eighties TV show. It cost her £15 and provided three years' trusty service.

And a few years ago, when I broke down on a petrol-station forecourt one night near Newark, Sue, the woman behind the counter, pointed out her pale-blue Viva HC. Went like a dream, she said, cost £250... and never let her down. As I shivered, waiting for the AA, I rather wished it was mine.

The Viva was shaped by two important factors. Firstly, Vauxhall envied the success of small cars such as the Ford Anglia and Triumph Herald. Secondly, its Luton factory was full to bursting. But Vauxhall couldn't just expand at Luton. Government planning regulations decreed that large factories could only be built near unemployment black spots.

Indeed, both the Anglia, at Halewood, and the Herald, at Speke, were built at large new plants on Merseyside, where the decline of the docks meant that jobs were badly needed. Vauxhall decided to join them. It settled on an old airstrip between the Manchester Ship Canal and the river Mersey, and work began in 1961 on what became Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port factory. Two years later, it was making components.

Meanwhile, Vauxhall planned its new small car meticulously. This was made easier by sharing some parts with Germany's Opel Kadett, but the car's rather severe, "razor-edge" lines and spacious four-seater interior were all-British. So was the engine, a 1,057cc, four-cylinder unit, putting out 44bhp. Drive was to the rear wheels, via a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox, steering was rack-and-pinion.

Autocar magazine's 1963 road test found the Viva could reach 76mph. It judged it "outstandingly easy to drive" and said that it offered "above-average roominess for the price".

At first, there was a choice of Viva or Viva Deluxe two-door saloons, starting at £527, including Purchase Tax. You could specify disc brakes at the front (for £12 extra), and it was the first British car to wear acrylic-lacquer paint.

Early cars were assembled at Luton, but, from June 1964, the Viva moved to Ellesmere Port, too. In only 10 months, 100,000 were sold. Also in 1964 came a Bedford-van edition, produced until 1983 in unchanged form, and in constant demand from Post Office Telephones (now BT).

The Viva's popularity ballooned. By December 1965, 250,000 had been made, and added to the range were a luxurious SL, with polished radiator grille; and the pseudo-sporty SL90, tuned to give 60bhp for 0-60 acceleration in 18sec, and an 80mph top whack. The Viva was a hit abroad, too, especially in Canada.

By the time that production of this HA Viva halted in 1966, a total of 307,738 had been built. The all-new HB replacement was longer, lower, wider, roomier and even more successful. It also looked far less austere, with a "Coke-bottle" shape featuring a pronounced kink in the wing line. Underneath was new coil-spring suspension, plus a bigger (1,159cc), more gutsy engine. The range soon included a four-door saloon, an estate, automatic transmission, and a 1,600cc engine option.

The Viva developed a sporting persona, too. First came the mildly tuned Viva 90, still with the 1,159cc engine. Then the Australian former F1 star Jack Brabham endorsed an even sportier version: the Viva Brabham, with an extra 9bhp courtesy of twin carbs and a straight-through exhaust, along with front disc brakes and a distinctive go-faster stripe draped over bonnet and front wings.

But Vauxhall's real firecracker was the Viva GT. An ingenious cocktail of Vauxhall components, the basis was a standard two-door Viva bodyshell, into which was squeezed the 2-litre, single overhead camshaft engine from the bigger Vauxhall Victor - tilted at 45 degrees to get it in! Twin Stromberg carbs and a through-flow exhaust spelt 104bhp and maximum torque of 117lb ft. It was a peppy performer - 0-60mph in 11.9sec, and 100mph tops.

Autocar loved it: "It is beautifully docile and smooth. When real acceleration is needed, the engine will pull like a train." But you didn't need to tell your neighbours you'd just bought a GT: the matt black bonnet with twin scoops, GT badges and quartet of exhaust tailpipes was megaphone enough.

Exactly 556,752 Vauxhall Viva HBs were made up to 1970. But then it was all-change again, with the HC Viva. On a slightly longer wheelbase, the HC was roomier, with barrel-sided bodywork adding to elbowroom inside. In addition to 1.2- and 1.6-litre engines, Vauxhall engineers shoehorned in 70bhp 1.8-litre and 110bhp 2.3-litre lumps, too.

A bewildering medley of models ensued: two- or four-door saloons, two-door estate and two-door coupé Vivas; Firenza coupés; and the luxury Magnum, in all three body styles but only with the larger engines. In 1971, the millionth Viva rolled off the production line at Luton and, seconds later, the 1,000,001st example was finished at Ellesmere Port. Altogether, almost 700,000 HC cars were made.

To many, the Viva will always evoke ultra-reliable, easy-to-live-with motoring, from a time when roads were emptier and driving was unhurried. But, only to those of a certain age...

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