UK’s rarest cars: 1982 Vauxhall Astra Mk1 Saloon, one of only four left on British roads

The E 1200S was an ill-fated attempt to turn a fashionably-hatchbacked Astra into a booted car to appeal to conservative buyers on a budget

The 'poverty-spec' two-door cost £3,404 when it was launched in late 1980

The Vauxhall Astra Mk1 is now a fast-vanishing sight from British roads but earlier this year Michael Carpenter discovered and acquired this bottom-of-the-range E 1200S in a very Eighties shade of metallic gold. Even more remarkably, it is one of the few surviving two-door versions.

Vauxhall’s parent company General Motors (GM) commenced its T80 project for a front-wheel drive family car in 1976, with the Opel Kadett D making its bow in March 1979. The very similar Astra followed eight months later and was the first front-drive Vauxhall, although design input from the firm’s HQ at Luton was limited. 

A 1977 memorandum stated: “Since the introduction of the Chevette Hatchback in mid-1975, Vauxhall Design have pursued an agreed company objective to establish a positive Vauxhall identity on Opel designed and engineered passenger cars and maintain a two brand image for Vauxhall and Opel products.” 

In other words, Vauxhall-branded cars were to be largely Opel products with different badges, and their sales outside of the UK to cease. However, GM did ask Luton to create a “three-box” Astra Mk1 saloon to satisfy former Viva HC owners, but eventually cancelled the project on financial grounds. Instead, the company employed the standard two-door bodyshell, deleting the top-hinged hatchback and folding rear seat, then adding a bootlid hinged just below the rear window line. 

The Saloon debuted in late 1980. Vauxhall proclaimed: “It’s for those of you or your staff who prefer a conventional boot to a hatchback or an estate.” Equally importantly, the Saloon incorporated “the high technology of all the Astras”, meaning that it looked as contemporary as the Commodore home computer. 

The entry-level two-door cost £3,404 and for such a modest sum no reasonable motorist could expect hazard warning lights and a glovebox lid, front head restraints or rear ashtrays. Instead, they would probably be too busy revelling in owning an Astra with “Plain Tweed” cloth upholstery and a “sophisticated air-blend heating and ventilation system”.

For entry-level, read basic – the instrumentation was the bare minimum and even the glovebox lid was deleted

Unfortunately, these thrilling attributes persuaded too few potential customers to visit their friendly Vauxhall-Opel dealer. Nor were they overwhelmed by the heated rear window, the “soft feel” steering wheel or the “internal bonnet lock”. 

In theory, however, the Saloon was a logical development, giving Vauxhall a 10-car range to compete with the then-new, front-wheel-drive Ford Escort Mk3. At that time, many conservative-minded buyers still preferred a car with a separate boot, and Ford would not introduce the Orion (a booted version of the Escort) until 1983. 

But, as Carpenter explains: “The Saloon was a bit of a failure for Vauxhall, so they discontinued it after two years. The E has a poverty specification and a very dated 1,196cc OHV (overhead-valve) engine rather than the newer and better OHC (overhead-camshaft) engine – so, basically, nobody bought them.”

Spot the difference: to create a booted Astra, Vauxhall replaced the standard car's top-hinged hatchback with a fixed rear window and a boot below, while the rear seats were fixed rather than folding

It would not be until 1986 that Vauxhall would re-enter this market sector with the Belmont, a booted version of the Mk2 Astra, which is itself now an unusual sight. 

Meanwhile, the Astra Saloon seemed fated to appear only in Vauxhall brochures and possibly only four 1200S E’s remain on the road. Fortunately, Carpenter is a significant enthusiast of rare 1970s and 1980s vehicles; The Telegraph has previously featured his splendid 1977 Morris Marina Estate. In his words: “When I first heard about the Vauxhall, I knew I had to have it.”

Carpenter is only the Astra’s second owner, and he explains: “The first owner won it when he was staying in a hotel in Scarborough back in 1982. He is now 81 and retired from driving. 

The E badging denotes this car's entry-level status. The 1200S indicates an older 1,200cc unit rather than the peppy 1.3 overhead-cam units employed in the more popular hatchbacks

“When I bought the Vauxhall it had been off the road for nine years but this April it passed its first MOT in nine years, with no advisories. I plan to attend to the paintwork and display the 1200S at shows.” 

Above all, it is refreshing to see a first-generation Astra that isn’t a top-of-the-range GTE (nor an awful replica of one). So naturally, whenever Carpenter drives it, this machine is already the object of curiosity, many people marvelling at the round headlights, the extremely Eighties colour scheme and the two large hinges below the rear screen denoting the boot. And no doubt appreciating the “black thermostatic plastic” bumper covers.

Thanks to: Michael Carpenter

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