In May last year, Vauxhall moved out of Griffin House, a purpose-built headquarters on the outskirts of Luton that it had occupied for nearly half of its 117-year existence. The departure left much more than mere memories: this unique building had contained one of the world’s finest car design studios of the post-war era.
Created specifically to produce new Vauxhall cars, it was commissioned in 1964 as the Vauxhall Engineering and Styling Centre. From day one, it encouraged a hugely productive phase, setting some of Europe’s finest designers to work on often-exotic tasks, unfettered by the needs of global markets.
When it emerged last year that Vauxhall was moving, we negotiated with the building’s new owners to make one last visit, accompanied by several well-known car designers who had built their careers there. Eventually we pulled it off, visiting this crucible of creativity with Peter Birtwhistle, Ken Greenley and John Heffernan, each of whom will forever have his name against at least one iconic model.
Vauxhall’s centre was one of five independent studios in non-US parts of the General Motors (GM) world. It could take an idea from a simple sheet of paper and make a production car. It did so repeatedly, building Vauxhalls for the showroom and adding some of the world’s most far-sighted concept cars into the bargain.
The idea seems incredible today, when global car designs must share multiple components to have any chance of profitability. The era didn’t last, mind. Its heyday ran roughly from the advent of he 1963 Viva HA to the late 1970s, when it dawned upon GM’s bigwigs that vast sums could be saved if Opel and Vauxhall built the same cars, badged differently.
The centre was huge, given that it was only for car creation. Soon after its opening, a proud Vauxhall brochure proclaimed, in the parlance of the day, that its inmates were “2000 men with a single objective”. The ground and first floors housed 500 engineers, with 350 draughtsmen a floor above. Behind that stood the super-secret design department, a collection of six separate studios and a bigger viewing space supported by its own engineering library, fabrication shop, trim shop, parts store and surgery.
The design boss – a potentate in this little world – had a large, glazed boardroom office equipped with a private kitchen and bathroom. The double-height design studios looked out onto a vast outdoor viewing area with parking space for upwards of 30 cars and trucks and a high wall protecting its perimeter. A huge lift, still working, took ‘properties’ up and down from ground level. Secrecy was paramount; when a tall block of flats was erected nearby, Vauxhall sent representatives to check that residents couldn’t overlook the design gallery.