Currently reading: A final visit to the original Vauxhall design studio
Vauxhall has vacated its Luton headquarters after 55 years. We pay one last visit to what was once one of the world’s finest car design studios
Steve Cropley Autocar
News
3 mins read
9 August 2020

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.

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The company’s creatives took much trouble to make their domain special; design boss David Jones tried to give the viewing space “a romantic atmosphere” by importing several Dalmatian dogs and had a carp aquarium built just outside his office. There was a dovecote, too, but the imported birds rapidly crossbred with suburban pigeons and guano became a problem.

Of course, there were extraordinary characters. Jones made way for tough-talking American Leo Pruneau, whose work on the original Chevrolet Camaro heavily influenced the ‘Coke bottle’ HB Viva. GM’s legendary styling chief, Bill Mitchell, visited once a year, bringing the authoritarian atmosphere for which he was famous.

Wayne Cherry, Pruneau’s understudy, was a more emollient American and a kingpin at Luton for many of the heyday years. He arrived in 1965, beginning work immediately on the seminal XVR concept and then on the equally influential SRV concept, winning Luton a reputation for eye-grabbing creativity.

The centre’s last major achievement was the highly influential Equus sports roadster concept of 1978, the surest possible sign that ‘wedge and edge’ design was approaching. By 1983, GM had reversed its view of car economics, consolidating the engineering design of Opel/Vauxhall products in Rüsselsheim, West Germany, with Cherry still in charge until he returned to the US in 1981.

Ironically, Vauxhall’s success increased. GM filled the renamed Griffin House with hyperactive sales and market people and UK sales rose to a peak of 17.6% in 1993. But behind that, a remarkable design era had ended, never to be repeated.

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Rollocks 10 August 2020

Gratitude

North America got the Camaro. We got the... (drum roll, excitement builds)... coke bottle Viva. Thanks GM.
jagdavey 9 August 2020

Living in the past............

We are a nation living in the past...........all the great things we ever did was in the past. The last "Vauxhall" designed in England was the Chevette & that was based on an Opel floor pan & people still think it's a British brand!!! How stupid we are, most Vauxhall's are made in Spain & the company is French owned, but the British are convinced it's still UK made! We'll never compete again with the Germans because they are forward thinking, we're stuck in the Sixties with our mentality. Back in the Seventies/Eighties Ford & Vauxhall cars had "bling" value, today it's Mercedes & BMW that have that.

289 9 August 2020

@scotty5

Actually Scotty I dont work at Vauxhall and never have.... as I said 'client meetings' !

 

I wouldnt argue that Vauxhall has failed to produce what the consumer wants. 30 years ago Vauxhall or Ford would never have forseen Skoda/Kia/Hyundai being where they are today. All three have taken market share from both brands. But what is an unavoidable fact is that through the auspices of cheap money, high residuals/final values on leases/pcp's, this has allowed the consumer to have aspirations far above what they would ever had in the past.....If you can have an Audi/BMW/M-B for £299 pm or a Ford/Vauxhall for the same (or possibly more), which do you think is going to get the deal? Consequently these are now some of the most prolific brands on the road. I cant remember the last time i saw a new Mondeo or Insignia on the road.

Vauxhall and Ford were unable to go 'down market'  financially it didnt stack-up ( Dacia have been very successful at this price level), ....hence the rock and a hard place comment.

As for you Scotty, it was your choice to pay a premium for a '2 door Cavalier' in the form of a Calibra, so why so angry about it?

Stockholm Calling 9 August 2020

Good response!  Beyond any

Good response!  Beyond any doubt that the premium German brands have stolen market share from Ford/Vauxhall, so don't know what triggered Scotty so badly.  Anyway, end of an era.  

289 wrote:

Actually Scotty I dont work at Vauxhall and never have.... as I said 'client meetings' !

 

I wouldnt argue that Vauxhall has failed to produce what the consumer wants. 30 years ago Vauxhall or Ford would never have forseen Skoda/Kia/Hyundai being where they are today. All three have taken market share from both brands. But what is an unavoidable fact is that through the auspices of cheap money, high residuals/final values on leases/pcp's, this has allowed the consumer to have aspirations far above what they would ever had in the past.....If you can have an Audi/BMW/M-B for £299 pm or a Ford/Vauxhall for the same (or possibly more), which do you think is going to get the deal? Consequently these are now some of the most prolific brands on the road. I cant remember the last time i saw a new Mondeo or Insignia on the road.

Vauxhall and Ford were unable to go 'down market'  financially it didnt stack-up ( Dacia have been very successful at this price level), ....hence the rock and a hard place comment.

As for you Scotty, it was your choice to pay a premium for a '2 door Cavalier' in the form of a Calibra, so why so angry about it?

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