Vauxhall’s BTCC history is one glittered with success. Fresh from Vauxhall’s 1989 BTCC title win with series debutant John Cleland in the Astra GTE 16v, Vauxhall’s contribution to the Super Touring era of the BTCC began with the Vauxhall Cavalier in 1990. One of the most successful cars of the early 1990s, the Cavalier was a mainstay of the BTCC from it’s introduction in 1990 to its title-winning season in 1995. It remained on the grid in the hands of privateers afterwards, but never again reached the same levels of success. I looked back at the history of the Vauxhall Cavalier in the BTCC in this edition of BTCC History.
The Vauxhall Cavalier was Vauxhall’s flagship mid-size family car for 20 years from 1975- 1995 and sold over 1,800,000 units during its lifetime. Britains fifth most popular car (to date), the Cavalier’s lifespan saw three different generations of the car produced with the third generation Cavalier being the one Vauxhall campaigned with in the BTCC.
Launched in November 1975 with a 1896cc engine, the original first-generation Cavalier was based on a second-generation Opel Ascona which had been launched three months earlier in West Germany. The second major facelift for the Cavalier came in August 1981, this time based on the third generation Opel Ascona. The car was revolutionary in its own right, offering levels of fuel economy and comfort not previously seen in mid-size family cars.
The third generation Vauxhall Cavalier launched to the UK market in 1988, just as the Opel Vectra was launched in the rest of Europe. The car was rebadged as the Cavalier in the UK. The name Vectra wasn’t initially used in the UK because of the similarities with the old Vauxhall Victor, which didn’t have the best reputation. The third generation Cavalier was a huge success and it overcame many of the reliability and rust problems which had plagued earlier Vauxhalls. The car was facelifted in 1992 and production came to an end in October 1995 when the car was replaced by the second generation Vectra in the UK.
The Vauxhall Cavalier In The BTCC
The Vauxhall Cavalier’s BTCC debut came in 1990, the same year as the BTCC class structure changed from four to two with just FIA Group A and the all-new 2-litre touring car classes present on the grid. Group A regulations in the BTCC were on the decline, and Vauxhall entered the Cavalier in Class B, the 2-litre touring class. Defending BTCC champion and Vauxhall stalwart John Cleland was behind the wheel of one Cavalier, with the driving duties of the second car shared between Chris Hodgetts, David Coulthard, Bob Berridge and Markus Oestreich.
The Cavalier was competitive and in the hands of John Cleland won four out of 13 times as Cleland finished the season 5th in the overall driver’s championship and 2nd in Class B, the 2-litre touring class. Victories at Thruxton, Snetterton, Brands Hatch and Silverstone ensured the Cavalier’s debut season was a successful one but the main in-class competition in the form of the BMW M3 was too strong, and Frank Sytner won the class and finished 2nd in the overall standings.
Whilst the Cavalier was fast, it struggled to be reliable and Cleland’s title challenge was hampered by four costly retirements which would see him finish 79 points behind eventual series champion Rob Gravett. Cleland was also involved in a memorable accident on the final lap of the Birmingham Superprix, coming together with the BMW M3 of Frank Sytner in a controversial clash which saw Sytner hit Cleland from behind and both retire from the race.
The second Cavalier, car #70 would take part in the final half of the season and driving duties would be shared. Double BTCC champion Chris Hodgetts would spend the most time and achieve the best results in the car, finishing 9th in class and 16th in the overall standings.
As the BTCC rolled into its first year of full Super Touring regulations, Vauxhall’s assault on the BTCC with the Cavalier morphed into a more traditional two-car approach. John Cleland stayed on board now in car #5, and Jeff Allam made the switch from the Vic Lee Motorsport BMW M3 to join Cleland in car #6 for the full season. Bob Berridge also joined the team in a third car for rounds twelve and thirteen at Thruxton and Silverstone GP.
The Cavalier was again competitive, and John Cleland would win three times at Thruxton, Oulton Park and Donington Park as well as proving the Cavalier’s single-lap pace with four pole positions. Cleland engaged in a season-long tussle with the BMW M3 of Will Hoy for the title. Hoy and Cleland clashed in the penultimate round of the season at Thruxton ensuring that the title race went down to the final race at Silverstone. There, Hoy prevailed as his 5th place finish compared to Cleland’s 9th was enough to secure the first title of the Super Touring era. For the second year in a row the Cavalier had missed out on overall honours as Cleland finished 23 points behind Hoy.
Jeff Allam finished on the podium twice early on in 1991 but tailed off during the season and ended the year in 6th place in the standings. Vauxhall Motorsport finished the season second in the constructor’s championship, 18 points behind BMW.
Vauxhall Motorsport’s lineup remained the same in 1992 as Cleland and Allam stayed on board in cars #2 and #6. A second pair of Cavaliers joined the grid run by RML and the Ecurie Ecosse Vauxhall team in a semi-works capacity. David Leslie, Alex Portman and Bobby Verdon-Roe were the drivers with Leslie driving all the rounds and Portman and Verdon-Roe sharing driving duties.
Following an intense winter testing program, the Cavalier was fast from the outset and the car dominated the opening two rounds of the 1992 season. Cleland scored pole, fastest lap and the race win at the season opener at Silverstone, and would do exactly the same in round two at Thruxton but this time the fastest lap went to the other Vauxhall Motorsport Cavalier of Allam. Cleland would go on to show good pace at the next round at Oulton Park until he went off and finished in 11th, but would win again in round five of the season at Brands Hatch GP to take his 1992 win tally to five. Allam also tasted success, winning at Silverstone at Knockhill.
Whilst the Cavaliers were strong, and the class of the field during the opening half of 1992, they lost momentum in a crucial phase of the season as the BMW M3s from Vic Lee Racing began to find form. Tim Harvey won five races in a row on a run stretching from Knockhill to Donington Park to set up one of the most iconic title deciders in BTCC history.
Going into the final round at Silverstone, just one point separated the Cavalier of Cleland and the BMW M3 of Harvey with defending champion and now Toyota Carina driver Will Hoy also in contention. The race began with the three title contenders starting 7th (Cleland), 9th (Hoy) and 12th (Harvey) but all made good progress in the race. On the penultimate lap of the race, Tim Harvey made a move on Will Hoy going into turn one (Copse corner) which resulted in both running wide. Cleland and Steve Soper (who was driving for the same team as Harvey) passed, with Cleland now in 4th place and having done enough to win the title.
At the entry to Club corner, Soper overtook Cleland, leaving the Cavalier driver between himself and Harvey. Exiting the Abbey Chicane, Harvey pulled ahead of Cleland and Soper also moved over to promote his teammate to fourth and relegate Cleland to sixth. Going into Brooklands Cleland made a move on Soper which resulted in Cleland going up onto two wheels but still getting through. However the battle wasn’t over and heading into Luffield at the end of the lap, Soper dived to the inside of Cleland, making contact and forcing both cars to retire on the spot. The title was Harvey’s and Cleland and the Cavalier had missed out on the BTCC title in the cruellest of possible ways. The move prompted Cleland to call Soper and “animal” and is one of the most iconic and controversial moments in over 60 years of BTCC history.
Cleland would end the season 3rd in the standings and Allam would finish one place behind in 4th. David Leslie would finish 7th in the RML-run Cavalier and Verdon-Roe 14th. Despite losing out on overall title honours, Vauxhall Motorsport won the constructor’s title with the Cavalier at the third time of asking. It had been a breathtaking and intense year for the car, but the Cavalier wasn’t done just yet.
The Vauxhall works team lineup remained unchanged for 1993 as Cleland and Allam remained behind the wheel in cars #3 and #4. RML continued running a pair of Cavaliers with Leslie driving full time and Tif Needell, Harry Nuttall and Chris Goodwin sharing driving duties in the second car. An Independent effort with Tamchester Team Maxted also joined the grid fielding a pair of Cavaliers with Ian Khan and Ian Ashely behind the wheel.
After being so strong the year before, the Cavalier wasn’t able to match the pace of the Schnitzer-run BMW 318is as Marcus Winkelhock and Soper finished 1st and 2nd in the title race. Cleland would win just once at Knockhill as he finished 4th in the championship on 102 points whilst Allam would struggle more, and end the season 9th in the standings. David Leslie won at Thruxton on his way to 8th in the championship but the year was a BMW clean sweep as the German manufacturer beat Vauxhall into second place in the constructor’s standings by 53 points.
Whilst Cleland and Allam would again remain Cavalier drivers in 1994 in cars #4 and #9, control of the Vauxhall works team was handed over to RML who had previously ran the semi-works Cavalier of David Leslie. Three Cavaliers also made appearances in the Independent class with Ian Khan, Nigel Smith and Chris Goodwin all taking part.
1994 will best be remembered as the year that Alfa Corse dominated the BTCC with the Alfa Romeo 155 TS, leaving little room for any other competition. For the fifth year in a row, Cleland was the highest-placed Cavalier driver as he won twice at Donington Park on his way to 4th place in the championship and 177 points. Allam would struggle more in ’94, with his sole podium finish coming at Donington Park. He finished the year 10th in the standings on 76 points.
It was Vauxhall’s toughest year with the Cavalier yet, and the team fell to 5th in the constructor’s championship behind Alfa Romeo, Renault, Ford and BMW. Whilst it was the Cavalier’s lowest placing since it joined the BTCC in 1990, the car was about to have a final season as a constructor entry of monumental proportions.
With the new second-generation Vauxhall Vectra joining the BTCC fray for 1996 onwards, 1995 would be the Vauxhall Cavalier’s final year as a factory-backed car in the BTCC. As Vauxhall looked to the future, Jeff Allam was replaced by James Thompson in the second car as John Cleland stayed behind the wheel of a Cavalier for the sixth season in a row. Jeff Allam returned to the team at round nine at Knockhill after Thompson had a heavy crash, before South African Mike Briggs saw out the remainder of the year in the second car.
Finally, after five seasons of competition 1995 was to be the Vauxhall Cavalier’s year. John Cleland won the opening race of the season at Donington Park and not even two retirements in races three and four at Brands Hatch could halt his charge to the 1995 BTCC title. In total Cleland would win six times at Brands Hatch, Donington Park and Silverstone to win his second BTCC title and the first for the Cavalier by 43 points from Renault’s Alain Menu. It was a masterclass from Cleland Vauxhall, RML and the Cavalier.
Thompson, who would only complete eight of 15 races also tasted success, winning at Thruxton as he finished the season 7th in the standings despite missing seven rounds. Briggs would finish 15th scoring a best result of 5th at Brands Hatch, and Allam would score a best result of 8th at his Knockhill appearance.
Whilst Cleland won the title Vauxhall had long been willing the Cavalier to win, the team missed out on the manufacturer’s title to Renault by five points. However, Vauxhall Sport did win the team’s championship, beating Williams Racing by ten points.
The Vauxhall Cavalier’s final season as Vauxhall’s BTCC challenger of choice was a fitting one for it to win its first and only BTCC title in, as the car was replaced by the Vectra for the remainder of the Super Touring era. The Cavalier remained on the grid in 1996 and 1997 in Independent hands with Richard Kaye and Ian Heward driving in 96, and Jamie Wall and Heward behind the wheel in 97. Neither Kaye, Heward or Wall could replicate the success of the Vauxhall works team and by 1998 the Cavalier was no longer in BTCC competition.
After eight years, numerous race wins, one manufacturers title and one driver’s title the Cavalier’s run was over. The car was a staple of the opening half of the Super Touring era of the BTCC as well as being a staple on Britains’ roads throughout the 80s, 90s and into the 2000s. Its place in BTCC history is secure, and it’s fitting that it played its part in some of the most memorable moments of the BTCC’s 1990s heyday.