River Wissey Lovell Fuller


June 2004

Ron examines the history of the Vauxhall and Bedford car company

Fulk le Breant, a Norman of fairly humble birth, was tough and ruthless and found an outlet for his talent by acting as a mercenary in the service of King John (1166 - 1216). In appreciation of his effective undertaking of some of the King's more unsavoury and dirtier work he was made sheriff of Oxford and Hertford and given the manor of Luton. Subsequently he was married to wealthy Margaret de Advers and Margaret, along with all of her estate, which included a grand house south of London, became his property. To confirm his now elevated position in society he was given the right to his own coat of arms and chose the mythical griffin as his heraldic emblem. The house became known as Fulk's Hall which, over the years suffered various corruptions - through Fawkes Hall, Foxhall and finally Vauxhall.

In the 17th century The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were created near the site of the original Fulk's Hall. These gardens were very popular in the early 1800s but subsequently obtained a somewhat unsavoury reputation as a haunt for rogues, thieves and ladies of easy virtue, they were finally closed in 1859 but the name 'Vauxhall' remained as the name of a district in London. About two years before the gardens closed Andrew Wilson established an engineering firm nearby, The Vauxhall Iron Works Co Ltd, manufacturing Pumps, cranes and marine steam engines. In 1903 the company, no longer associated with Andrew Wilson, produced the first Vauxhall car, a single cylinder 5hp model with tiller steering. In 1904 an updated 6hp model was produced, this one boasted a reverse gear. This car was entered in the Glasgow to London reliability trial and scored 997 points out of a possible total of 1000.

Over the next two years the company produced a number of cars with engines with up to four cylinders and 18hp and the tiller steering gave way to steering wheels. The 18hp model was the first car to have the fluted bonnet which became a distinctive feature of Vauxhalls for almost 70 years. Business was brisk, the limitations of the works site in Vauxhall became a problem and car production was moved to Luton in 1906. Thus, coincidentally, they moved to the district which had been the manor of Fulk le Breant from whom the company had obtained its name. At about the same time, whether by coincidence or not, the company adopted the Griffin from Fulk le Breant's coat of arms as its emblem. At that time the company was continuing to produce a range of products, including hydraulic machinery and marine engines, but in 1907 Vauxhall Motors Ltd was formed specifically to concentrate on the

manufacture of motorcars.

Laurence Pomeroy had joined the company by now, a man who became one of Britain's most distinguished group of motor engineers, he was responsible for much of the design work. In 1908 they built a car specifically for the RAC trials, this car was very successful, scoring more points than any other make and confirmed Vauxhall's position in the field of motoring competition. This car formed the basis for the 20hp A type model which was very successful, along with the D type it saw service in the 1914 - 18 war and remained in production until 1920. Vauxhalls went on to score many successes in competitions in the years following their success in the RAC trials. In 1912 they produced the car that was to become known as the Prince Henry, said to be the first true sports car, it set new standards but, at £500, it was not cheap. Running concurrently was the B type, a large chassis with a powerful 6 cylinder 35hp engine suitable for fitting stately limousine bodies, these cars were sold to the nobility and many leading world figures including the Romanoffs, the last Czar of Russia.

In 1922 the very famous and glamorous 4 cylinder 4.5 litre 30/98 emerged which produced a string of sporting successes. Originally with a side valve engine it was later converted to overhead valves. By 1924 the company management recognised that the market for high priced luxury cars of the type they were making was shrinking whereas there was a large potential market for lower priced cars and they introduced the M model selling at £650, less than half the price of their middle range D type which was discontinued. In 1925 Vauxhall Motors was purchased outright by General Motors Corporation of the USA for 2.5 million dollars.

Within a year of the GM buyout Vauxhall was producing the 'Cadet' at £285 and by 1933 the 12hp 'Light Six' was only £195. Needless to say their market expanded rapidly, annual production grew from a few thousand to over 26,000 by 1935. Through the 1930s they produced a range of handsome cars with advanced engineering features, they were the first company to introduce synchromesh gearboxes in Britain, the first to have independent front suspension on a mass produced car and they were using overhead valve engines for a long period when Austin and Ford were still carrying on with their side valve units.

In 1931 the company expanded into the commercial field and introduced the Bedford range of trucks, still bearing the Griffin emblem (but facing in the opposite direction). These trucks were fitted with excellent six cylinder overhead valve engines of varying sizes and soon came to dominate the light to medium/heavy weight range of commercial vehicles in the UK, which they continued to do for more than thirty years. The OB Bedford coach also took a very large slice of the market for the smaller coach and bus operators and was a very familiar sight on British roads before the war and through the 50s and 60s. Car production ceased during the war but the company made an enormous contribution to the British war effort, they produced 250,000 trucks for the services ranging from the famous 'Beetle lorry' to the high clearance four wheel drive 'Q' type that served so well in all theatres of war. Another outstanding achievement was the 'Churchill' tank. In response to a desperate call from the government the Churchill tank was designed and the first prototype built within six months with the first production unit coming off the line in less than one year from the start of the design work. They then went on to build 5640. It was not the best tank of WWII, although it may have been the best British tank, but it was available when needed and proved to be a useful tank that served throughout the war. As if the lorries and tanks were not enough they also produced 5 million jerry cans, 4 million rocket venturis, armour piercing shells at the rate of 5000 a week, 750,000 steel helmets, aero engine parts, inflatable decoy lorries and aircraft, as well as contributing to various aspects of aircraft development.

After the war car production was resumed with the 'L' type 'Wyvern' and 'Velox', 4 cylinder and six cylinder models sharing the same body shell (One of this type can be seen in the TV series 'Heartbeat' where it functions as the village taxi). The Wyvern and Velox range continued with larger bodies until 1957 when the Wyvern was dropped. The Velox became a bigger and sleeker car and the 'F' type 'Victor' was introduced. This first Victor was a disaster, the mechanics were quite sound but the styling was transatlantic and ugly and the steel used was too thin, the body rusted very badly very quickly as did the large areas of poor quality chrome. The company suffered a major blow to its reputation as a consequence. They responded by introducing the 'FB' Victor in 1962 which was of pleasing style with clean lines and probably had the best anti-corrosion treatment of any mass produced car of the time. It was a good car but it took several years for Vauxhall to fully regain the confidence of the buying public. The Victor went through several metamorphoses, as did the Velox/Cresta. In 1964 they entered the small car market with the 'Viva', priced at about the same as a Mini it offered a lot more car for the money and was a market success. As all readers will know the Victor range was dropped in favour of the 'Cavalier' and the Viva dropped, after a short spell with the 'Chevette', in favour of the 'Astra'.

In the meantime the Bedford side of the company had continued with its success, in the early 60s they introduced the first small van that was not based on a car design, the Bedford 'CA'. These sold by the hundreds of thousands and were popular in Dormobile form also, they were the 'Transit' of their day. To the surprise of many, General Motors decided to withdraw from the truck manufacture in the UK and sold off the plant. The name 'Bedford', which had been the most important name in vans and medium sized trucks in Britain for so many years, has sadly almost disappeared. Vauxhall continue to manufacture small vans but these are now marketed as Vauxhalls. As we all know the plant at Luton has now closed and production takes place at Ellesmere Port. For many years Vauxhall have produced good cars at competitive prices and have always been at or near the top of the best selling league, the current Astra and Vectra are maintaining the tradition. Although no longer directly associated with this region the name Vauxhall lives on as a leading make of car and as a district in London. I wonder if old Fulk le Breant is aware.

Ron Watts

Copyright remains with independent content providers where specified, including but not limited to Village Pump contributors. All rights reserved.