Vive la Viva: The true people’s car

A mainstay in British driveways in the 60s and 70s, the Vauxhall Viva isn’t just one of the most important names in history of Vauxhall, but also in the history of modern motoring as we know it.

Introduced in 1963, just ten years or so after the mass-produced cars first became available to the average buyer, the Viva was symbolic of the aspiration of the upcoming middle class in 1960s Britain.

Much loved by families, the Viva was for many also the car that they learned to drive in, and for that reason has earned itself a well-deserved place in the hearts and minds of the British public.

“Reliable motoring at its very best”

Understated but with an enduring charm, the original Viva wasn’t perfect but was a pleasure to drive, with a modest but sure-footed performance. Cheap to make and cheap to run, the Viva summed up simple and reliable motoring at its very best.

After a production run that saw more than 640,000 models produced, the Viva officially ceased production in 1979 and the nameplate has since lain dormant for over three decades. Until now.

In September, Vauxhall officially put years of rumours to rest and announced that the Viva will be making a reappearance 35 years after it was last seen on British roads.

One of the most eagerly anticipated cars was finally making a comeback, and the public was ecstatic, with What Car? magazine naming the reinvigorated Viva as the most eagerly awaited car amongst its readers.

Seemingly, Vauxhall has put a considerable amount of effort into the reincarnation of one of its most influential models, with a raft of publicity and plans to launch it to markets around the world – bizarrely under the title of the Opel Karl in Europe.

Updated and upgraded

The new Viva is a long way away from the much-loved original model; gone is the small, boxy family car and in its place is a slick new five-door city car, packed to the brim with the latest in modern tech.

While the majority of drivers have expressed nothing but joy over the new Viva, there are a few who have been less than pleased.

The main complaint for Viva fans, it seems, is that the new model is too different and nothing like its predecessor. But how true is that?

In the wake of the Second World War, the British middle class really came into its own. In the pre-war era, the bourgeoisie were more synonymous with the highly-educated and upper echelons of society, but the onset of World War II narrowed the gap and made middle-class status more attainable.

However, while the gap closed between middle classes and lower classes, those new members of middle class society tried their hardest to distance themselves from working class folk.

Cars have always been  status symbol

David Kynaston, author of Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, said that “A clerk might earn less than a skilled worker. But he would cling on to his middle class status”, and one of the main ways of separating classes was through the accruement of status symbols, including cars.

With the rise in the amount of middle class Britons therefore came the increase in demand for luxury goods like radios, television sets, more fashionable clothes and new motor cars.

Unfortunately for those aspiring members of the middle class, cars still tended to be just out of reach for them. Even though hire-purchase had been reinstated after rationing ended, many families were still feeling the sting of war-era austerity, and that’s where Vauxhall’s Viva stepped in.

Built jointly between Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant and the company’s headquarters in Luton, the Viva went on sale in 1963. Priced from just £527, it undercut its nearest rival by a significant £300. Suddenly, the thing that so many families wanted was finally attainable.

“The 1 litre car with a millionaire ride”

Described by Vauxhall as “the 1 litre car with a millionaire ride”, the Viva sold 100,000 models a mere 10 months after its release.

Powered by a relatively puny 1.0-litre 44bhp engine, the Viva’s 0-60mph time felt as though it took around three weeks, and it didn’t even come with seatbelts as they weren’t required by law in the 60s.

Regardless, the Viva was reliable, it was fun to drive and it was big enough to seat up to five occupants. As a result, it proved extremely popular with young and aspiring middle class families, who made up the majority of the buying power in post-war Britain.

Skip forward to the modern day, and a lot has changed since the Viva was first introduced. The generation who would have first bought the original model has now largely been and gone, leaving behind their Baby Boomer children, who have now had children and grandchildren of their own.

While the buying power in the 1960s largely lay with the middle class generations of its day, increasingly trends are shifting towards the up-and-coming Millennial members of today’s society.

As the gaps between middle classes and the rest of the population have grown increasingly smaller, more and more modern drivers are demanding the latest in high-tech features from their cars.

Just some of the technology available on modern cars ranges from a wide choice of various infotainment systems with smartphone integration to advanced systems that can avoid crashes and even automatically park cars.

As well as that, the generation that demands this sort of technology and expensive kit is now the generation that’s on the verge of becoming the major spending power in Britain.

While many things have changed in the past five decades, there are plenty that haven’t; for example, new buyers looking to purchase their first cars.

Likewise, the new Viva is plenty different from the original version that first rolled off the production line in 1963, but Vauxhall has maintained the core tenet that made the Viva so popular to begin with: affordability.

How are the two cars related?

At face value, the two cars are nothing alike. The original Viva was boxy, stripped back and lacking in the pizzazz factor. The new model, however, is dynamically designed, packs a huge amount of modern kit inside and a “smooth, punchy and efficient” engine range.

Upon closer inspection however, the new Viva is the perfect inheritor to the original’s namesake.

Vauxhall’s original Viva set a new standard in accessibility and affordability for British motorists. It offered a cheap but practical first car for many families who previously would have been unable to afford a motor.

In the exact same manner, the modern Viva offers exactly the same as what the original did and gives ambitious motorists all the mod cons of the day but for a price that’s affordable to all.

“Viva” means “living”, and that’s exactly what the Viva represents. So much more than simply four wheels and an engine, the Viva didn’t just allow its owners to get from A to B, it allowed them to live at the standard they had aspired to.

In the wake of the Second World War, the Viva was Vauxhall’s first foray into the family car market and also represented the first step into a new life for so many families and first time drivers.

Thirty-five years after the original debuted, the one litre car with a millionaire ride makes its return for another generation that’s ready to step into its own, and still offers the ultimate in easy and accessible driving. Vive la Viva!