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24 September 2014

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    Vauxhall's history in Luton

    Vauxhall in Luton.
    Dominating the Vauxhall skyline.

    Vauxhall Motors first came to Luton in 1905. The Vauxhall Iron Works had been operating in Vauxhall South London and began making cars in 1903.

    Vauxhall number plate.
    Early Vauxhall number plate. For more pictures of Vauxhall through the years visit our gallery section.

    The company needed to expand and chose a seven acre site in Kimpton Road right on the edge of Luton. The town had just opened its municipal power station, was served by two railways and had a ready supply of workers. On 29th March 1903 the first Luton built car rolled out of the factory. This model was under powered and was replaced by a 9hp model in 1906 incorporating the famous bonnet flutes which were a feature of Vauxhall's until 1959.

    Early model.
    A 1905 Vauxhall model. More in our picture gallery.

    The company was involved in motor racing and early success led to the development of the famous Prince Henry - the first true sports car. In 1924 Vauxhall dabbled in motor cycles but the 998cc four cylinder integral drive machines would prove to be expensive and the idea was not pursued.

    In 1925 Vauxhall was purchased by General Motors for 2.5 million dollars. Soon after bus and truck production started as the Luton factory expanded. Early Bedfords were based on Chevrolet designs, Chevrolet being a major GM subsidiary. Meanwhile Vauxhall turned to the popular car market. The 1931 Cadet was the first British car to feature a synchromesh gearbox. The 1937 Vauxhall 10 was the first introduction to motoring for many people. The 10 had four seats and returned a frugal 42mpg...quite extraordinary in its time...and all for £168.

    Churchill tank.
    Churchill tank. More in our picture gallery.

    The Second World War saw Vauxhall play a major part in the war effort. The Churchill tank was produced here and battle damaged tanks came back for repair. Thousands of Bedford lorries were turned out at Kimpton Road including the magnificent QL which was the company's first four wheel drive vehicle. Military contracts were to occupy Bedford workers for years to come and it was boasted that you could find Bedfords all over the world.

    Women joined the workforce in the war, many transferring from Luton's hat industry. Unfortunately 39 souls lost their lives when a German bomb hit the factory in 1940. The heavily camouflaged factory continued to be a target, a landmine destined for Vauxhall blew up the town's bus garage.

    Initial post war efforts saw cars built for export, but in 1948 the famous Wyvern and Velox models were introduced with more than a nod to contemporary American styling. The 1951 E type versions saw the wings as being integral to the body in the way of today's cars. This was the heyday of Vauxhall with as many as 36000 people working at Kimpton Road which had been expanded by excavating the side of a chalk hill away to build AA block.

    The griffin logo.
    The griffin logo. More in our picture gallery.

    In 1955 bus and truck production moved to Dunstable although the CA van remained at Luton. The 1957 F type Victor and the 1959 PA Cresta turned heads. They were finished in bright two colour schemes with fins on the boot and whitewall tyres. The Cresta wrap-round windscreen was a work of art in itself. These cars represented the end of post war austerity and were destined to become an essential part of the swinging sixties.

    1963's Viva was a re-entry into the small car market, but, ominously for Luton, it was built in a new factory on Merseyside - Ellesmere Port. The next even smaller car the Nova was the first example of GM badge engineering. Sold on the continent as the Corsa, Nova was built in Spain.

    Luton's lifeline was the 1975 Cavalier, and a very fine car it was. A new production line and massive paint shop dominated the skyline and much of the old factory was demolished. Luton built the next two Cavalier models and also its replacement the Vectra. In 1998 GM announced that the replacement model Vectra code named Epsilon would keep Luton building cars well into the new Millennium. Retooling had started when the fateful announcement was made in December 2000 that the new Vectra would be made in Ellesmere Port and Luton would close. The last Vectra will be driven straight into the company's heritage centre alongside examples of most of Vauxhall's models.

    The Frontera and a Renault van will be continued to be built by IBC vehicles in Luton. The Frontera Four wheel drive concept is now rather passé, so news of its replacement is awaited with some trepidation.

    Vauxhall plant in 2002.
    Outside the plant in 2002. More in our picture gallery.

    It used to be said that when Vauxhall sneezed, Luton caught a cold. Most Lutonians will remember the Vauxhall holiday when the whole town was deserted, and many a toy shop benefited each Easter as workers received a handsome cash bonus as profits were shared out. The closure is not the economic disaster it would have been forty or fifty years ago, but it is the end of another major industry in a town that attracted people from all over the world to work in its many factories, of which Vauxhall was the largest.

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