The last car built in Luton

Luton was once the home of Vauxhall, experiencing its best years before the consolidation of parent company General Motor’s European operations. From the start of the early 1970s, Vauxhall would lose out to German in-house rival Opel first losing design input, then losing car production at Luton altogether (though Vivaro vans are still produced there today – a joint project with Renault).

Vauxhall Frontera DTI

Yes, this is the very last Vauxhall Frontera. The last car built in Luton.

The last Frontera was built in 2004, and it marked the end of passenger car production at Luton (albeit at the former-Bedford factory rather than the main car production plant). Unusually though, it wasn’t an Opel design. In fact, it wasn’t very European at all. The Frontera began life in Japan as the Isuzu Mu (short wheelbase) or Wizard (long wheelbase). General Motors seemed to think that such a name made it unsuitable for Euro tastes, so launched the Vauxhall/Opel Frontera in 1991. The underpinnings were largely from an Isuzu pick-up truck, rebranded as a Bedford then a Vauxhall in the UK and used extensively by The AA.

Petrol engines were Vauxhall’s own 2.0-litre (swb) or 2.4-litre (lwb) but the lwb was also available with the 2.3-litre turbo diesel engine shared with the Carlton. Not one of the best. A facelift didn’t change an awful lot externally, but did replace the cumbersome rear leaf springs with coils. New petrol engines (2.0 and 2.2) were a boost, as was the fitment of Isuzu’s own tough 2.8-litre turbo diesel. It didn’t last long though. For some reason, GM opted to fit the VM 2.5-litre engine from 1996. This was an inferior engine in terms of refinement and reliability – it pops head gaskets (it has four cylinder heads) for fun if you neglect it.

1998 saw further improvements, with a more noticeable restyle, the 2.2-litre petrol carried over but a new 2.2-litre Vauxhall/Opel DTi diesel option and also a 3.2-litre V6 for those with no economy worries. By now though, the competition was moving on and the Frontera was feeling its age.

I know because I’ve driven the very last Frontera ever built and therefore the last car built in Luton.

Driving around on public roads in such a vehicle is really quite odd. No-one has any idea of the significance of it. Why would they? It’s just a black, bland 4×4 with nothing to distinguish its unique history. It is owned and maintained by Vauxhall’s Heritage team at Luton. They often use it to tow other classic Vauxhalls to various locations for displays and the like. This is a working vehicle. Yet when I drove it in 2008, it had less than 4000 miles on the clock.

I enjoyed driving it for a few days and took it as far as the Bromley Pageant of Motoring that year, where no-one paid it any attention, as you’d expect. I felt like frogmarching people up to it saying “Do you know how significant this car is?” But I rather feared I’d be taken away by nice people in white coats. Or at least the security guards.

Vauxhall Frontera rear

Last Frontera is very practical and often transports Vauxhall Heritage cars

Yet to drive, it wasn’t that enthralling. Sure, it was very competent in many regards, with fine poise, a quiet engine and good pulling power, but the ride was definitely on the firm side. It felt like the designers had decided that the only way to stop it falling over on bends was to weld the suspension up. On Fenland roads, it was horrific. On the motorway though, it was delightful – with enormous door mirrors making it very easy to keep an eye on traffic behind. Sadly, I didn’t get to put it through its paces off-road, but from what I’ve heard from others, they’re pretty good. After all, there’s a strong separate chassis and a proper low-range gearbox.

That was the problem. Like the Nissan Terrano II, the Frontera just wasn’t soft enough. New cars such as the Nissan X-Trail and the Vauxhall Antara proved that when it comes to 4x4s, the market wants a car that looks a bit chunky – they’re not really interested in actual off-road ability. Therefore the Frontera has another duty to perform. It must represent the end of an era too – the era when soft roaders were still actually good off-road. (Ok, it wasn’t the last. The Nissan Terrano managed to linger on for another few years but was killed off in 2007).

However, my work here is done. I have highlighted what the last passenger car built at Luton was, and it wasn’t the Vauxhall Vectra that most people expect. No, it was instead the Frontera. A car that enjoyed a 13-year production life. A car that deserves more credit than it ever receives. Especially the one I drove.

Victor Victor!

The Vauxhall Victor FE. A bit like a weak cup of tea

The Vauxhall Victor FE represents the last slice of hope for Vauxhall as an independent entity within General Motors. Sure, the basic structure was shared with the Opel Rekord, but Vauxhall still had an opportunity to style its own nose and use its own running gear.

Sadly, the nose they chose was frankly, a bit hideous – rescued only by the quad-lamp attractiveness of the hotter VX4/90. Sales were not a huge success – even when the ageing victor name was tossed aside for the much more exciting VX1800 and VX2300 – and it proved the final nail in the coffin of Vauxhall’s independence. Well, unless you include the Chevette, which was just an Opel Kadett with an ancient Viva engine stuffed in.

Compared to other European express arrivals during the 1970s, such as the formidable Citroën CX, Lancia’s wacky Gamma, Rover’s SD1, Ford’s Granada and the futuristic Princess, the Victor really did look a bit lame and very much of another, older era.

Still, an opportunity to take a 1975 Victor 2300S on a trip to Devon was not to be missed, especially when said car belonged to Vauxhall itself – part of the impressive Heritage Collection housed in Luton. Sadly, by this stage, the overdrive option had been removed. Did Vauxhall up the gearing to compensate? Well, no. They didn’t really.

But we jump ahead of ourselves. The Victor is sitting all shiny and beautiful on my driveway – let’s take a closer look.

With only 12,000 miles on the clock, it’s every bit as immaculate and tidy as you’d expect. Already, fear was starting to mount. I lived in East Anglia at the time and had to drive this beautiful machine to Devon and back – a round trip of some 500 miles. I may have said ‘eep’ when this struck my mind.

The metallic blue paintwork is rather fetching, allowing the eye to almost ignore the slab-like snout and rather feeble grille. Stepping inside was a wise move, with delightful seats finished in that fake cloth that was everywhere during the Seventies. Finished in blue, the seat trim is matched by blue wooly carpet smeared all over the centre console, why a slab of fablon fake-wood stretches across the dashboard.

At rest in Devon, during a 500 mile roadtrip

There’s plenty of space, front and rear, and the driver sits low, which gives a surprisingly sporty feel. Mind you, this is a 2300S which means there are twin-carburettors bolted to that familiar 2247cc four-cylinder engine. This unit is a touch raucous perhaps, but has oodles of grunt, making progress rather effortless. All of which shows up the low gearing even more alarmingly. Motorway progress is hard work, because the engine is spinning so frequently that any attempt at relaxation is met with the same success as trying to sleep upon a washing machine.

Head off the motorway, and things improve. The rack-and-pinion steering was not shared with the Rekord and is light and accurate, if a touch devoid of feel. The suspension is soft though, and this car doesn’t really beg you to enjoy the corners, rather it just eases you through them. The low gearing is a positive boon on twisty roads as due to the torquey engine, downchanges are rarely required. That’s a good thing as the long lever, angled towards the driver, is not particularly pleasant to use.

Yet the car made the 500 mile journey without issue and certainly without causing its driver to break out in a sweat. Ventilation is good and the weather was horrible – mind you, this was British summertime.

Overall then, this is a car that doesn’t excite, but at the same time is a very acceptable way to travel. It certainly doesn’t disgrace itself, but nor does it make the driver eager to head back outside for another drive once the destination has been reached. In other words, it’s like a cup of weak tea – does the job, but rather forgettable and a little disappointing.



Vauxhall PA Cresta Quick Guide


British Americana in extremis with dog-leg windscreen and obligatory tail fins. Lusty engines ensure performance is not a disgrace and these models have developed quite a following. Finding a rust-free example may be tricky, but very rewarding if you do. Velox was lower spec, with a few less thrills.


  • Classic American looks, built in Luton
  • Lusty engines offer modern-era performance
  • Seating for six
  • You can work on it yourself
  • Rare and eye-catching

Rare Friary estate based on the Vauxhall PA Cresta


  • Rust. Panels hard to find and they really do rot!
  • Perished window seals which hasten the above
  • Engines that knock or produce blue smoke
  • Worn transmissions
  • Bodywork bodgery


  • Ford Zephyr/Zodiac Mk2
  • Anything built in America in the Fifties
  • Humber Super Snipe
  • Austin Westminster


  • Engine 2262cc 6-cylinder OHV
  • Power 78bhp
  • Top Speed 90mph
  • 0-60mph 18seconds
  • Economy 22-24mpg
  • Gearbox 3-speed manual