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The assignment sounded simple and certainly not a chore: drive Vauxhall’s historic press fleet Royale Coupé from Monte-Carlo to Geneva, via Grenoble. Stay at the best hotels, eat like a king and drink the finest wines – all on us.
Yet somehow the circumstances didn’t fit the car. What would a Vauxhall Royale Coupé be doing in Monte-Carlo exactly? Let’s be kind and sideline the pub-landlord allusions for once. As I ease the gold Royale away from Casino Square, I can’t help feeling like the prosperous owner of a Blackpool amusement arcade on a fact-finding mission.
Perhaps my attitude sums up the social predicament in which this coupé found itself from the moment it was launched in 1978.
For better or worse, Vauxhall’s post-war big-car traditions were steeped in the two-dimensional luxobarge world of the Cresta and the Viscount, those soft, soggy saloons for the caravan-towing classes with an American style but a very British appeal. They had to look large and impressive, and sell to a kind of customer who had no dynamic expectations of them.
The Royale was conceived to appeal to the remnants of that constituency of buyers, while at the same time tempting BMW and Benz owners from their 5 Series and W123s by being better equipped, cheaper and in many respects equally capable.
It was no secret that the Royale was merely a badge-engineered version of the Opel Senator/Monza, and that gave it a level of credibility. After all, it came from Russelsheim, not Luton, and in a world where buyers already equated West Germany with quality and reliability (and far fewer strikes) that had to be a good thing.
In any case, Opel’s big cars, at least since the days of the Admiral and Diplomat in the mid-’60s, could easily hold their heads high among their more obviously aristocratic compatriots. The Senator and Monza consolidated that reputation for good engineering in a car with a more international feel and an even more sophisticated chassis that in many ways exceeded the standards set by BMW and Mercedes.
They were pitched towards not only Admiral and Diplomat owners, but also the Commodore market with a range of 2.8- and 3-litre carburetted engines and a Bosch-injected 3.0E.
At first, they were sold alongside the Royale in the UK (along with the rest of the Opel range), but only in 3.0E form; Vauxhall’s subordinate position in the General Motors hierarchy was emphasised by the fact that the Royale was initially only available with a 140bhp 2.8 carburettor engine.
The injected 3.0 later became an option in the Royale and I hoped to find it in this beautifully preserved car – but sadly not. Deep and vertical in its architecture, the 2.8 is fed by a twin-barrel Solex with an unobtrusive automatic choke and nestles between big MacPherson-strut towers (they rusted, causing the suspension to move and giving odd steering geometry), with hydraulic engine mounts to damp out vibration.
From Vauxhall’s point of view, the Royale – in saloon and coupé forms – filled a long-vacant gap left by the Viscount and Cresta (which had died in 1972) and the more recently deceased FE Ventora. Its appearance also meant that Vauxhall had a completely modern, rationalised Opel-designed range other than the soon-to-die Viva. It was the first big Vauxhall coupé and the first with fully independent suspension.
The Hank Haga-designed shapes were familiar through to the mid-’80s but seemed bold and dramatic at the launch (in Opel form) at Frankfurt in 1977.
For the Royale, Wayne Cherry ‘Lutonised’ the designs with an arguably fussier front grille but a cleaner-looking stainless-steel trim panel between the rear lights where the Opels carried their numberplates.
The basic shell was based on the latest Rekord/Carlton from the B-pillar forward, but was 7in longer overall. The Coupé was slightly more slippery than the saloon (0.38cd compared to 0.41) and the clipped length came from its tail rather than the wheelbase; it was 5in shorter and slightly lower and wider than the four-door version.
Weaving through 2014 Riviera traffic the Royale, once perceived as quite a large and grand car, seems almost compact – little bigger than the current Astra and as slim, crisp and sharp-edged as almost any modern equivalent (if there is one) is bloated and puffy-faced.
Its gold paint hails from a time when people were not afraid to wear bold colours and the theme is carried through to the plush gold velour trim inside that has the modern-car journalists sneering and sniggering.
I begin to feel a bit protective towards ‘my’ Royale and I note that the knowing jocularity of some of my colleagues is not reflected in the public’s attitude to the car, which is entirely positive wherever we stop.
Handsome and chiselled, with deep glass areas, neat bumpers and pretty five-spoke alloys, it has aged surprisingly well, yet is now sufficiently old and unfamiliar (when did you last see one?) to seem ‘classic’. Personally, I was never a big fan of the ’80s-makeover Monza GSE with its gloomy colour schemes, spoilers and tacky badges.
There is an atmosphere of chintz inside the Royale, yet it’s almost refreshing to experience an interior where leather is not the default choice it has become today.
The wholesale use of brightly coloured plastics, the brazenly fake ‘wood’ (which the Monza didn’t have, interestingly) and the brittle feel of some the switchgear – the majority of it rather obviously sourced from lesser GM machines – would offend modern sensibilities; even if it is as clear and functional as that of a ’70s BMW 5 or 7 Series, it has definitely not aged as well. But you could also argue that, today, that only adds to the Royale’s exquisitely cheesy appeal as a period artefact of the late 1970s.
The big, bland steering wheel adjusts horizontally and the broad front seats go up and down (manually) as well as backwards and forwards (naturally!). The electric windows that had wowed Viscount owners a few years earlier were expected on the Royale, and Vauxhall boasted that the car was so fully equipped that the only options were air-conditioning and a manual transmission.
There is a sense of airiness in what is very much a usable four-seater coupé that set itself apart from its Mercedes and BMW contemporaries by having a hatchback.
That practicality possibly worked against the car at times. The very first two Royale Coupé owners were apparently prosperous Luton window-cleaners who cheerfully drove around town in their posh new Vauxhalls with their ladders on the roof. That’s hardly a ‘GT Man’ image, but then – in Royale form at least – the straight-line urge of the car lacks ultimate intrigue.
It churns away from rest at a pace that is just short of eager and you miss the torque of the 3-litre injection version. In fact, at low speeds it doesn’t feel as lively or silken as a good 3.3-litre Viscount or Ventora.
It seems to get better with speed, smooths out and feels as ruggedly unburstable at 70mph as it does just short of its redline at 110mph. The GM Strasbourg automatic is fairly slick but lacks an overdrive fourth and you pay for that in fuel consumption when you push the Royale hard, with rather less than 20mpg judging by the rate at which the fuel needle descends.
Yet the oil pressure never sags, the temperature gauge never gives cause for concern. Only a leaking vacuum pipe on the carburettor, perished by the ravages of unstable modern fuel, causes the engine to stumble at low speeds and stall on a couple of occasions.
The straight-six was developed from the 1960s generation of Opel cam-in-head in-line engines, with wedge-headed combustion chambers and a valvetrain worked by hydraulic tappets. These, plus a rugged seven-bearing bottom end, ensured a fair degree of refinement but it certainly lacks the free-spinning cultivation of a BMW ‘six’.
An early Senator 3-litre saloon was one of the first quick cars I had access to as a teenager and there is no doubt in my mind that the inherent poise of that big Opel safely bridged the gap between my leaden right foot and an unhealthy lack of experience on many occasions.
The Royale Coupé, despite the passage of 25 years and a 40bhp deficit in grunt, refreshed my memories of the car’s impressive competence as our autoroute driving gave way to the hairpins and enticingly fast, sweeping curves of the classic RN85 Route Napoléon.
Whip the steering between locks and the response is clean, the feel consistent with only a trace of power-assisted woolliness around the straight-ahead. It rolls somewhat, much to the amusement of other drivers in our convoy, yet the Royale never dithers or wobbles or feels remotely unhappy or near its limits. I am merely left wishing – again – that it was a 3-litre.
Comparisons with the German luxobarge benchmarks of the mid-to-late 1970s are misleading, because in many ways the Royale/Monza aspired to the standards set by the generally more refined Peugeot 604 in terms of the way it managed to combine decent ride and handling while at the same time suppressing road noise and vibration. These are perhaps more important elements in leaving an impression of refinement, particularly at low speeds.
In other words, it wasn’t simply another taut German big car, designed principally to go flat-out down an autobahn and swerve its way out of trouble on firm suspension. There is a finely graded smoothness – but no sogginess – to the way the Royale Coupé copes with bumps at both high and low speeds that leaves behind an impression of sophistication.
Much of this is down to a clever rear-suspension combination. There were double conical rear springs that were in effect progressive-rate, but also had coils formed in such a way that they could compress inside each other without touching, thus increasing the wheel travel.
These were supported by semi-trailing arms attached to the body by large, Peugeot-like rubber bushes and also cunningly mounted to minimise the potential for the camber changes that can make that style of suspension feel skittish.
It set a new standard that caused all of the luxury-car makers to up their game, and was a good illustration of what one of the biggest corporations in the world is capable of when it decides to explore a new market.
We make it to Geneva pretty fresh and rarely travelling slower than the slew of moderns that had started with us in Monte-Carlo. I hand back the keys feeling warm thoughts about this rarely remembered moment in Vauxhall history.
Thinking back to 35 years ago, even my childhood antenna for the subtle politics of competing GM divisions recognised that there was something uncomfortable about the Royale; I could never understand why anyone bought one when there was a faster, subtly better-looking and only marginally pricier Opel-badged alternative. To specify a Coupé version seemed positively bizarre when there had been no tradition of large two-door Vauxhalls.
Yet the Royale justified its existence as a Luton flagship until the early ’80s, selling in sufficient numbers to those sybaritic executives, publicans and amusement-arcade owners who wanted to be seen to be buying British.
It’s an odd car, because it would be easy to dismiss it as a vulgar barge but its excellence in so many areas does not permit you those convenient and lazy put-downs.