Vauxhall Ventora 2: underrated and ready for adventure

| 4 Oct 2023
Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

Parked in Casino Square at the beginning of Vauxhall’s annual ‘Griffin Greats’ road trip from Monte-Carlo to Geneva, the dark blue Ventora is getting some admiring attention.

Amid the florid shapes and colours that are the trademark of most of today’s cars, it cuts a distinguished figure and I’m pleased to be getting exclusive use of it for the next two days.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

Our international jet-setter prepares to leave Monaco’s Casino Square in the Vauxhall Ventora 2

It is warmed up, fuelled and ready to go, but, as we motor out of town with smooth six-cylinder dignity towards the 10:30am coffee stop at Entrevaux, I still feel slightly chastened by Vauxhall PR manager Simon Hucknall’s comment the evening before.

When I suggested that a Ventora felt out of context on the French Riviera, he said: “Yes, but hasn’t it got just as much right to drive on these roads as anything else?”

I had to agree, but somehow it still feels as if the scenery is being back-projected and I’m some mute ITC henchman who will shortly have a punch-up with Jason King behind some potted palms.

In fact, the Ventora was a favourite in Department S, usually driven by King’s sidekick Stewart Sullivan.

The ‘RXD’ numberplate prefix shows it was a press car; Vauxhall was never shy of the publicity generated by product placement.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

No Formula One cars in sight as Martin Buckley tackles Monaco’s famous hairpin in the classic Vauxhall

Born (like Department S) in the spring of ’68, this union of Victor FD body and Cresta 3.3-litre ‘six’ was created by Vauxhall to tempt middle-class buyers out of their Rover and Triumph 2000s, while trouncing such jumped-up four-cylinder pretenders as the Ford Corsair 2000E and Humber Sceptre.

In a world where buyers were much less snobbish about brands, this was a Vauxhall that could even look a Jaguar 240 square in the headlamps – combining better acceleration with a list price £265 lower.

Certainly to own a Ventora was very ‘lifestyle’ circa 1968/’69.

It was a car to impress the neighbours, not only for its dual coachlines, reversing lights and twin exhausts, but also because the Ventora was by far the largest-engined saloon that you could buy for £1100.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

The Vauxhall Ventora takes a breather at the first stop at Entrevaux, France

It had an effortless kind of performance that was way beyond the expectations of its class: a family car that could reach its 100mph-plus top speed in under a mile from rest.

With its reclining semi-bucket seats, rev counter and rack-and-pinion steering, the Ventora was never a straightforward high-cholesterol barge (the Viscount/Cresta amply catered for that market), but a proper ‘junior executive’ car with ‘sporty’ overtones.

It was a neat showcase for the nifty marketing footwork that Vauxhall was capable off, not least the name, which was coined by none other than Murray Walker during his days as PR man on the Vauxhall account.

It seems to speak of exotic southern European holiday destinations or the glossy, aspirational world of the full-colour Sunday supplements with their adverts for hi-fi, whisky and Terylene shirts.

In fact, the Ventora badge was pure invention – it didn’t mean anything – which makes it the perfect moniker, in a way, for a car that, if only on the surface, seems such a wonderful bit of glossy ’60s nonsense.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

The Vauxhall Ventora storms through the Alps

Actually, that’s not fair.

Vauxhall’s aim was not to build a pointless executive hot rod, but a refined six-cylinder version of the handsome FD Victor for the increasingly profitable ‘compact luxury’ market.

At launch, the firm was keen to point out that the FD had been designed from the start with the straight-six in mind rather than as an after-thought.

Thus, with its recalibrated spring rates, beefed-up brakes and radial tyres, the Ventora was certainly not a hasty lash-up.

Buyers agreed and it proved a qualified success, with 25,000 sold through to ’71.

That was sufficient to encourage Vauxhall to build a Ventora in the FE body, including the rare 3300 estate, which was badged Victor rather than Ventora.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

‘The name was coined by Murray Walker in his days as PR on the Vauxhall account’

This example is now a worthy highlight of the Heritage Collection and a rare survivor from the tail end of Luton’s ‘rust bucket’ period.

The MoT tester probably administered the last rites to most of them.

Revealingly, though, the brochure (which I just happen to have) is keen to point out – on almost the first page – that, as well as the 13 ‘magic mirror’ finishes, the underside of your Ventora is ‘totally sealed’ in bituminous plastic.

‘Our’ post-1969 Ventora 2 has the preferred three-speed GM Strasbourg auto (earlier cars had the two-speed PowerGlide) with raised final-drive gearing.

It also sports the improved dash in a sombre Ambla-trimmed cabin that shows early concern for safety with recessed doorhandles, energy-absorbing steering wheel (on a collapsible column) and banks of warning lights to back up the impressive battery of minor gauges.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

Under the Victory FD body, the Vauxhall’s lusty big ‘six’ provides effortless torque

It was ordered in a solid blue – rather than one of the five glossy Starmist metallics that Vauxhall was so proud of at the time – and is an undeniably well-proportioned saloon with wafer-thin front ’screen pillars, stylishly narrow bumpers and toy-like 13in wheels with special ‘Ventora’ covers.

Maybe it would have been nicer with a manual ’box – particularly with the optional overdrive – but, even as an auto, the Ventora is stable and brisk on the péage where it sits happily at 85mph.

Any faster and you get too near the redline of the four-bearing ‘six’, which was never designed for sustained high-rev thrashing.

Having dropped a valve some years ago in Vauxhall’s Viscount, it seemed prudent not to push my luck.

Visually, it is a pudding of an engine with an ugly rocker box, an unambitious-looking exhaust manifold and a family tree traceable back to at least the early 1950s, but probably with roots much earlier and deeper.

This 3294cc version – uprated from 2.6 – appeared first in the PB Cresta in ’64.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

There’s a full set of dials in the sporty dashboard, with the rev counter directly ahead

Only minor modifications were required for insertion into the modern, progressively deformable FD body to fit it around the heater matrix and the steering rack.

It had modern touches such as an alternator and a pre-engaged starter, but it was made almost entirely of cast iron and weighed 135lb more than the overhead-cam Victor slant-four.

That had a commensurately negative influence on the weight distribution compared to the FD Victor.

The trade-off, of course, was smoothness and torque: 176lb ft at just 2400rpm tells you that it is in acceleration from rest, and in the mid-range, that the car will still be relatively impressive.

And so it proves.

It pulls lustily to 80mph then gets increasingly out of breath, indicating that the 105mph Ventora was built to be unobtrusively quicker than most late-’60s ‘tin box’ saloons while demanding almost nothing of its driver.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

An imposing rocky arch looms over a road in France

Today, you can mix it with moderns – and even overtake a few – but high-speed passing manoeuvres need careful planning because the power tails off in a diesel-like way above 4000rpm.

It should be sweaty inside, with all this black plastic, but the comprehensive ventilation maintains a nice temperature through eyeball vents.

That’s a neat reminder that many cheaper mass-produced cars of the ’60s were a lot more sorted in these boring but important practicalities than their more exotic contemporaries.

If the dash is not a pretty sight, then it is cheered up by a pleasantly thin leather-rimmed wheel that was a feature of the Ventora 2.

That said, it feels strange to be working lights and wipers off switches on the centre console behind the gear selector.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

The famous Griffin badge sits atop the Vauxhall’s ‘harmonica’ grille

Pressing on towards lunch at Digne-les-Bains confirms that the Ventora is thoroughly capable.

The slick automatic transmission tends to set the boundaries on the amount of laughs available, although the Vauxhall doesn’t wallow, float or squeal in these unfamiliar conditions.

It’s almost disappointingly competent, with light (but not vague or sloppy) power-assisted steering that effectively disguises the understeer.

That trait must be considerable because the live rear axle – located on trailing links and controlled by a Panhard rod – proved near-impossible to unstick.

What we did manage to dislocate after lunch was the throttle cable, but the boys from Vauxhall had that fixed in half an hour.

Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

The Ventora looks every inch the baby Pontiac

Sadly this left us with a high tickover and, for the rest of the day, there were problems with the brakes, be it straightforward fade or boiling fluid.

Mostly it didn’t matter, as long as there was cold air flowing over the calipers, and we continued to enjoy frisking through the valleys, gorges and twisty passes in this brisk, amiable saloon.

Then, on one long mountain descent on the approach to our stopover at the Château de la Commanderie, the stoppers pretty much disappeared and needed 20 minutes to recover.

Earlier, in the Alps, we almost lost a wheeltrim in the undergrowth and should have cable-tied it to the wheel because it disappeared altogether later on.

Sorry Vauxhall.

If it’s any consolation, we honestly liked your Ventora, which behaved perfectly the next day on the leg into Geneva.

It is one of those wonderful slices of late-’60s/early-’70s automotive ephemera that seems, to me at least, a perfect encapsulation of a particular time and place.

It is really very handsome in a knowing way – all harmonica grille, Coke-bottle hips and vinyl roof – while exuding a frisson of cheap glamour that is strangely seductive.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Images: James Mann

This was first in our July 2015 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


Vauxhall Ventora 2: to the Alps in Luton’s underrated classic

Vauxhall Ventora 2

  • Sold/number built 1968-’71/25,185
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, pushrod 3294cc straight-six, with single Zenith carburettor
  • Max power 123bhp @ 4500rpm
  • Max torque 176Ib ft @ 2400rpm
  • Transmission three-speed automatic/four-speed manual with optional overdrive, RWD
  • Suspension: front double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, Panhard rod, trailing links; coil springs f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
  • Length 14ft 8½in (4483mm)
  • Width 5ft 7¼in (1708mm)
  • Height 4ft 6½in (1384mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
  • Weight 2598Ib (1178kg)
  • Mpg 20
  • 0-60mph 10.5 secs (manual)
  • Top speed 105mph
  • Price new £1102

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