CRESTA — VAUXHALL’S FAMILY EXPRESS
Donn Anderson recalls a Saturday at Pukekohe half a century ago when a Vauxhall Cresta raised more than a few eyebrows
All cars are special — it’s just that some are more special than others. Elevating the prices of fine classic cars may move them out of the reach of many enthusiasts, increasing the viability of older vehicles that are perceived to be mainstream, common, or simply boring. But a car that many regard as nondescript can have a strong emotional tie for others. You might be aghast wondering why someone is keen to preserve and enjoy, for example, a 1973 Austin Allegro or a 1966 MKI Vauxhall Viva, yet those very models can have a much-loved place in the lives of some motorists.
Enter the Vauxhall Veloxes and Crestas, relatively large ’60s bland nothings to most of us who scarcely even remember them. But hold that thought. One Saturday, 50 years ago, at the Pukekohe circuit south of Auckland, one of these three-box General Motors (GM) family cars did more than just raise eyebrows. However, was that enough to make the car a meaningful example of the automotive industry? One feat does not a legend make, yet the Vauxhall went a long way towards redeeming itself at the 1966 Wills Six Hour race for production saloons. A pair of fully imported Jaguar 3.8 MKII sedans took the first two placings in the 170-lap event, but the moral victory went to the New Zealand–assembled Vauxhall Cresta of Frank Bryan and Don David, which was third overall, first locally built car, and winner of the Index of Price award. In the process, the Cresta also beat the V6-engined Ford Zodiacs that were expected to have better pace. So, Vauxhall’s competition heritage was no longer a trait from a distant past.
On a 1973 visit to the company’s Luton headquarters in England, I was told that a veteran Vauxhall had taken part in a hill climb in New Zealand as long ago as 1908, but no one seemed sure of the location. It was a 1904 water-cooled, 6hp, single-cylinderpowered model with coil-spring suspension, one of only 76 examples exported to all markets that year. The company had begun manufacture in the south London suburb of Vauxhall in 1903, and, six years later, was setting records at Brooklands.
Then 1911 saw the arrival of the Prince Henry C-type Vauxhall, the first truly British-made sports car, boasting the famous Vauxhall bonnet flutes. But, following its alliance with GM in 1925, Vauxhall shifted from low-volume, high-cost cars to largervolume family models. The first Vauxhall, a VX with synchromesh on its three-speed gearbox, was built in New Zealand in May 1931, at GM New Zealand’s Petone assembly plant, which had opened six years earlier. The first post–world War II Velox and Wyvern was the L-type in 1948. In fact, this marked a re-use of the ‘Velox’ name, which had been initially seen on the 30/98 model in 1913. The L-type was, in effect, a transition between pre-war style and the breakaway design first seen in 1951. That year heralded the E-type, a completely new design that remained in production until 1957 and was very popular in New Zealand. The styling of the PA Velox/cresta was even more unique, with its flamboyant excesses, rounded roofline, sharp rear fins, and three-piece rear window. More than a few front-seat occupants got caught out by the intrusive wraparound windscreen when entering or leaving the PA.
GM had competition in its own ranks, with the Aussie Holden first going into local production in 1957. Even so, with its ’50s flair, the round-shouldered PA was a good seller, and almost 82,000 were produced worldwide before the car was replaced in 1962 by the much smoother–looking PB, which looked like an overgrown FB Victor.
and I tested an entry-level Velox in 1964, which retailed for £1203 ($2406) and was powered by the 2.6-litre straight-six pushrod overhead-valve engine inherited from the PA. Developed from a 2.3-litre power plant, this motor had a Zenith downdraught carburettor, chrome-plated top piston rings, higher compression, and different valve timing, while the standard transmission was a three-speed all-synchro column-change.
The 2651cc (162ci) power unit produced a modest 71kw (95bhp) at 4600rpm, but, with the arrival of the PC, in 1965, came the more desirable oversquare 3294cc (201ci) Chevrolet engine that had been used in a Bedford army truck. Not only did power jump to 93kw (124bhp) at a lower 4000 revs, but there was also a substantial increase in torque. The extra capacity came via a fatter bore and identical stroke. My zero to 100kph time of 15.4 seconds in the 2.6 Velox paled against the brisk 10.9 seconds for the 3.3 Cresta reviewed in 1966.
In case you think this improvement is too good to be true, the newer Cresta that I drove was the exact car that stormed the Pukekohe race track, so it was a carefully fettled example that was probably better than average. The larger engine benefited from a new Zenith carburettor and different camshaft, and, when the production race car was tuned on a dynamometer, the road power increased from 70kw (94bhp) at the wheels to 72kw (97bhp).
Both cars had the standard manual threespeed column gear change, and the Cresta cut out the standing quarter-mile sprint in 17.9 seconds, compared with 21 seconds for the Velox. Top speed leapt from 152kph to 167kph, and, in spite of the larger-capacity engine, the Cresta’s fuel economy during my testing was actually better, with an average of 12.2l/100km (23.2mpg). Indeed, the Cresta had the best acceleration of any British family saloon and was even quicker than a MKI Lotus Cortina.
The six-seater Vauxhall was a good towing vehicle, and the larger-engined model became a popular police patrol car in the UK.
Also offered on the PC was an optional four-speed, floor gear-change option, but the 1966 Pukekohe race example retained the standard three-speed column-shifter.
Auckland Vauxhall agent Tappenden Motors supplied the PB Velox for testing, and I described it as an ideal big family saloon with plenty of room and good performance, especially in the mid range. The fresh styling was seen as clean and more acceptable than the PA on which the car was based. GM included a good deal of stainlesssteel brightwork, but the years would reveal the PB to have an unhappy reputation for body rust.
report, which also underlined the car’s good value for money. GM was usually low-key about any sort of motor sport involvement, on instructions from Detroit head office with its non-competition policy. Yet, the big Vauxhall traced its racing origins back to the first Armstrong 500 production race in 1960 at Phillip Island in Victoria, where a PA Cresta driven by John Roxburgh and Frank Coad was overall winner. In Britain, Vauxhall took issue with Mini designer Alec Issigonis, who believed front-wheel drive was only feasible for cars of up to 2.0 litres’ engine capacity, and produced a Cresta development mule using a 7.0-litre Oldsmobile V8 and front-drive transmission. This car, of course, never went into production.
Reputation for reliability
Vauxhall was the third-best-selling brand, behind Ford and Morris, and there were never enough new cars available. By mid 1965, the price of the manual PB Velox had risen by only £25 ($50) over the original launch retail two years earlier, while the auto was £1379 ($2758), and Cresta prices were £1416 ($2832), with an £81 ($162) premium for auto. Late in 1966, the Velox was discontinued, and the PC Cresta cost £1390 ($2780). The highly specified Viscount rangetopper was only available fully imported with a £1839 ($3678) price tag. In 1970 the Cresta has risen to $3140, and hefty inflation had the retail at $4132 in 1971, with the newly introduced Viscount $5446 ($5631 for the auto). With the Cresta phased out, the final built-up Viscounts arrived the following year, priced at $5697 ($5882 for the auto).
Although now quite hard to find, either the PB or PC models make interesting low-cost classics. If possible, seek out higherspecification Cresta models with the larger 3.3-litre engine. Automatic models use the Hydramatic transmission, a long-lasting unit with a reputation for reliability. The low-geared steering is trouble-free, and front suspension groans can often be easily rectified by applying a little grease on the steering-lock stops.
In the UK, well-presented examples climb in price the older they are. You can buy an immaculate PC Cresta for the equivalent of $14K, a PA for $24K, and pay as much as $32K for a 1955 Velox E-type. New Zealand equivalents — of which there are few — are far less costly.
Reliability was always a strong point. BP in New Zealand used a PA Velox for a 100,000mile (160,934km) trouble-free fuel-company promotion, and both PB and PC Crestas served as Ministry of Transport patrol cars. So, a classy classic, classless, or simply ordinary car? Depends on your viewpoint, but the Queen used a PC Cresta as personal transport in the late ’60s.