Donn An­der­son re­calls a Satur­day at Pukekohe half a cen­tury ago when a Vaux­hall Cresta raised more than a few eyebrows

New Zealand Classic Car - - MOTORMAN - Pho­tos:

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.

First ar­rival

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.

Donn An­der­son test­ing the vic­to­ri­ous Vaux­hall Cresta race­car in the Waikato in 1966 - Photo: Jack In­wood.

The Cresta on its way to third over­all and best New Zealand built car at the six­hour Pukekohe race in 1966. Get­ting to grips with a New Zealand as­sem­bled PB Vaux­hall Velox in 1964.

Con­ser­va­tive styling for the PB Velox, seen here on a test in 1964. A British press ad­ver­tis­ment for the Vaux­hall Velox.

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