There’s a new Vauxhall Astra, the seventh. Its arrival makes me feel quite ancient, since I remember the first one, and got to know this model well.
The new Astra has the ability to connect with seven smart phones at once, and will tell Vauxhall if an air bag has been deployed. There are bits like forward collision alert, auto braking and road sign recognition. By comparison, the Mk1 generally had a four-speed gearbox; a choke knob and the cheapest versions did without headrests.
The new one is smaller on the outside but has more space indoors than its immediate predecessor, and is usefully lighter. It will be sold with a suite of modern, high output engines, and makes its 36-year-old Mk1 look like the antique it is.
But the first Astra was a thoroughly modern car in its day. It had a willing, alloy, overhead cam engine and the novelty of front-wheel-drive, a first for Vauxhall when the car was introduced way back in 1979.
It replaced the old Viva, a trundling box on wheels with cart spring rear suspension and a wheezing 1,300cc engine dating back to 1962. So the first Astra, which was a serious rival to VW’s brilliant Mk1 Golf, was in a different league.
The Mk1 Astra was my girlfriend’s first car. It had the novelty of cloth seats in an era when many secondhand vehicles still had vinyl trim, and a radio/cassette, so we could listen to tapes of some frankly toe curling ‘80s pop, turning up the volume as the car’s willing-but-vocal little engine buzzed along.
With only four gears this was a busy little vehicle on motorways, but despite skinny little tyres and a simple, twisting beam back suspension, it handled neatly, and was actually quite a lot of fun.
I saw one not so long ago, and was surprised at how insubstantial and small it was –no bigger than a modern Corsa- and how there was barely a curve to its bodywork. Yet there was a neatness about it that has endured, and although very basic by modern standards, a rightness and confidence about a lot of its design and engineering. It represented a new era for Vauxhall, and one with the launch of the latest Astra, isn’t over yet.