Vauxhall is General Motors’ British subsidiary, selling rebadged Opels to its loyal customers in England, Scotland and Wales. But there was a time when the brand had its own design studio from which a small number of concept cars emerged.
There may not have been a production sports car in the brand’s masterplan, but Vauxhall chief Bob Price nonetheless set into motion a stealth project in 1977 to explore the possibilities of a modern roadster for the marque.
By necessity the brief had to be simple: a roadster with the charm and performance of heritage British roadsters, but of a thoroughly modern design. And it must use standard Vauxhall parts wherever possible.
A small team of design and engineering staff was assigned to create the car and very few others at Vauxhall, much less GM of Europe, would know about the car until its reveal at the Birmingham NEC motor show the following year. Wayne Cherry led the design team, with his chief designer John Taylor. Taylor also acted as liaison with small sports car manufacturer Panther. It had recently introduced its Lima model that used mostly Vauxhall parts and was seen as the perfect platform for this new design.
Work started in October 1977 and six months later a full-scale model was completed on a Panther Lima chassis. This was then shipped to Panther to continue development of the car in secrecy. What emerged a few months later was a car totally unlike the retro Lima. The Vauxhall Equus, was a modern wedge-shaped roadster that showed as much Italian flair as British heritage.
The overall form of the car was classic roadster with a long hood, short rear deck and its topless cabin set far back. And, in the case of the Equus, it was truly topless, as there was no provision for a roof of any kind.
Sharp creases and facets dominated the composition of the design, the result appeared simple and bold at first glance, yet subtle curves and surfaces revealed themselves upon closer inspection.
A deep, incised character line ran through the midline of the body drawing the eye along its length, unbroken except for a set of louvers immediately behind the front wheel. These provided a staccato vertical counterpoint to the horizontal lines of the car and emphasised the forward-leaning stance.
The very soft transition from hood to windscreen, alongside the very minimal shutlines, gave the car an impressively clean overall appearance. Its front end featured the Vauxhall ‘droopsnout’ made famous by the earlier Firenza, its aerodynamic fascia featuring a pair of rectangular Cibié headlamps covered by strengthened glass, that had a whisper of Renault Alpine 310 influence.
A simple rear fascia, with no brightwork, spanned between the tail lights, while there were no trunk shut lines to mar the composition, the only access to a storage area being from behind the seats. The overall themes of the Equus would appear on the upcoming mainstream production cars from the small Nova to the upmarket Royale.
The interior was very cleanly designed, but definitely showed its Vauxhall heritage. Large doors, reworked Cavalier Coupe units, allowed for an unusually generous entry into such a small car. The instrumentation was from a Royale – no science fiction displays, computers or the like, would detract from the purity of the roadster experience. The Equus was designed to be an operational concept, and thus the straightforward approach.
Although the seventies were characterised by wedge-shaped dream concepts and sports cars, few had the simplicity and purity of the Equus. And although the overall style of the car may seem dated now, there are timeless elements to the design as well. “That's the most uncompromised design I've ever worked on,” Cherry later recalled. “It's pure graphic statement, with sharp edges that define taut and tight surfaces.”
The Equus was very well received at the NEC show, and there was much speculation as to whether it would emerge as a production car. But it was not to be. There were never any plans to produce the car, although Panther expressed a willingness to do so. Indeed, it would be the last concept car from Vauxhall until the VX Lightning sports car of 2003.
John Taylor, the chief designer on the Equus project, would continue to design for Vauxhall, then move on to Opel, and eventually would head up GM’s Advanced Portfolio Exploration (APEx) group.
Wayne Cherry would rise to become vice president of design for General Motors in Detroit. Many in the US remember only his American tenure at GM, forgetting his almost 21 years in Europe. But Cherry didn’t forget his time in Europe, or his favourite design. When he returned to the States, he took the Equus with him, where it remained as part of his personal car collection.