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When Vauxhall Motors moved out of Griffin House in May 2019, its headquarters for more than half a century on the outskirts of Luton, it left behind much more than mere memories.
The building contained the remains of one of the world’s finest and most productive car design studios of the 1960s and ’70s, major elements of which were still in remarkably good condition.
This venerable building, built specifically for the creation of cars, was commissioned at the end of 1964 as the Vauxhall Engineering and Styling Centre (known internally, less romantically, as AJ-Block).
From the very beginning it did much more than just provide workspace for people who made cars. It built and encouraged perhaps the most prolific and fascinating phase in Vauxhall’s 117-year car-making history, setting some of Europe’s finest designers to work on often-exotic tasks that were entirely unfettered by the requirements of global markets, as they would be today.
Almost as soon as it became clear that Vauxhall was moving, C&SC began negotiating with the building’s new owner, BWI, to make one last nostalgic visit – accompanied by some well-known car designers who had built their careers there, plus a selection of the company’s most memorable concept cars and production models.
Late last year we were able to pull it off, visiting the crucible of creativity with Peter Birtwhistle, Ken Greenley and John Heffernan, each of whom will forever have his name against at least one of the company’s most iconic models.
Vauxhall’s Engineering and Styling Centre was designed to be one of five independent car creation centres in non-US parts of the GM world, fully capable of making cars of its own.
As Vauxhall’s director of styling, Englishman David B Jones, explained at the time, this place could take ideas as drawings on a simple sheet of paper then design, engineer and develop them within until it had a car that was ready for production. And it did so, repeatedly.
The idea seems incredible today, when global car designs must share multiple components to have any chance of profitability.
But GM’s idea in the 1960s was that each of its car production hubs, nearly identical in capability, should produce unique cars for its surrounding markets.
The era didn’t last, mind. Its heyday ran roughly from the advent of the Vauxhall Viva HA (September 1963) to the late 1970s, when it dawned on GM’s bigwigs that vast sums could be saved (and few customers would be disaffected) if Opel and Vauxhall built the same cars and badged them a bit differently.
Still, for close to two glorious decades Luton created its own Vauxhall cars and Bedford trucks, and some of the world’s most beautiful and far-sighted concept cars into the bargain.
The place was huge, given that in the beginning it was intended for nothing but car creation. No marketing, no admin, no dealer liaison.
During the build phase it was described by architectural critics as ‘one of the most effective examples of industrial architecture in Britain’, and soon after its opening a proud Vauxhall brochure proclaimed, very much in the parlance of the day, that its inmates were ‘2000 men with a single objective’. Which was to produce unique Vauxhalls and Bedfords.
The ground and first floors of the Engineering & Styling Centre were given over to 500 engineers and their drawing boards.
On the third floor were 350 more design draughtsmen, busily bringing ideas to reality.
On top of all that stood the super-secretive design department, a collection of six studios and a separate, bigger inside viewing space, lavishly supported by its own engineering library, fabrication shop, trim shop, parts store, sheet-metal workshop and even a fully equipped surgery.
The design boss, a true potentate in this little world, had a large, glazed office at one end of the open-air viewing gallery, equipped with a private kitchen, bathroom, boardroom and even various choice pieces of custom-designed furniture worthy of his taste.
“Luton was built to be the best design studio in Europe,” explains Peter Birtwhistle, a Royal College of Art design graduate who spent his early years at Luton before moving on to Audi, Porsche and Mazda, “and no one disagreed with the idea that it was.”
The studios were connected at the rear by a corridor, used both to give access to the workshops behind and to provide display space for the profuse output of Vauxhall and Bedford concepts and near-production vehicles.
The double-height design studios all looked out, through floor-to-ceiling glass (with sunshades to guard its secrecy), on to a vast outdoor viewing area – with generous parking space for upwards of 30 cars and trucks and a high wall protecting its perimeter from prying eyes. A huge lift, still working, took ‘properties’ up from and down to ground level.
Secrecy was paramount: when a tall block of flats was erected within sight of the confidential parts of the design centre, the company sent representatives to check that residents could never overlook the open-air viewing gallery.
When an even taller crane was employed, a volunteer was encouraged to ascend to the operator’s seat to ensure that even this unlikely perch didn’t yield too much visual information.
Like designers everywhere, Vauxhall’s creatives took trouble to make their domain a special environment.
Ken Greenley, who first set foot in the building in 1965, remembers the attempts of design boss Jones to surround the viewing space with a romantic atmosphere.
He allowed several large dogs (Dalmatians) the run of the place and had an aquarium filled with carp built just outside his office.
There was a dovecote in the early days, but the specially imported white birds rapidly cross-bred with suburban pigeons and their guano soon clogged the hinges of the design director’s door to his viewing deck. A more practical era ensued…
There were some extraordinary characters, too.
Jones gave way to tough-talking American Leo Pruneau, whose work on the original Chevy Camaro heavily influenced the shape of the ‘coke bottle’ HB Viva, a Vauxhall whose styling is still much admired.
GM’s legendary global design boss Bill Mitchell visited Vauxhall once a year, bringing with him the authoritarian atmosphere for which he was famous.
Several designers of the time remember him kicking the nose off a full-sized clay whose shape he didn’t like, before stalking out with an order to “have that fixed by the time I’m back from lunch”.
Wayne Cherry, Pruneau’s understudy, was a much more emollient American and a kingpin at Luton for many of its heyday years.
He arrived more or less fresh from Art Center College having briefly been part of GM teams that designed the Camaro and Oldsmobile Toronado.
He arrived in Luton in 1965 as Pruneau’s assistant, working immediately on the seminal Vauxhall XVR concept, a car whose viewers still see it as ultra-modern.
The equally influential SRV concept soon followed, winning Luton a reputation for eye-grabbing creativity that has never been forgotten.
Cherry, promoted to assistant design director in 1970, then took over the big job in 1975.
He was always a stylish figure, noted for his eye-catching habit of driving a Ferrari 308GTB to work.
Greenley remembers the director’s reaction to Britain’s first Nissan Cherry: “Wayne thought it was horrible, especially since he shared the same name. He never really took the Japanese seriously.”
Perhaps the last major achievement of the Luton design era was the highly influential 1978 Equus sports-roadster concept, which was never built for production but was the surest-possible sign that ‘wedge and edge’ design was approaching fast.
By 1983 GM had reversed its view of car manufacturing economics, rapidly consolidating the engineering design of Vauxhall and Opel products in Rüsselsheim, Germany, with Cherry still in charge.
And that’s largely how things stayed until Cherry returned to the USA in ’91.
The Vauxhall Engineering & Styling Centre kept going until the mid-’80s when GM sold Bedford, and there really was nothing more for it to do.
Ironically, Vauxhall’s success increased. GM filled the building with hyperactive sales and marketing people – apart from the dormant design studio space – and sales kept rising until they peaked at 17.6% of the British market in 1993.
But behind all that, a remarkable design era had unceremoniously ended, and nothing like it will ever be repeated.
Images: Will Williams/Vauxhall