It is also twenty years old this year and Iain Robertson recalls the battlelines being drawn up just outside Malmo Airport, where both Renault and Opel (Vauxhall) were unveiling their ground-breaking new light vans that would take the fight to Ford!
It was hard to believe that the Vivaro and Trafic light commercials were born of a shared ideology, such was the relative animosity displayed by one brand towards the other, even to the extent of hosting separate press conferences, although the road routes and some of the special tests allowed on Swedish roads, under the close watch of Volvo-toting Swedish police, were shared experiences. Those of us arriving as guests of Renault were kept studiously clear of those British scribes flown in by Vauxhall.
Regardless of the typically immature brand infighting, the first of the all-new Trafic vans of 20 years ago was a real eyecatcher. Patrick Le Quement, Renault’s design chief, oversaw the transformation from a boxy, fast-rusting Trafic van into something markedly more voluptuous. Le Quement was the man behind the ‘shakin’-that-ass’ Megane model that polarised many motorcar views. Contrary to opinions at the time, the resultant Trafic was entirely penned in France, with sanction being provided by both Opel (in Germany) and Nissan (Japan, which would build its versions at its Barcelona facility). Trafic would become Vivaro for both Opel and Vauxhall being assembled primarily at Luton, while Primastar (later NV300) was Nissan’s alternative, the Spanish factory manufacturing higher-roof models, due to Luton’s lower height factory being unsuitable.
Apart from the badges, brand-relevant trim details, such as stereo head units, sat-nav systems and instrument faces maintained minor degrees of separation. Yet, irrespective of model, the swoopier design language and roomier cabins were a revelation to a commercial world brought up on a constant diet of highly agricultural Ford Transits. If Trafic/Vivaro can be accused of anything, it is the sea change it introduced at Ford’s Southampton factory, soon to become the ex-Home of the Transit.
At last, the van driver, many of whom ‘lived’ in their vehicles for all of their working existences, would have a workhorse of which to be proud. Thanks to a wide array of accessories from the outset, alloy wheels, chrome trimmings and even fancier stereos and leather upholstery would prove to be irresistible options and, while the external corners would inevitably be rubbed raw, higher build quality and greater respect meant that many early examples still survive on our roads today, often having taken the customised route in direct rivalry with VW’s inimitable T4 van.
Much care was taken to reduce repair costs by making various body panels, including the aforementioned corners, as readily replaceable and inexpensive as possible. Vauxhall’s petrol and Renault’s diesel engines shared equal billing in a medium size van that was more car-like than any other. One of the tests we carried out on a deserted Malmo back lane was an ABS-braked stop from 62mph (100kph). Whether equipped with a half-tonne box of sand, or completely empty, the van stopped sharply and drama-free, even on a slightly slippery surface. Perhaps more surprising was the excellent dynamic balance, which made the old wooden Transit look and feel like a visitor from the Ark.
A few years later, I was one of a handful of combatants driving a Trafic to and from Paris in what became christened, ‘The UNeconomy Run’…which was never the intention but driving at close to 100mph for a couple of hours in a van was far more satisfying than creeping along at 50mpg. Our 2.0-litre diesel still managed a respectable 32.4mpg, despite the thrash, and provided a benchmark, for all the wrong reasons, of course.
The third generation of Vivaro was launched in 2014 at the Luton plant, in fact, from inside it, where British ace stunt drivers, Paul Swift and his father, Russ, performed their excellent and renowned car balletics to a cooing team of Vauxhall personnel and an appreciative bunch of van and some car journalists. Although much of the avant-garde style attraction of the second-gen Trafic/Vivaro was now tamed somewhat, the car-like appeal of the van was refined further still and power came from a choice of 1.6-litre, or a punchy (140bhp) 2.0-litre bi-turbodiesel. Sadly, it would only last for four years before being discontinued, in 2018, by the Chinese-funded but Gallic PSA Group, which would soon make its van plans more public.
Amid fears that all van production would be relocated to its French factory, Vauxhall’s fine reputation won the battle to retain production at Luton. There was too much at stake for PSA to ignore. By the end of 2019, a new range based on the Citroen Jumpy would make its debut and the latest versions became sister models to both Peugeot Expert and Toyota ProAce but only for Vauxhall-Opel, as the Renault-Nissan aspect was relegated to van history.
Needless to say, with the former Vauxhall structures being dismantled by PSA, its workers at Luton are placed under different achievement targets, in order to keep their share of PSA’s van business, which they are managing very well at present. A full complement of vans-with-windows, taller load carriers and even chassis-cabs are now available for both commercial use, or conversions. However, the ‘blue light’ demand is also being satisfied at Luton. While power now comes from a PSA/Ford 1.6-litre diesel, or the Italian 2.0-litre unit, a choice of either 50, or 75kWh battery packs, for a posted 125, or 186mls range, creates the important e-Vivaro for the EV scene.
Conclusion: What its future holds remains to be witnessed but the Vauxhall Vivaro has been an important, million-selling light van in the UK commercial market (a total of three million vans have been produced at Luton) and warrants therefore a doff of the cap for its 20-year run of relative success.