David Motton

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With vintage being in vogue, if you've ever wondered what tow cars were like 30 years ago, Practical Caravan's expert David Motton has been finding out

I've towed with something like 400 different cars (to be honest I've long since lost count), but never with a classic car. Last weekend I plugged that gap in my towing experience driving a car and staying in a caravan both almost as old as I am.

It was going to be a journey of discovery. What were caravan holidays, tow cars and tourers like back in the 70s and 80s?

The Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 was first manufactured in 1975, the same year I rolled off the production line. Vauxhall made some 248,440 of the first-generation Cavaliers until production ceased in 1981.

I arranged to borrow a 1980 2000 GLS, thanks to Vauxhall's Heritage Collection in Luton. The Vauxhall was matched to a caravan familiar to any regular readers – Practical Caravan's very own 1982 Elddis Whirlwind GT. And our destination had an old-fashioned theme, too: L'Eroica Britannia, a festival of vintage fashion, music, food and cycling in the Peak District, in Central England.

After spending so much time towing with modern cars, stepping back in time 30-odd years took a lot of adjustment. The steering was what struck me first. Manoeuvring at low speeds took a lot of effort. The brakes also needed a hefty push before putting up much resistance to whatever forward momentum the Vauxhall's 2.0-litre engine had mustered.

Driving an older family saloon makes you remember how much bigger and heavier modern cars are. The Cavalier has a kerbweight of just 1000kg. Most modern equivalents have a kerbweight of between 1500 and 1600kg. Power outputs have also changed enormously. The Vauxhall's 2.0-litre petrol engine was the most powerful in the range at the time, but with just 99bhp and 113lb ft of torque there are 1.4-litre engines with similar outputs today.

Vauxhall's Heritage Centre has kept the car in beautiful condition and with just over 34,000 miles on the clock, it must be one of the lowest mileage Mk1 Cavaliers in existence. All of which made me rather nervous setting off from Luton to Bakewell – I made my way to the M1 very carefully. The Cavalier pulled up to 60mph, but felt happier closer to 55mph. Soft suspension made for a comfortable ride, but a slightly unsettled feel at the legal limit. 

In some ways, though, the old Cavalier could teach modern cars a thing or two. Thanks to slim windscreen pillars, all-round visibility is excellent. The dials are clear and easy to read and, without cruise control, Bluetooth, infotainment systems or sat-nav, the dashboard is refreshingly uncluttered. The red upholstery and burgundy plastics might not be to everyone's taste but at least the Cavalier's interior isn't bland like so many sombre black or grey cabins in today's new cars.

Once off the motorway and into the Peak District, the Cavalier continued to surprise me. Stuck in traffic on a hot June day, the temperature gauge barely moved. Edging forward on a steep hill in Ashbourne, the handbrake held and the car pulled away without complaint, despite the gradient. The only thing overheating was the driver. You can keep your power steering, all-round disc brakes and electric windows – it's air conditioning that I really missed.

Once at the festival, the Vauxhall tow car enjoyed a well-earned rest until Monday morning. It didn't pass unnoticed, though, starting plenty of conversations with other visitors.

The event itself was fantastic, a great mix of vintage fashion and good music, accompanied by great food and drink. The highlight for me was the bike ride on the Sunday for pre-1987 bicycles. I rode around on my 1959 Dawes Tourer enjoying the best of the Peak District's stunning scenery.

The Elddis caravan made a great foil for the Vauxhall. Light enough to make a reasonable match for the Cavalier, it was a comfortable base each night when the festival wound down at 10pm. To be honest, there was so much to do I hardly spent any time in the caravan except to sleep. It was a shame to head south again on Monday morning.

The Cavalier continued to be popular all the way home. In one town I passed through on the way back to the motorway, one old gent almost fell off the pavement, and at Watford Gap services a lorry driver came over and told me all about his lime-green Mk2. You can keep your Audis, BMWs and Range Rovers. I've never driven a tow car that attracted so much attention. Vintage caravans and classic cars are cool, that much is definitely true.

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