Any superhero “origin” story has a set of tragic circumstances that provides purpose and meaning while vaguely believable things happen later on. Usually this is the murder of a loved one or being bitten by a radioactive spider. In Vauxhall’s case it was decades of selling drab cars.
For all the thousands of Cavaliers, Vectras and Novas, Vauxhall had the occasional frenzied meltdown and built some mad cars – possibly out of boredom. After finishing thousands of base spec Vectras, I could easily see a production line worker turning into the Incredible Hulk and breaking down the board room door.
Hulk would probably design something big and powerful and uncouth. A car that people would remember, something to combat the dull Vectra. The Vauxhall Monaro VXR is that kind of car. It’s a big engined no-nonsense coupe with tons of character. Something Vauxhall was running short of in the early 2000s.
Monaro VXR Origin Story
2002 had been a bumper year of sales for Vauxhall with the Corsa, Vectra, Zafira and Astra selling well. To expand the product line and develop some links to the Vauxhall racing team, a performance brand was created: “VXR”, which would be used on the cars in the British Touring Cars Championship.
“The whole plan with the VXR brand was to introduce it in motorsport , which we did in 2002. It was about that time that we started to introduce the concept of the road car programme and that became apparent with the VX220 and the Monaro VXR. From that point on, we introduced other models, some of which will be finished next year when we introduce the Corsa VXR”
Stuart Harris – VXR Brand manager interview with Crash.net
VXR would also form the name of all Vauxhall performance derivatives too. This would eventually encompass most of the Vauxhall range including (whisper it) the Meriva.
In its drive to establish the new VXR brand, Vauxhall decided to officially import the Monaro from sister company Holden in Australia. Vauxhall and Holden had worked together on and off since the 1960s, when the Vauxhall Viva helped Holden form the basis of the Torana.
The Holden Monaro was a large coupe fitted with the 5.7 litre Chevrolet V8. A great car to kick start a performance brand and offer the British public an affordable muscle car. It would allow Vauxhall to finally source a replacement for the Calibra coupe which had ended production in 1997.
Initially just branded Monaro, it included modified suspension to cope with British B roads. VXR spec and badging came slightly later with the bigger 6 litre engine and power was up to just shy of 400 bhp.
Monaro VXR Competitors
The price and performance of the Monaro (£29,895) made for some interesting match ups, particularly in VXR (£36,785) spec. A hot hatch budget would almost get you into a Monaro even though the performance was closer to a BMW M3 than a Golf GTI (in a straight line at least).
The BMW M3 might have been a far sharper steer than the Monaro, but at £42,240 was significantly higher in price, especially when the expensive options were accounted for. The Monaro VXR would also compare well against the Jaguar XKR with similar performance, better interior space and a lower price than the Jaguar’s £60,995 list price.
MG’s £65,000 limited edition SV Xpower supercar was made to look ridiculously priced, especially as the Monaro’s Chevrolet derived V8 was more powerful than the Mustang V8 in the MG.
Monaro VXR 500 – The Performance Bargain
By 2006 General Motors was starting to rationalise the range of cars it sold. The rather niche, big engined two door Monaro was, unsurprisingly, in line for the cull.
In an effort to shift the final examples Vauxhall teamed up with a tuning company (Greens) to use a Wortec supercharger on the big V8. The resulting 493 bhp model was christened the Monaro VXR 500 and was priced under a standard Monaro VXR.
Vauxhall really pressed the price advantage home and this model became a major performance bargain. Performance was on par with a BMW M6 (£83,300) but was priced at just £35,995.
Evo magazine got close to the VXR500’s top speed on a German autobahn but found the old Lotus Carlton quicker above 150mph.
“I gun the Monaro and, behind, the RS4 chase-car seems to be attached by a tow rope – until we get to 150mph. Then the VXR starts to draw away. I haven’t got the VBOX fitted, but when the Monaro’s digital speedo grinds to a halt at 163mph and the engine keeps on pulling, the RS4 drops back much faster. I kept the Vauxhall nailed a while longer and, before braking, saw the tacho needle just beyond 4200rpm in top. That’s 170mph. Given another four or five kilometres, the VXR 500 might have made over 180mph. Given another 10 kilometres it might have made ‘185mph-plus’.”
Introducing the Monaro & Monaro VXR to the UK was brave. It was a characterful addition to the performance car market and helped establish Vauxhall’s VXR brand. This wasn’t just a remapped Astra, this was an old school coupe with an iconic Chevrolet V8, rear wheel drive and a limited slip differential.
The VXR brand is meant to be a bit harder-edged than the old GTEs and GSIs of before. We have put a lot more engineering into the vehicles. They aren’t ‘badge engineered’ cars, they are cars that are built on a limited basis and that provide a huge amount of fun and entertainment. They are more aggressive than the older cars so, for us to have the VXR brand and the VX Racing side of things, it makes it an ideal tie-up really for us to use.
Stuart Harris, VXR brand manager interview with Crash.net
I always liked the combination of non-descript styling and the Monaro’s huge size. Together it made for something quite distinctive against the usual Mercedes, BMW and Audi options. It was different in character too. While competitors were busy shaving seconds off shift times and generating cornering forces that would never be used on road, the Monaro relied on the (slightly muted) noise and character of the big V8. It was a modest seller compared to the BMW M3, with hundreds registered, rather than thousands in the BMWs case.
Thanks to Vauxhall’s Australian sister company, the iconic Chevrolet V8 was available complete with warranty and UK specific suspension.
It was a modest seller (with hundreds registered, rather than thousands in the M3s case), but in years to come will be seen as a fitting swansong for high capacity performance cars in the UK. As the mainstream manufacturers are herded into selling more hybrids and EVs, big engined performance cars have met their Kryptonite in the form of the 2030 petrol ban. What comes next?
Paul is an automotive aficionado with a passion for cars. His passion for automobiles has only grown over the years, and for the past 11 years, he has been blogging about British sports cars. Readers can expect irreverent content about classic models, interesting car stories and more!