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The Astra name originated with the Vauxhall-badged version of the first front-wheel drive Opel Kadett, which had been launched in 1979 as the Opel Kadett D. This model, which went on sale in March 1980, replaced the Vauxhall Viva in the UK. The last rear-wheel drive Kadett had also formed the basis of the Vauxhall Chevette, which remained in production until 1984. The Astra was Vauxhall's first model to have front wheel drive. Not all trim levels were available with all body styles. Confusingly, in the British market both the Kadett D and the Astra were sold through separate marketing operations, with overlapping lineups that competed directly with each other. As the consolidation of Opel and Vauxhall dealerships was completed, the Opel badged versions were eventually phased out entirely.
Production began at Opel's West German plant at Bochum in August 1979, with British deliveries of the Opel Kadett commencing in November 1979, four months before the Vauxhall-badged versions were launched.
The overhead-camshaft engine (not 1200) was a huge leap forward from the earlier generation of small engines used in Vauxhall and Opel cars in terms of power, economy and refinement. It was initially available in 1300 and 1600 forms, and later an 1800 fuel-injected version was added, used in the Mk 1 Astra GTE model, introduced in 1983. This version of the Astra was an alternative to the Ford Escort XR3, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Fiat Strada 105TC.
The car featured a new unified engine for Vauxhall/Opel, featuring an all-aluminium head, overhead camshaft and hydraulic valve lifters, and it quickly became popular with buyers. A 1200 cc version which used the older Opel OHV engine was also available.
There were three body styles for the first generation Astra: hatchback, saloon, and estate, all available with two or four side doors. The saloons were styled exactly like the hatchbacks, except for a different rear window above a boot lid; from the side they looked almost indistinguishable from the hatchback, with no protruding notch at the rear.
The white 1800 GTE was the first UK car to be 'colour-coded' with body trim that matched the base colour of the car, this included wheel arch extensions, front side and rear lower skirts, mirror covers, bumpers and even the alloy wheels were painted white. The black, silver and red versions of the GTE also had colour-coding but had the more conventional black bumpers and silver painted alloy wheels.
There was also a van version which was badged as the Bedford Astra – the Bedford brand at that time being used for GM's commercial vehicles in Britain and a few continental European markets. Unlike the previous Opel T-Car, no Coupé was offered.
Early versions of the Astra were imported from the Opel factories in Germany and Belgium, with production beginning at Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port plant on 16 November 1981.
Sales of this first Astra were strong, and gave Vauxhall a much-needed boost in the small family car sector after several years of declining sales with the Viva HC. It soon overtook the Austin Allegro as Britain's second most popular small family car.
The original Astra was awarded What Car?'s: 'Car of the Year' for 1980.