So, where do you take the first and last of Vauxhall’s road-going super saloons? The answer was obvious to me: up to Cadwell Park, on the route we took on the 1991 Performance Car of the Year contest. There’s a lot more twisty, undulating and flowing asphalt in Lincolnshire than most people imagine.
It’s quickly apparent that certain aspects of the Carlton have slipped my memory, but how on earth could have forgotten the ruched leather seats? They’re so incongruous after a tour of the outside with its flared arches, snow-plough front air dam and Esprit-style rear spoiler. Still, they’re comfy and the low waistline and slim pillars give a commanding view.
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Lotus badges pepper the interior - on the sill plates, the steering wheel, the rev counter and also on the numbered plaque affixed to the plumply padded glovebox lid. Overall, though, the cabin is rather Monaro-like with simple mouldings, fat switches and plain dials, including a speedo that goes to 180mph, which is just enough! Tunes are provided by a Grundig tape deck with removable front panel (which seems pointless as ram-raiding crims wanted the whole car) and there’s a 10-disc changer in the boot.
I do remember the clutch, though. Unfeasibly long-travelled and mightily heavy, it also needs to go right to the floor on this car to make smooth shifts with the six-speed Corvette ZR1 gearbox. Twist the key and the twin-turbo, 3.6-litre straight-six fires and assumes a loping, high idle. It’s a rather indistinct note and remains so even at operating temperature and pulling hard, just a soup of sounds whose ingredients include straight-six rumble, variable amounts of turbo whoosh and a garnish of gear whine. The uber-Carlton was never about how it sounded, though…
So what does a once scandalous 377bhp feel like all these years later? The 3.6-litre engine was pretty much bespoke, from billet crank to its charge-cooled Garrett turbos. However, key parts of the drivetrain - that Corvette ZF gearbox and the V8 Commodore limited slip differential - were plundered from GM parts bins, which might explain why the Carlton is epically long geared. It makes 55mph in first gear and in top the engine ticks over at just 1500rpm at an indicated 70mph. And yet, when I squeeze on the throttle on the A1 towards Stamford, the Carlton digs in and pushes on.
That long gearing serves another purpose, too. Traction control wasn’t available in the early 90s and you couldn’t give people nigh-on 400 turbocharged bhp and rear-drive and hope for the best, and very long gearing in first blunts the onset of boost. Even so, the way the pace builds in first and second, the relentless roll on, is utterly mesmerising. Like other the big volume turbocharged engines, the Carlton straight-six seems to relish a resistance to work against, whether that’s the leggy gearing or a gradient.
The first of the interesting roads is a cheeky back road that gets us across to the A6121 towards Bourne without going through Stamford itself. It’s a lovely meandering, rolling (and familiar) bit of road and although the Carlton isn’t the sharpest of cars, it’s easy to find a good pace and thread the car easily through the twists. In the mirror the VXR8 looks a size too big for this road, filling the gap between grassy bank and centre line so fully that it has to be placed just so. It looks less corralled on the Bourne road and when we reach the T-junction where we turn left for Corby Glen, I’m keen to try the VXR8.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the differences that strike you first. The VXR8’s high waistline and low seating position fosters a reassuringly cocooned, sit-in feel, and the head-up display beamed onto the windscreen gives it a futuristic feel. Some starter motors sound hyper-active but this one sounds slow and a bit mournful, like it’s struggling to turn the 6.2-litre V8. The delicious, heavy metal idle completes the impression. The whole car trembles at tickover, like it’s the V8 has lumpy cams, a blip of the throttle induces a subtle twist of the body and the tailpipes trumpet their approval with pops and bangs on the overrun. Showmanship has been engineered in but, hey, given how it looks, what did you expect?
There’s a level of slickness to the VXR8’s six-speed shift that’s lacking in the Carlton. It’s still hefty but short-travelled and snicks home like the lever itself is a weighty billet of steel. The clutch hits the carpet like it’s connected to nothing but it’s friendly on the way back up so it’s not going to embarrass you at junctions and traffic lights. Off and running towards Corby Glen, I’m quickly into the swing, and this is a corker of a road. It feels made for cars a bit smaller and more agile but it’s big enough to allow the VXR8 some style, though those gigantic brakes have an almost hair-trigger response and phenomenal bite after the Carlton’s once impressive AP Racing set-up.
Similarities with the Carlton are the relaxed, smooth ride, which fits perfectly with the long-striding gearing - both cars manage to travel quickly with an unhurried demeanour. On the downside, both also lack the on-centre steering connection to place the car with subtle precision. However, the remarkable thing about the VXR8 is that when you ask it to snap into a turn, the feel of the chassis beneath you suddenly resolves, like slack in crucial suspension bushes is taken up, so into the corner you can feel the overall balance and grip at each tyre. What at the outset looked like being a big, unwieldy saloon on all but the widest roads on our route now feels game for anything.
I’ve not yet needed to exercise the supercharged V8 crammed under the bonnet but even so, on lift off the tailpipes pop and crackle enthusiastically. Then there’s decent straight between the tree-lined turns, the V8 hits 4000rpm hauling hard and the exhaust back boxes promptly fall off. Or at least that’s what it sounds like as the exhaust valves pop open, pent up gases escape with a loud phhffft! and the cockpit is suddenly filled with hollow, metallic V8 crooning.
Opening the taps on the thumping V8 earlier and earlier in the turns reveals high levels of grip and traction that can, with a bit more commiment be overcome. It takes a bit of space too but if you’re confident it will play nicely. Mind, turning north after Corby Glenn onto the B1176 that heads towards Grantham, there’s enough to do without adding in a bit of rear slip. At about seven tenths the VXR8 feels mighty, and as it tackles the cresting corners and compressions coming thick and fast, I can’t help thinking of Commodores monstering Mount Panarama. There’s so much power available that the Carlton – which looks small in the mirrors when it’s right on the VXR’s – is soon shrinking and then no longer there. But the mass of the VXR8, its scale and inertia, plus healthy circumspection, conspire to temper the pace. Even so, it’s satisfying to thread such a potent, approachable car along such three-dimensional road.
Traffic dictates the pace up to Sleaford, which is fine because the roads are plain, and from there up to Tattershall it’s a landscape of slim horizons, vast skies and arrow-straight roads bisecting expanses of furtile arable land. The Carlton lopes effortlessly across the flat landscape, with much greater refinement than the newer cars thanks to hushed road noise; the VXR’s fatter, bigger diameter, lower profile tyres suffuse its cabin with a rumble from 30mph. The road from Tattershall to Horncastle is another beaut, a flowing A road that suits these saloons perfectly, and it’s wonderful to feel the straight-six winding up and giving the VXR something to chase.
If I’m honest, the responses of the Carlton feel a bit below par; it’s slow to react to steering inputs and the firmer the request the longer the delay. And yet when we find a quiet corner for some action shots, by the third run I’ve got the nose tucked in and I’m picking up the throttle well before the apex. On the exit the boost arrives while there’s a still a little lock on, the rear wheels over-speed and the Carlton slips slowly into a few degrees of opposite lock. It’s easy, natural, grin-inducing. On a steady throttle the car speed catches up with the rear wheel speed and as sweetly it slipped wide, the rear end comes back into line. Still got the moves.
Half an hour later we’ve made it onto the top of the Lincolnshire Wolds and I’m turning the Carlton into Cadwell Park, virtually 26 years after the first time. It would have been good to lay a few lines on the asphalt but we knew the track was otherwise engaged the whole week, which is why we made the most of the journey. Big, over-endowed, slightly brash saloons like this pair - the bookends of Vauxhall’s super saloon habit - aren’t to everyone’s taste but I’ve always enjoyed their particular brand of entertainment. Sadly, the sun really is setting on a memorable era.