With wild good looks and the need for speed, it seems fitting to take gtc VXR to Coniston in the Lake District, in the footsteps of Donald Campbell, the only person to set both land and water speed records in the same year
The GTC VXR is the fastest Vauxhall hot hatch in history. Its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine punches hard with 276bhp, rocketing the feisty three-door coupé from 0-60mph in just 5.9 seconds and onto 155mph, if you can find a straight enough stretch of private road. But this performance machine is about much more than straight-line speed: the suspension is tuned to be as supple as it is razor-sharp, a limited-slip differential cuts wheelspin and claws at corners, and chunky, four-piston Brembo brakes with ventilated discs wipe speed like
a dog running out of lead, but save a huge 14kg over other GTC front brakes, benefitting both performance and handling.
The roads that wrap around the Lake District’s waters and meres will make a great test for the GTC’s strong performance and poised chassis, and along the way we’ll learn how its unique topography hosted Donald Campbell, one of the most energetic, resourceful and daring figures in British record-breaking history.
Back in 1964, Campbell became – and remains – the only person to set both land- and water-speed records in the same year. For 1967, Campbell planned to top his previous water-speed record of 276mph in a jet-powered hydroplane called Bluebird K7. On January 4th, he sadly lost his life during the attempt. We’ll be following in his footsteps and learning more about this legendary man.
Back to our car, and the VXR’s sleek, low-slung bodywork hunches over huge alloy wheels pushed out to all four corners. With the bulging wheel arches swollen to accommodate them, and the head- and tail-lights wrapping round into the heavily sculpted body sides, the VXR looks poised, planted and ground-huggingly wide. The finishing touches come courtesy of our car’s optional Aero Pack, which adds the distinctive bi-plane rear spoiler, chunkier sideskirts and 20-inch alloy wheels. Once you’ve stopped swooning over the GTC’s coupé-like curves, the first thing you notice when you climb inside is the seating position. They’re mounted so low, putting you closer to the action that’s playing out at ground level: the subterranean seating position is impossible to miss; it makes you feel like a racing driver.
So I snuggle down, and point the VXR up the A1 from the East Midlands for the long journey ahead. It’s quickly apparent that, despite having such a focus on performance, the VXR is a surprisingly-comfortable long-distance cruiser. You can choose from three driving modes – the default Standard setting, Sport and, the most hardcore of all, VXR. On these roads, at a steady cruise, I leave the VXR in Standard. The main benefit is the no-cost FlexRide suspension, its ZF Sachs adaptive dampers softening off in Standard mode to provide the most supple ride possible. And it is genuinely supple, smothering ruts and potholes without sacrificing the VXR’s hunkered-down feeling.
The hours pass quickly as A1 becomes M62 and then M6, but it’s only when we pass into Cumbria and leave the motorways that the roads become more interesting. Tangling, narrowing and rollercoasting over the scenery, the final few miles to Coniston pass in a blur of excitement and involvement.
It’s here that the adaptive suspension really shows its performance credentials, and I press the Sport button to cut down any excess body roll without compromising comfort. The suspension doesn’t just firm up either, it constantly reacts to the surface and the driver’s inputs, meaning it’s effectively always serving up the right response milliseconds before you need it.
At Coniston water, you can see why Campbell was drawn here: five miles long, half-a-mile wide and 184ft deep, Coniston gave Campbell all the space he required right beneath the jagged Lakeland fells.
We retire for the night, heading out early the next morning to explore more of those great roads that border the lake. The road that threads down Coniston Water’s eastern edge is tight and poorly positioned, and just squeezing past oncoming cars at 10mph makes you sweat. But when we stumble on the A5084 that threads back up to Coniston from the lake’s southern tip, everything starts to gel. Relatively wide, quick, and with more ups and downs than an EastEnders omnibus, it delivers the kind of challenge all VXR drivers relish.
Soon the all-aluminium engine is coming into its own, the turbo pressure beginning to build from as little as 1400rpm before boosting furiously when the maximum 400Nm of torque kicks in from just 2400rpm. It doesn’t quit until 4800rpm, providing the VXR with the kind of massive mid-range urge that easily picks off dawdling traffic. Flick the slick six-speed manual down to second or third gear, squeeze the throttle and you find yourself just whooshing past traffic in one effortlessly-long lunge of performance.
“nothing compares to a proper mechanical slip diff. You feel it as soon as you accelerate into a bend, like the GTC’s been sucked into the apex, that you can deploy every last horsepower unbelievably early as you feel the front tyres hoovering up every last bit of grip from the surface.”
276bhp is an awful lot of power to put through the front wheels, and in the old days such a surplus might have caused torque steer, with the steering wheel tugging left and right under heavy acceleration. But the VXR team had a solution: HiPerStrut front suspension. It allows the front wheels to turn while keeping the maximum amount of tyre in contact with the road to increase grip and driver feel. A motorsport-derived Drexler limited-slip differential also helps tame the huge power output. Without it, power might spin away through the tyre with least grip. With it, the two tyres are progressively ‘locked’ together, massively increasing traction. A lot of rivals try to simulate this electronically, but nothing compares to a proper mechanical slip diff. You feel it as soon as you accelerate into a bend, like the GTC’s been sucked into the apex, that you can deploy every last horsepower unbelievably early as you feel the front tyres hoovering up every last bit of grip from the surface. And all the while you’ve got that supple suspension smoothing out everything from huge compressions to tiny little imperfections. It means that when you point the VXR’s ultra-accurate steering into a corner, the rest of the car immediately follows: there’s no slop, no slack, just instant response that makes you grin uncontrollably.
Press VXR and that sensation steps up to another level: the suspension goes to maximum attack mode, the dials glow red, and the accelerator fizzes with even more feedback and response. You accelerate, feel the turbocharger kick in from low down in the rev range, and grip the steering wheel hard as the roar of turbo boost soundtracks your charge to the redline. It’s a devastatingly-effective package on a tricky, undulating road like this.
With the lake lapped, we loop back down to the A590, then thread our way towards Backbarrow. The Lakeland Motor Museum is nearby, and the ultimate introduction to Campbell’s life awaits. So we park up and take a look at the Donald Campbell exhibition, our final stop on this petrolhead pilgrimage.
Inside, all the vehicles are painted in Campbell’s signature blue, from a genuine support car to full-size replicas of Malcolm Campbell’s – Donald’s father – record-setting 1935 Blue Bird car and, sitting centre stage, Bluebird K7. Bluebird K7 had powered Campbell to his first water-speed record in 1955, and over the coming years he’d set a further five records, gradually modifying Bluebird and upping the ante to an incredible 276mph in 1964, the same year he also set the land-speed record at 403mph. In 1967, with rivals snapping at his heels, Campbell’s target was for Bluebird K7 to break the record again with a crushing 300mph.
The conditions were perfect on 4th January 1967, with still water and a calm breeze. Campbell climbed into Bluebird’s tight cockpit, and on his first run recorded an average speed of 298mph. But for the record to be broken, a return run had to be made in the opposite direction. Campbell quickly set off, and Bluebird achieved a peak of 328mph. But before the end of the run, disaster struck, Bluebird’s nose lifting from the water, and somersaulting high in the air before smashing into the rock-hard surface, killing Campbell instantly.
Bluebird and Campbell lay at the bottom of Coniston for 34 years, with the wreckage and Campbell’s body finally being recovered in 2001 by diver and sonar expert Bill Smith. Campbell was laid to rest in Coniston cemetery, and restoration work on Bluebird K7 continues to this day.
The 4th January 2017 will mark 50 years since Campbell’s fateful record attempt. It’ll make for the perfect road trip in a GTC VXR.