In the 1960s, there were immense social kudos in owning a car associated with a great name in motorsport. The British Motor Corporation (BMC) offered the Mini Cooper, Ford was associated with Lotus, and by 1967 a Vauxhall buyer could purchase a Viva bearing the name of Jack Brabham, the F1 champion of 1959, 1960 and 1966.
The advertisements posed the question “What happens when a 3-times world champ breathes on Britain’s most exciting light saloon?”. Today, Adrian Miller owns not only one of just six surviving models, but the oldest known Brabham and the oldest Viva HB.
One of Australian racer Sir Jack’s enterprises was his Surrey-based works that converted several British cars including, by 1964, the original HA-series Viva. Its “Coke bottle”-styled HB successor officially debuted in September 1966, followed six months later by the sporting version; Miller’s car is an ex-Vauxhall Public Relations vehicle.
Unlike its predecessor, the “performance” treatment took the form of dealer-fitted modifications backed with a factory warranty. The Brabham treatment was available on Vivas powered by the 1,159cc “90” engine in both the saloon and, more unusually, estate forms.
For £37 10s, plus a £10-£12 fitting charge, the HB gained twin Stromberg carburettors, a modified exhaust system, an uprated camshaft and those all-important bonnet stripes. The price of a thus-modified De Luxe was £727 11s 1d, and the more luxurious SL cost £779 9s 9d, while accessories “to meet the exacting demand of the enthusiast” included a wood-rimmed steering wheel for £8 10s and a rev-counter for £12 14s 6d.
The brochure featured the great man proclaiming the virtue of “tenacious road-holding” in a “new breed of sporting saloon”. The proud owner could also boast of 79bhp, the “chromed tail pipe”, an engine painted “bright red” and a gear lever “surrounded by a polished mahogany knob carrying a genuine inlaid Brabham badge”. In reality, the Viva was no Lotus Cortina rival, although its top speed was a creditable 92mph. Autocar thought the flagship HB put the driver “in excellent spirits simply because it is always great fun”.
Production ended in 1968 with the launch of the in-house-produced 2-Litre GT and a 1.6-litre option for the standard models. The HC-series Viva replaced the HB two years later, and by the mid-1980s they were already a fast-vanishing sight.
Miller is the founder of the Viva Owners’ Club, and in 1990 he came across this Brabham as a “barn find” and, incredibly, the bodywork was in a solid condition. It returned to the road in 2010, and today it is the sole surviving Brabham De Luxe.
Miller finds it “nippy and very enjoyable to drive”, but he points out that the optional wide wheels with Avon GT crossply tyres have a detrimental effect on the HB’s handling.
Back in 1967 Motor Sport observed that while Vauxhall was the first British car manufacturer “to have a model associated with the world champion racing driver”, the Brabham HB was always more than just a marketing exercise for the Luton-based company, for all its over-elaborate badging, as it enhanced an already agreeable machine.
And the vivid Pageant Red paintwork was the perfect car for the motorist who regarded the Ford Anglia 123E Super as faintly dated – and who dreamed of becoming the next Jack Brabham.
With thanks to Adriam Miller and the Vauxhall Viva Owners’ Club