The design boss – a potentate in this little world – had a large, glazed boardroom office equipped with a private kitchen and bathroom. The double-height design studios looked out onto a vast outdoor viewing area with parking space for upwards of 30 cars and trucks and a high wall protecting its perimeter. A huge lift, still working, took ‘properties’ up and down from ground level. Secrecy was paramount; when a tall block of flats was erected nearby, Vauxhall sent representatives to check that residents couldn’t overlook the design gallery.
The company’s creatives took much trouble to make their domain special; design boss David Jones tried to give the viewing space “a romantic atmosphere” by importing several Dalmatian dogs and had a carp aquarium built just outside his office. There was a dovecote, too, but the imported birds rapidly crossbred with suburban pigeons and guano became a problem.
Of course, there were extraordinary characters. Jones made way for tough-talking American Leo Pruneau, whose work on the original Chevrolet Camaro heavily influenced the ‘Coke bottle’ HB Viva. GM’s legendary styling chief, Bill Mitchell, visited once a year, bringing the authoritarian atmosphere for which he was famous.
Wayne Cherry, Pruneau’s understudy, was a more emollient American and a kingpin at Luton for many of the heyday years. He arrived in 1965, beginning work immediately on the seminal XVR concept and then on the equally influential SRV concept, winning Luton a reputation for eye-grabbing creativity.
The centre’s last major achievement was the highly influential Equus sports roadster concept of 1978, the surest possible sign that ‘wedge and edge’ design was approaching. By 1983, GM had reversed its view of car economics, consolidating the engineering design of Opel/Vauxhall products in Rüsselsheim, West Germany, with Cherry still in charge until he returned to the US in 1981.
Ironically, Vauxhall’s success increased. GM filled the renamed Griffin House with hyperactive sales and market people and UK sales rose to a peak of 17.6% in 1993. But behind that, a remarkable design era had ended, never to be repeated.