Vauxhall Carlton GSi 3000 – The Forgotten Legend

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By Chris Pollitt

Speak of the Vauxhall Carlton and it will take no longer than three milliseconds for the conversation to turn to the Lotus version (irony intentional). A car that was made famous thanks to its turbos, its muscle car looks and its ability to enrage the Police by being able to outrun anything with a blue light bolted to it. The Lotus Carlton is, deservedly, an automotive icon. The wheeled representation of what could be done if designers and engineers threw their pencils in the air and said ‘sod it’, the GSi 30000 was daft. It didn’t conform. But by being so rebellious, it was brilliant. 

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The Lotus was not, nor indeed is not the only Carlton worth talking about, though. While the Lotus was rare, bonkers and the reserve of wealthy playboys with far more money than sense, it wasn’t the only fast Carlton. There was also the car you’re looking at here. The GSi 3000. A car that has now been largely forgotten, but one that you really shouldn’t allow to slip from your mind. 

During the mid to late 1980s, the appetite for fast saloon cars was insatiable. This was a simpler time, one yet to be permeated by the SUV and one in which the hot hatch was still a relatively new concept. If one wanted power – big, snarling, muscular power – one bought a big saloon. Big was better, and big was often faster. Now, we associate fast saloons with the Germans, but back in the ‘80s, it was an open playing field with Ford, Alfa Romeo, Renault, Peugeot and of course, Vauxhall, all scrapping for sales alongside BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. 

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Ford had its Cosworth Granada, Alfa had its 164, Peugeot had its mighty 605 and Vauxhall had the Carlton. Launched in ‘78, it was an established model and had proven popular with company car buyers, executives and thanks to being available as an estate, families too. But it was never a car associated with speed and with power. Vauxhall needed to address that, so in 1986 it launched the GSi 3000. It packed a straight-six 3.0 engine with 12-valves and 177bhp. 

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It wasn’t like a normal Carlton. Instead, it borrowed heavily from its sporty siblings like the Astra GTE, with bucket seats, rainbow trim and even a digital dash in some models. It was lower, it wore bumpers with deep extensions and atop the boot lid was a thumping great spoiler. If the Carlton was a restrained, somewhat staid executive saloon car before, it certainly wasn’t now. Now we could see it as a performer, as a bona fide high-speed machine. But was it? Did it have the minerals to back up the brash aesthetic? Yes, yes it did. 

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In its original guise, the 177bhp engine would shove the mammoth Carlton to the naughty side of 130mph, which was impressive. It wasn’t groundbreaking though, and nor was enough to worry the likes of BMW’s E34 or the W124 of Mercedes-Benz. For that, we have to roll forward to 1990 when engineers at Vauxhall gave the GSi 3000 a gift in the form of twelve more valves. This, along with some other tweaks such as improved fuel injection, pushed the GSi 3000 to over 200bhp and with it, to a top speed of 149bhp. It would hustle to 60 in 7.6s, which is impressive even today. 

Add in the tuned, lowered and fully independent suspension (MacPherson strut up front with ACT multi-link rear), the limited-slip differential and a tight, snappy, five-speed manual transmission (it was available as an auto, but was a hair slower) and what we were left with was a genuine super saloon. Tested new, the GSi 3000 with its extra valves took to the Millbrook bowl and laid down some staggering figures. It hit 60 in 7.4s, it hit 100mph in 29s and on a top speed run it ran out of puff at 145.1mph. Take the scrub of the banked circuit into account, and the 149mph listed top speed seems more than plausible. 

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And yet, despite all this, the GSi 3000 24v was soon forgotten. The hot hatch dominated the performance market completely, pushing the desire to own a Carlton far down the list. Then there was the corrosion, which killed off many. Rear arches were a particularly weak spot, to such an extent that rust there would kill a Carlton’s shot at an extended life. Of those that did survive, many were subjected to the galling process of being made into replicas of the Lotus version. Poor facsimiles of the twin-turbo uber saloon, these cars were an affront to the efforts of Lotus, while they simultaneously robbed the GSi 3000 of its charm and appeal. 

To find a Carlton today, any Carlton that is, is a rare thing. To find a GSi 3000 with the 24-valve engine is nothing short of a holy grail moment. But as the pictures in this article attest, they are still out there if you look hard enough. This 1993 example, which is one of the last, is for sale with Wizard Sports & Classics up in Manchester and it is, make no mistake, a stunning example.

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With just four owners to its name, this Carlton has just come away from an extensive, circa £15,000 restoration. The body has been stripped, repaired where needed and repainted, the engine has been rebuilt and the whole thing has been substantially undersealed, protecting it for years to come. All the brakes, tyres and suspension are new, and the interior has been refreshed. It’s a stunning example, and one that has been cared for considerably over its life. And of that, we are extremely glad. 

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The Carlton GSi 3000 is a car to be celebrated. It was a car that showed the Germans that the buck didn’t stop with them. It was a triumph of power, of engineering and of speed. Furthermore, it was £7,000 cheaper than a comparable Beemer, which makes the Carlton even more impressive. It was a great car, and one that is still a joy to drive, and that still packs the kind of performance that would make some modern counterparts blush. It’s a shame that so few survived, but looking at the car here, it’s wonderful that of those that have, the love and care afforded them is clearly off the charts.

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