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Looking back at sixty years of Opels that can’t be kept from American shores

Published in blog.hemmings.com

For sixty years, Opels have consistently clawed their way onto American shores—often without buyers knowing, understanding or caring how the former German division of General Motors influenced their new ride. The last time the Opel name appeared on a car sold in America, in 1980, it wasn’t actually on an Opel—but the storied marque’s developmental fingerprints are all over a wide swath of machinery that has sold here. Opel has traditionally been Germany’s Chevrolet: one-stop shopping for a full range of cars, from dull-but-worthy misers to fun performance cars to humdrum sedans and everything in between. Stateside, they’ve influenced GM marques as lowly as Saturn, as high-fallutin’ as Cadillac, and as obscure as Bitter.

Recurring themes show themselves in Opel’s storied history. The ability to stare death in the face, unblinking, and walk back from the brink. The influence of Robert Lutz on the marque’s evolution. U.S. sales through the Buick distribution channel. And, of course, some of the more intriguing cars to appear on our shores.

Adam Opel AG began in January 1863 in Russelsheim, Germany, building sewing machines; by 1887, it built bicycles too. Opel’s first car came in 1898. It was built to the designs of German motoring pioneer Freidrich Lutzmann. But compared to contemporary French machines, the Opels were awkward to operate and look at, and only a few dozen sold in two years. The car works was closed and Lutzmann was dismissed. The idea of Opel making cars could well have ended here, but luckily the idea continued to intrigue the company board.

Opel 9 hp “System Darracq” from 1902-03. Photo Credit: Opel

Early in the 20th century, Opel signed an agreement with Darracq of France to supply bodies and for local distribution in Germany. Another two years on, and Opel was confident enough to sever ties with Darracq, instead building its own chassis and engine. By 1912, Opel built its 10,000th car. Heavy truck production allowed the factory to flourish during WWI.

In 1923, at the height of the economic turmoil that followed the Great War, the Opel brothers were convinced that a low-cost car for mass production, rather than the luxury specials whose market had dwindled to nothing, was the way to build cars and make money. By 1929 Opel offered a range of four, six- and eight-cylinder models, building 250 cars a day (earning 37.5 percent market share) with 8,000 employees. But the family cashed out: GM took a majority of Opel stock in 1929, completing the $66.7 million-dollar sale in 1931 and making Adam Opel AG a wholly-owned subsidiary. GM Chairman Alfred Sloan liked the idea of buying an established name rather than creating a new one from whole cloth.

Opel Kadett 1936

Opel Kadett, 1936. Photo credit: Opel

Sloan wanted 150,000 Opels per year sold by the end of the next decade. To get there Opel launched a new, simplified range of cars for 1931 with two engines: a one-liter four, and a 1.8-liter six. By the end of the decade, the baby Kadett, the compact Olympia, the mid-size Kapitan, and powerful Admiral saw Opel gain a reputation as a cheap, robust, and technically innovative brand. Independent front suspension came in 1934, while the Olympia was Germany’s first popularly-priced car to offer unit-body construction. The market responded, and Sloan very nearly met his sales goals.

Yet GM couldn’t profit from its success. Exporting German currency was verboten, so the company simply poured its money back into the cars. Soon the Nazis, not keen on foreigners owning any of their domestic industry, buried Opel in bureaucracy. When the government invited the factory to convert to munitions production in 1940, GM declined, and abandoned Opel. By 1945, following half a decade of war, the Russelsheim facility was all but destroyed. The Russian army took the entirety of the Berlin plant, including plans and tools for the Kadett, as the spoils of war; the purloined Kadett was later sold on the other side of the Iron Curtain as a Moskvitch. Opel re-started production in 1947, though GM still did not control the company; by 1948, when Opel was offered back to GM’s board, they weren’t even sure they wanted it. Yet again, Opel’s car-making enterprise hang in the balance.

Opel Olympia Rekord drawing in alpine meadow

The hills are alive with the sound of the Opel Olympia Rekord in 1953. Photo credit: Opel

Despite a less-than-rosy economic outlook GM took Opel back anyway, and by 1953, Opel re-affirmed its position as a popularly-priced car offering modern features and style, with annual sales at the 100,000-unit level. Opel became an important part of Germany’s postwar economic miracle.

Around this time, Detroit bosses started noticing an increasing number of VWs, Renaults, MGs, and other European machinery nibbling at the edges of their American sales charts. Once Detroit figured out that imports weren’t just some weird fad, automakers got to work developing a line of domestic compact cars. Those cars, started in 1955 and ’56, wouldn’t be ready until 1960. They needed a stopgap.

The answers came from across the Atlantic. In an embarrassment of riches, GM had two options, and took both, pairing the UK’s Vauxhall with Pontiac, and Opel with Buick. The idea was that these captive imports would bring a whole new (younger) clientele into a Buick showroom, a place where, as the joke went, the customers’ average age was deceased.

A 1959 magazine ad for the Buick-badged Opels.

Opel launched in the States during 1958, a bad time to launch a new car brand thanks to an economic recession. It hit hard and fast, and had a devastating effect on the auto industry. Storied marques like Packard died outright; highly-anticipated new nameplates, like Edsel, were smothered in their cribs. Buick’s sales were in free-fall: from 404,000 in ’57 to just 240,000 in ’58. (The only American marque to boost sales in 1958? Rambler, which made its bones on smaller cars.) No wonder Buick ended up with Opel: it was probably welcomed by dealers as a tourniquet to help staunch the bleeding red ink from the brand’s once-proud ledgers.

The first Opel that America received, the Rekord, was styled in the manner of GM’s Detroit offerings: designer Hans Mersheimer is said to have been influenced by the 1955 Chevy Bel Air, the wrap-around windscreen was a particularly American touch, and even the chrome side spear with the dip ahead of the rear wheel whispered Buick. The 1680cc inline-4, a version of the 1488cc four first seen in the 1937 Olympia, made an advertised 56 horsepower. Retail price: $1987.50. It was the second-best selling car in Germany, behind only the Beetle, though it sold rather more slowly here. Sales stopped once Buick had its own compact line, the Special, in 1961. The Rekord P2, a significantly restyled model, lived briefly in American showrooms before Opel took a knee to catch its breath, temporarily withdrawing from the US market. Once again, Opel could have been kaput here.

But soon Opel would return to the States with its new, smaller Kadett. On January 17, 1964, Opel relaunched in the US – once again through the Buick sales channel – with a car that improved on previous efforts. The new Kadett had four body styles available: sedan, “sunroof sedan,” sports coupe, and two-door wagon. Plus pricing that started at $1679.95, some 15 percent cheaper than the earlier Rekords. It made 54 SAE-rated horsepower from a newer 993cc inline-4, nearly matching the larger Rekord’s power figures. Kadett also shared GM’s 2-year, 24,000-mile warranty. On top of a selection of 1.1-liter, 1.5-liter and 1.9-liter four-cylinder enginers (depending on model) and a coupe that followed all of Detroit’s fastback styling trends of the day, the new Kadett B, launched here in 1967, added something else: The claim that it was GM’s lowest-priced car.

Opels quickly picked up a solid-but-dreary reputation. Bob Lutz sought to change that with the GT, a coupe with Corvette looks but proportioned to fit on a lightly-modified Kadett chassis. Lutz, who joined Opel’s marketing department after graduating from Stanford University’s business school, found legendary GM stylist Clare MacKichan—a pupil of Harley Earl—answering to Opel’s Chief of Engineering. MacKichan wanted to do a sports car, but had been rebuffed; Lutz joined the fight, and a prototype showed at the 1965 Frankfurt show. Chuck Jordan, another legendary name at GM Styling, would later tuck and tweak the GT for production, using a wind tunnel to minimize both drag and lift.

Opel GT 1968

Opel GT, 1968. Photo credit: Opel

There were stumbling blocks. Lutz and the engineers wanted the Kadett’s engine set back in order to accommodate the swoopy style, but accountants demanded that a stock Kadett chassis be used. Engineering built two prototypes: one with the engine over the front suspension, like a stock Kadett, and one with the engine set back 16 inches rearward. Mersheimer, now boss at Opel, drove both—and approved the model with the set-back engine. Another issue: Opel’s factories were at capacity. The answer came from French coach builder Brissoneau & Lotz; GT body assembly was offered as a consolation prize after Opel shot down the idea of a Rekord ragtop. In the end, Chausson built unpainted body shells, Brissoneau would finish, paint, trim and upholster those shells, and Opel installed the mechanicals (which now included the set-back engine, front suspension moved forward, and some additional chassis bracing). Brissoneau also developed the “frog eye” headlamps. Nearly 35,000 sold in the United States in 1969 alone, with sales dwindling thereafter until the last model year in 1973. Still, of the 103,000 Opel GTs sold worldwide, more than 70,000 came here.

Opel Manta in red

Opel Manta, 1971. Photo credit: Opel

Opel Ascona in red

Opel Ascona, 1972. Photo credit: Opel

Sensing that the sporting touch might be Opel’s calling card in the States, Opel launched the 1900—known also as the Manta—for 1971. Based on the Ascona sedan, and positioned between the smaller Kadett and larger Rekord. The Ascona made it to our shores in the two- and four-door sedan and wagon forms offered in Europe, though the sedans were discontinued after 1972. It was the Manta, a pocket-rocket competitor to the popular Capri coupe (another captive import, sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers), that caught enthusiast’s attention.

The 1900 coupe was available in two forms: Standard and Rallye, which added a flat black hood, a lower differential ratio, full gauges, tape stripes and foglamps. The 1900 became the Manta in 1973, slender chrome bumpers were discarded for with larger five-mile-per-hour bumpers that added five inches and 150 pounds in 1974, and the 1975 models all sported Bosch L-Jetronic fuel-injection—some of the only cars in the US that had fuel injection, at any price.

OPEC I should have been Opel’s chance to shine, but fluctuating currency exchange rates squelched the fun: in a single year, 1975, the base price of a Manta jumped a whopping ten percent, about $450. Having an economical car in the fold doesn’t make sense if the people who want it can’t afford it, so Buick cut Opel out. GM cast its eye toward Isuzu, the GM-owned Japanese outfit which supplied the popular Chevy LUV pickup. Isuzu’s version of the GM T-car (Chevette, Opel Kadett C, Isuzu Gemini, et al) looked similar enough to the Manta, and was fifteen percent cheaper than the German. The Gemini sold under the Buick/Opel name when it was quite clearly neither of these; Buick pedaled this particular bit of deception through 1980, when the new X- and J-cars rendered it superfluous. Though a sedan version of the Buick/Opel lived on for a decade as the Isuzu I-Mark in the States, the Opel nameplate has never officially returned to US shores.

Even so, Opel’s engineering and influence continued to weigh heavily on GM’s worldwide lineup, including plenty of cars that made it into the States. From the mid-1970s onward, Opel would provide the blueprint for most of GM’s rest-of-world models. The oft-maligned GM J-car is one of these. Every GM division worldwide (save for Saturn) received a version of the front-drive, subcompact J, including Holden, Vauxhall, Isuzu, Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Opel (with the Ascona C). Ten million sold worldwide.

At nearly the same time that the J-car was shoring the family end of the market, Opel was were making inroads with executives via the stately Senator, launched mid-’78 as an up-market sister for the thoroughly middle-class Rekord, and a replacement of sorts for the executive-level Kapitan/Admiral/Diplomat. The Senator was recognized as a worthy competitor for the Audi 100, Peugeot 604, 5-series BMW and Mercedes W123. Some magazines thought it false modesty for Opel to aim their sights so low, and later declared it a clear winner in comparisons against lower-powered S-class Mercedes and 7-series BMWs.

Part of the Senator’s solidity was thanks to GM’s computers fettling the car’s structure: the body was two inches narrower and shorter than a contemporary BMW 7-series, yet weighed 350 pounds less, despite Opel’s extra sound deadening. The clever suspension saw MacPherson struts in front, without any negative offset in the geometry, and semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension sporting “miniblock” (Opel’s term) coil springs. These coils were of variable thickness and differing diameters, so that the springs could fold in upon themselves without touching. The result was not only a car that handled, but one that offered a more comfortable ride than its contemporaries as well.

The Senator never made it to the US. But the Bitter SC did. A stylish high-end coupe, with roughly 500 sold worldwide between 1982 and 1986, was based on the Opel Senator’s chassis and mechanicals, clear down to the 3.0-liter straight-six. (The first iteration of this long-lasting powerplant was a carbureted, pushrod, 12-valve OHV 2.5-liter [2490cc] straight-six that debuted in the 1968 Commodore. GM also built a 3.0-liter variant, in both carbureted and Bosch fuel-injected variants, debuting in 1977. Further improvements bumped it to 180hp in the late ‘70s.) The marque’s sole addition to the engine was a valve cover bearing the company name.

The rakish lines were penned by former racer, importer, and designer Erich Bitter while working on his V8-powered, Diplomat-based Bitter CD (or Coupe Diplomat). Michelotti executed some of the engineering details needed to make Bitter’s sketch a reality, while Opel stylists Henry Haga and George Gallion refined body details. The first SCs didn’t come to fruition until 1981. When a willing German carrozzeria could not be found, Bitter formed Bitter Italia to build bodies and interiors for final assembly at the works in Schwelm. GM helped with emissions tuning and crash testing. The SC ceased in 1986, with half of its production landing here. Thus the Bitter SC was the only European-built, Opel-powered car on offer in the States in the ‘80s.

In 1985 Opel launched a new front-drive Kadett, an Escort-class contender that featured a very in-vogue aerodynamic teardrop form atop a conventional transverse front-drive platform. It was good enough to give the Opel (and its English Vauxhall twin, Astra) the 1985 European Car of the Year award. From efficient 1.2-liter models to sporty 1.8 liter models, the Kadett/Astra became a fixture on worldwide streets, where it was considered stylish mainstream bread-and-butter transportation. The later 156-hp 16V version was a seminal car in the European “hot hatch” movement—the car that out-GTi’ed the GTi. This generation of Kadett proved popular, selling in the millions over time.

Yet when time finally claimed America’s T-car-based Pontiac 1000 in 1987, GM’s excitement division lacked an entry-level loss-leader to help the division get on the right side of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) ledger. Once again Detroit turned to Russelsheim for an answer, only to find that the currency issues that saw Buick snuff Opel’s stateside chances a dozen years before had not improved. As it turned out, the Kadett/Astra was the right answer,  but GM would instead build it in South Korea, through its affiliate Daewoo, and sell it here as the Pontiac LeMans. The Lemans lasted through 1993.

In the spring of 1994, GM Europe launched its second-generation Omega as a front-engine, rear-drive, executive-class sedan. (It was also manufactured and sold in Australia, in a form adapted for local conditions, as the Holden Commodore.) The top engine in Europe was the 54-degree 3.0-liter 24-valve V-6, offering 210 horsepower in Euro-spec trim; Australia received a variety of naturally-aspirated and supercharged 3800 V-6 and LT- and LS- family small-block Chevy engines, among others. The Omega started out as a sedan and estate, but Holden had its usual supply of locally-produced variants, including the ute.

Americans know the Omega B as the Cadillac Catera. The notion of a smaller Cadillac had been explored before, to mixed results (well-received 1975 Seville; disastrous J-car Cimarron). No one questioned the need for Cadillac to show a more modern face to the world, so while Cadillac’s long-term plans were sorted out, the Catera was adopted as a stop-gap measure. It was the sole rear-drive Cadillac passenger car in the brand’s lineup in its lifetime.

But in some ways, the Catera failed before it ever turned up. Itburst onto the American scene in 1997 as a 1998 model. Why it took three years, or roughly half the car’s life cycle, to get here is anyone’s guess. The only available powertrain was the UK-built 3.0-liter V-6 rated at 200hp (some power was lost through federalization), and four-speed automatic. The suspension was softened, and extra sounds deadening and changes to meet US safety regs added about 400 pounds, making the Catera weigh a porcine 3900 pounds at the curb. Pricing, starting at $33,000, didn’t help, nor did a confusing ad campaign with Cindy Crawford and a cartoon duck.

Catera’s mid-year introduction saw 25,411 units sold, with sales moving steadily downward ever after. A freshening for the 2000 model year didn’t help the sales slide. Though Catera’s sales numbers didn’t show it, the fact that it existed as an agent of change was important to Cadillac’s (and maybe even ultimately GM’s) survival; Catera paved the way for the far-more-successful, US-built CTS.

Omega B ceased production in Europe in 2003. It continued in Australia through 2006, however. Among the Australian Omega/Commodore derivatives was a coupe that resurrected the Monaro name, a title that has the same resonance Down Under as Camaro has with Americans, and for mostly the same reasons.

Bob Lutz continued to have a brilliant career. Time at BMW, Ford of Europe, and later Chrysler made him a bona fide star of the business. Time and circumstance brought him back to General Motors in 2002. One of Lutz’s first acts as product czar when he came on board was to bring the Holden Monaro to the States as the Pontiac GTO—as a divisional halo model for 2004. It was a noble failure, plagued by currency fluctuations and a half-sized trunk due to relocating the fuel tank to meet crash test standards. The Holden factory could only make 18,000 a year, but sales never reached those heights. Just 13,500 were built in 2004, and with 50 more horsepower and hood scoops for 2005, sales numbers dropped to around 11,000. Production ended in 2006, as originally planned.

While the Omega was a going concern in Europe, there was some action down the model range as well. Opel’s Vectra B launched in the fall of 1995, replacing the old Cavalier name. A range of four-door saloon and five-door hatch models were joined, at the 1999 facelift, with a first-ever estate (station wagon) model.

The Opel/Vauxhall Vectra inhabit the same space in Europe as the Ford Taurus once did here in the States: mid-sized family transport, none too exciting, but a decent bit of business and a way to keep the local factories afloat in the wake of the nameless, faceless hordes streaming in from across the ocean. In Europe, it was that car that everyone knew someone who had one, but no one cared much about it. One of Jeremy Clarkson’s first skirmishes with infamy came when he claimed the Vectra B was “designed in a coffee break by people who couldn’t care less about cars.” Other criticisms, echoed through the motoring press, included dead steering, genericar lines, mushy handling, and substandard reliability. Which, apparently, meant that it was perfect for America.

2003 Saturn L-Series sedan. X03ST_LS003

In this country, the Vectra-based Saturn L-series was a brand extention that just never caught on. A size up from the thrashy SL/SC/SW compact line, the L-series (for Large, maybe?) launched with a thud. Over half a decade, GM built roughly 400,000 L-series. As something that was meant to compete with the 350,000-plus volumes of Accords and Camrys with which it competed, it was a dismal failure. Yet that may not have been entirely the car’s fault. Saturn was supposed to be a different sort of car company within GM. Those who could wade through the alphabet soup might have felt that the LS was something of a sell-out of Saturn family values, a crass grab for sales that embodied few of the things that Saturn hyped itself on in the preceding decade. After a decade of making a big deal about plastic body panels, the L-series’ body was all steel. After proselytizing that Spring Hill, Tennessee was the home of Saturn, the L-series was built in Delaware. The V-6 engine was shared across GM lines. Exactly how was any of this different? It was killed two years early, in ‘04.

Yet Saturn was not yet done having its way with Opel. GM product boss Lutz saw Saturn’s decline and decreed that (despite the L-series debacle) Opel was Saturn’s answer. Saturn’s Ion was replaced by the rakish German-built Astra (a direct—if much improved—descendant of the Pontiac Lemans). The L-series’ replacement, dubbed Aura, was built in the States but was heavily based on the European Vectra C; they share GM’s global Epsilon front-drive platform and styling cues. The Vue SUV was replaced by the German-made Opel Antara (but still called Vue here). All were little changed from their European counterparts—no softer suspension or any other concessions to the American market beyond a Saturn badge and federalization requirements. (In a hilarious twist, the Saturn Sky roadster was built in Delaware and exported to Germany as the Opel GT!) All of the new Saturns were hailed as vast improvements over their predecessors, yet sales were sluggish (barely 18,000 units over two years for the Astra), even when the economy was booming. Saturn became a victim of GM’s cost-cutting during their 2009 bankruptcy.

And so, very nearly, did Opel—again. In the late 2000s, GM decided to bestow the Chevrolet name upon all manner of home-grown, badge-engineered machines from around the world, going as far as displacing the Opel names in markets like Mexico. GM killed or tried to sell Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn, and Saab. Opel was up for grabs too: in mid-2009 “New Opel” (which combined Opel and Vauxhall, but excluded Saab) would either end up with Fiat or a consortium led by the Russian Sberbank, but also including the Canadian branch of Magna International as well as Opel employees and dealers. By the end of 2009, GM chose to hold onto both Opel and Vauxhall. Once again, Opel dodged the knife.

Which was probably wise; one of GM’s few remaining divisions, Buick, wouldn’t have much of a lineup without Opel. Yes, we’ve circled back around to Buick, the marque that brought Opel to the dance all those years ago. But it’s not history or sentiment that has seen these two get back together again.

A decade ago, GM broke down its engineering responsibilities by continent. Australia was in charge of big rear-wheel-drive cars, like the Chevy SS sedan and Camaro; North America did Corvettes and pickup trucks; Europe got the bulk of the front-drive passenger cars, with the subcompact-and-smaller machines shuffled off to Asia for development. There are exceptions of course. Cadillac’s engineering doesn’t interchange with overseas models. Chevrolet, with its wide-ranging lineup, is all over the place. So who does that leave?

Buick. The name has a century-old reputation in China, where sales continue to grow. The burgeoning Chinese middle-class wants all the stuff Americans wanted in the 1950s, like refrigerators and homes in the suburbs and Buicks. Sales remain huge there—from 400,000 in 2009 to 1.2 million in 2017. (Compare that to the US’ 2018 sales numbers of nearly 207,000.)

2019 Buick Regal TourX

That’s a Buick? Yes, well… it’s complicated. Photo credit: Buick

The current Buick lineup in America still has plenty of Opel DNA in it. The 2011 Buick Regal started as the Opel Insignia, a car good enough to get the jaded European press to declare it 2009’s Car of the Year. Early versions of this Regal were actually built in Russelsheim before production was up and running in Oshawa, Ontario. The Buick Encore is a rebadged Opel Mokka, a baby SUV built in both South Korean and Spain but developed by Opel. The Verano is based on Opel’s Astra J, on Opel’s Delta II platform that is also shared with the Chevrolet Cruze. The Buick Cascada convertible that arrived in 2016 was built for Opel’s lineup since 2013.

Somehow, without having its name on a trunk lid for three and a half decades in this country, Opels are as prolific here today as they ever were when they were sold as Opels. Does the Opel fan take heart in this, knowing that his preferred marque continues to inform America’s roads, however stealthily? Or would a lightning-bolt badge on the boot make things better still?

In February, 2017, news broke that French car-building giant PSA (Peugeot, who hasn’t sold cars in America since the early 1990s) sought to take over Opel and its British cousin Vauxhall. In 2016 GM lost money for the 16th consecutive year in Europe, and GM is reported to have lost $15 billion from its bottom line since 2000. It was enough for The General to finally relinquish ownership of Opel. PSA is owned 14 percent by the French government and 14 percent by Chinese car company DongFeng. PSA CEO Carlos Tavares managed to turn both PSA and the newly-acquired ex-GM brands around and make them profitable.

PSA continues to build Opel Insignia models for Europe; that car comes to the States, even now, as the Buick Regal Sportback, and Regal TourX wagon. (It’s also sold in Australia as the Holden Commodore.) In exchange for GM giving Peugeot some of its proprietary technology, Peugeot has agreed to take over the pensions of Opel employees. In time the GM designs will be superceded by in-house technology.

And in late October, 2019, came news that the newly-enlarged PSA would merge with Fiat-Chrysler (FCA), to become the fourth largest carmaker on earth. Besides Peugeot, Citroen, DS, and Vauxhall its siblings, Opel can now count on Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, and sub-brands like SRT and Abarth, among its stepsiblings. (Industry watchers may recall that Peugeot bought Chrysler Europe 40 years ago, allowing its brands and market presence to dwindle within a decade.) Other brands, like Hindustan, Simca, Singer, Sunbeam, Hillman, Humber, Talbot, and the Spanish brand Barreiros are also part of the new company’s past.

So what comes next? A flood of new European product onto American shores? Will DongFeng use it as an avenue to bring its cars into America? A revival of the Citroen SM? A Hellcat Regal? A political hullabaloo when someone realizes that Iran Khodro is still building Peugeot 405s under license in Iran?

If history tells us anything, it’s that Opel will find a way to survive and sell cars in America—whether we realize it or not.