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The Glove Box: Opel Manta

The Glove Box: Opel Manta

The automotive world recently suffered a great loss: Opel as we know it. Or is it so bad? Was Opel really anything special? American enthusiasts, as Raphael Orlove on Jalopnik points out, fantasize about Opel as “forbidden fruit” that could have given European verve to the United States car market. In reality, though, Opel has lived a life of struggle, whether from the powers that be at GM, the competition, or European recession. Its products have mostly been drab at best, rarely at either the top or the bottom of the class. With that in mind, allow me to highlight one of the (few) Opel models I believe deserves your attention.

The Opel Manta, produced in two generations from 1970 to 1988, was a stylish sports coupe that gained a strong reputation in Germany, its home country. For better or worse, it was Opel’s banner car in many markets. But the fact that Opel made it at all might show General Motors’ lack of understanding.

One of the less racy advertisements. Scan from Mark Kinnon.

What am I on about? Well, this week, PSA Peugeot-Citroën announced that it would buy the European arm of General Motors (GM), comprising the Opel and Vauxhall brands. The previous parent company made the decision due to a continued lack of profits in increasingly automotively apathetic Europe, with the added wrench of Brexit foiling any possible rays of sun in 2016. Still, a lot of questions arose. Why does PSA need another mainstream brand in Europe, a market already challenging for automotive profitability? Wasn’t PSA just in its own financial peril recently? What will happen to Buick and all the other GM brands that sell Opel designs in certain countries? Will PSA get rid of the Opel and Vauxhall brands entirely, or try to make them profitable in some fashion?

Let’s have a brief history lesson on this brand some of you have never heard of. Opel, a German brand, existed for seemingly a few minutes before General Motors (GM) bought the company in the early 1930s to increase its own European presence. Before that, Opel had produced nothing of note other than a Citroën copy. GM’s money led to the Olympia, Germany’s first unibody car. If you remember from my Lancia article, the whole body contributes to the structure of a unibody car, while the body is not a structural element in a body-on-frame design. Alas, Citroën had beaten Opel to the monocoque game with the Traction Avant and added more modern front-wheel drive in the process.

I’ll break up your lecture with another Manta photo. This one is showing off its short-wheelbase rear-wheel-drive dynamics and unique taillight treatment in one go. Photo from rallydigital on Flickr.

After World War II came a series of boring family cars, some with interesting designs cribbed from GM’s American operations. One standout was the Kadett B, a boxy little sedan that usurped the Volkswagen itself as West Germany’s bestseller for a couple years before the Ford Escort and VW Golf removed its crown. On the opposite end of the sales spectrum, the Kapitän, Admiral, and Diplomat (all the same car with different styling and trim, nicknamed KAD) combined German engineering with Chevrolet V8 power to fight the German luxury sedan elite. Ultimately, the KAD sold poorly because it was too big and ostentatious for European tastes. Still, it was a remarkable piece of engineering.

A side note here: Vauxhall is Opel’s even less interesting British sibling. A while ago, Vauxhall and Opel made different cars, sometimes on different platforms, but the 1970s and ‘80s saw consolidation. Today, Vauxhall only sells rebadged Opels in Britain, but there have been times when Vauxhalls were sold in continental Europe as well as Australia (where Holden has priority today), and even the occasional Opel in the UK Rebadging for international markets has always been rampant. In other words, the arrangement of the European brands was even more confusing in the past.

For a while in the ‘50s and ‘60s, GM sold Opel in the US like any other foreign brand, with the added bonus of American oversight. Sure, the cars were small and slow, but a few weirdos on the coasts bought them. Then, GM got cagey and took away our Opel privileges, likely due to increasing regulations for emissions and safety that made the costs to import the cars harder to justify. Of course, at this point, GM could have made an effort to produce Opel designs in the US instead of pouring money into the awful Vega, Chevette, and Citation. It could have worked, and if it didn’t, GM could have gone on with the US-only plan. Instead, we got the Buick Opel by Isuzu and other such nonsense. Later on, GM shoveled a few Opel designs through other sales channels such as Cadillac and Saturn, but that now reminds us more just how poorly the company managed this situation that could have produced great sales success with minimal input.

The first-generation Manta gained a respectable following for such an unknown car when Buick dealers sold it in the US. It won many races in showroom-stock series such as those run by the magazine Car and Driver. The Manta’s nimble handling at a considerable discount compared to a BMW 2002 earned it respect among US car enthusiasts, so despite paltry sales numbers, we remember it fondly. That handling also may hint at the inherent well-sortedness of the Ascona (called 1900 in the US) that contributed the majority of its chassis and drivetrain parts to the Manta. Just imagine if the Vega did not exist and GM had decided instead to produce the Ascona in the United States—what a world we’d live in!

A jolly pair attacking a slalom in a Manta B (second generation). Photo from dato vadachkoria on Flickr.

Meanwhile, in Germany and other parts of continental Europe, something about the Manta’s styling and price made it into a German version of the Chevrolet Camaro. It was the car whose driver was most likely to have a mullet. While the the American Manta owner was a gearhead in the know who had found a future classic for an economy-car price, the German became the butt of a whole cycle of jokes (and two movies) about European rednecks who always hang their arms out of their car windows. The relevance of these jokes (which you’ll probably not find very funny, but here’s a whole bunch of them anyway) crossed the Channel at the introduction of the second-generation Manta in 1975, which replaced Vauxhall’s own Firenza as GM’s unified European budget sports coupe.

In writing this article, I developed a theory about this peculiar image of the Manta. The car was fast and stylish, so in that sense it was a good aspirational vehicle, something to trade up to once a customer had joined the Opel family with something like a Kadett. On the other hand, Manta drivers were seen as second-rate citizens. Did that image prevent consumers from taking Opel seriously? If GM had marketed the Manta differently, could Opel have ascended higher and gained more respect? We will never know, especially since this is just one of GM’s many mishandlings of Opel’s affairs.

A Manta 400 in typical sideways position. Photo from rallysprott on Flickr.

The Jalopnik article that inspired me to write this one mentions that Opel campaigned in all manner of racing series, and while it enjoyed sporadic success, the lack of commitment to any particular one is further proof of GM’s cluelessness. Regardless of that, the Manta is the highlight of Opel’s career in rally, my personal favorite motorsport. A sporty body over a compact car chassis was a natural fit for the sport, and by the end of the Manta’s run, in the mid-1980s, the coupe had spawned a few wildly kitted rally specials, including the somewhat successful Manta 400. These can still be seen today terrorizing historic rallies with massive powerslides and general hooliganism befitting the Manta mystique.

As we finish up this article, I really do suggest you take a look at those jokes. They are funny in series rather than on their own. Next, take a moment to appreciate what the Manta accomplished in a few short years on our shores, despite questionable marketing and economy-car underpinnings. Maybe even find yourself one. They are rare but not really desirable, so prices are fair. But also consider that, if the Manta, one of Opel’s most interesting models, leaves you unimpressed, perhaps GM was right to sell off the brand to a rival. This article and the events unfolding with Opel at the moment have inspired me to dive deeper into the history of the brand, especially its small but interesting presence in the United States. As always, if there’s anywhere an old, rust-prone economy car will have landed and survived, it’s California. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment.

 

Cover photo: see why people make fun of Manta owners? Photo from Elmar on Flickr.