In tortured fits and starts, General Motors’ Opel brand has had a presence in North America that began more than fifty years ago. These days, with GM emerging from bankruptcy, Opel is struggling for survival on its German home turf and is in the process of yoking itself (or not) to a new corporate master as some of its current products, thinly disguised as Saturns, are left to twist in the wind.
As Opel, perhaps for the final time, abandons the New World, it is worth looking back to one of the automaker’s rare successes on these shores: the Opel GT. No, we’re not talking about the car that we know over here today as the Saturn Sky; instead, set the Wayback Machine for 1968, the year the original Opel GT debuted.
Opel’s entry-level Kadett donated the basic mechanicals for the GT, a two-seater that bore an uncanny resemblance to the then-new third-generation Chevrolet Corvette. Two transplants from GM’s home office to Opel’s Rüsselsheim headquarters, Clare MacKichan and Chuck Jordan – with a nod from none other than Bob Lutz – shaped the body and came up with one of the most aerodynamic designs of the era. The engine was set back in the chassis more than a foot for better balance, and with some other tweaks, GM could market it with a straight face as a true sports car. And it was one – with American design, German mechanicals, and a French body. Huh?
The last item was due to the fact that Opel had reached production capacity (those were the days, weren’t they?) and wasn’t in a position to add a new, albeit limited-production, model. The services of French carrosserie Chausson were engaged to fabricate the unibody shells that Brissonneau & Lotz finished, inside and out. The bodies were then shipped from Paris to Opel’s plant in Bochum, Germany.
The end product offered an exceptionally smooth nose finished with a delicate, Vette-style chrome blade (federal bumper standards were still years away). Oval hideaway headlight housings that rotated up from left to upright, clockwise as you face the car, are controlled manually by a lever that makes for a great conversation piece and a nice workout for the driver’s right forearm. As in first-generation Corvette Sting Ray coupes, the doors extend into the roof for comparative ease of entry. Out back, the tail was Kamm-styled and set off by four round lights, recalling the Dino by Ferrari. Trunk is a relative term when discussing the Opel GT, as there’s no external access. The “trunk” space behind the seats is accessible only from, well, behind the seats.
Opel GTs imported into the States and thrust upon unsuspecting Buick dealers were equipped with one of two four-bangers. A 1.1-liter unit developed a respectable – considering the car’s low weight – 67 hp. An overhead-cam, 1.9-liter engine was optional and provided a significant horsepower advantage. It proved to be much more popular than its little brother, likely because the bigger engine could be ordered with a three-speed automatic. The four-speed manual was certainly more sporting but, after all, these cars were sold by Buick dealers . . . not that anyone ever mistook a GT for a Riviera.
Once ensconced inside a GT – like Steve D’Auria’s chartreuse 1970 example in these photos – you find the car to be surprisingly roomy, unless you’re extremely tall or portly. The two-seat cabin can’t be called airy, but neither is it claustrophobic. The Opel is not a particularly fast piece, but because it’s so low to the ground, you get a zoomy feeling quite literally in the seat of your pants. With rear-wheel drive and a solid axle, it’s a car that you can toss around, always reasonably certain of a recovery if the back end should break away. Stopping chores are handled by disc brakes up front and drums in the rear.
In Germany, the GT was a halo car, meant to draw attention to the full line of dowdy Opels. Over here, it attracted both interest and concurrent sales for itself. More than 100,000 units were sold worldwide over the course of a model run that concluded at the end of 1973, with Buick dealers peddling nearly 70 percent of that total in the United States. The real fun in owning an Opel GT now is that it draws much more interest than the far-more-common Corvette on which it is modeled. Prices have stayed reasonable, so if the design and concept captures your imagination, you might consider buying two, which would still set you back less than the price of a single Vette. You’ll have fun, look cool, save money, and own a piece of German/American/French automotive history. Das ist groovy, n’est-ce pas?
1.1L OHV I-4,
67 (gross) hp,
1.9L OHC I-4,
75 (net)-102 (gross) hp,
Suspension, FRONT: Control arms, transverse semielliptic leaf spring
Suspension, Rear: Live axle, coil springs
103,463 (including 70,564 in the U.S.)
It’s a slinky, seven-eighths-scale Corvette that holds its own on today’s roads with respectable handling, terrific fuel economy, and gobs of curb appeal. Prices are reasonable, and parts are readily available. The Opel GT is a true piece of affordable international automotive history, and those froggy pop-up headlights make for even more fun after dark. Plus, these cars take up hardly any space.