The Brazilian domestic auto industry started, back in late 50s, on the wrong foot. The first generation of cars produced in Brazil were largely European models, some of which had succeeded very well in their original countries. They were mostly flimsy and prone to breakdown (think Renault Dauphine). This explains the rise and dominance of the unstoppable VW beetle, thanks to its rugged German engineering.
The American brands in other hand saw the Brazilian market as a good opportunity for trucks and pick-up trucks. Ford and Chevy were right in this approach, but just for a while. After some years of suffering we were eager for better passenger cars, other than the Beetle.
In the late 60s the changes were coming. Ford had released the Galaxie and latter the Corcel; Dodge was still dealing with recently acquired French automaker Simca and all the junk that came with it; and Chevy was just about to make a very smart move when decided to bring the the German Opel Rekord C to Brazil.
The Rekord C was a complete line of medium size cars, with 4 door sedan, 2 door hardtop and fastback , station wagon and even a convertible version (by coachbuilder Deutsch). Was a very well-built automobile, once again thanks to German engineering, and had a vast option of engines. All the good ingredients to make the car a hit here in South America right? Wrong!!!! Let’s take a look at the engine options:
Three different choices of four bangers from 1500cc 60hp to 1900cc 90hp, and the top of the line a straight six 2300cc with 95hp. Certainly not a thrilling list.
If the Brazilian Chevy wanted to make a real “splash” in the market, they would need some help, and this help came from the American cavalry.
They decided to use the bigger engines from the US Chevies: the entry level four cylinder, 2500cc (153 CID) 80hp from the Chevy II/Nova, and the 3800cc (230 CID) 125hp inline six that was the basic engine for many bigger American Chevys, like the Impala. Perhaps that was the inspiration for the name of the new car, a mix of “Opel” and “Impala”, the result: “Opala”
With the engine problem solved, it was time to change a little the design of the car, and the idea was to make the Opala to look as American as possible. When you check the photos of the 1969 model is impossible not to see the cues of the 1968 Chevy Nova.
The car was presented to the public in 1968 and production started in 1969. For the first three years only the 4 door body was offered in two different trims, the basic and “Luxo”, with 4 or 6 cylinders engines and 3 speed transmission, three on the tree.
The Opala was indeed a hit in our market and for the first three years very little had changed. In 1971 Chevy offered the “SS” version with a new 4100cc in line six, the famous 250cid, producing 140 hp and a “four on the floor” trannsmission. For a car design to have a top engine with 95hp, the “sportishy” Opala had now 140hp and much more torque than the little Opel six; well, that’s what I call a factory Hot Rod. An ultra-luxurious version called “Gran Luxo” appeared this year too, and it could be equipped with an automatic transmission.
By the end of this same year Chevy revealed the 2 door coupe version with the gorgeous Fastback design. That is the car the Brazilians would be forever in love.
By this time we could see Opalas performing many different tasks. It was a stylish performance fastback for the younger generation and could be as well a police cruiser in the four door version. Very soon the race teams found how good the car was in the race tracks, and even 23 years after its discontinuation, the Opala is still a familiar sight at the road courses and specially at the dragstrips around Brazil. For 1972 the “SS” version was transferred to the coupe.
For the 1973 and 1974, the car received only cosmetic changes, but 1975 Opala went through deeper changes in design and finally came the station wagon body, called “Caravan”.
The Opala was performing quite well against its competitors; the Ford Maverick was never a good seller and the Dodge Dart family was placed a bit above in the market; in a higher class altogether.
In between 1975 and 1979, very little had changed, The “Gran Luxo” was replaced for the “Comodoro” with a trendy half-vinyl top and the Caravan got it’s “SS” version. Now a days both models are the Holly Grail for the collectors.
During those years, Chevy had accumulated some experience in the race tracks and with some small modifications, the in line six was leaving the assembly line with 170hp and the four cylinder had 90hp.
For the 80s, all the Brazilian cars had the “square headlights” design and the Opala had to have that, so, the whole family got a new face lift.
The Opala was getting its segment all to itself, as the Maverick had died in 1978 and the Dart would do the same in 1981; even the austere Galaxie/Landau gave up in 1982. Suddenly the Brazilian market was without a serious up-scale car and Chevy saw that as an opportunity to make a even more luxurious version of the Opala and called it “Diplomata”.
During the 80s, Opala didn’t change much. In 1981 it got a new dash panel, in 1983 the 4 cylinder got 5 speed manual transmission. (Chevy didn’t have at the time a 5 speed tranny strong enough for the 6 cylinder.)
By the end of the decade, the Brazilian consumers were leaning toward the more practical 4 doors cars and in 1989 the last Opala coupe was built. In 1991 the Diplomata got disc brakes in all four wheels, 5 speed for the 6 cylinders models and another face lift.
Chevy never gave the car a total renovation; the body was still the same as in 1969 and just like an aging rock star the has gone through too many plastic surgeries, there was no more chances to make the Opala look younger.
In April 1992 the last Diplomata rolled out of the factory. After 23 years of production and over a million cars sold, that was the end of a car that became a dream for countless middle class Brazilians.
For the next year model, another Opel took the Opala’s place, the Omega, again based on the Opel Omega. The car stood up the task to replace a legend, and just like the predecessor, Omega had only two options of engine, a four cylinder and an in line six.
Interesting fact, Brazilian Chevy decided it was more practical to import the new 3000cc in line six from Germany than to produce it here. Well, it was a good idea but very soon it would back fire. The Omega was a new car here in Brazil, but in Europe it was a veteran and in 1994 Opel reformulated the whole car and the in line six was dropped in favor a totally new V6. The problem is, the V6 didn’t fit in between the fenders of Brazilian Omega. In order to to keep the 6 cylinder version alive Chevy should start building the 3.0 here. But there was a cheaper solution: they resurrected the old 250cid Opala engine.
So for 1995, the 250 (now called 4.1) was sent to Lotus for a working-over. The result was fuel injection and other modernization, and 168 net hp. The veteran motor got newly design heads, pistons and a multi-point fuel injection and another three years of production.
There were many reasons that made the Opala was and still is so deeply appreciated by the Brazilians; it was the right car in the right time. We were so proud to build the Ford Galaxie here, and then we were proud to build the Opala. The difference between then is the Opala was meant for the “average Joe”. It was always affordable, good looking and had a nice performance.
After the American Classics reached a price that very few could afford to pay here in Brazil, the collectors started to pay attention to the brazilian cars and the Opala was one of the favorites. The car moves a small universe of shops that sells and trade all the parts needed for restoration. There is a very famous annual Opala meeting called “Opalapa”, in a small city in Parana province. Last year they gather over 700 Opalas and Caravans.
Is impossible to talk about Opala and not to talk about its racing heritage. From the very beginning the race teams realized the possibilities of the new car, it was light weight, well balanced and with a powerful engine.
During the early years of the 70, there was a category dedicated only for domestic cars called “Division 3”. Due to the fact we didn’t have many options of cars, was normal procedure to mix the big Darts and Opalas with the little VW Beetle with unlimited engine modifications. The Opala was the undisputable king of the Division 3.
In 1973 Ford unveiled the Maverick and in 1974 came the “GT” version equipped with the 302 small block V8. Following the idea “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” Ford poured truck loads of money on the teams that had chosen the Maverick. The performance parts for the 302 were (and still are) plenty in US and Ford was more than happy to bring them to the teams.
Ford had the brute force of the V8 and Chevy had a better balanced car and these two fought memorable battles in the Brazilian race tracks, consolidating a rivalry that would last forever in the minds of the race fans.
After a couple of years, Ford shut down it’s competition sponsorship and the teams went back to the more affordable Opala. By 1978 the Chevys were once again racing against each other on the Division 3.
In 1979 it was time for the Chevy to be the sponsor in a new category, the brazilian “Stock Car” allowing only the 2 door fastback coupe Opalas to race in it.
The Stock Car became the most famous category in the brazilian races, attracting the best drivers and the richest teams. The Opala was the sole car for this category until 1994, when was replaced by the Chevy Omega.
During the 90s Brazil saw the drag racing became the most important motorsport in the country and the Opala played an import role in it. After decades of “know how” in preparing the old 250 cid, the teams seem to have endless recipes to squeeze more and more power from that engine. Is not an uncommon to see turbocharged Opalas with more than 1,000 hp on the dragstrip.
The video above shows a final race of the 2013 season, with the two fastest naturally aspirated door slammers in Brazil: The white 78 Chevy Caravan of the “Los Hermanos Race Team” and the orange 74 Ford Maverick from the Castañon family.
I was there that day, and when the two cars aligned at starting line, the whole crowd went silent, biting their nails, after all, years of rivalry were represented there. Green lights off, engines at full throttle and at the end, the “Might Six” as the Los Hermanos call the Caravan, was the winner. Well, at least until the next season.