Vintage Review And Commentary: 1971 Opel Ascona – The “Buick” That Should Have Been A Chevy

RT0471OpelAsconaMainImage

For the April 1971 issue, Road Test Magazine took a sneak peek at a newly introduced German car from GM, the Opel Ascona, which would soon be heading to the U.S. market.  The editors were favorably impressed with the car—while not exceptional in any way or even cutting edge, it was nonetheless very good for an entry-level small car.  The problem was, it would arrive in Buick showrooms, not exactly the first place small car shoppers in America would think to look.

62-2

That odd decision actually dated back to the late 1950s.  Someone on the 14th floor of GM’s headquarters in Detroit must have gotten miffed that those pesky imports were actually starting to sell in noticeable volumes to buyers seeking affordable, economical transportation.  General Motors couldn’t let this annoyance slide—customers who should have been buying a Chevrolet were being stolen before they could take their first step on the Sloan ladder (named for legendary GM Chairman Alfred Sloan, who positioned Chevrolet as a lower cost “starter” brand and envisioned that buyers would then work their way up the “ladder” of GM brands in price and prestige, culminating with Cadillac).  Clearly, this state of affairs was unacceptable, especially since mighty GM made lots of small cars themselves overseas.  All that was needed was to bring some of the “strange little things” stateside and recapture those “odd” buyers who wanted an extra-small car.

1958 Chevrolet-10-11

So where best to sell these small, entry level cars?  Surely no changes were needed at juggernaut Chevrolet, the perennial number one make in the U.S.  Plus, what a nightmare it would be if Chevy customers showed a preference for one of those strange little foreign cars instead of opting for a Delray or Biscayne!  That would not be good for profits at the Bow Tie division.

2007-5-16_VauxVictorS1BrocUSAWeb-Large

Well, there was Pontiac.  Bunkie Knudsen had only just arrived at the ailing division; it wasn’t yet clear that he would be able to achieve a turnaround.  Maybe he could use some extra sales help in the form of a small, imported car? England offered a good option for that one (plus they spoke English—convenient for the Detroit brigade to work with!), so Vauxhall became the brand imported as the entry level car in Pontiac showrooms.  The Victor arrived for the 1958 model year, sporting a base price of $1,988 ($16,381 adjusted), undercutting the cheapest Pontiac Chieftain 2-door sedan by $585 ($4,820 adjusted!).  Results were decent if not spectacular—17,365 Vauxhalls were sold, about 8% of total Pontiac sales for 1958.  So if Ford dealers could sell an English Ford, then Pontiac dealers could sell an English car too!  Case closed!

However, as infomercial king Ron Popeil would say: “but wait, there’s more!”

2008-4-16_58OpelRekordWeb-Large

Some General Motor’s Assistant Vice President must have been hungry for a promotion, because GM’s small car odyssey didn’t stop with Vauxhall and Pontiac in 1958.  After all, there was that other strange foreign car GM made in Germany, the Opel.  Why not bring that one over as well?!?  Hmmmm, where to sell it?  Oldsmobile—the logical next step on the Sloan ladder—maybe they could also use a small imported car?  No… wait, too many “O’s”—Oldsmobile Opel, doesn’t sound right.  Eureka!  Buick!!  Plus, GM President Harlow Curtice would love that—giving the dealers at his favorite division a little something extra to sell.

The Opel got off to a slightly slower start than the Vauxhall, with 15,686 units sold, representing only 7% of Buick’s total 1958 sales, and nowhere near enough to offset that brand’s horrific 40% sales plunge versus 1957.  Perhaps adding to the confusion was the fact that the Rekord was priced well below anything else Buick offered.  The most basic 1958 Special 2-door sedan cost $2,636 ($21,720 adjusted), so the Rekord at $1,988 ($16,381 adjusted, same as the Vauxhall Victor) seemed strangely cheap in Buick showrooms.

The Opel’s solid engineering and robust German build quality did win converts, however, as sales jumped to 39,320 for 1959 before dipping again to 25,533 for 1960.  But that drop can’t be blamed on the Opel product itself—rather there was significant market activity for 1960 aimed right at small car buyers.

77-5Detroit of course had bigger plans for small cars than the captive imports.  For 1960, each of the Big Three introduced new “compact” cars, representing homegrown answers to the small imported car challenge.  GM’s more premium divisions—Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick—added their own small(ish) cars for 1961.  Seemingly the need for bringing over the foreign economy cars had ended.

Indeed, it had ended for Vauxhall.  After selling a total of 51,006 units from 1958 through 1960, starting in 1961 the only way to get a Vauxhall was by special order.  And even that was no longer an option after 1962.  No matter though, overall Pontiac sales were on a tear, and the new small Tempest sold more units (100,783) in 1961 than the Vauxhall had in the previous three years combined.

1961 Buick Special Prestige-01

Over at Buick, the new-for-1961 smaller Special was a hit for Buick, with 86,868 units sold.  Likely due to the Special’s success, Opel Rekord sales declined dramatically, and the car wasn’t even offered in the U.S. for 1963.  Clearly there was a market for a smaller Buick, but most especially if it seemed like a Buick.

However, no one would have thought that Buick dealers would have had any reason to want an even smaller Opel, but that’s exactly what they got for 1964.  Therein lies one of the strangest strangest strategic moves ever made by GM.

opel-kadett.large

By U.S. standards of the time, the Opel Rekord was already a very small car, with a wheelbase of 100.4”, a length of 174.4” and a width of 63.6”—a good bit bit smaller than the Corvair (WB: 108”, Length: 180”, Width: 67”). But the new-to-the-U.S. Kadett was much smaller—91.5” wheelbase, 154.4” overall length and 57.9” width—actually sized to challenge the Volkswagen Beetle, Opel’s direct nemesis in Germany.

1964 Chevrolet Corvair-08-09

In addition to being the smallest car offered by General Motors stateside, at $1,655 ($12,713 adjusted) the ’64 Kadett was also the least expensive GM car available in the U.S., undercutting even the cheapest Chevrolet, the Corvair 500 Club Coupe, which listed for $2,000 ($15,363 adjusted).  That low Kadett price sounded like a good entry point for the Chevrolet brand, and also a spring board to upsell economy buyers into larger—and more profitable—Chevrolets.

But no, the even smaller Opel wound up back at Buick.

MMMBuickdealership_01_resized

So, hidden in a sea of LeSabres, Electras, Rivieras and Specials, a VW intender could find a competitive offering from GM.  Utterly strange logic, as Chevrolet was still GM’s value brand, and the one most interested in capturing entry level buyers–and a Chevy dealer was where economy buyers would automatically look for affordable cars.  Affluent shoppers at Buick dealerships couldn’t have been captivated by the Opel, especially when real Buicks beckoned.  Nor was there much opportunity for upsell: the gap from the Kadett to the cheapest Special was $688 ($5,285 adjusted), and the two cars were as different as chalk and cheese.

I can’t imagine that Buick dealers were still clamoring to sell Opels.  I’d guess it was marginal business at best, and probably more of a nuisance than it was worth.  Plus, after a disastrous drop in the late 1950s, Buick sales had rebounded nicely as the 1960s progressed.  By 1964, Buick ranked in 5th place overall in the U.S. market, and surely the premium brand was highly profitable to boot.  So there were was plenty of money to be made selling Buicks to traditional Americans seeking a more upscale ride.  Buick buyers and the Buick brand were nicely aligned.  Why bring Opel back to Buick, to compete for import-oriented shoppers at the low-margin bottom of the market?  That should have been Chevrolet’s territory!

My best explanation for the bizarre continuation of the Buick Opel alliance was GM’s fear of antitrust actions by the U.S. Government.  This was a very real threat in the 1960s, as GM was thought to be a near-monopoly with too much market share and pricing power.  One “solution” being tossed around Washington DC was to break up The General, and make Chevrolet a standalone company.  Thus, aligning the small cars from Opel with the American powerhouse brand might have made the Bow Tie division even bigger and more dangerous in the eyes of The Fed (look, they can even effectively fight VW!  Clearly a monopoly!).  Strategies designed to avoid (or prepare for) a government-mandated breakup may have influenced the decision and sent the little Kadett back to the Buick Division.  Plus, as an added bonus, Buick dealers already had a bit of experience selling Opel products.

il_570xN.562748594_468x

Whatever the reason for the odd pairing, the sales results of the Kadett’s foray at Buick dealers were surprisingly respectable.  By the late 1960s, Opel was benefitting as an increasingly large part of the American market continued to move to small cars.  Non-captive imports enjoyed the majority of that business—VW, Toyota and Datsun all saw record sales in America.  The Opel, however, was a reasonably competitive product, and did make it onto some small car shopping lists.  In spite of the peculiarities of getting the car through a Buick dealer, Opel routinely delivered annual sales volumes in the 85,000 to 95,000 range as the decade came to a close.  During the same period however, real Buicks were spinning the cash registers by selling 650,000+ units annually…

BobPeckChevrolet

But imagine if the Opel had been sold in a place where its offerings truly made sense as part of the model portfolio.  Imagine that America’s biggest volume seller—with the mindset of “stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly”—was responsible for selling a price-competitive small car that handily beat VW.  Opel, as a mass market non-premium brand in Germany, needed to be aligned the same way in the U.S. to effectively reach high volumes of the right sort of customers.

Ironically, Chevrolet needed that too.  For starters, Chevy’s original import fighter, the Corvair, was ultimately a failure, thanks in no small part to its unconventional rear-engine design along with unwanted attention from Ralph Nader. But as the Sixties progressed, there was no question that American’s love affair with small, economical cars was not a fad that would just “go away.”  By the late 1960s the Big Three were ceding the bottom end of the market to the imports at an alarming rate as the domestic “economy” offerings from the early 1960s had morphed into bigger, more expensive cars and were no longer attracting as many entry-level buyers.  Imports were once again happily filling the void…

XP887_4

With classic “Not Invented Here” hubris (and not learning any lessons from the Corvair debacle about engineering overreach combined with overly aggressive bean counters), GM in Detroit set about designing a new small car for America.  That “import fighter” became the Vega (read more here and here), which was one of the worst disasters ever to come out of General Motors.  Even more painful was the fact that a far better option already existed right in the GM portfolio.  Unfortunately, it would only be sold by that champion of jumbo American cars, the Buick Division…

RT0471OpelAsconaP1

The Ascona would arrive in Buick dealers with a different name, the Opel 1900.  In addition to the 4-door sedan featured here, the 1900 was also available as a 2-door sedan, 2-door wagon and 2-door semi-fastback–this last one known as the Manta in Germany.  The 1.9 liter engine that formed the basis for the 1900 name was not available in Germany at the time, so the car Road Test drove carried the 1.6 liter.  However, the RT editors felt this was a reasonable proxy for the 1.9 liter with the emissions equipment required for the U.S.

RT0471OpelAsconaP2

The Opel was praised for its excellent 3-speed automatic and effective disc/drum brakes: Road Test felt they worked “so well you could forget about them.”  Perfect for American drivers seeking ease of use!  The Opel also was a good high speed cruiser, making the car suitable for America’s interstates as well.  As a bonus, the Ascona was even fun to toss around on back roads, with responsive, predictable handling capabilities.

RT0471OpelAsconaP3

The Ascona’s instrument panel was attractive, with very readable gauges and well-differentiated controls, as well as a locking glove box.  Seats were rated as comfortable, with ample adjustment.  Roominess was impressive for a small car, with four good-sized adults able to fit and a nicely-sized trunk suitable for family travel.

RT0471OpelAsconaP4

Chuck Jordan, one of GM’s best designers, was responsible for the Ascona’s attractive American/International styling.  The car could easily pass for a good looking small Chevrolet.  Apparently the fit-and-finish, at least under hood, was also perceived as more American than German–maybe the Opels could have been built in America without missing a beat…

RT0471OpelAsconaP5

Reading this review conjures up all sorts of ideas about GM’s small car possibilities.  Just envision how differently things could have turned out for GM if they had offered this car as a Chevrolet instead of the Vega, as Paul writes in this piece on the Opel 1900 (Ascona): What The Vega Could Have Been.  The big shame is that the Ascona could easily have been built in America (after all, Opel Rekords were already being built and sold in Brazil as the Chevrolet Opala).  We could have had a U.S.-built Chevrolet with German-engineered roots, aimed right at Toyota and Datsun buyers… potential home runs don’t come much bigger than that!

But this Opel was only ever imported to the states from Europe, and sadly, Dollar/Deutsche Mark exchange rate issues would soon make the small German car price prohibitive for the U.S. market.  The real German Opel was dropped with little fanfare in 1975, leaving a Vega derivative (the Skyhawk, another GM brand positioning blunder) and the less-than-illustrious Opel-by Isuzu to fill the small car void at Buick dealerships in the late 1970s.  It was a sad end for a very competent, straightforward design that effectively fit the needs of American subcompact economy car buyers far better than any of the offerings Detroit conjured up on its own.