European Vacation Outtake: Opel Ascona C – The Genuine Euro J-Car

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Strictly speaking, the American versions of the J-car (Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J2000/Sunbird, Olds Firenza, Buick Skyhawk, Cadillac Cimarron) didn’t have a ‘Euro’ badged version, as that was reserved for the more worthy Celebrity and Lumina. But there was a genuine European version of the J-Car, as well as a Japanese, Australian, Korean and South American. The J-car was a true world car, and over 10 million were sold, making it one of the best selling platforms ever. I spotted this Opel Ascona in Innsbruck, and it reflects what the Ascona and Opel perhaps did best: provide reasonably competent basic transport without any great ambitions. That was once a formula for success; now, no longer. 


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The J-Car program was born in the 70s, as GM realized it was building five unique compact RWD cars all over the globe. The most glaring overlap/mistake was the Chevy Vega and Opel Ascona B/1900 (blue above), which were similar in size and concept, but the Opel was superior in every way. It took a slap in the face from the Vega’s many shortcomings to wake up the 14th floor to the fact that this was a colossal blunder not to be repeated.

Holden Torana fr

Holden was building their Torana in Australia.

Vauxhall 1972-Victor-FE-1800.3

In the UK, it was the Vauxhall Victor.

Isuzu Florian

And Isuzu was building its totally different Florian.

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With the small car world inexorably moving towards FWD, GM knew it had to consolidate these cars under one universal design that would work globally, even if the details and engines were going to be different. The basic design stemmed from GM’s Detroit Design Center, but undoubtedly Opel, GM’s most important overseas division, was an active partner. The five door hatchback body style was important for the European market, and one was part of the brief. Oddly, Opel chose not to build the station wagon version of the J-car, despite the growing success of wagons like the VW Passat.

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The two door sedan did make the cut. The Ascona C was introduced in Europe in the fall of 1981, some months after the American debut of the J-cars in the spring of 1981. The American Js were rushed into production early due to the huge impact on the market for more efficient cars in the wake of the second energy crisis.

The Ascona (and its virtual identical badge-engineered Vauxhall Cavalier twin) were available with a range of engines, from a 60hp 1.3 L to a 90 hp 1.6. Later, 1.8 and 2.0L variants expanded the range, with up to 130 hp.  These were all part of the new “GM Family I/II” engines, a modern SOHC four that was turned down as the primary engine for American J cars because GM NA felt it could build a cheaper engine. That turned out to be a mistake, as the crude ohv cast-iron 1.8 L four was rough and feeble. The Opel-designed SOHC four was available in the Pontiac, Buick and Olds versions, optionally. A 1.6 and 1.7 L diesel version was also offered.

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There were two updates to the Ascona C, the first coming in 1985 (C2), and the second in 1986 (C3). This one that I shot is a C3, from the final two years of production (MY 1987-1989). The Ascona was popular with working-class and conservative buyers, who still bought into the Opel image as it had been established in the many decades before, as a reliable, simple every-man’s car. This one certainly seems to be playing that role well.

Vauxhall cavalier police

The Ascona, and especially the Vauxhall Cavalier were popular as fleet and police cars. These cars always acquitted themselves reasonably well in reviews and comparison tests, but their image, along with its ambitions, was a bit modest, at best. There was simply no one category in which these cars really shone or impressed, but no real weaknesses either. Decent and serviceable transport. No more; no less.

And buyers lapped them up, and the Ascona and Vauxhall Cavalier were pretty consistently high in the sales stats. And they made GM some handsome profits. And never developed the iffy rep of the American Js.

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The attention Opel paid to their final development, suspension tuning, and general execution resulted in cars superior to the American J cars, which targeted the Honda Accord and missed the mark, badly. They eventually improved some with time, but were never properly competitive with the competition, unlike their European J-Car kin. This was a case where modest ambitions properly executed trumped unrealistic ones that failed to deliver. One family, two somewhat different approaches and outcomes.