It was a cold day in January 1975. My fellow classmates could not understand why I was taking my driver’s test in January. The fact of the matter is, I was younger than everyone else since I was born at the end of December and my mom had chosen to send me to kindergarten as a four-year-old.
But nonetheless, it was time for me to take my driver’s test – in January. What happens in January? Well of course, it snows! It snowed on the day of my driver’s test, so the motor vehicle office postponed my test. And again, it snowed; except this time, there was no cancellation. I just had to take the test in the snow. Boy, did I get lucky with that. I took my driver’s test and I was able to pass it. Now it was time to look for a car. Somehow my budget for a car ended up being only $400; what was I going to get for $400?
I searched the classified ads (there was no Internet at that time). I found all sorts of cars for $400 – cars that didn’t run, cars that didn’t have engines, cars that needed a paint job, cars that didn’t have paint, cars that had no engine or paint. What was I to do?
Aha…I found what I was looking for! A red 1968 Opel Kadett with a black interior. A detailed description of the Kadett and how it came to be sold by Buick can be found here and here.
It had power nothing. I mean nothing! No power steering, no power brakes, no power windows, no power seats, no air conditioning. It didn’t even have a radio. The manufacturer referred to this as a “radio delete.” I suppose delete meant that it was a feature. Believe me, there was absolutely no feature about this car.
So I found a car to buy, went to the owner’s house, turned in my $400, picked up my car and title. I then proceeded to drive around my hometown in my new car. By “new” I meant new to me. Believe me, it was the furthest thing from a new car.
Fast forward to the summer of 1975. Since I was a Boy Scout, it was time to go to summer camp. How awesome – I get to drive my new car to summer camp! However, what I didn’t know was that the car was about to become a real nudge.
I pulled into the camp parking lot to show off my car to my fellow scouts and camp leaders. One of my friends wanted to go for a ride with me. “No problem,” I said. “Just hop in and I’ll give you a ride down the road.”
While driving down the road I noticed the car started to run very erratically. Then the car began to shudder. Finally the car stalled. I figured, okay, I should just be able to restart it. Well, that didn’t happen. It turns out the car needed a carburetor AND a starter motor.
I couldn’t afford AAA insurance at the time, and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet, so my friend and I decided to push the car back to the camp. Except there was one problem: On the way back there was a hill that we had to get up with only two of us to push. Then I put my junior-mechanic thinking cap on and used my experience from working at my local Getty gas station. The car had a four-speed manual transmission, and it’s a known trick that a manual-transmission car that will not start can be started by letting it roll down a hill, putting it into gear, and popping the clutch. So we proceeded to push the car up the hill, jump into the car, put it in gear and pop the clutch. One more problem developed. Since I’d never done this before, I wasn’t able to pop the clutch quickly enough to ignite the cylinders and start the engine. Getting the car back to camp felt like it would become a major accomplishment, but the fun had only just begun.
As a mentioned earlier, I had worked at a Getty gas station, as a junior mechanic. I had done things like tune-ups, tire changes, tire rotations, oil changes, exhaust work and some brake work, among other things, but I had never changed a starter motor or carburetor. Now I was about to…
One of my friends drove me into town to look for an auto parts dealer. Finding a starter motor and carburetor for this car wasn’t too hard, as the car was only seven years old. And the adults at the camp owned a myriad of tools that they could lend to me. I do not recall there being any car ramps at the time, so we had to jack the car up and put it on jack stands to replace the starter.
After I finished installing the two parts, I was ready to roll. Imagine, I was ready to take out a date in my first car! We went to see a movie and eat at a diner so we drove to the nearest theater, some 25 miles away. Needless to say, the camp was in a very remote area of the state. So what movie did I take my date to see? Jaws. Probably not the best movie to take a girl to in the summertime.
After seeing the movie, we got back into the car and I was ready to drive to the diner. I paused for a moment, and out of complete shock I could not believe my eyes. I noticed coolant dripping from the bottom of my engine compartment. Don’t tell me I need a new radiator hose! Nope. It was my water pump. Now this car was beginning to get on my nerves.
Over the next few days I proceeded to take the same steps I did with the starter motor and carburetor, except now I had to buy and replace a water pump. Of course, they only sold new (not rebuilt) water pumps, so by now I had spent more money on replacement parts than I’d paid for the car itself.
Well, at that point I was beyond believing the car was a mere nuisance; I was beginning to think it was a real lemon. I wondered why they called bad cars lemons–perhaps it was because of the sourness of the lemon or perhaps the annoying yellow color. Or maybe because the lemon will burn you if touched, not unlike the way I was burned by my Opel. Not sure which one applied, but it became clear to me this car was a lemon.
One would think that starter motor, carburetor, and water pump failures were bad enough. What I proceeded to experience over the next month I would not want to wish on my worst enemy.
The next thing to go went on a one lane highway with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. I was actually going about 65. I put on my left directional signal and proceeded to make a left turn before the next oncoming car reached the intersection.
Upon making my turn, I needed to brake somewhat so that I could slow down to a safe speed. Except there was one problem – I had no brakes! Well, I panicked. Realizing I was not slowing down enough despite downshifting, I pulled up on my emergency brake as hard as I could. I think if the emergency brake was not made out of steel I would’ve snapped it in two. I pulled up on it so hard, my car went into a spin. In fact, it went into approximately three spins – I think I did three 360s! I know from being good at math that that’s over 1,000 degrees!
Now I was convinced that I owned a lemon. But what was still to come would top it all. You see, in a car that has rear-wheel drive there is something that connects the transmission to the rear axle, called a drive shaft. And what allows a drive shaft to maneuver is called a U-joint. Why is it called a U-joint? Because when it fails, U are screwed.
Anyone who has experienced a U-joint failure knows that the car can only be driven backward. Now imagine this: You have 25 miles to drive to get to the nearest mechanic. On a country road. BACKWARDS. That was the most terrifying incident I’ve ever experienced in my driving career. You think not seeing where you’re going during dusk is the most dangerous part? No. Actually, it’s trying to steer in reverse.
At the time I owned the Opel I was living with my mom. One Saturday morning, we needed to buy groceries but I also knew that I’d had a recent problem starting my car. So I took out my voltmeter and confirmed that the battery needed to be replaced. Since I was selling auto parts at Sears at the time, I simply walked into the back room, selected the right battery size, and proceeded to pay for it using my employee discount. I then brought the battery home, installed it in the car, and proceeded to go to the local Shop-Rite with my mom. The experience that followed only happened to me once before in my lifetime, which happened to be prior to having received my driver’s license.
I took my mom to the local Shop-Rite, which was about three miles from our house. After loading the car with the groceries, I proceeded to make a left turn out of the parking lot. After about a ½ mile of driving I noticed something unusual taking place. THERE WERE FLAMES FLOWING OUT OF THE COWL OPENING IN THE HOOD. Apparently, when I connected the positive cable to the battery I didn’t tighten it enough. The cable came loose and shorted the battery on a piece of the frame in the engine compartment. I yelled to my mom to get out of the car–FAST. I, too, exited the car and quickly removed the air cleaner with flames now blazing from the opening of the carburetor. I bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt, and tossed it into the carburetor opening, thereby destroying my car–or so I thought.
A few months later, I was driving my mom to visit my sister, who lived about 30 minutes away. We were about two-thirds of the way there, driving down a nicely wooded area, when all of a sudden the entire car started to shake furiously. It was as if a freight train had just barely missed hitting the car. Actually, I was in the process of losing one of my wheels.
As the wheel started to come off, my mom began screaming, “What the hell is happening?” I told her that I thought it was related to a recent tire rotation that had been done by a local mechanic. Next thing you know, the wheel flies off of the car and collides with the nearest tree. Don’t you know, after getting out of the car, I look down and see all five lug nuts sitting on the side of the road? Apparently, the mechanic didn’t tighten the lug nuts–AT ALL–on that one wheel.
In the end, it wasn’t the starter motor, it wasn’t the water pump, it wasn’t the brakes or the U joint, nor even the fire that finally did in the Opel. Nope, that dopey-looking red car with the black interior, no air-conditioning and power nothing…was done in by ME! And was I ever glad to finally get rid of that piece of junk.
Hey, someone else born late in the year and sent to school “early”. Then, you also take your driver’s test in a “stripper” of a car…..been there, did that too. In my case, a 12-13 year old Plymouth Savoy. Luckily, I never had the “adventures” with that Plymouth you had with your Opel.
What yours the same year as the car from “Christine?”
Was Christine a Savoy or a Fury?
“Anyone who has experienced a U-joint failure knows that the car can only be driven backward.”
I presume he means the joint failed partially as shown in the picture.
As I recall, the car wouldn’t move while in any forward gear (manual trans). I was able to get the drive shaft to rotate as long as I was in reverse. The u-joint replacement did the trick.
Did the car have one of those round rubber doughnut “guibo” type “U” joints? Volvo 240’s and older BMW’s had this type. I have heard when these start to tear apart they sometimes will still be able to move in reverse because the center is not completely ripped out.
I don’t recall it being rubber. I think it was steel.
I don’t get it. i’ve experienced a rear U joint failure and dragged the driveshaft a block. there’s no reverse only function. There’s no function. In fact, rumor has it if you lose the front U joint you flip the car over…hence the safety cages around drive shafts after the 1960s. since I have never experienced a front U joint failure while driving, I cannot comment on the validity of said rumor.
I’ve never owned or driven an Opel Kadett, but I remember the car from when I was a boy. At the time, I remember how ugly I thought it looked. I remember wondering how anyone in their right mind would want to buy one, much less drive it. Perhaps the only good looking Opel I saw was the fastback GT. A neighbour of mine had one when I was living in Strattonwood (Redmond, Washington U.S.A.) Its chocolate brown colour didn’t win it any appearance favours, but overall, it wasn’t ugly looking.
Opel made some great looking cars. It’s just that the US didn’t get most of them.
I fully agree Don.
Would you care for a 286 hp 1981 Opel Ascona 400 ? I certainly do ! The only problem I see is the asking price of € 89,500….
Johannes, such a tempting offer. Let me return the gesture with a bit of Irmscher…
Ohhhh…..the endless range of Opels-With-Muscles from the seventies and eighties. Factory-built or tuner-built.
An Opel was the ultimate Joe Average family car, but thanks to the fast specials, the coupes and the hot hatches young folks also kept warm feelings for the brand.
An Opel Ascona B with a 2.0 liter injection engine, wide tires and nice rims. All you needed at the age of 18 to circa 25 to be The Man.
Agreed. Even now, they make one of the best looking hatches on the road.
Coming to you as a Holden, isn’t it ? (the Opel Astra OPC hot hatch)
We had them as Opels for a short while (not sure if we got the OPC).
GM Australia’s attempt to fight the euro brigade with a euro brand, but it was an unmitigated disaster. One of the dealerships was built around the corner from me; new building, signage, everything then GM just shut it down. Now all our Holdens are going to be overseas-sourced.
After a bit of googling I found the 2015 Holden Astra VXR.
I actually saw an Opel last month. Not bad for my little town considering they sold so few of them. Thought it was a Holden until I sat the lightning bolt badge.
I have an Ascona 400 in 1/24 scale. Burago, IIRC.
Living legend Walter Röhrl was the 1982 world champion rallying in this Opel Ascona 400.
The Opel Manta and the Opel GT available in the U.S. during the early 70s were good looking cars.
Agreed. The GT always reminded me of a mini-corvette.
Right, a mini-Corvette. These really stood out from all other Opels in its days. Later on Opels were very frequently used in racing and rallying. Driven by both professionals and amateurs. All of them; the Kadett, Ascona / Manta and Rekord / Commodore. Even the Monza, a big luxury coupe, arrived fully prepared at the track. (Photo courtesy of De Heijde Rallysport)
I quite like those Monzas, yet another in the “wish we had them in the US” list.
in 1977 i bought a 68 opel from the guy living next door to me in an apartment complex in upstate NY he was moving and had to get rid of the car which had been sitting under the snowbank all winter in the parking lot He had parked it because there was something wrong with the brakes. I gave him 50 dollars and laid down in the slush to see if I could do something with it. turns out the last person had put the adjusters in backwards, so it was an easy fix Car ran fine, I used it around town to save gas. Never needed to do anything but put oil in it for about 6 months. a friend begged me to sell it to a girl who was just graduating college and reluctantly I agreed to 350 dollars which is all she had. My friend invited her to a memorial day party at my family’s cabin in the adirondacks and since she had no way to get there I left my tags on the car and told her to drive the car up and bring the money. About 20 miles from the cabin the center carrier bearing overheated and caught all the oily sludge on fire. She saved her purse but the car was a complete inferno on the side of I-87 My dad and I picked her up from the state patrol station. I filed for the insurance claim and let her keep the money. That December we got married. Best car ever
Best fifty dollars you ever spent!
Even better, insurance covered it.
How many guys get an insurance check for cost of their courtship (or at least part of it)?
I share your “pain” of owning such a clunker early in life. I had a ’69 VW Beetle that was a pain in the ass from the word GO!! I had similar experiences of pieces falling off (exhaust tubes, lug nuts, etc). Eventually the engine blew up. Talk about a money pit!!
I got wish and replaced with a ’75 Toyota Corolla which was crude, but indestructible.
Never considered an European brand in the remaining five cars I have owned.
Chuck, what do you mean by the engine “blew up?” Curious if you were referring to engine failure, or worse.
Engine dropped a valve in the cylinder which was bashed against the spark plug by the piston. The spark plug was dangling via the spark plug wire down the side of the engine. Sucked up all my spare money just as I was preparing to depart for college.
I had a ’76 Corolla, very similar to yours but with a fastback. It was the worst car I’ve owned. And VWs have treated me exceedingly well. It’s amazing how different owners’ experiences with the same car can vary so much.
Odd coz this was Hollands most favorite car, everybody’d say : If you’d only bought a Kadett, when I had a problem with a Fiat, Autobianchi or a Renault 4.
But the thing was I never was impressed by the Kadett at all, it was simply a non-drivers car and had the roadholding of a pregnant duck (durch expression).
The Fiats and Autobianchi’s were real drivers cars, especially the A112 Autobianchi with its FWD, the Renault 4 was simply brilliant, humble but practical and gave much more comfort then a Citroën 2CV and lots of powerr compared to the 2CV.
I never owned Europe’s most popular cars like th eKadett or the Beetle, actually I always hated them for being totally bland.
Even a real junkyard ready and destined Peugeot 204 I got for free ( coz I would deliver it to the junkyard) which only braked on its right rear wheel was a better car then those two, at least when it drove, it drove really well !
Braking was a crime ! But it lasted for another two whole months of free motoring !
But that was life back then.
Apparently it’s not just VWs that have problems. I wonder if Euro Fords are just as bad. Never understood the hype around German engineering.
I like Opels though they weren’t big sellers in the UK as Vauxhall didn’t want any in house competition.
My lemon of a lifetime was a fastback Sunbeam Rapier automatic which in the 3 years i owned it went through a battery,alternator,starter motor,indicator switch,3 head gaskets,water pump,radiator an engine rebuild and a rebuilt auto box.Cost £900 sold for £25.It taught me a bit about mechanics and bodywork and compared to some car stories I got off relatively lightly.
Aren’t Opels and Vauxhalls for the last 3 decades pretty much the same models?
Interestingly, in Ireland, the models are Opels rather than Vauxhalls.
They have been but until the late 70s they were different cars.
That story reminds me of my ’82 Olds. One failure after another. I ended up replacing most of the car bit by bit, everything from engine to trunk springs – plus just about everything described above. Except the fire. My car never self-ignited, though there were electric short-out incidents. In my case, the U-joint failure was the last straw for me.
When I saw the first photo I was sure it was one of the many old unfamiliar Japanese cars I see on here so often. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that version of Kadett.
Odd as those cars have been outstanding for me. Oh and only 4 lugs per wheel. My daily driver is a 70 Kadett sedan with the 1.1R motor. Not even an alternator but a generator and drum brakes. About as basic a car you can get, but very fun to drive. It gets tons of attention on the road. Love the A and B series Kadetts
You bring back memories of my Goggomobil TS-250, which had metal straps securing the battery, of all things. When I left them not so tight after a replacement, the positive terminal slid into one of them on a sweeping turn to the left and blew the top of the battery off. The car kept running, but rather roughly, so I pulled into a parking lot, smelling burning rubber, saw flames through the engine vent in the rear fender… and tried to put out the fire with a baseball cap. I’ll post the rest of the story some time…
So I guess Opel´s slogan from the 50s and 60s “Opel – der Zuversässige” did not apply to your little Kadett, huh? 😉