Curbside Classic: 1975 Opel 1900 (Ascona) – What The Vega Could Have Been

(first posted 2/26/2014)    In a parallel universe, where GM made only rational decisions, this car would have a bowtie on the front grille instead of the Opel Blitz. Rather than pissing away billions (in today’s money) on the development of the Vega (CC here), and then losing billions of future sales and goodwill because of it, GM could have just done what it does now: go to Opel. How utterly obvious. So instead of being saddled with one of the all-time lemons of the century, Chevy could have been peddling a truly world-class small car in 1971. Live and learn. Or rather, die and learn.

The Opel Ascona was in development concurrently with the Vega, but they share absolutely nothing, except of course for certain styling cues. Chuck Jordan, future head of GM Design, was in charge of Opel design at the time, so that’s not surprising. Many of its lines are also to be found in GM’s Australian cars. At least the designers were cross-fertilizing. And the Vega was certainly cute enough; no problem there.

Bob Lutz was also at Opel during this time, which may well explain why the Ascona/1900/Manta have been universally praised for their fine handling. After Bob tossed the narrow-tracked Kadett on its head in 1966, the Ascona was lavished with an unflappable suspension. Nothing particularly radical; in fact fairly conventional, with rwd and a live rear axle. But the rear axle was particularly well controlled, and it all worked like a charm. The Ascona/1900 has often been called a poor-man’s BMW 2002; some feel that it handles every bit as well, if not better; the 2002’s semi-trailing arm rear suspension oversteer tendencies could be a handful. For the most part, the Vega was also a pretty decent handling car. But that’s where the two diverge.

Starting with their basic packaging. For some inexplicable reason, GM decided that the Camaro’s proportions – and resultant space utilization – would be the appropriate template for the Vega.

Well, actually, let’s make it even a bit lower than the Camaro, just for good measure; Americans want low, sporty small cars!

Which explains why VW was selling almost a half million Beetles a year, right? So the 1971 Camaro was 50.5″ tall, the Vega 50.0″. Brilliant! Ever try climbing into the back seat of one? They’ve named a yoga position after that maneuver.

And no stinking four doors! Americans don’t really want small cars, and we’re going to make damn sure of it.

The Ascona stood about a half foot taller than the Vega, which also meant that the Ascona/1900 could give up an inch in wheelbase, and five inches in length, and still feel roomier inside.

But we know better what Americans want. That’s why we make such fat salaries!

fuel injection in a small car?

And we know better what Americans want in small car engines. A high-tech tractor engine with an aluminum block and iron head!

Yes, the Vega engine’s maladies have been all-too well documented. And even when it ran, it sounded and felt agricultural, thanks to a long stroke and large displacement (2.3 L) that really would have needed balance shafts to be acceptably smooth. The Opel 1.9 L CIH (Cam In Head) four (above) may not have been quite up to the BMW’s standards, but it was a well-proven, smooth and willing power plant, and one that responded very favorably to a bit of tweaking.

Both versions were rated the same 90 (gross) hp in 1971. In its final year (1975) the Opel was even graced with Bosch fuel injection, as seen here.

Fuel injection? We tried and gave that up years ago. Useless, expensive, complicated crap…

The Opel 1900 had a successful career on the tracks, especially in the SCCA Showroom Stock class. And in Europe, it put on a good show on the rally circuit.

The Opel’s interior (this is a base model) was clean and straightforward, and had genuine upholstered doors and a nicely padded dash, instead of hard plastic. For the times, a very decent and competitive effort. And one didn’t have to slide into it. Never mind the superb visibility these cars had. And is that a three-speed automatic?

Heresy! Americans love the two-speed Powerglide, and we shall give it to them, even if it is now the seventies. And to further increase its appeal, we’ll make the Vega’s standard transmission a two-speed manual with overdrive. This is why we have the world’s biggest R&D budget and the finest automotive Tech Center in the Universe!

I’m not trying to place the Opel on a pedestal, and undoubtedly it had some weaknesses and faults like most cars of the time. But its fundamental balance and responsiveness to all inputs assure that almost anyone who ever drove one was left with happy memories. That includes its nicely-shifting standard four speed stick. Ooops; that same Opel transmission was optional in the Vega. I was wrong earlier; the two really did share something.

The Opel just went about its business in a competent, precise and fun-loving way. And it was pretty much an insider’s car in the US. Car and Driver raved about theirs, which they took racing. The numbers sold just didn’t amount to much, probably because GM didn’t care about importing Opels anymore, as if they ever really had. Back in 1967, the Kadett was the number two import in the US, despite Buick dealers being clueless. When the dollar’s value tanked against the German Mark in 1973, the jig was up. GM was losing money on every Opel imported. So starting in 1976, they looked the other way, to Japan, and started importing Isuzu Geminis/I-Marks, which were Kadetts built to Isuzu’s higher standards.

Buick Opel by Isuzu. We truly are the masters of the universe! And before long, we’ll import Opels from Korea: Pontiac LeMans by Daewoo.

The Isuzus were tough little cars; the diesel ones down-right legendary. But not really the thing to inspire fun, or even racing, unless it was a round-the-world-endurance-rally.

Speaking of endurance, it took awhile to start finding Opels in Eugene. I found the blue wagon out in the boonies first, but my friends (who live next door) suggested not getting too close, as the owner of the property had recently been arrested for shooting at the neighbor in the other direction neighbor. Rural life is so colorful. But I was willing to risk it for a blue Opel Sportswagon.

But here it was, a fine 1900 just outside of town; it just took a bicycle ride to make me go that particular way. Good thing it was yellow, or I might well have missed it. Thanks to a comment on this post, I even tracked down that Opel Manta I saw going down Willamette Street a few months ago (CC here). But my ultimate Opel dream was to find a Kadett. And since this post first ran, that dream was fulfilled, beyond my expectations: a Kadett Rallye 1900.

Back to the story line: re-writing history is easy. GM’s mistake was all-too obvious, but then we wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun if there hadn’t been a Vega. And then we can only imagine what GM would have done to Americanize the Opel:

We’ll give it Power steering, Powerglide, Power windows, Power seats, Power-less engines and Jet-Smooth ride. We know how to make it powerfully suitable for Americans…

Never mind; better we have unmolested memories of the real Opel 1900.