(first posted 11/23/2013) Given that this was originally sold as a Manta 1900, you can safely assume something other than its original 81 hp 1897cc four lurks under its hood, despite the lack of any external cues. We’ll shed some light on that later, but let’s just say that this Manta is even more of a German Camaro than usual. But even without an engine transplant, the Manta’s story is plenty interesting. It was the darling of the US buff books, who praised it for being one of the best handling cars of its time as well as an all-round class act, one that could give the BMW 2002 a run for its money at two-thirds the price. But in its home country the Manta became the butt of endless jokes and ridicule, known as Germany’s ultimate mullet-mobile. The German Camaro indeed, on multiple levels.
The Manta earned that title several times over. Just like Chevrolet was caught off guard by the madly successful 1965 Mustang and rushed out the 1967 Camaro to compete, the same drama unfolded again in Europe a few years later. Ford’s 1969 Capri (CC here) was at least as revolutionary in Europe–if not more so–than the Mustang was in the US. The concept of a popular-priced sporty coupe with a huge range of engine options was unheard of then. The Capri was available with a palette of engines ranging from an economy 1.3 L four to a lusty 3.0 L V6. And not only was the Capri a huge hit in Europe, democratizing performance, it was also a big hit in the US where it became the number two selling import car for a few years.
It took GM two and a half years to get the Camaro out the door to chase the runaway Mustang. With the Manta, they cut that head start by the Capri down to twenty months, arriving in the fall of 1970 as a 1971 model. But that was done at a price. The Manta was an attractive coupe with a very stylish Camaro-esqe nose, a semi-fastback roof, and all-round slick GM styling, thanks to Chuck Jordan who was Opel’s Styling Chief at the time. But there was one very big difference from the Capri. Whereas Ford invested in a whole new body structure (like the US Mustang), with a very decided long hood-short tail stance, Opel cheaped out with the Manta.
The Manta was just a re-skinned Opel 1900/Ascona A, which also appeared in 1971 (CC here). Everything except the exterior sheet metal was essentially the same, which gave the Manta a decidedly taller and less overtly sporty stance than the Capri. That solution was a lot quicker than designing a unique body.
The other difference was that Opel didn’t offer any six cylinder engine options in the Manta. V6 power is what had made the Capri an affordable Euro-muscle car, although the percentage of V6 Capris sold in Europe was undoubtedly fairly low. Still, it’s quite obvious that Opel was not trying to take on the Capri whole-heartedly. The Manta was a quick, cheap and expedient solution to at least keep the Capri from gobbling up the whole market that it created in Europe. In Europe, the Manta was available with the Kadett’s little 1.2 L OHV 60hp four, and 1.6 and 1.9 L versions of the CIH (Cam In Head) engines, in both “Normal” and “Super” states of tune. The Europe-market top engine 1.9 S was rated at 105 hp.
The Manta soon developed an extreme case of split personalities. In Europe, the Manta became stereotyped as a “mullet-mobile” (not unlike later Camaros), given that it was particularly popular with the blue collar demographic (like the Capri). This image really came into its own with the gen2 Manta (not imported in the US). The educated-professional classes looked down their noses on the Manta from their lofty BMWs, Audis and Golfs GTIs.
The Manta B, which was built from 1975 all the way through 1988, became an object of social ridicule and a huge German cultural phenomena, with popular jokes, and even two movies, one of them featuring this six-wheeled Manta B.
The Manta was the equivalent of the American redneck-hillbilly mobile. Here’s a couple of examples of Manta jokes:
How does a Manta owner take a family portrait? By driving his whole family at 200 kmh through photo-radar.
What is the largest part on a Manta? The breasts on the driver’s companion.
What’s left over after a Manta catches on fire? A gold chain and a sobbing hairdresser.
Why do Mantas have eight auxiliary headlights? So its driver can wear sunglasses at night.
Ok; you get the drift.
Some even took to dressing up their Mantas in General Lee drag, with the Confederate flag on top. Maybe it should have been called the German Charger.
Meanwhile, in the US the Manta enjoyed the exact opposite image. It was instantly embraced by the smart and sophisticated sporty-car set as the best handling car in its price class, and as an effective but lower-priced alternative to the BMW 2002. Car and Driver and the other buff books gave it their highest stamp of approval. The Manta, along with the 1900 sedan, were the hot pick for Showroom Stock, and enjoyed success on the SCCA circuit. It was the genuine Euro alternative to the Vega GT, and even better handling to boot. And its engine didn’t sound like it was going to explode at anything above 3000 rpm, or throw various other hissy fits.
To add to its sophisticated credentials and make its hick American relatives look even more backwards, all 1975 Opels came standard with fuel injection. This was a full decade before GM grudgingly started adopting FI in its American cars. The injected Opel engine was lauded for the usual benefits: quick starting, smooth-running, and with immediate throttle response across the whole rev band. The 1900 was not exactly a powerhouse, but its characteristics made it a very enjoyable partner, and a very willing one. If its 81 net hp sounds absurdly low today, consider that in 1975 the 56% more expensive BMW 2002 sported all of 98 hp. And weighed more.
In 1972 I was hitchhiking back from California to Iowa City, when I got picked up by a red Manta on a street corner in downtown Cheyenne (I-80 still didn’t bypass Cheyenne back then, and all traffic had to go through downtown). The driver was going cross-country, which meant one ride all the way home. And he was tired. After a brief conversation about his Manta, which quickly showed that I knew more about its origins and specifications than he did, he asked if I would drive while he took a “little nap”. We swapped seats after a fill-up, and rolled back on the interstate.
That nap lasted for most of the way across Nebraska, and while I reveled at the chance to drive just about anything during this car-less period, driving a new Manta was a treat. As his snoring got louder, my speed drifted ever higher, and soon we were clicking off the miles in 45 seconds per. I felt like I was making love to his girlfriend while he was sleeping. The Opel CIH engine was still pretty smooth for a four at that speed, even with the lack of an overdrive gear. And the Manta felt secure and well planted in the spring-time winds, the fat little steering wheel pleasurable to hold and to use.
While the Manta wasn’t exactly in its ideal element blasting across eastern Wyoming and Nebraska on I-80, unlike my run the other direction a year later in the 1969 Fury, it handled it with aplomb. And its owner was surprised how far we’d gotten by the time he finally woke up at a necessary gas stop. He did give me a bit of a glance when he made a rough mental calculation of how fast I’d been driving, but left it at that. And he took me right to my house in Iowa City. No wonder I have happy associations with the Manta.
Enough with the glow of nostalgia. Ever since starting this CC treasure hunt almost five years ago, I’ve wanted to find and write one up.
Well, I did, actually, and quite early on. And I wrote up a CC on it, one of my first, over at the other site. But it was rather unsatisfying, because the one I found quite near my house was sitting in a car port, and I had to sneak into it to shoot it (after knocking on the door to no avail). I was tempted to keep trying to get in touch with the owners, presumably an older couple, to try an buy it, but it’s an automatic, and that really takes the edge off the Manta lust. For that matter, the 81 hp original engine would feel a bit challenged in today’s world, even with the four speed stick.
I knew there was another Manta in town, as I’d caught sight of a dark green one once or twice on the streets, but it was moving along pretty briskly, and I couldn’t even peel off a quick shot. But its owner, Karl Walter, stumbled into my Opel 1900/Ascona CC in which I mentioned the elusive dark green Manta, and a few weeks back he wrote to me and offered up his wife’s daily driver to my camera.
Karl’s wife Frankie drives this Manta every day to West Eugene from their home in Cottage Grove. Depending on the route, her daily round trip is roughly 55 to 65 miles; a pretty long commute by our standards. Karl has owned some 20 or 30 Opels for over the past forty years, so he had a pretty good idea of how he wanted this Manta to be. Enough suspense; let’s open the hood (backwards), and take a look.
A 3.1 L Chevy V6, but not from an actual Camaro. It’s out of a FWD Chevy Lumina, and I wondered why, since that would seem to be a bit more difficult to turn ninety degrees. The answer is because it has the lighter aluminum heads as well as being a dime a dozen at the junk yard. That little V6 takes up less room than the original engine, and I bet it weighs no more, if not less, as the Opel CIH had a pretty chunky iron block and head.
Here’s Karl’s comments about this swap:
Yes, the engine swap was quite a challenge. It was a fwd engine, but the intake flips around, and 2.8 V6 Camaro timing cover and water pump fits. It’s worth it to use the fwd car engine to get the MPFI and the aluminum heads. Plus those engines where all over the place for cheap and in nice shape because they where in plain GM sedans whose transmissions didn’t last. The left exhaust has to go forward and around the front of the engine. The transmission is also a V6 Camaro 5 speed, and the cable-to-hydraulic clutch took a few tries to get working correctly too. But we’ve got over 100k miles on the swap, and it’s a lot of fun and gets 35 mpg as well, assuming you drive somewhat normally. It’s registered as a 1974, but it had EFI, so I think that is a mistake since only the ’75’s had the EFI from the factory. Frankie is very attached to it, so we’ll keep it going for ever if we can.
Understandable. This is one very slick swap, and one that really got me salivating. It isn’t exactly a Camaro engine, but about as close as it gets.
Karl also sent me this shot of three of his Opels, including a red GT and the Manta in the back. The Kadett B wagon was converted to fuel injection; no details were given except that it would get 45 mpg on its little 1100cc mill. Sadly, it was totaled.
This Manta, with its 160 hp V6 (double the original engine) and slick-shifting five speed has me in lust. I love it when older cars get updated with modern engines, and yet keep their original charms. It reminds me of the Eco-Boost Edsel.
Miss the delicate and graceful shapes of the sixties and seventies? Not wild about the porky slope-nose ant-eaters of today? There’s no reason why one can’t have the CC of one’s dreams, and drive it 65 miles per day. Thanks, Walter and Frankie, for sharing your splendid Manta with us all. I wonder how hard it would be to convert that yellow Manta sitting in that car port to a stick shift…….