Cohort Classic: Bitter SC – Hard Feelings All Around

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As we’ve been on the topic of non-US GM products recently, with the Kadett and Holden Ute pieces running last week, the sighting of this Bitter SC is quite timely. Though not explicitly a product of GM itself, this German grand tourer mainly used Opel parts and even was sold by a few select Buick dealers when it was built. Can we add it to the list of GM-related enterprises which should’ve gotten further support from Detroit and/or Russelheim?

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Let’s answer that with a definite… maybe. As such a fantastic period piece, you can bet its low-slung looks were divisive in its day and that it wasn’t especially cheap (prices were in the low fifties during the its sale in the US between 1981 and 1986) .  But still, it’s quite stylish and athletic (if not sexy) and, based as it was on the contemporary Senator sedan, it begs the question: why didn’t we get some of the more well-regarded rear-drive products from Russelheim in the US? Was rebodying the senior Opel platform for semi-premium US market consumption out of the question? That’s where the hard feelings come in.

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In terms of overall proportion of the 488 made over seven years, North America certainly wasn’t ignored, receiving roughly half the units built.  And as a big, space inefficient cruiser with a large engine, a car like the Bitter SC really was at home on American soil (or in Ontario, as spotted here by S.Forrest).  That is, of course, in the ’80s when the average car wasn’t as tall as the turkeys parked next to this dark blue beauty today.


The Bitter story, for our purposes today, begins when cyclist and racer Erich Bitter contracted with Opel to build a coupe off of the Diplomat chassis.  That effort resulted in the very attractive Bitter CD fastback, of which 375 were made by the time production ended in 1979.


Originally penned by Chuck Jordan and presented at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1969, the Opel CD “Coupe Diplomat” design study was well-received and pending Bob Lutz’s endorsement, efforts were put into making drivable prototypes under Pietro Frua’s (known for designing the Glas V8) watch.


Following Jordan’s replacement by former assistant David Holls, Bitter was encouraged to put the car into production.  This is how Bitter Cars was born and while it avoided any direct risks on Opel’s part to build the CD on their own, it killed any chance of the car being either affordable or built in significant volumes.


Baur (which we remember as the company that turned the E21 and E30 BMW into landaulets) began building the Bitter CD in 1973.  Though quite different in appearance from the Diplomat on which it was based, it shared most of that car’s mechanical makeup, including its Chevy 327 V8.


For its part, Opel’s next cars would sport a more international–if not distinctly German–appearance, with less American influence, beginning with the 1979 Kadett D and the Diplomat’s replacement, the Senator.


The Bitter SC wouldn’t look nearly as different from its donor car as the CD did, and I’d argue it was not as timeless or attractive either.  But with lines reportedly penned by Bitter himself, it definitely looks the part of a 1980s GT, with an equally strong Italianate influence (this time from the Ferrari 400).


Powered by an all-iron, 177 horsepower Opel three-liter Cam-In-Head six, performance was decent in the context of the car’s 1981 introduction, and a custom stroked 3.9 liter (with 210 hoursepower) was optionally available.  Our featured car is likely so equipped as federalized versions were obviously down on power compared to their European brethren.


As the SC shared most major components with the Senator, direct support from GM makes for an interesting what-if.  Opel did make the Monza, a Senator-related fastback in the Supra mold, and while thoroughly modern in appearance and far from small, it never made it across the Atlantic.

Though the Monza sold reasonably, it developed a bit of a crass reputation in Europe, such a coupe–on paper–made more sense in North America.  The Bitter SC was obviously a more high-end proposition, but it would be interesting to imagine what might have been were Cadillac to have had an Italian-inspired GT based on Senator mechanicals foisted onto it by corporate HQ.


As the Bitter Cars story progressed through the 1980s, production was moved away from Baur (who ran out of capacity) to two different Italian coachbuilders (OCRA and Maggiore, with final assembly by Bitter) before quality and capacity issues finally resulted in Steyr-Daimler-Puch of Austria taking over complete assembly by 1983.  In addition to the 461 coupes built, 22 convertibles and five somewhat homely sedans were built.  It’s estimated that only about half the cars produced remain intact today, and prices for a decent example are in the $10-14,000 range, with cars in excellent condition reaching 25 grand.


As for the Senator upon it was based, two successive generations were introduced after production of the first generation car ended in 1986, but waning prestige and cachet against the likes of BMW and Mercedes killed the dream of the large Opel before long.  Before that happened, the Lotus-tuned Vauxhall Carlton stunned car buffs across Europe.


Perhaps the idea of bringing over the Senator, Monza and the cobbled-together Bitter isn’t a brilliant one, but one must take into account the small resources available to a develop and produce a luxury car without US market sales.  So far, only the Japanese have managed to pull that off with any success.  Big Opels, European Fords, Alfas, Renaults, and Peugeots are all dead, and soon GM will cease building cars in Australia (which, I assume, means bye-bye Caprice PPV and maybe even Chevy SS).

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More hard feelings are likely to result from that decision, and while the history of selling Opels in the US hasn’t been especially rosy, a lot of this has had to do with factors beyond the actual design of the cars themselves (though we should make an exception for the Catera, which was shoddily built and conceived without the US market in mind).  Bitter’s business model was too fragile to net the company and its cars much success, but the concept of a well-outfitted, Opel-based luxury coupe isn’t a bad one.  You just have to imagine what it may have been like with GM’s full backing and more complete development.  Of course, that involves imagining an entirely different company.


The necessary resources and know-how were certainly all available but until recently, the desire among GM brass to fully and effectively exploit its global brainpower wasn’t there.  So don’t let the Bitter SC’s half-baked existence fool you; it hints at the potential benefit of a trans-Atlantic collaboration in the context of the early 1980s.  Bitter itself still makes cars today, with expensive souped-up and body kitted versions of the Insignia (Regal) and until recently, the Caprice and Commodore.  And while its current efforts are much less ambitious, they still embody the best of GM’s foreign subsidiaries’ expertise.


Related reading:

Cohort Sighting: Ferrari 400 GT – A Pininfarina Classic, Built For 18 Years

Automotive History: 1997-2001 Cadillac Catera – Caddy’s Dead Duck

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