Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1964 Opel Kadett – The Anti-Beetle

The Opel Kadett was a big deal, even if it was very small physically. After watching VW sales grow exponentially for almost two decades and displace Opel as Germany’s best selling brand, the General decided it was time to finally fight back.

The Kadett, which first saw duty in 1961, was a very credible weapon, the result of a focused development program to create a car that was to better the Beetle in every metric. It mostly succeeded, thanks to the  very pragmatic engineering and design of a very light but conventional front-engine RWD car. It was quicker, roomier, had a vastly greater trunk, was a bit more economical, and it drove and handled very differently. But was it really better than a VW, in the ways that made the Beetle an icon?

I’m very familiar with the Kadett A, as my father bought a light green one like this in 1965. I can still feel its black ribbed vinyl upholstery on my sweating backside, hear its little 993 cc mill being revved to valve float on each shift as my brother red-light raced VWs, the outcome of which was preordained given the Opel’s 46 hp compared to the VW’s 40, and weighing a whopping 200 lbs less. My only regret is that its tenure in the Niedermeyer household ended in 1968, just before I began my illicit driving career, thus I never got actual wheel time. So we’ll have to read what Car Life said about that.

We called it the “Laubfrosch” (tree frog, in German) for two reasons: Opel’s first light car, the P4 from 1924, was popularly called that, but hitting closer to home, it was because my father struggled with its trigger-like clutch. In the first few days and weeks, he would dump the clutch, making the little Kadett’s 12″ rear wheels skip and hop, two or three times in succession. Yes, you can chirp them, if you follow my father’s technique: dump the clutch, make it hop, quickly release the clutch and then dump it again, and then repeat once or twice more. We used to die of hysterics watching him take off for work in the morning, as the Kadett hopped up the driveway.

CL notes that the Kadett marked the return of Opel to the US, after leaving the market in 1961 with its larger Rekord. That car had sold pretty well during the great import boom of the ’50s, but was utterly irrelevant after the arrival of the Corvair and the other compacts. But GM quickly came to realize that the domestic compacts were making no impact on the annual growth of VW’s sales in the US, so they decided to dust off the Opel signs and offer up to 400 Buick dealers to get back in the import business with the Kadett. Why not?

It’s a three-box car if ever there was one. But for a conventional sedan (and wagon), it really was very space efficient, thanks to the physically very small ohv four in front and a body tall enough to allow upright seating, a space-saving feature. The most impressive thing was its weight: 1475 lbs at the curb. That’s a full 200 lbs less than the Beetle. It was a bit smaller in its outside dimensions, with a 3″ shorter wheelbase and 5″ less overall length, but then the Beetle’s 1930’s baby streamliner design was not all that space efficient.

CL muses if the Kadett will make a dent in the Beetle’s sales, with their conclusion being: “Not“. They thought its boxy styling alone was a turn-off. Well, they were right and wrong; the Kadett A didn’t sell very well here in ;64 and ’65, but by 1966, thanks to the more attractive and contemporary-styled Kadett B, it was quickly on its way to becoming the #2 selling import here for a number of years, until eventually Toyota took the #2 crown away. And in Germany, it did unseat the Beetle. So yes, The Kadett became a solid success here; just not right away, and of course it didn’t kill the Beetle. And after the Vega came out and the dollar sank against the mark, Opel soon slid away, giving us a few more years of 1900/Ascona goodness before it was gone for good.

It’s not CL didn’t like the Kadett: “Once used to driving the Kadett, it becomes a very likeable little creature“. It did what it was supposed to do, and fairly well at that. “The engine feels very sturdy and is quite smooth at all times, if not very quiet“. True that. But then the lightweight Kadett felt tinnier and noisier all-round; getting into a VW after being in the Kadett, one felt ensconced in a decidedly more solid-feeling and quieter car, and a bit better-riding one too.

The long V0lvo-style stick shift worked a slick-shifting gearbox with excellent gear ratios to make the most of the little engine. The result was a 0-60 time (23 sec.) a good five seconds quicker than the VW. There was a”hotter” 54 hp engine in the Sport Coupe, but not available in the sedan and wagon; CL wished it were.

The rack-and-pinion steering was “first class“, and the brakes were “quite good” too. As to fuel economy, CL didn’t even try to make an “economy run“; but even driving it hard all the time it always topped 30 mpg. The seats and driving position came in for praise. The even mentioned those very noticeable-under-the-clothes longitudinal ribs in the upholstery, as it helped keep passengers form sliding in curves. Now I find out! Even the rear seat passengers get decent accommodations, something the Beetle could not claim. And trunk space was “surprising“.

CL was “shaken” by the 6 volt battery (VW still had one too then), and the little 12″ wheels and tires: “Where do you buy one if one blows out in the middle of Arkansas?” The Buick-Opel dealer?

All in all, a pretty positive review, even if the styling didn’t exactly wow them.


More on the Kadett:
Curbside Classic: 1966 – 1973 Opel Kadett (B) – It Dethroned The Volkswagen

The Opel Kadett Asassination – By Car and Driver

Curbside Classic: 1969 Opel Kadett – Buick Dealers Really Sold These?

COAL: 1965 Opel Kadett L – Training Wheels