Bob Lutz is associated with a lot of cars, some good, but quite a few so-so. There is a recurring thread in the latter category: aggressive styling but with compromises in the packaging or underpinnings. The Opel GT laid down that formula, for the first time, and not the last, right to the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky, the latter being sold in Europe as the Opel GT.
To be fair, Bob Lutz isn’t solely or even primarily responsible for the Opel GT, as he was a mere marketing executive. But he became its most enthusiastic promoter, to put into production the concept Opel GT shown back in 1965 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. But in order to make it work cost-wise, the GT had to share the platform of the quite-lowly Opel Kadett, a car designed to be as cheap to build as possible in order to compete against the VW Beetle. So it should come as no surprise that the production Opel GT looked quite a bit better than it really was. Which of course was hardly a unique and unusual reality at GM. The one consolation: most of its veteran sports car competitors in 1969 weren’t any better technically. But that house of cards would quickly collapse in 1970, when Datsun unleashed its similarly-priced 240Z.
The Opel’s 1.9 L cam-in-head (“CIH”) four came in for a lot of criticism. Although this engine was not designed with lofty ambitions, over the years it seems to have been praised more commonly than in this review, and the final injected version in the Manta/1900 was given quite high marks in this R&T review. Maybe it harmonized better with the Ascona/1900/Manta chassis. Speaking of, if Opel had waited a couple of years to use that platform under the GT, it might have come off much better. But by that time its mini-me Mako Shark/Pontiac Banshee styling might have started to look increasingly out of date.
Here’s the original 1965 Opel GT concept, with Bob Lutz looking on.
It was designed by the young Opel designer Erhard Schnell, under the direction of Clare MacKichan, former Chevrolet Chief designer who was doing a five year stint at Opel to shake them out of their stylistic doldrums. Well, the GT did that, and paved the way for a much more dynamic period at Opel under Chuck Jordan, who was sent from Detroit by Bill Mitchell to take the next shift as design chief.
Needless to say, the production GT suffered some from the changes made to fit the narrow Kadett platform. Opel might have helped that issue with some slightly bigger and fatter tires, and a bit of more suspension tuning would have been welcome too.
The Opel GT went on to sell fairly well, racking up some 100k total sales over its lifetime, a good percentage of them in the US. Its styling was undoubtedly the key to its relative success, as it was never really embraced by the hard-core sports car community.
That was , and still is, an amazingly good looking car. The flip up headlights were all the rage. I recall the motor press mentioning that the low slung hood shoveled the rain water on the windscreen. But practicality was never the point in buying this car. This one was all about the looks.
Actually, they didn’t flip up, they rolled over, side to side.
And even neater, they both rotated in the same direction.
In addition to that, their operation was entirely mechanical, with the linkage operated by a beefy lever in the center console. Kachunk, kachunk.
I first got up close and personal to an Opel GT at a new car show in a local mall in late 1968. At the age of 14, I was awestruck at the Opel’s sideways-rotating headlights. How cool! It’s a shame that rampant rust has done away with so many of these cars.
From the cohort:
These two showed up at the Gilmore’s German show last year.
Ah, more memories. One college buddy picked up an Opel GT on overseas delivery. Another picked up a Manta Rallye. My first exposure to both cars. Also parked in front of our dorm was a ’70 240Z brought over from Vermont, and a Celica GT- my first exposure to this particular Toyota model. a VW Squareback, a VW Super Beetle, and a Ford Capri rounded out the fleet of the kids that had cars at the time. Guess that’s a snapshot of what affluent parents bought college kids in Europe during the 70’s. Quite a bit different than when I transferred to Oregon.
Erhard Schnell was my first boss at Opel. A great. designer to work for, he was responsible for the first Manta and many other very successful projects right up to the Calibra. He showed me renderings of the GT done by Wolfgang Moebius, who is know for the Porsche 928…. I owned a GT and felt its handling to be actually ok with very pleasant steering, the motor as noisy as C&D said and the styling wonderful- especially with a nice set of 15” ATS wheels…….
Love the lead photograph. Nothing says “1969” like swoopy fender bulges, brutalist architecture, second-rate Picasso public sculpture, and a gal with long hair and big sunglasses on her head. Ten bucks says she was a passing NYU co-ed they drafted for the photo (that’s the NYU faculty housing complex on Houston Street.)
So the Opel GT is basically a Karmann Ghia for the Kadett. That is ironic since the Kadett was developed by Opel to fight the Beetle.
Several comments about the Opel GT in the article, in GM’s Owner Manual, and some observations from the real world.
The first time I saw an Opel GT was in Autumn 1969, at the corner of Bellflower and Ford Road on the campus of Case Western Reserve University driven by Professor Dr. Dave Whitsett, a faculty Industrial Psychologist, also a Consultant to General Motors. The appearance of the GT was, at the time stunning. Later when my friends and I learned that it was powered by the three main bearing, push rod 1.1 liter Opel engine, our awe changed to one of incomprehension. We couldn’t comprehend that something so attractive would be so under powered, and relatively overpriced for the performance. What was GM thinking?
At the same time, from Germany, came the introduction of another relatively under powered, but intriguing sports car powered by a pushrod 1.7 liter VW type four engine, the mid engined 914. Compared to the Opel GT, the 914 was a homely looking, relatively unattractive car, something equally incomprehensible to men and my friends given how attractive the earlier mid-engine Porsche 904 had been What was Porsche thinking?
In late March 1970, when some of my classmates and I were returning from a Geology field trip in New York State, on the New York ThruWay, we saw a 914 buzz past us at speed, and when we stopped for gas, there it was, and my buddies and I curiously swarmed around the 914 to get a closer look. The 914 was a plain base model with a plain interior, nothing special—but somehow, for me something was inexplicably intriguing. I put the 914 out of my mind for the time being. (The 914 bug came back to bite me for seemingly forever since I have owned one for now 39 years–another story for another time, it appears)
Fast forward to Summer 1970, I was in Germany and Austria, traveling on a student’s shoestring, had a thrilling NSU TT experience in Salzburg, and then when in Munich, I saw a red Opel GT pass not to far from the BMW factory. Wow, that GT looked great in its home turf, I was smitten by the appearance.
After I returned home, I was still driving my old, dying VW bug. My Dad had traded in his 1965 six cylinder Mustang Auto and had bought a new Ford Maverick with a 200 c.i.d six, automatic, and amazingly A/C. He had never test driven (how?, I don’t understand it) the Maverick before buying it. Immediately the seat gave him back problems, with constant pain. He tried to foist the Maverick on my Mom, but she wasn’t willing to accept it because of the horrible seat. No dealer fixes worked. So he offered the Maverick to me–holy batman!, free! Oh, but the killer seat was a real killer even for me.. My Dad offered the Maverick to my Aunt and my cousins free, but they refused the killer seat car, likely at the urging om my Mom to teach my Dad a lesson to always test drive a car before buying. It was a huge family laugh experience, for decades.
So the Back Killer Maverick was finally given to me for good, but, in accepting it, I whispered to my Mom that I was likely to trade it.
I drove the Maverick to first one, and then a second Porsche dealer, hoping to test drive a 914, but despite having a job, with my long haired hippy appearance, the salesmen at both dealerships refused to allow me any test drives, each telling me that “I wasn’t a serious customer” Oh, Chuck Stoddard, Oh, Chuck Stoddard, how I tried to buy a car from your dealership, but was turned away. Oh Stan Meisel, how I remember how you threw me out of the dealership, a long hair unworthy to drive a Porsche. Huh!
I went to a local Buick dealership where a red 1.9 liter Cam In Head Opel GT sat forlorn, sitting off to the side, neglected by the Buick Sales people. At first no-one came to talk to me, the long hair, the hippy–come on,be serious, this is a Buick Dealership, hippies don’t belong here. Eventually a salesman came over and we talked about the story. Eventually he didn’t take the Maverick in trade, but quietly told me that he would buy it privately from me for his daughter (such an unlucky, unknowing young back of a young daughter. HaHa!). He then sold me the GT at a good discount to get the languishing GT off the sales floor. A win win for both of us. A good deal, and the back killer was gone from our lives.
GM, and in particular Buick, were remarkably unfit in selling and servicing the OPEL GT. Better that Opel would have had it own sales organization in the USA.
Having read about GT’s in R&T and Car and Driver, before the GT left the dealership, I arranged to swap out the fabric ply Uniroyal Radial tires for Michelin XAS steel belted tires. These tires were transformative compared to the experience of O.E.M tires during the test drive . Steering response and sharpness were vastly improved.
The factory recommended air pressures in the owners manual were unbelievably 19 psi front and 24 psi rear, likely contributing to the described severe understeer in the R&T test. At least this Car and Driver article gave tire pressures of 24 psi front and 24 psi rear. I found that 30 psi front and 27 psi rear greatly mitigated the understeer giving more neutral tire grip.. I then ordered a rear anti-roll bar kit and my installation of the rear anti roll bar further helped handling. The rear tire lift was greater on right hand turns compared to left hand turns likely due to location of the driver’s weight on the left.
Handling was good, one could even say delightful. Success! My own low budget Edgar Opel GT, maybe not as good as Car and Driver’s version, but mine, non-the-less.
I had then suspected, and still believe now that GM was very shy about tire pressures, especially following the Corvair experiences and wanted to maximize the “safe understeering” of the front engined Opel GT with less, bizzarely less tire pressure in the front. This was always a strange quirk, I thought, of the GT Owner’s Manual tire inflation pressure recommendations.
Discussion of the GT styling is interesting. In 1964, under the impetus of John Delorean, the Pontiac design team produced a sports car proposal similar in size, cost price point for the OPEL GT, and hoped for yearly production numbers of about 20,000/year called the BANSHEE. Dreaming about sports cars was in the air and water then infecting almost all automotive design studios. The Banshee had some familial styling influences on the Opel GT , but the styling of the Banshee became the uncanny basis of the Chevrolet C3 Corvette introduced in 1968. The C3 Corvette in effect became the “supersized Banshee”. The Opel GT is the older brother of the Corvette, not the father.
The pristine shape and purity of the Erhard Schell Opel GT prototype was stretched and pulled by the “Chrome Cobra”, Chuck Jordan, for production by altering the windshield A pillar, elevating the roof line, and rounding the tail configuration. The elevation of the roof line and the resulting styling distortion from the prototype was, in my opinion as a prior owner, unnecessary, since there was now an excess of headroom in the production GT.
My GT was a delightful generally reliable car. The Opel 1.9 liter C.I.H engine may have been a little trashy at the top end but it was dead reliable mechanically. One winter time peculiarity would be gradual power drop off on the highway when temperatures were at or slightly above freezing. The first time this happened was on the Massachusetts Turnpike forcing me to pull over into a service area. When I lifted the air duct coupling off the carburetor, I saw that the carburetor throat was choked by ice formation (there was no warm air feed to the carb in the GT).
I knocked off the strangling ice and got back onto the road driving back to Boston with full power. Carb icing was an interesting quirk of the GT during wintertime driving.
This was the perfect wintertime car with snow tires to drive the twisty Vermont 100 on the way to various ski resorts with a girlfriend, when skiing was actually a cheap holiday experience. Can you imagine paying 50 cents a night/person at the Stowe Ski dormitory. A long ago GT memory.
The GT was the portal taking me to many car races in the East, especially Watkins Glen for the fall US Grand Prix, to Mosport, Mid Ohio, Nelson Ledges, and various other tracks. Simply pleasurable.
I loved that GT, but eventually the salt mist and road salt of the Great Lakes and New England ate away at the GT so that by 1976/1977 the then current girl friend refused to go in the car when it rained since the passenger floor holes let water into the car getting her feet wet. My GT died due to the Tin Worm’s work accelerated by wintertime salt. A pity, but with many memorable, pleasurable memories.
The Opel GT lasted from 1968 to 1973 likely dying due to Asian competition, dying from the unfavorable dollar deutschmark relationship revaluations occurring in the early 1970’s, dying due to the ultimate discontinuation of the parent Opel Kadett platform, ,dying due to the emerging USA crash/safety standards which would have required major redesign work, and dying due to the termination of the Brissonneau and Lotz body manufacturing agreement.
Ultimately the business case for the Opel GT ended its short life after about 103,463 first generation GT’s produced. RIP first generation GT.
While in theory, the 1.1 liter 3 main bearing motor was standard, very few US-bound Opel GT’s came here with that motor. Most were ordered with the 1.9 five-main-bearing motor, and as with other imports, whether you were able to keep the body rust-free depended upon whether you used your GT in the sunbelt or in the icky winter slop of Vermont and Michigan roadways. When I was attending college, the Opel GT, Porsche 914-4, and Datsun 240-Z all had waiting lists, and in some parts of southern California, the 240-Z enjoyed a $1500 premium over MSRP, part of which went to pay for mandatory cheap alloy wheels and dealer-installed A/C designed expressly for the Z. You had to find a dealer out of state to purchase a Z for anything close to MSRP.
We had one of those at the wrecking yard. It was there out amongst the rest of the car corpses before I worked there, and despite the generally pretty rapid turnover it was still there after I left.
One of the most attractive small cars of the late 60s/early 70s. My grade school French teacher drove one (besides a Cadillac Sedan deville). It was also one of my favourite die cast cars as a kid at the time. Playart sold these in various colours.
The first time I saw one was right at introduction, there was a bright orange one sitting on the steps of the Buick dealer. My almost brother in law bought it the next morning. I rode in it many times over the 4 years, until he gambled away he and my sister’s house fund, almost $11,000, on a “sure thing” at the local horse track. That was the beginning of the end for them, he refused to admit he had a major gambling problem and poof, he was gone. The car was just annoying, too cramped for me (Shoulders and legs), and for him, legs, and not quick enough to really be any fun. It had some series of issues with the blower motor switch, I don’t remember if it was finally resolved or it kept happening.
I don’t know exactly when he got rid of it, but in 1981, he was driving a mid 70’s Collonade Cutlass, in, as I used to put it, “god awful green”.
I think you’ll find it was US Bumper Regulations of 1973 that killed off the original Opel GT. Energy absorbing bumpers could never have been fitted to the GT. Opel had also terminated the contract with Brissonneau and Lotz (which built the GT body).
I owned two ’74 Manta Luxus’ in the late 70’s with the cow catcher aluminum bumpers.
Opel didn’t terminate the Brissoneau et Lotz contract; it was the other way around, a consequence of the coachbuilder being bought out by Renault.
The bumpers were definitely an issue, but even if they hadn’t been, Opel was having a hard time justifying keeping the GT. It wasn’t likely to sell as well as the Manta or the Ford Capri and they weren’t going to be able to hold the line on price building the car in Germany, so it was still going to get the stuffing kicked out of it by the Fairlady Z.
Nice to see some Opel content. Especially today, when a tidy-looking black Opel Manta drove past me while I was photographing a herd of elk grazing a suburban yard in the Denver foothills. That doesn’t happen every day!
I wonder how Maxwell Smart felt about driving this after coming out of a Sunbeam Tiger.
In the small eastern WA community in which I grew up in the late 60s/1970s, the Buick dealer sold these, and somehow ended up selling quite a few of them as I regularly saw them both parked and being driven. At the time, I didn’t know what they were, but they have always reminded me of baby Corvettes. They were always in bright colors as well, I specifically remember the yellow and of course the bright orange.
There’s at least one here in Australia, I’ve seen it twice at a regional car show/fly in.
There’s something not quite right about the overall proportions to my eye. Can’t put my finger on it, but somethings missing.
Paul is right on target about the GT not measuring up to the new-for-1970 240Z. My Dad bought a ’70 Opel GT, even though he really would have preferred the Datsun. But the 240Z was such a hot seller that Datsun dealers were adding a lot of markup to the sticker price, and Dad was allergic to paying more than sticker.
It was a tiny little car with no trunk and only a small package shelf behind the seats. Somehow our family managed to cram three elementary-school-aged kids on that package shelf for occasional short rides when the family Cutlass was not available. This was long before seat belt laws or child car seat laws, of course.
They were rare enough when new that driving one made you a member of a club. When another GT drove by, a flip of the headlights signaled your recognition of a fellow member of the club.
Sadly our Opel went to the crusher before I got my learner’s permit, so I never have driven one. However, my father did let me operate the shift lever from the passenger seat, so I guess in a small way it did help me learn how to drive a manual.
I saw one at a recent local car show. The owner said those remaining have all have had their troublesome Solex carbs replaced with a Weber unit, improving drivability. He said sourcing things like body parts and weatherstripping is getting hard. And he said if you ever crack the windshield you might as well sell the car, as a replacement windshield will cost more than the rest of the car is worth.
While not a high point for GM or Opel or the Buick dealers that had to try to sell them, the GT is a source of happy childhood memories for me.