(first posted 4/27/2016) For the April 1971 issue, Road Test Magazine took a sneak peek at a newly introduced German car from GM, the Opel Ascona, which would soon be heading to the U.S. market. The editors were favorably impressed with the car—while not exceptional in any way or even cutting edge, it was nonetheless very good for an entry-level small car. The problem was, it would arrive in Buick showrooms, not exactly the first place small car shoppers in America would think to look.
That odd decision actually dated back to the late 1950s. Someone on the 14th floor of GM’s headquarters in Detroit must have gotten miffed that those pesky imports were actually starting to sell in noticeable volumes to buyers seeking affordable, economical transportation. General Motors couldn’t let this annoyance slide—customers who should have been buying a Chevrolet were being stolen before they could take their first step on the Sloan ladder (named for legendary GM Chairman Alfred Sloan, who positioned Chevrolet as a lower cost “starter” brand and envisioned that buyers would then work their way up the “ladder” of GM brands in price and prestige, culminating with Cadillac). Clearly, this state of affairs was unacceptable, especially since mighty GM made lots of small cars themselves overseas. All that was needed was to bring some of the “strange little things” stateside and recapture those “odd” buyers who wanted an extra-small car.
So where best to sell these small, entry level cars? Surely no changes were needed at juggernaut Chevrolet, the perennial number one make in the U.S. Plus, what a nightmare it would be if Chevy customers showed a preference for one of those strange little foreign cars instead of opting for a Delray or Biscayne! That would not be good for profits at the Bow Tie division.
Well, there was Pontiac. Bunkie Knudsen had only just arrived at the ailing division; it wasn’t yet clear that he would be able to achieve a turnaround. Maybe he could use some extra sales help in the form of a small, imported car? England offered a good option for that one (plus they spoke English—convenient for the Detroit brigade to work with!), so Vauxhall became the brand imported as the entry level car in Pontiac showrooms. The Victor arrived for the 1958 model year, sporting a base price of $1,988 ($16,381 adjusted), undercutting the cheapest Pontiac Chieftain 2-door sedan by $585 ($4,820 adjusted!). Results were decent if not spectacular—17,365 Vauxhalls were sold, about 8% of total Pontiac sales for 1958. So if Ford dealers could sell an English Ford, then Pontiac dealers could sell an English car too! Case closed!
However, as infomercial king Ron Popeil would say: “but wait, there’s more!”
Some General Motor’s Assistant Vice President must have been hungry for a promotion, because GM’s small car odyssey didn’t stop with Vauxhall and Pontiac in 1958. After all, there was that other strange foreign car GM made in Germany, the Opel. Why not bring that one over as well?!? Hmmmm, where to sell it? Oldsmobile—the logical next step on the Sloan ladder—maybe they could also use a small imported car? No… wait, too many “O’s”—Oldsmobile Opel, doesn’t sound right. Eureka! Buick!! Plus, GM President Harlow Curtice would love that—giving the dealers at his favorite division a little something extra to sell.
The Opel got off to a slightly slower start than the Vauxhall, with 15,686 units sold, representing only 7% of Buick’s total 1958 sales, and nowhere near enough to offset that brand’s horrific 40% sales plunge versus 1957. Perhaps adding to the confusion was the fact that the Rekord was priced well below anything else Buick offered. The most basic 1958 Special 2-door sedan cost $2,636 ($21,720 adjusted), so the Rekord at $1,988 ($16,381 adjusted, same as the Vauxhall Victor) seemed strangely cheap in Buick showrooms.
The Opel’s solid engineering and robust German build quality did win converts, however, as sales jumped to 39,320 for 1959 before dipping again to 25,533 for 1960. But that drop can’t be blamed on the Opel product itself—rather there was significant market activity for 1960 aimed right at small car buyers.
Detroit of course had bigger plans for small cars than the captive imports. For 1960, each of the Big Three introduced new “compact” cars, representing homegrown answers to the small imported car challenge. GM’s more premium divisions—Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick—added their own small(ish) cars for 1961. Seemingly the need for bringing over the foreign economy cars had ended.
Indeed, it had ended for Vauxhall. After selling a total of 51,006 units from 1958 through 1960, starting in 1961 the only way to get a Vauxhall was by special order. And even that was no longer an option after 1962. No matter though, overall Pontiac sales were on a tear, and the new small Tempest sold more units (100,783) in 1961 than the Vauxhall had in the previous three years combined.
Over at Buick, the new-for-1961 smaller Special was a hit for Buick, with 86,868 units sold. Likely due to the Special’s success, Opel Rekord sales declined dramatically, and the car wasn’t even offered in the U.S. for 1963. Clearly there was a market for a smaller Buick, but most especially if it seemed like a Buick.
However, no one would have thought that Buick dealers would have had any reason to want an even smaller Opel, but that’s exactly what they got for 1964. Therein lies one of the strangest strangest strategic moves ever made by GM.
By U.S. standards of the time, the Opel Rekord was already a very small car, with a wheelbase of 100.4”, a length of 174.4” and a width of 63.6”—a good bit bit smaller than the Corvair (WB: 108”, Length: 180”, Width: 67”). But the new-to-the-U.S. Kadett was much smaller—91.5” wheelbase, 154.4” overall length and 57.9” width—actually sized to challenge the Volkswagen Beetle, Opel’s direct nemesis in Germany.
In addition to being the smallest car offered by General Motors stateside, at $1,655 ($12,713 adjusted) the ’64 Kadett was also the least expensive GM car available in the U.S., undercutting even the cheapest Chevrolet, the Corvair 500 Club Coupe, which listed for $2,000 ($15,363 adjusted). That low Kadett price sounded like a good entry point for the Chevrolet brand, and also a spring board to upsell economy buyers into larger—and more profitable—Chevrolets.
But no, the even smaller Opel wound up back at Buick.
So, hidden in a sea of LeSabres, Electras, Rivieras and Specials, a VW intender could find a competitive offering from GM. Utterly strange logic, as Chevrolet was still GM’s value brand, and the one most interested in capturing entry level buyers–and a Chevy dealer was where economy buyers would automatically look for affordable cars. Affluent shoppers at Buick dealerships couldn’t have been captivated by the Opel, especially when real Buicks beckoned. Nor was there much opportunity for upsell: the gap from the Kadett to the cheapest Special was $688 ($5,285 adjusted), and the two cars were as different as chalk and cheese.
I can’t imagine that Buick dealers were still clamoring to sell Opels. I’d guess it was marginal business at best, and probably more of a nuisance than it was worth. Plus, after a disastrous drop in the late 1950s, Buick sales had rebounded nicely as the 1960s progressed. By 1964, Buick ranked in 5th place overall in the U.S. market, and surely the premium brand was highly profitable to boot. So there were was plenty of money to be made selling Buicks to traditional Americans seeking a more upscale ride. Buick buyers and the Buick brand were nicely aligned. Why bring Opel back to Buick, to compete for import-oriented shoppers at the low-margin bottom of the market? That should have been Chevrolet’s territory!
My best explanation for the bizarre continuation of the Buick Opel alliance was GM’s fear of antitrust actions by the U.S. Government. This was a very real threat in the 1960s, as GM was thought to be a near-monopoly with too much market share and pricing power. One “solution” being tossed around Washington DC was to break up The General, and make Chevrolet a standalone company. Thus, aligning the small cars from Opel with the American powerhouse brand might have made the Bow Tie division even bigger and more dangerous in the eyes of The Fed (look, they can even effectively fight VW! Clearly a monopoly!). Strategies designed to avoid (or prepare for) a government-mandated breakup may have influenced the decision and sent the little Kadett back to the Buick Division. Plus, as an added bonus, Buick dealers already had a bit of experience selling Opel products.
Whatever the reason for the odd pairing, the sales results of the Kadett’s foray at Buick dealers were surprisingly respectable. By the late 1960s, Opel was benefitting as an increasingly large part of the American market continued to move to small cars. Non-captive imports enjoyed the majority of that business—VW, Toyota and Datsun all saw record sales in America. The Opel, however, was a reasonably competitive product, and did make it onto some small car shopping lists. In spite of the peculiarities of getting the car through a Buick dealer, Opel routinely delivered annual sales volumes in the 85,000 to 95,000 range as the decade came to a close. During the same period however, real Buicks were spinning the cash registers by selling 650,000+ units annually…
But imagine if the Opel had been sold in a place where its offerings truly made sense as part of the model portfolio. Imagine that America’s biggest volume seller—with the mindset of “stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly”—was responsible for selling a price-competitive small car that handily beat VW. Opel, as a mass market non-premium brand in Germany, needed to be aligned the same way in the U.S. to effectively reach high volumes of the right sort of customers.
Ironically, Chevrolet needed that too. For starters, Chevy’s original import fighter, the Corvair, was ultimately a failure, thanks in no small part to its unconventional rear-engine design along with unwanted attention from Ralph Nader. But as the Sixties progressed, there was no question that American’s love affair with small, economical cars was not a fad that would just “go away.” By the late 1960s the Big Three were ceding the bottom end of the market to the imports at an alarming rate as the domestic “economy” offerings from the early 1960s had morphed into bigger, more expensive cars and were no longer attracting as many entry-level buyers. Imports were once again happily filling the void…
With classic “Not Invented Here” hubris (and not learning any lessons from the Corvair debacle about engineering overreach combined with overly aggressive bean counters), GM in Detroit set about designing a new small car for America. That “import fighter” became the Vega (read more here and here), which was one of the worst disasters ever to come out of General Motors. Even more painful was the fact that a far better option already existed right in the GM portfolio. Unfortunately, it would only be sold by that champion of jumbo American cars, the Buick Division…
(first posted 4/27/2016) The Ascona would arrive in Buick dealers with a different name, the Opel 1900. In addition to the 4-door sedan featured here, the 1900 was also available as a 2-door sedan, 2-door wagon and 2-door semi-fastback–this last one known as the Manta in Germany. The 1.9 liter engine that formed the basis for the 1900 name was not available in Germany at the time, so the car Road Test drove carried the 1.6 liter. However, the RT editors felt this was a reasonable proxy for the 1.9 liter with the emissions equipment required for the U.S.
The Opel was praised for its excellent 3-speed automatic and effective disc/drum brakes: Road Test felt they worked “so well you could forget about them.” Perfect for American drivers seeking ease of use! The Opel also was a good high speed cruiser, making the car suitable for America’s interstates as well. As a bonus, the Ascona was even fun to toss around on back roads, with responsive, predictable handling capabilities.
The Ascona’s instrument panel was attractive, with very readable gauges and well-differentiated controls, as well as a locking glove box. Seats were rated as comfortable, with ample adjustment. Roominess was impressive for a small car, with four good-sized adults able to fit and a nicely-sized trunk suitable for family travel.
Chuck Jordan, one of GM’s best designers, was responsible for the Ascona’s attractive American/International styling. The car could easily pass for a good looking small Chevrolet. Apparently the fit-and-finish, at least under hood, was also perceived as more American than German–maybe the Opels could have been built in America without missing a beat…
Reading this review conjures up all sorts of ideas about GM’s small car possibilities. Just envision how differently things could have turned out for GM if they had offered this car as a Chevrolet instead of the Vega, as Paul writes in this piece on the Opel 1900 (Ascona): What The Vega Could Have Been. The big shame is that the Ascona could easily have been built in America (after all, Opel Rekords were already being built and sold in Brazil as the Chevrolet Opala). We could have had a U.S.-built Chevrolet with German-engineered roots, aimed right at Toyota and Datsun buyers… potential home runs don’t come much bigger than that!
But this Opel was only ever imported to the states from Europe, and sadly, Dollar/Deutsche Mark exchange rate issues would soon make the small German car price prohibitive for the U.S. market. The real German Opel was dropped with little fanfare in 1975, leaving a Vega derivative (the Skyhawk, another GM brand positioning blunder) and the less-than-illustrious Opel-by Isuzu to fill the small car void at Buick dealerships in the late 1970s. It was a sad end for a very competent, straightforward design that effectively fit the needs of American subcompact economy car buyers far better than any of the offerings Detroit conjured up on its own.
Younger Americans who grew up with GTI’s and Integras may not realize how incredibly appealing these cars were to young car buffs here who longed for a sporty but practical, affordable alternative to the BMW 2002. Or more “exotic” (yeah it’s GM, but it’s German!) alternative to a modded Datsun 510. Unfortunately, when I seriously considered buying one (used) it had just become an orphan and I bought a Vega GT instead.
As a matter of fact, the RWD Opel Ascona A and B (first and second gen) models were popular amoung the young guys. A decent engine, like the 1.9 liter, bigger wheels and some extra lights (Hella !) and you were the man ! No need for a Manta…
A sporty looking 2- or 4-door Opel Ascona sedan, often a young man’s first car. Bought used, of course.
Agreed. But mine is no where near stock. 2.0L, 5-speed, lowered, quick ratio steering box, Recaros, Stainless Steel exhaust, S.S. fuel & brake lines, (too many mods to list) I love mine! 😎
Great ! Nice color too.
Thanks… I remember a local lime green Manta, way back when. I call this one “M&M Blue”. My first was a dark blue ’74, used,back in 1983.
Here’s a lime green Mancona… Ascona body with a Manta nose. I would die for this car! So sexy & so very rare. I’ve only seen 3 or 4 on the internet.
Heck ! Same color as the New Kid’s Opel Manta B…
Building a foreign car to print was unthinkable to the proud, unteachable fools of Michigan. Lack of humility is always fatal.
If the Justice Dept. or FTC were truly worried about GM’s market dominance, then they were just as foolish as GM was, for the very fact that by 1960, they felt compelled to offer alternatives to VW & later Japan shows that the free market was working. And today, if you’re “too big,” you get bailed out if you screw up!
I don’t understand the complaint about instruments; a temperature gauge was already a bonus unless you were used to Chrysler products. However, I would’ve complained about a missing tach. if it had the manual box.
One possible reason for pairing Buick with Opel could have been in the in the way that people perceived things back then. When two car families started coming into being, the big, powerful Buick would usually be the man’s car and something smaller and more practicle would be the woman’s car. The Opel gave the Buick buyer the opportunity to patronize the same dealership if the “little lady” had a taste for an import.
Families that I knew that went two car in those years, and the senior car was a big Buick or Olds, would usually choose a Skylark / Cutlass, Sport Wagon / Vista Cruiser as the second car for mom. The Kadett was way too far down market for a garage with an Electra 225 in it. Maybe a few Opels where bought new for their kids. Some of those two car families were simply loyal Olds or Buick drivers, and the garage might contain two Electras 3 or 4 years apart in age.
The Opel Kadetts I knew as a kid played second fiddle to Plymouth Satellites and Chevy Malibus. Dad ended up driving the Opel if it was a manual transmission, and mom needed some space for the kid’s afterschool carpool.
I always liked the Ascona/1900 and Manta. By the time I was of driving age in the 80s, other than a few Mantas, they had vanished from Long Island.
Hard to believe now, but the 1970s were Opel’s high water mark. Starting with the Ascona here, and all the way to the late 70s 6-cyl Senator, Opels were excellent cars IMO.
As a Northern Virginian, I love that you found & featured a picture of Bob Peck Chevrolet (“Check With Peck!”). That showroom has been bulldozed, but the high-rise that replaced it features a diamond canopy like the one from the Chevy dealer, since it was a bit of a local landmark.
I’ve been pondering a submission for CC that’s a “Where Are They Now” of Washington DC area car dealers. Car dealers are important members of the communities they serve, and their TV ads, architecture, family squabbles, sponsorship of Little League teams, etc., leave a big mark.
I may send something like that to you one day when I have the chance to focus on it.
As a fellow native of the Washington DC area, I would be pleased to chip in memories and photos if they will be useful additions to what you are considering working on. I also have thought about the disappearance of so many of the dealerships that I remember, primarily the GM brand dealerships where all of our family car shopping occurred until the mid-1980s.
This is awesome!!!
You beat me to it — I remember Bob Peck Chevrolet from my childhood and drive past its former location almost every day, so I was thinking of taking a photo of that canopy on my drive home today and posting it here. I remember my parents taking me along on a trip to their showroom during the 1970s and thinking that the roof made the building look like a mutant crab.
Another iconic local Chevrolet dealership was Chevy Chase Chevrolet with their multi-floor showroom building, but as you know, they have to be spoken of in the past tense because they are now Chevy Chase Nissan, which just does not sound right.
I was excited at the Bob Peck Chevy pic as well! “Check with Peck before you buy…”
Interesting speculation about the reason as to why Opel ended up at Buick (anti-trust concerns). But I doubt that was why. The reason is in the pricing: The Victor and Rekord started at $1988. That’s within a few bucks of what the ’58 Biscayne started at, as well as what the Corvair was targeted to start at.
Chevrolet was committed to building a low-end compact at the time the Victor and Rekord were brought over. They would have competed directly with the Corvair in the showrooms. That was not a viable strategy.
At the time (1957), the Kadett was still just an idea, and Opel hadn’t yet built the facilities for it. One could argue that the Kadett should have migrated to Chevrolet, which might have been somewhat more relevant there.
But there was a Buick dealer in every town except the very smallest, and the Kadett ended up doing quite well: it was the #2 selling import for several years, until the Corolla showed up in 1969.
I don’t think Chevy would have wanted it, because they were already hatching plans for a smaller car, which became the Vega. They were always working on smaller cars, and when it became clear the Corvair was not a true import fighter, they cranked up its development.
I think Vauxhall and Opel ended up where they did for pretty good reasons: it gave Pontiac and Buick an import that didn’t compete against their own low-end cars, as they would have at Chevrolet. A 1958 Biscayne started at $2013, just $25 more than a Victor or Rekord. That sure wouldn’t have worked well.
I totally agree that in the late 1950s it made no sense to put any import in Chevy dealers. The prices of the imports were definitely too close to base Chevrolets. The Pontiac/Vauxhall and Buick/Opel pairings worked well enough for a few years as a stop gap measure, but waned as soon as Detroit introduced their own compacts. So GM’s initial foray with captive imports was effective short-term business thinking, and the strategy served its purpose as needed for a few years.
My speculation/question came with the 1964 arrival of the Kadett and where best to sell that car. U.S. VW sales were taking off during this period, so it was very logical to bring the Kadett stateside to be an effective Beetle challenger–the role it was designed for in Europe. However, unlike the late 1950s when the import prices would have been right on top of the Delray, the Kadett was notably less than the cheapest 1964 Chevrolets–the basic Corvair and Chevy II 2-doors. So the Kadett could have fit more comfortably in the line-up then–plus Chevy was the GM brand that value shoppers would turn to first for a small, economical car.
I think the Opel sold in spite of Buick dealers, not because of them. It’s true that Buick stores were ubiquitous across America, but they were known for selling larger, more expensive cars. Probably most Opel sales were concentrated at relatively few Buick dealers in bigger metro markets, especially on the coasts. Buyers had to seek out the Opel, and I doubt Buick dealers did much to enhance the experience. Nascent Toyota and Datsun dealers, by contrast, focused on their small cars and likely didn’t make their customers feel “strange/different” for wanting an import.
I think GM could have used the Kadett so much more effectively to stop the low-end import penetration in the late 1960s. While Opel did make it to the #2 best selling import for a few years, they were still far behind VW in sales and easy for Toyota and Datsun to overtake as those brands rapidly added dealers. Being an afterthought in a Buick dealer was nowhere near as good as being a primary brand for a hungry new dealer, or being at a dealer whose primary business was to satisfy price sensitive buyers.
Would Chevy dealers have done any better? Not necessarily, at least not initially, but if it became clear that having the Kadett was helping them gain share in the small car market versus VW and/or giving them the ability to upsell Opel prospects to more expensive Chevrolets (Nova, Camaro, etc.), then they may have embraced it more wholeheartedly. In contrast, upselling an Opel prospect at a Buick store would have been next to impossible. Nor would a Buick dealer care about competing with a VW dealer–the price points and customers were too different.
So to me, the 1960s could have been the best time to more effectively deploy Opel products in the U.S. All the reasons why they didn’t will probably be an eternal mystery, but it gives us great fodder here at CC!
There were also a few “Chevy-Buick-Opel” [or dueled with other GM makes] dealers in smaller towns. So there was some coverage outside large cities. But still, Buick used Opel as ‘bait and switch’ into larger Skylarks, etc.
Hmm. So if Chevy dealers had got the Rekord, it would have been much the same price as the Corvair. Interesting scenario if that had happened: Larger rear-engine compact or conventional but smaller one for the same price!
But then the Rekord did look like a little ’57 Buick, so I guess it was logical to place it with the Buick dealers.
This brings back some memories. In June 1975, I traveled to Europe for a conference in Korsør Denmark. After flying to Amsterdam, we rented an Ascona, drove through Holland and northern Germany, and finally took the Kiel-to-Korsør ferry.
The first night in Amsterdam we stayed at the main youth hostel, and I remember we had problems starting the Ascona the next morning. We almost drained the battery before it finally sputtered to life. It can be very wet and humid in Holland, and heavy condensation was the likely culprit.
There were five of us in the car with all our luggage, so it was a bit crowded. When we got to Germany, it was my turn to drive.
Unfortunately, I had never driven using a manual transmission, but I was not about to give up the chance to get out of the back seat. So, I actually learned how to drive a stick shift on the autobahn! Luckily, I managed to get to our destination safely, and without scaring my passengers. A few months later I bought my first car, a 1975 BMW 2002 with, of course, a 4-speed manual.
Here’s a picture of the Ascona at the Korsør youth hostel.
Once again, Road Test blows it, big time. The whole opening two paragraphs are completely wrong, and set up the article on misinformation.
They claim that this new Opel Ascona is smaller than the Kadett it replaces Opel’s Kadett replacement is smaller outside…
Not true. I can’t believe they flubbed this so badly. The Ascona was bigger in every dimension, and specifically designed to be one class larger than the Kadett, to fit between the Kadett and Rekord.
They go on to say It’s also worth remembering that the car sold in the US as a Kadett…was really one step up from the bottom back in Germany…
Not true. The Kadett was the same basic car in Germany and the US. Yes, the high end version of the US Kadett was called the Olympia in Germany, but that’s strictly an issue of trim. The basic Kadett sold in the US was the same,basic car except for the grille.
Yes, Road Test did make juicy goofs 😉
At least they had lots of photographs of the cars tested–that’s my favorite aspect of the magazine.
Agreed. But this is really embarrassing. They didn’t get that the Ascona is a step up from the Kadett, in every way including size?? Mind-boggling.
I wonder if, by writing that the Kadett was “really one step up from the bottom back in Germany,” the reviewer was trying to say that the Kadett was a slight step up from the Beetle in Germany, much like the mid-1920s Chevrolet was promoted as a slight step up from a Ford Model T.
Americans in the 1960s probably viewed the Kadett and Beetle as direct competitors, so any such distinction would have been lost on them.
I think they’re confusing the Kadett with the Olympia, a nameplate that was brought back in the late ’60s as an upscale small car with fastback sedan bodies as well as a fastback coupe, bigger engines, and plusher trim. After it appeared the USDM Kadett was facelifted with the Olympia’s front, probably used some of the other trim, always had the “big” engine and the coupe went from the Kadett “Kiemen” to the round-side-windowed Olympia coupe body (alongside the regular Kadett’s notchback two-door sedan and wagon bodies).
The Ascona may have been intended to replace the Kadett in the US but the latter continued to be offered through at least 1972, at least in sedan and wagon forms. This is a far-long-lead test in Germany, GM may well have given Road Test incomplete info or changed their minds between then and the Ascona’s US launch.
Do not underestimate the threat to break up GM back in the Sixties. It was quite the conversation at the dinner table during my adolescence, as mom and dad spent a bit of time trying to anticipate what the government would do.
Splitting off Chevrolet would have been a definite, as far as the rumors were going. However, it was always my understanding that a second division would have also gone along, either Buick or Oldsmobile (dad’s bet was on Buick), to create a more well-rounded corporation. Meanwhile Pontiac would have stayed with “real” GM as the low priced car, Cadillac would have been top of the line, and the mid-price remainder would have bridged the gap.
Obviously, the split-off Oldsmobile or Buick (despite have gone all my life with dad’s convictions, this article has me seriously wondering which would have gone) would have had to expand into the Cadillac class. Thus dad’s guess; but assuming that the “real” GM would have kept Vauxhall and Opel, it makes me wonder if expanding Oldsmobile would have been the option. It would have been the harder option, as trying to run Oldsmobile against Cadillac, Lincoln and Imperial would have been harder than Buick.
Rereading this, it seems like I’m discussion a parallel science fiction dimension. Imagine, GM being so big and powerful that the government would have to cut them down to size.
GM’s own management saved the government a lot of effort.
It is ironic that 50 years later, that GM is in essence, is just as split up as if the fears of the day had come true.
I dumped a ’71 Pinto for a ’73 Opel 1900/Manta.
What a revelation the Opel was!
You sat up high, in soft but supportive seats, the engine “whirrrred” like a BMW and never shook like the Pinto did.
The 4 speed manual shifted easily but precisely. The rack and pinion steering felt quick geared (compared to an American manual steering set up), precise, yet required so little effort that power steering was not even thought about.
The Opel’s brakes felt like an extension of your right leg. I never had to feather or modulate the brakes to avoid rear wheel lock up like I had to in the Pinto.
The only marginal part of the car was the “knee knocker” dealer add on A/C, the only thing the Pinto did better.
This Opel drove so effortlessly, so delightful, so “precision engineered” (Floike you, GMC truck ads!) that even my Mother grabbed the keys when my Father and I had not hidden ’em somewhere.
Many years later I purchased the one-year-only (in the USA) fuel injected ’75 Manta as a cheap college car commuter/beater. Fuel injection TRANSFORMED that engine! It was a BMW 2002 TTI for thousands less. I needed a reliable, comfortable car that would cruise effortlessly at 75 mph and give (at least) 20 mph. Cheap car choices that would do this were limited in the early 1980’s. The Opel ran flawlessly, 110 miles a day, for several years.
When I finished college my Godfather bought it from me and drove it for years.
A significant resemblance to the 1975 GM X-Body styling.
After 18 months with her new ’72 Vega, my ex-wife and her family were looking to replace the hapless little Chevy. One of the first stops (probably at my suggestion) was the Buick dealer to check out a new Ascona. While the car was handsome, drove nicely, and had a 3 speed automatic, it was rather expensive. My ex took the “safe” option, and bought a Super Beetle (the Sports Bug) instead. I liked the ’70s Opels offered the US, but price and timing didn’t work out for me.
The Opel 1900/Ascona would have been a good predecessor for the Cavalier.
But then again, imagine all the changes that would have been made to “make it more Amuuuurican” if actually happened. Example, the Chevette was based on T body Opel Kadette.
This is the Ascona A (first generation); the thirdgen Ascona C was indeed based on the J-body Cavalier platform.
Here’s the Opel-chronology in this class (called D-segment nowadays):
1970 Ascona A
1975 Ascona B
1981 Ascona C (FWD from here)
1988 Vectra A
1995 Vectra B
2002 Vectra C
2008 Insignia, aka Buick Regal.
Ascona B was also the first Vauxhall Cavalier, marking the end of Vauxhall as an independent designer/manufacturer (within GM, of course) as all future models were pan-European Opels.
Between the Vectra B & C the model effectively became a replacement for the Senator/Omega and it grew further still with the Insignia B which is as big as the late ’60s Kapitan & Admiral cars were.
Astra is more AsconaB/C/Vectra B sized these days.
The Ascona A was more compact, having the same wheelbase as the 1966 HB Viva and similar width and length as the HC.
German Opel Ascona TV-commercial. Not too small, not too big….
In the small, rural town I lived in growing up, the same dealer had the Buick and Oldsmobile franchises and Pontiac and Cadillac were paired at another dealership. I don’t remember seeing more than a handful of Vauxhalls growing up, and even fewer 50s-early 60s Opels. I’m guessing the Pontiac dealer gave the Vauxhalls a try, and quickly gave up while the Buick dealer decided he didn’t even want to be bothered. Local Ford dealers were even less enthused about selling European Fords.
Ascona A was made to be the new Kadett C, but Opel put it out as a new class between Kadett and Rekord.
Wow! Conversation fodder indeed!
Paul’s point about the ’58 Rekord and Biscayne being too close in price would seem to have been easily remedied by reducing the base Rekord by $25 and increasing the Biscayne by the same.
But, I suppose Chevy was stinging from Ford beating Chevy’s sales in 1957, and the last thing they likely wanted was a volume drop in the main Chevy line to a car identified as an import.
I don’t pretend to understand the actual threat of anti-trust action for GM at the time, but I do know it was present. Syke’s take is the best knowledge we have here. But, if Chevy had marketed the Opel as a Chevy branded car with a German heritage, it is possible they may have been able to leverage their huge dealer network and have given VW an even better run for its money. The idea that the U.S. government might find that a problem is deplorable in hindsight.
A solid subcompact car in the Chevy line-up by the early ’60’s might have changed all of Detroit’s outlook and culture regarding small cars – and maybe the teething problems of such a program would have been long gone by the time subcompacts became critical products in 1974.
The Ascona, with its miniature ’75 Chevy Nova looks, would have worked well at Chevy dealers into the later 1970s.
The Ascona A with its miniature 1975 Chevy Nova looks was replaced by the Ascona B in the same year. Another huge commercial Opel success.
Here in Norway I just can’t understand why anyone in America wanted a 4 cylinder, noisy, uncomfortable, powerless Opel when you could choose so many other better cars?
A Chevrolet Nova is almost a luxury car compared to the Ascona.
Opel Ascona was not any good in any particular way. It was a cheap car for everyday use for the European marked. In Norway the B and later the unreliable C-bodel sold very well. Not even power steering was standard equipement and many of them had the 1.3 S engine and a four speed manual trans. The B model was known for average or good handling ability, and with the bigger four cylinder engine it was powerfull in the Norwegian marked. V8 was unthinkable, I6 og V6 was for luxury cars for rich people, and something like power windows was hardly in any cars.
We didn’t even hear about AC og climate control before the 90s, or cruise control and power seats? Forget it, only the american cars had it, and they very expensive with the taxes. Even a Chevrolet Caprice was known as a luxury car in Norway in the 1980s.
But I guess that when things are rare, the popularity rises, if it is a Lincoln Mark IV or an Opel Ascona.
You have to realize that quite often the cheapest cars are basic to the point of spartan. The cheapest Chevy in 1958 had a 6 cylinder engine and a 3 speed manual transmission, no radio, maybe no heater, and vinyl covered seats. While the Opels that might have been sold at Chevy dealers were also a bit stripped, or at least lower trim models, to some folks there was a bit of cachet (spell?) attached with driving a small foreign sedan. Of course, some folks thought only real misers owned small, foreign sedans.
But still, a 6 cylinder engine. The rattling Opel four was not anything to brag about. But some of the later four cylinder engines was very good indeed.
My question is that when you in america could buy a 3 or 4 years old Chevrolet Caprice (or Chevelle) for the same amount of money as the Opel Ascona (I’m taking a big guess here, but you get the picture) I just don’t understand who that would buy an Ascona? OR for that matter a Chevrolet Vega. Gas was and is very cheap in the US, so why would anyone buy a small uncomfortable powerless car when you could get the opposite for not much more money ( a couple of years old) ?
Buick430: From all of your comments here in the past, it’s clear you’re a lover of big American barges. And that you’ll never get why a very large percentage of car enthusiasts placed a high value on tight handling, sporty feel, efficiency, economy, a certain quality of construction, etc…all things that were never available in big American cars.
To each their own, but maybe it’s time to stop questioning why some folks like small sporty cars? The market spoke, right? Not everyone wanted a Buick Electra, or even a cheap Chevy Biscayne.
I guess these cars was so rare here in Norway at the time, and big american cars with big V8 engines was cars we only could dream of. We did not have the opportunity too choose these cars, we had to drive a Beetle, Ascona, Kadett or Taunus. Volvo Amazon was better, and the MB was for the really rich people. This changed a bit in the 80s when the traditional american car was in change, but in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the american car was a dream for many Norwegians.
I can agree with you on the handling, the sporty feel and sometimes the quality of construction. But when it comes to reliability, I think few cars can match a traditional BOF american car with V8, automatic and a solid rear end.
And really, the Ascona a sporty car? I can understant that a BMW felt sporty at the time, but an Ascona? I don’t think so, I grew up in the backseat of an Ascona. I’m not talking about today, but when the cars was new, why anyone would choose an Ascona in the US? That is still a question for me, because in Europe we choosen it because we had to, not because we wanted to. But the Ascona was rare in the US, the Caprice was rare in Norway. Maybe that has something to do with it. I understand that not everyone in the US wanted a fullsize american car, but the small Ascona was not the best small car to choose in my opinion.
The Ascona was exactly the same under the skin as the Manta. Did you read today’s vintage comparison review? The Manta won, because of its superior handling, most of all. The Ascona/Manta were considered to be the equal of the BMW 1600/2002 in handling.
I did read it, a great article, but I’ve droven both Manta A and B, and Ascona B and C a lot. None of them are exaxtly great in the handling department, even at it’s time. They where not bad, but not the best either. The Ascona was a simple, cheap and spartan car for European midle class families. The Manta shared all but the body with the Ascona.
I think every American car had a heater/defroster by then. But the Delray/Yeoman had one sun visor, cardboard kick panels, no foam in the seats, no arm rests (or any kind of door pull other than the door handle) and no oil filter. Like every 1958 GM car they did have plenty of stainless trim on the exterior which previous poverty spec Big Three cars did not have, so less blatantly announcing their owner’s cheapness to everyone.
No oil filter?
American cars in America came a la carte to a certain extent in this era, although the big “system house” dealerships which would do all they could to put you in a car they had on the lot TODAY were fast becoming a thing. But still a base model Nova was *really* basic – the ones exported to Europe probably all had the “right” options – heavy-duty/sport suspension with the best available tires, upgraded upholstery, floor shift or automatic, Probably mostly stuff an American customer could have if they special ordered but were seldom if ever ordered for dealer stock, being passed over for things with more showroom appeal (padded cabriolet top!)
That might be right. But when the (for you americans) breand and butter Chevrolet Caprice had such options as cruise control or “comfortron” in 1978, many of the Mercedes E and even S-class did not have any of these equipment here in Norway. On american cars these kind of thing where very cheap compared to European cars. I don’t think you even could get power windows or steering in the Ascona as an option.
Opel Automatic, I think Opel used the TH180 GM-trans, am I right?
The Turbo-Hydramatic 180 was an automatic transmission developed and produced by General Motors. It was a light-duty derivative of the Turbo-Hydramatic and was manufactured and used in Europe and Asia in a variety of longitudinal engine vehicles. The TH180 was later renamed 3L30 and was replaced by the 4L30-E in the 1990s.
So yes, probably, not the German transmission implied in the R&T article.
It was made in France and fitted to later Vauxhalls and Holdens, Aussies will tell you it was all Australian but as usual it wasnt,
A hybrid Ascona appeared down under by Holden the second gen Torana was Opel based but with Holden six or V eight engines, while the same body called a Sunbird sported the Opel 1.9 four, very popular cars.
Now, I know this is all very usual for you, but how about some evidence that the LH-LX Torana was indeed Opel based? Anything you could point to that’s actually been published would be greatly appreciated.
GMH said it was, good enough for me, or do you think it was designed somewhere else and just magically happened to have an Opel powertrain?
The centre body section was used by Opel Vauxhall and Holden jesus christ even the much vaunted Torana two door hatch was only a two door Opel built in OZ.
I have to back Bryce here, the doors on the Torana are almost identical to the Vauxhall Victor FE (barring the quarter window on the rear door)
And the Torana.
Given the first Torana was a mildly restyled Vauxhall Viva, it was not a surprise. Compare the dimensions of the Torana and Victor/Ventora/2300 FE (4-cyl version)
Wheelbase 2586 2591 mm (Torana first)
OA Length 4493 4488
OA Width 1704 1702
The front subframe and suspension look the same too, although no doubt Holden made a lot of changes to suit the local mechanicals and beef it up.
Yep and the UC model is even more closely related, and the last use of the cam in head Opel 1.9, the Starfire 1900 was developed to replace it, just a shame it was nowhere near as good.
First up, I would like to apologise to Bryce, my initial post was excessively personal, and that’s poor form. Especially at CC. So, sorry mate.
Now, I’ll definitely agree with John abut the look of the Vauxhall – the first time I saw a FE Victor, I felt it oddly familiar to a long-term Torana owner. However, all of the references that I have read (and reviewed during the past few hours…) seem to say that although the car largely fits the GM global design themes of that class and period, with the Rekord D and FE Vauxhall cars being perfect examples, the LH is cited as being all-new and all-Australian. Now, this is one of those definitions that could really be stretched in all directions, depending on perspective, and given that at least in the case of the Vauxhall and Torana, they derive from a common platform in the HB, cut and shut for the LC/LJ Toranas, there will certainly be some similarities. However, one description of the car suggests that “Earlier Toranas had varied from pure Vauxhall to Australian variations on the English chassis. However, the new LH Torana series was almost an HQ built on a smaller scale.”
And then I guess we just need to determine how Australian the HQ is….
And if anyone has a Vauxhall FE in Melbourne, I can provide the hoist, and an LH Torana for comparative evaluations!
And GN, sorry for hijacking an interesting look at Opel’s efforts in the US market!
I am really intrigued by the way Holden developed cars! For example, I am really curious about the basis for the HQ. How closely related was it to the U.S. X Body of the time? Dimensions seem similar–wheelbase is the same at 111″. But the Australian cars were so much better looking than the NOVA clones sold stateside. For example, the HQ Monaro looks much more like a Pontiac than the Ventura. Such a shame U.S. didn’t invest more in this size class–I guess they were afraid it would cannibalize the A-bodies too much.
Would love to learn more about all these cars–to me they seem to combine some of the best aspects of both American and European GM designs to make really sweet packages.
GN: we’ve covered these cars over the years in various ways; you might try a site search. But here’s one close look I did at the similarities (and differences) between the HQ and the X cars: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/cohort-outtake-holden-hqs-the-ozzie-nova-and-camaro-close-not-quite-close-enough/
The figures for the FE are a little out there.
Wheelbase is 2667mm – 105″
Length 4554mm – 179.3″
Width 1699mm – 66.9″
Not surprisingly very close to the Rekord D, sharing much of the same under structure.
They were an excellent rally car too. The ascona’b’ even more so
My family rented a 1984 Opel Ascona 1.6S for touring Western Europe. By that time it was a German J-car. IIRC, it also was rated at about 90 hp, just as this ’71 Ascona 1.6S was. Emissions controls were still virtually nil in Europe relative to the US in 1984, so the cars were better performers than 1.8 and 2 liter J-cars from Chevrolet, BOP, and Cadillac. They also didn’t have real bumpers or door beams. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if the 3-speed automatic version of the 1984 car would have still required over 13 seconds to achieve 60 mph. Our rental was a manual which seemed to be capable of 112 mph, but German speedometers have read ridiculously high for many years. The odometer went to 99,999 kilometers. That’s about 62,000 miles.
The Road Test article indicates an “alternator” as a $4 desirable option. Weren’t alternators common on all vehicles by the early ’70s or is this a Road Test edit error??
Another desirable option listed are front and “rear” fog lamps for $60. Is this possible??
Rear fog lights are common in Europe and Japan. These are often a single red light about the same intensity as a brake light, sometimes centrally mounted, sometimes part of one of the rear light clusters. They are intended to prevent being rear-ended in thick fog.
You will see these occasionally here in North America, on Audis and Volvos especially, their owners completely oblivious to their proper usage, leaving then on all the time.
Google “rear fog light images” for examples.
Ok, I went back to the article and found the photo of the rear of the Ascona. There is a corresponding caption that mentions the rear fog lamp.
I guess each continent has its own flavor in car design like yellow head light lenses in France or super size cup holders in North America to hold a 7-Eleven Big Gulp and chili dog???????
This is a superb article GN. An informative overview of how the captives were aligned within GM and outstanding period imagery. Loved it.
I traded in my ’72 Vega for a ’75 Opel Sportwagon; the Opel was a vastly superior automobile than the Vega but unfortunately the fuel injection gave me almost constant problems from virtually day one. When it was working properly-which was about half the time it was great-the other half of the time it was sputtering, wheezing and barely running. I lost count of the number of times I had to have injectors cleaned or replaced.
Aside from all the problems with the fuel injection it was a great car.
If only gasoline producers had included fuel injector cleaning detergent in the gasoline in 1975! You would had experienced much less issues with the FI.
Love these retro road tests GN. Lots of meat in the text as well. Thank you.
Another awesome story! I’ve heard of the Opel Ascona,but I’ve never seen one in person. Whoever sold the car, I believe that Opel should have done more to advertise the car.
“…One “solution” being tossed around Washington DC was to break up The General, and make Chevrolet a standalone company….
We could wonder how the automobile landscape would had look today if that scenario had came to fruitition with the impact it would had on Ford, Chrysler, AMC as well as VW, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Hyundai, Mitsubishi?
Not the Ascona, I spotted this vintage review done by Bud Lindemann of Car & Track showing its little sibling the Manta/1900.
Those Opels like in the post featuring the same sheet metal as the Holden Torana 1700 four were a Chevrolet built bt Daewoo in Korea there was even a four door wagon at least two examples have been seen in New Zealand for sale recently. Chevrolet 1700.
… responding late to the comments made by the Norwegian gentleman above regards the “not very special handling” of the Ascona: I have a feeling he compares the base, 1.3L models and some such poverty spec cars with something like a BMW 2002; the real comparison would be the 1.9L with 90 hp fitted in the sportier versions. Actually, the Ascona had a very good basic suspension design and, when properly tied down, it could get far more than 90 hp to the ground safely. In the right hands, it won international rallies outright. Anyone who grew up in Germany, Austria or Switzerland in the 70s-90s remembers them as a sort of a poverty muscle car (in so far as European cars can be such a thing). I remember a trip to the Nürburgring, being driven around in a modified Lotus Elan +2 and an early Subaru Impreza STI, in both cases by very good drivers, and the locals were passing us left and right with their Asconas (and Kadets) as if we were standing still. So there…
I do agree that the 1.9 90 hp engine turned the Ascona to a better car, and the handling was not bad at all. But these cars had some problems in the cold weather here with salted roads. Worst of them was the the rust and the heater was not the best.
They did rust but then most cars did back then (I agree Volvos and SAABs were better than most, precisely because they were made to your market and the manufacturers were better aware of the issues).
When Buick dealers sold Opels, how well were salespeople trained in the product? I remember Buick salespeople pronouncing the car’s name as both “o-PELL” and “O-pul.”
If they couldn’t get the name straight, how much did they really know about the car?
Sorta like SubAru or SuBaru there…
We ‘Mericanz ain’t gonna pernounce those fancy forren names right.
Nissan was smart to call themselves Datsun for a while. Hard to mess that one up. Volkswagen was also hard to mispronounce. Perhaps the key to ready market acceptance is both a good product AND an Americanized name.
A guy around here has a brown wagon version. According to wikipedia, these are considered “large” family cars.
Probably based on what the Ascona-Vectra-Insignia evolved into.
Hey Paul, I have a October 74 Road Test here and here’s what they say about
the upcoming 75 Vega…. When you’ve got a winner why change HUH?
But this is the magazine that told us to buy Rovers
and Renault 10’s
I thought you might like this
Curbside Classic gets better and better
In 1974, I bought an Orange/Black Opel Manta and drove it for four years. At the time, I was doing a lot of commuting among Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York. In four years, I put nearly 90,000 miles and only when it started needing service every month (for seven months running), I traded it on a ’78 Toyota Corolla SR-5 Liftback. The Toyota in many ways was a real letdown – the Opel was a much more fun car to drive – and better looking.
Last week, 4/11/22, a one owner, Yellow ’75 Manta with 52K original mi. sold on Ebay, for best offer with a listing price set at $11,900.00. I follow all the A body Opels selling in the US, and this was the lowest mileage Manta I’ve seen to date.
I still have my “M&M Blue” ’75 Ascona, as seen in an above comment.
18mpg city/21 highway, man we’ve come a long ways. Might as well drive something like a much larger six cylinder Nova or Dart, theyd be in the same ballpark. Probably cost about the same unless you ordered a ton of options.
Opel didnt show up in NZ till much later but your friendly GM dealer would steer you to a large Vauxhall if a Chev was out of your range, failing that they could put you in a Holden though they were quite agricultural during the early 60s or he could flog you a 4 banger Vauxhall should you want good fuel economy, he couldnt get you a Buick,
Ford had a similar range of cars American/Canadian, British and cheaper still the Australian Falcon, you probably had to wait a long time for the American cars from both but a Velox or Zephyr could be yours fairly soon or one of the Australian efforts GM NZ began assembling Holdens with the FE Ford waited untill the 66 XR.
Opels were sold in South Africa as Chevrolets for many years, up till the 80’s. Those cars were often best sellers too. An Opel also formed the basis of “South Africa’s Own Car” the Ranger. And to top it all, Chevy badges even adorned some Holden based cars out here too. I’m pretty sure, much like with their return in the 2000s selling Holdens (again) and Daewoos branded as Chevrolets, an actual US Chevrolet hadn’t been sold officially in the RSA since the early 60’s, which of course will never happen thanks to GM pulling out of the market here just prior to the sale of Opel and Vauxhall to PSA Group.
Here are a couple of examples: