(first posted 3/11/2017) Amateur SCCA racing, which had started out with very much stock cars in the early 50s, had become increasingly competitive and expensive by the early 70s, making it less accessible for the average Joe. But in a drastic return to its “race what you brung” roots, in 1973 or so, the SCCA created the Showroom Stock sedan. And given R&T’s roots in sports car and amateur racing, they were all over it.
In this comparison of popular SSS competitors, they’re taken to the track and wrung out. Ever wonder how the economy sedans from the times really performed against each other on the track? Here’s the answers, which include a few surprises, as well as not.
Once again, the Opel 1900 showed its mettle thanks more to its well-rounded capabilities than to a particularly powerful engine. It proved that a car that’s easy to drive, that inspires confidence, and has no vices is a winner. In fact, the Opel Manta was so dominant in the class in the first year, it was banned, in the hopes that the boxier body of the 1900 would slow it down some. Not enough to keep it from still being at the top of the heap.
With such good cars, one wonders why Opel got the “low end” image in Germany compared to VW and Ford. Was the decline a more recent phenomenon?
I think Opel was doing pretty well in Germany in the ’70s, when VW was struggling to choose a path to get past the Beetle. They were still taken quite seriously in the early ’80s, but then other companies were improving while they were trying to only spend money on things that were visible.
The same way BMW got the ultimate driving machine image pure advertising propaganda creating a myth.
It’s a class thing. Starting in the mid 70s, with the introduction of the VW Passat, Sirocco, and Golf, VWs were seen as more sophisticated and were more heavily preferred and driven by those with a higher educational degree, while Opels (and Fords) were generally more common with those without a degree. Germans are very class-conscious, not so much in terms of income, since back then there was a high degree of income equality. But educational status was a big thing, as were professional titles.
In Austria, every name on a house or apartment buzzer had/have a person’s degree on it (if they had it). Even engineers used a degree title. Professors were the top of the heap.
So Opels became the blue collar brand, along with Ford. Which explains their predicament, as since the 70s premium German brands have become ever more common, along with more folks having a higher degree.
Does that explain it?
Meanwhile, there was no such correlation in the US. In fact, the opposite. Buyers of imports like Opel were invariable better educated and had higher incomes than buyers of mainstream domestic brands.
It has nothing to do with the actual qualities of the cars themselves. Image/prestige are everything.
GM’s F-Bodies (and certain other domestic cars) had a similar image issue, as “mullet-mobiles”, and many folks wouldn’t touch them for the same reason as was the case with Opels in Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe.
The Opels became the ultimate GM built mullet mobile here once Holden crammed a five litre V8 under the hood renamed Torana they were quite a road weapon.
The only Opel mullet-mobiles in the seventies, if you want to call them that way, were the Manta A and B and -maybe- the Opel Kadett C coupe.
Quality-wise (build quality, fit and finish, rust proofing, longevity) an Opel Ascona or Rekord was the best sedan or wagon that a “middle-class” family could buy in the seventies, after a Mercedes-Benz or Volvo. Just couldn’t go wrong when you bought a new one.
The highly regarded 1975-1981 Ascona B below.
Opel was at its absolute peak in the seventies and highly successful throughout northwestern Europe. The brand had a model lineup that no other automaker could match, from a small 4-cylinder hatchback to a Mercedes-Benz W116 competitor with a (Chevy) V8. Many models were also available with fuel injection in a decade when it was still exotic.
They were also very successful in (professional) racing and rallying. Ask Jim Klein who the man is on the right in the picture below.
And Volkswagen ? The Golf, that was the VW company in the seventies, in short.
That all changed in the eighties and nineties. The VAG Group climbed, climbed and climbed. All the way to the mountain top. In that same era Opel (and also Ford, BTW) started to go downhill. Mainly due to horrible costs savings. Opels were always built to last; an Opel Rekord was a poor man’s Mercedes-Benz in the seventies, to give you an impression. Alas, not anymore. Not since the days of the Kadett E and Ascona C, both introduced in the early eighties. Cheaped out rust buckets, that’s what they had become.
And now it’s time to say Goodbye GM ! In Europe, at least…
Why, that is no other than Herr Walter Rohrl!
My dad’s side of the family was heavily into Opel, I recall an older Rekord, several Kadetts, an Ascona, a Senator, then several Omega wagons, one with the 3liter. Weirdly my Dad was never into them, he was mainly an Audi guy (starting with a DKW) and later in life gravitated to Ford.
Ja, sicherlich ! In this fairly recent video passenger Barbara is not a happy camper…
Such a riot about Ford not having any Pinto press cars with stick shift. Hi Ford it’s Road & Track. We were wondering if you had a Pinto for a comparison test we’re doing. Sure what do you need on it and what are going to be the competitors? Oh just the Vega and a few small Japanese cars. Anything else? A left over ’74 Opel 1900, we didn’t want to take a Manta. OK what else? Well we have a Scirocco in there. Not a Rabbit? No. Any other German cars? Yes we’ve got the Audi Fox but it’s a four-door. You mean the new one with the fuel injection? Yes.
We’ve got an all-new Capri II 2300 here that we think would fit the bill perfectly. No we want a Pinto 2300 stick. I’m so sorry we don’t have one.
And they were able to rent one with a stick, and get the specific rental car they wanted! Even if it was a greenhorn working the rental counter, you’d assume that part of their training in SoCal would’ve been to recognize what a Petersen Publishing corporate credit card meant…
Not a Petersen magazine.
I had that Scirocco – but 1977. I always thought it was a coupe.
First car I bought. Handled well, but drained me financially and promised NEVER to EVER buy a German car again.
I kept that promise.
For racing classification purposes a sedan is a car with a fixed roof, a back seat, and a B-pillar. The Porsche 911 is a prime example of a sedan.
I owned 2 of these models (not the same year as these), the latter of which was a ’78 Scirocco. Like you mention, it was not a trouble free car, but, man, it was a nice car to drive (still my favorite of the cars I’ve owned). I went the other way, and have owned nothing but VWs for the last 36 years (only 3 in that time, all manual transmissions) including my current 2000 Golf.
The other car I had was a ’74 Datsun 710. Despite it having the smaller (1.8 litre vs 2.0 litre) engine, I chuckled when I saw they included this model in a “sporty” comparison…albeit my 710 had an automatic, but they only person who thought my car was sporty was my Grandmother (who never learned to drive, she thought all small cars were sports models for some reason). The only time the 710 felt “fast” to me was when the alternator failed and I noticed increased pep due to the lack of power draw from the engine (but of course I couldn’t keep the car running with a bad alternator). It accelerated very lesurely, which was fine with me most of the time, as I lived in snow country, and wasn’t into blasting around in the snow, rather just wanted it to keep going for my daily commute to school. Not even a year after I graduated and got a job in another state, I was driving up to visit my parents and hit some black ice on interstate 89 north of White River Junction, and hit the guardrail…I was able to nurse it the rest of the way (70 miles?) up to Burlington, but after I got it fixed up I sold it to get the Scriocco…what a contrast. But it would have been interesting to drive the ’75 710 with a 4 speed to see how it compared with my ’74 with automatic (probably still would have preferred the Scirocco).
Does a pic better communicate ‘Ford of the ’70s’, than a Pinto in a deep body roll?
I had a ’75 Fox, 2 door sedan for about 2 years in the mid 90’s. I swapped in a good used ’83 Rabbit GTI 1.8L in it. Long story short, it would have smoked the Fox in this test, was…ahem…fun to drive, and fairly reliable. And this 4 door Fox with AC was the most powerful of the bunch? Times were, indeed, sad.
Opel used to make great cars.here from 1971 _1976 GM used to assemble OPEL REKORD with 2500cc &2800cc engine called CHEVY ROYAL.great cars that are still on the road.i used to see them as police cars too when i was a kid.
That ’75 Vega was a porker. Advertised curb weight for a Vega GT for that year was about 2550 lb., or 200 pounds more than the original-mostly due to those bumpers, I assume. My 72 GT was mechanically identical to the one Car and Driver used in their Vega GT vs. Pinto 2000 cc. comparison, including the 3.36 rear axle. Other than the slower acceleration of the ’75 car, Road and Track’s performance description matched my experience-good seats and driving position (I never learned heel-and-toe), very good handing, good brakes, but tricky wheel hop over bumps and on hard acceleration. A fun local car and highway cruiser for its size and time. For performance, I think I lucked out and had the best model. But, does rust add to, or subtract from your curb weight? And that motor was really under-stressed, relative to the competition. I look at the crossflow aluminum head the Chevy guys worked up that is pictured in the Wikipedia Vega entry and just sigh. Wouldn’t that have been fun?
Check out those 0-60 times. Most of today’s economy compacts will cut those numbers nearly in half. Tomorrow we may be condemned to emasculating transportation pods but today we are in a Golden Age of cars.
Finally someone else on this site that sees we’re in a golden age right now. We haven’t seen this much automotive excitement since the 60’s, in what other time period have you had insanely powerful and fast cars coming out on a daily basis? All three muscle kings are back in full force! Europe is rife with hypercars! The American car industry is full of brash, chromy land barges, only in the form of trucks! Essentially every modern car can make it to 200k without breaking a sweat! Basic economy cars outperform sports cars of old! What’s not to like?
Think I would still take the Datsun 510 I raced in those SCCA races in the early 70’s. What car it was. Practically extinct on the road until Thursday when I saw a coupe driving down 680 at 9:30am, Lowered with wider aspect tires. Did that brings back memories.
Four door Fox with A/C had power? I had a 74 Fox 4dr. with A/C and automatic for one year as a company car. Bleh! I liked the 74 Duster 225/6 with auto and A/C much better as another company car.
Lee R. Johnson of Fort Wayne, IN would like his Road & Track magazine back.
Those early 1970’s Opel 1900/Mantas were SO good!
My Father purchased a new ’71 1900 (as they were called in the USA) 2 door hardtop, saying it was the BMW 2002 he could never afford. To me, it also had elements of the BMW 3.0 CS coupe, esp in the roof line. Within 3 months’ time my Mother stole it from him, she liked it so much. She found it “Small and Cute and Sporty” and drove much easier than my ’71 Pinto 2 litre/4speed car.
Compared to the Pinto, Vega, Celica or VW bug; it was a revelation. Truly the sum total was better than the individual parts. You sat up high (unlike many “sporty” cars of the time period) in firm-but comfortable & supporting seats, it steered easily even with manual steering, the power front disc brakes were easy to modulate, the hydraulic clutch and slick shifting 4 speed manual made “ripping thru the gears” a fun activity and not a manual chore, the 1.9 engine whirrrred (again, like a BMW) and never shook like a Pinto or Vega, the trunk was surprisingly big for a car of it’s side.
Due to it’s “Real World” nimble handling, athletic responses and excellent visibility (again, unlike many “sporty” cars of the time period) I could run off and leave cars with much more power in congested traffic conditions.
It was every bit as good as the “Car & Driver” road test that seduced Dad and I to go look at one and drive it. By the manic grin on Dad’s face I knew he was “hooked”.
I like Mom & Dad’s baby blue Opel so much that two years later, I owned a ’73 Opel Manta Luxus, hand crank sunroof and that beautiful (for the time period) but fragile, upscale cloth interior. It was totaled out by a drunk driver (in New Orleans, go figure!).
My final Opel was a ’75 Manta, with the one year only (In the USA) Bosch fuel injection. The FI transformed the just-decent engine into the BMW 2002 TTI copy that Dad (and I) always wanted.
My biggest complaint with all three Opels was the dealer add on air conditioning, SO needed in Hot & Humid New Orleans. The system did it’s job well. but the GM/Harrison HUGE compressor made the car drop 4 mph when cruising on Interstate 10 at 70 mph! Such was the sacrifice many imported car buyers paid for add on A/C in this time period. Only Toyota had an integrated, excellent cooling, no drag on the engine compressor.
If I could find a showroom condition ’73 Manta Luxus with the transplanted1975 fuel injected engine; I’d “do what I had to do” to purchase it.
Hindsight being 20 -20 we now know which brands were the survivors in the U.S.A. Unless you are a gearhead the name Opel is unknown today in america. Audi wasn’t the prestige brand it is today and Pintos and Vegas are a rare sight. What you do see is Hondas,Toyotas,Nissan, and VWs quite a few of those models that were in the test are on the road today.
This is one of those few tests when Road&Track tested “mainstream” cars….something (IMHO) they rarely do these days.
I actually owned 3 of these cars, all bought brand new, albeit my Pinto was a 76 and my Vega was a 72. Of those 3 cars, I agree with R&T’s assessments….and rankings.
My feelings about the Audi are: if they had taken the same parts, and the same level of engineering prowess but built RWD cars they would have been giving BMW a real run for it’s money, starting in the 70s. Audi builds great cars, but they would have been doing it sooner if the handling in the 70s-80s hadn’t been handicapped by FWD and skinny wheels/tires.
Same with Motorweek. Their vintage tests were mainstream and useful as one can see on You Tube.
Part of the reason I used to like Road Test.
Now it seems none of them do mainstream, unless it’s a throwaway piece or for satirical purposes or a way to mock the potential buyer of the cars.
Because everyone has access to unlimited debt and cheap leases these days.
Agree! Then (and now) most of the cars they test will never be in MY driveway, because of initial cost, insurance and upkeep.
I agree. The tiny pizza cutter tires on my Fox severely affected handling, but that was OK as it was (’75) first year of fuel injection; they used the same fuel tank as the carbureted models. Even with the skinny tires, I could make it cut out on command with 1/4 tank or less in it. Good ‘ol K-Jetronic…
I owned a 74 Audi Fox, and that car was light years ahead of the Vega and Pinto I owned. I mean, headlights that could be adjusted without disassembling the front end of the car, just turn a big yellow knob behind the headlights. A fuse that could be identified and changed without a lot of under dashboard contorting. Stalk mounted headlight dipping. Heck, seats with adjustable backrests weren’t offered on the Pinto….ever?
But what I thought was THE best feature: a sunroof that didn’t leak.
When I think back on the early/mid 70s, I think about what my wife and I for cars when we first got married in 1975. She had a ’72 Chevrolet Vega GT, competition orange with black striping and I had a ’74 Mustang II 2+2 fastback. I wouldn’t be caught dead in either one of them now, but back then we were riding in style at about 23 mpg.
That was the first year of the Showroom Stock Class, and within a few years the SCCA had improved the classification quite a bit. They switched to 3 classes, Showroom Stock A, B and C, and categorized cars more carefully by their performance potential. SSA was mostly 280Z, Turbo Mustang, Porsche 924, then the RX7 plus a few others, The Scirocco was moved to SSB and the Golf was in SSC; the Scirocco was not competitive in B but the Golf dominated C, though 6 cylinder Gremlins and X1/9’s were quite fast at some tracks. Few of the cars in this test (and C&D had a similar test) were competitive in the new classes. Over the years, the Showroom Stock classes lost popularity as drivers wanted a better experience on track, with aftermarket sway bars, wider rims and lower profile soft compound tires, and Improved Touring (IT), or spec classes for lightly modified Miatas and other cars took over from SS.
I owned a ’71 Vega and 3 (’75 ’77 & ’80) Rabbits, and often drove parents ’72 2.0 engine Pinto. All were 4 speeds (later added a 5 speed to the ’77).
The article is pretty much right on the mark concerning the Pinto’s poor oversteering handling but powerful engine, the Vega’s underpowered engine but good handling, And the Scirocco’s (and Rabbit’s) great all around performance and handling.
The ’75 Rabbit’s engine really woke up after smog equipment removal, Zenith carb replaced with Holly-Weber (Pinto) carb and timing adjustments, I got a 17.1 1/4 mile time slip once at Orange County Raceway in the early 80’s with it’s quick revving tiny 1471 cc engine, and it had the added weight of add on (VPC) AC.
This old article was a well researched and interesting read, great find.
I once watched a Rabbit Bilstien Race at the old Riverside Raceway, great fun watching them cornering on 3 wheels.
1980 Showroom Stock C National Championship race with lot’s of Bunnies on 3 wheels.
I had a 73 Vega (actually 2 – a hatch and a GT wagon) and a 79 Fox. The Vegas were reliable. If by reliable you meant they didn’t leave me weeping on the roadside. The Hatch required the plugs to be replaced weekly or more often due to oil fouling. Keep at least 3 sets. One in the engine and 2 cleaned sets in the glove box. The Wagon had a sleeved engine that was supposed to go in the hatch til young me found all the bondo in the body. the wagon was terribly ugly. Yellow car with green doors – no panel was the same – the yellow parts weren’t from the original car either. Had the GT goodies though. We had fun in both. Girlfriends and buddies. GF at the time wanted me to have something nicer so found a 79 Fox and signed up for a loan. The day I made the first payment, the auto trans crapped out. All down hill from there. It would quit running for no apparent reason. Eventually wired the fuel pump to a switch I think. It had HVAC issues, braking issues, head gasket failure. But it survived T boning a datsun 710 with nothing other than a cracked headlight surround. The Datsun was totaled – whole side caved in.
Eventually I think I sold the Fox for $50 for someone wanting the seats. It wasn’t running safely at the time – had to be towed off by new owners. Then the people wanted a refund because it wasn’t safe to drive. A real WTF moment.
After that, I went into a pickup truck phase for a few years, plus a 71 Dodge Dart with 318. It was also a reliable heap of fun.
I don’t care how much Audi improves, I would never own another. To me, Audi was just German for “a fool and his money are soon parted”.
Hey Lee, how’s things in Fort Wayne these days?
I used to devour articles like this when I was younger. The cars that I lusted after were the Scirocco and the Fox sedan. I read a test of the Fox in Car and Driver, and have wanted one ever since. I still find myself checking CL even now!
I had a beater ’75 Civic CVVC coupe with four speed in the late ’80’s. I had owned many Honda motorcycles in my youth and I was impressed by the utility of this car, especially the available space, since it was so much smaller than my ’84 Cougar. Performance was adequate with the manual trans, I later had a Hondamatic Civic wagon, a little jewel of a car ruined by that transmission.
Never had a Vega, though I had a two year old Pontiac version with five speed. The Astre was a coupe w/o a/c. My two brothers and I made a banzai weekend trip to Tijuana from the Bay Area in it, no layovers. Left after work on Friday night at 11:00 pm. drove straight down. Spent the day, drove straight back. The car ran fine and we were still young guys in our early 20’s swapping out driving chores. Oh to be young again!
I had a 74 Manta and really loved it. Power was disappointing due to the smog required denutting. The 69 1.9 solid lifter motor would have done the trick.