The 1969 Opel GT was Opel’s first show car and the German company’s first two-seat sports car since before World War II. Based on the humble Kadett B and often considered a miniature Corvette, the GT also owed a great deal to Chevrolet’s compact Corvair and a concept car once intended to replace the ‘Vette. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we take a look at the origins, history, and fate of the 1969–1973 Opel GT and its various planned successors.
CORVAIR ROOTS: THE MONZA GT
Although the Chevrolet Corvair, launched in October 1959, was not the U.S.-market sensation GM hoped, it made a strong impression on European automakers. The Corvair was not exported in large numbers, but its styling was extremely influential, spawning imitators ranging from Volkswagen’s Type 34 Karmann Ghia to the Hillman/Sunbeam Imp. Some European stylists also essayed custom-bodied Corvairs of their own, like the 1961 Pininfarina Speciale and the 1963 Bertone Testudo, a fastback coupe with a lift-up canopy in place of conventional doors.
Not to be outdone, the Chevrolet studios turned out a few radical Corvairs of their own, most with shortened wheelbases and very sporty styling. The earliest of these, the Sebring Spyder and Super Spyder, were primarily showpieces, intended to tease new production models. In 1962, however, work began on a somewhat more serious project, known internally as XP-797. There were two variations: a rear-engined roadster, later dubbed Monza SS, and a mid-engine coupe, the Monza GT.
The Monza GT coupe was designed by Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine and engineered by Chevrolet’s Research & Development department. Developed over the course of about 10 weeks in the spring of 1962, the GT was a racy-looking fastback with a three-piece fiberglass body on a semi-unitized aluminum platform. Like the Bertone Testudo, it had a one-piece canopy that flipped forward for entry and exit; the front and rear body sections also tilted up for access to the powertrain and suspension. While the engine was a stock dual-carburetor Corvair flat six, it was mounted ahead of the rear axle, making the GT a mid-engine car.
The GT and SS roadster were first seen in public at the Sports Car Club of America’s Elkhart Lake 500 in June 1962, followed by appearances at a number of other SCCA events. Those excursions were apparently for development purposes rather than publicity; in fact, Chevrolet asked journalists not to talk about the experimental cars until around the time of the car’s formal debut at the New York Auto Show in April 1963.
Bill Mitchell, then vice president of GM Styling, wanted to see the Monza GT in production — in fact, he later claimed that he saw it as a potential successor to the recently introduced Corvette Sting Ray. However, that idea found little management support. The Corvette itself was still on shaky ground as far as the corporation was concerned and Mitchell said Chevrolet was just not interested. The XP-797 project was abandoned, although the Monza GT and SS survive today in the collection of GM’s Heritage Center.
STYLING AT OPEL
The stylistic impact of the Corvair was not lost on officials of GM’s German subsidiary in Rüsselsheim. Adam Opel AG was then doing respectably well in Europe, building around 300,000 cars a year, but stylistically, it simply didn’t rate. Opel didn’t even offer convertibles or hardtops in those days, just an array of competent but dull sedans and Kombis (wagons).
Unlike its U.S. parent, Opel didn’t indulge in fanciful show cars, either. Rüsselsheim’s tiny design staff comprised fewer than a dozen artists and modelers crammed into a rather small space, reporting to chief engineer Hans Mersheimer. Any advanced concepts they may have developed were strictly for internal consumption.
By 1961, Nelson J. Stork, then Opel’s managing director, and E.S. Hoglund, GM’s VP of overseas operations, had decided that Rüsselsheim needed an infusion of U.S. design talent. Bill Mitchell arranged for Hoglund to interview some of his top designers, including Chuck Jordan, then chief stylist for Cadillac, and Irv Rybicki, then head of the Oldsmobile studio. The one Opel management ultimately selected, however, was Clare MacKichan, for the last decade the chief stylist of Chevrolet. MacKichan had overseen a variety of memorable designs, including the Corvette, the 1955–1957 Chevrolets, the Nomad, and of course the Corvair. In early 1962, MacKichan was transferred to Rüsselsheim, with Irv Rybicki taking his place at Chevrolet.
Under MacKichan’s direction, Opel’s styling department gained additional staff and a new design center. Unsurprisingly, over the next few years, Opel’s production cars began to take on a more American look. If they had been fitted with sealed-beam headlights, cars like the bigger Rekord B and C wouldn’t have looked out of place in contemporary Chevrolet catalogs. Indeed, the new Kadett was sold through some U.S. Buick dealers.
THE OPEL EXPERIMENTAL GT
Another of MacKichan’s moves was to establish a new Advanced Design group, headed by Erhard Schnell, a designer who had been with Opel since the early 1950s. Among the Advanced group’s early projects was a sports car, something Opel hadn’t even contemplated in some 40 years. Known internally as Projekt 1484, the sports car was initially developed in great secrecy. Even Nelson Stork didn’t see it until 1963, many months after the project began.