Son of Stingray: The 1969-1973 Opel GT

1971 Opel GT front 3q
The production Opel GT was 2.75 inches (70 mm) taller than the prototype, but it still stands a mere 48.2 inches (1,224 mm) overall. The GT was not otherwise a tiny car; at 161.9 inches (4,112 mm) long and 62.2 inches (1,580 mm) wide overall, it was longer and wider than a Triumph TR6. Curb weight was about 1,910 lb (866 kg) for the 1100SR, 2,120 lb (962 kg) with the 1.9-liter engine. (Surprisingly, even with the relocated engine, weight distribution was an unspectacular 54/46% front/rear.) Note the flush glass, roof-cut doors, and lack of rain gutters, all aerodynamic measures. (author photo)

Like the prototype, the production Opel GT’s chassis was borrowed almost whole cloth from the Kadett. Steering was rack-and-pinion, with a faster ratio than the sedan’s, while solid-rotor front disc brakes and a four-speed manual gearbox were standard. Opel’s new three-speed Strasbourg (TH180) automatic was optional. Front suspension was by upper and lower control arms with a transverse leaf spring while the rear used variable-rate coil springs and a torque tube axle located by twin radius arms and a Panhard rod. A rear anti-roll bar was optional, as were a heavy-duty suspension package and limited-slip differential.

The GT’s base engine would be the 1,078 cc (66 cu. in.) OHV four from the Kadett Rallye, with two single-throat carburetors and 67 gross horsepower (50 kW; 60 PS/44 kW net). The 1,897 cc (116 cu. in.) cam-in-head engine would be optional, although it would be the mildly tuned 1900S version available on the Kadett and Rekord, with a single two-throat Solex and 102 gross horsepower (76 kW; 90 PS/66 kW net). We assume the prototype’s 128 PS engine was deemed either unsuitable or too expensive for production.

1971 Opel GT bonnet bulge
Even with the relocated engine and a modified valve cover, the air cleaner snorkel of the 1900 S engine would not clear the Opel GT’s sloping hood, so a blister was added for clearance. The same issue also kept Opel from installing the hotter 1900 H engine from the Rekord Sprint, which made 106 PS (105 hp/78 kW) with two Weber carburetors; the latter wouldn’t fit under the GT’s hood. Tuners who installed multiple carburetors on the GT often resorted to either modifying the engine bay for clearance or foregoing air cleaners, obviously problematic for non-racing use. (author photo)

FACING THE MARKETPLACE

The start of Opel GT production was delayed by the general strike that shut down most of French industry in May 1968, but the first few hundred preproduction cars were completed that summer with regular production commencing in September.

To make up for the delays, Opel opted to have about half of first-year GT production trimmed in Bochum rather than in France. A preproduction GT appeared at the Circuit de la Sarthe shortly before the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1968, driven by Olympic skiing star Jean-Claude Killy, recently hired as a GM spokesman. The production car went on sale in Europe that October.

In Germany, the basic Opel GT-A 1100SR started at 10,767 DM (equivalent to about $2,750), above the original target, but not disastrously so. The GT-AL 1900S started at 11,877 DM (a little over $3,000). The federalized GT, which arrived in the U.S. in the spring of 1969, was offered in a single well-equipped trim level with a base price of $3,395; the 1.9-liter engine was a $99 option. Compared to a Porsche 912, that was a bargain, but the GT was more expensive than likely rivals such as the Fiat 124 Coupé, the Triumph TR6, or the new Ford Capri. A German Capri 1700GT, for example, undercut the GT-A 1100SR by almost 2,800 DM (more than $700).

1971 Opel GT front
European Opel GTs came with halogen driving lights, which were omitted on North American cars to avoid problems with U.S. lighting regulations. The slots above the bumper admit air to the radiator, although the primary intake is on the underside of the nose, behind the grille. (author photo)

The automotive press didn’t exactly receive the Opel GT with open arms. While the Opel was named 1969’s best-styled production car by Italy’s Style Auto magazine, other critics found the production GT less appealing than the cleaner, less gimmicky prototype. There was also a general turning up of noses about the GT’s Kadett origins, although reviewers acknowledged that very few affordable sports cars of the time didn’t share their underpinnings with workaday sedans.

For all the carping, reviewers admitted that the GT certainly looked the part both inside and out. The swoopy exterior was matched with a well-trimmed cabin with full instrumentation, fine seats, and above-average ergonomics. The GT also rode surprisingly well. If you could live with its limited luggage space, mediocre ventilation, and noisy engine, it scored well as a touring car.

As a sports car, however, the GT sent mixed messages. The manual shift linkage was slick and precise, the steering quick and accurate, but most enthusiast reviewers complained that the GT’s handling was more Buick than Bavarian. The principal culprit was the lackluster grip of the Opel’s skinny tires, but their cause was not helped by the standard suspension, whose lack of roll control contributed to substantial body lean and heavy understeer. The GT also tended to unload and spin its inside rear wheel in tight turns. European buyers could address the latter problem with a limited-slip differential and mitigate the former with heavy-duty suspension and/or a rear anti-roll bar, but curiously none of those items was offered on U.S. cars, although the suspension pieces were similar or identical those of the Kadett Rallye.

1973 Opel GT interior © 2009 Robert Nichols (used with permission)
In addition to its large tachometer, the Opel GT’s dashboard included both gauges and warning lights for amps, oil pressure, and water temperature (although the secondary gauges were deleted on the GT/J to reduce costs). Reviewers liked the four-speed gearbox’s shift linkage (despite a gap in ratios between second and third that was frustrating in U.S. driving conditions), but were split on the pedal location. Some appreciated that the throttle and brake were close enough to facilitate heel-and-toe downshifts; others thought the pedals were too close together. Many critics were also annoyed by the lack of face-level vents. (Photo © 2009 Robert Nichols; used with permission)

The GT did have decent straight-line performance, at least with the 1.9-liter engine. Since the GT weighed about 200 lb (91 kg) more than a Kadett, the 1100SR engine provided rather sleepy acceleration; 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took more than 16 seconds, although top speed was a respectable 96 mph (155 km/h). The 1900S engine allowed the GT to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in around 10 seconds, hot stuff by contemporary European standards. Given enough room, the 1900S would pull to 6,000 rpm in top gear, giving a top speed of 115 mph (185 km/h).

For the average buyer, the Opel GT felt nimble and sporty, and it offered show car looks, good performance, and excellent fuel economy (up to 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) on the highway) for a reasonable price. Model year production totaled more than 30,000 units, 11,880 of which were sold in the U.S.

1971 Opel GT rear 3q
One of the less happy similarities between the Opel GT and contemporary Corvettes was the lack of any exterior luggage access. A few small suitcases could be loaded through the doors into the carpeted area behind the seats, but there was neither a trunk nor any pretense of 2+2 seating. The spare tire and jack were concealed by a detachable vinyl cover. This car’s wheels and tires are not stock; 1.1-liter GTs came with 155SR13 tires, 1.9-liter cars with 165HR13s, all on steel wheels. (author photo)

SIDEBAR: Buick and Opel

The Opel GT was distributed in the U.S. through about 2,000 Buick dealerships, which also sold the Kadett and later the Ascona (marketed as Opel 1900) and Manta.

In retrospect, Buick and Opel seem an odd pairing. Like a lot of American auto industry veterans, most Buick salesmen were none too fond of small cars and we doubt dealer service managers liked having to maintain a separate parts inventory for their German-made offerings. The Opel GT seemed an even odder fit. Buick’s usual fare was soft, middle-class sedans and the division’s own efforts at performance-oriented cars like the intermediate Gran Sports (with which the GT was sometimes paired in Buick advertising) had met with a lukewarm response and disappointing sales.

So, why didn’t GM pair Opel with Pontiac, which had been pushing performance cars since the late fifties and (as described in our article on the Fiero) had tried unsuccessfully to develop its own small sports car, the XP-833/Banshee, only a few years earlier? The relationship between Buick and Opel dated back to the recession of 1957, which had created a sudden demand for fuel-efficient compacts while sales of mid-priced American cars dropped sharply. GM started work on compact cars for Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac, but as a stopgap, began importing modest numbers of cars from its European subsidiaries. Buick dealers received the Opel Olympia Rekord while Pontiac got the Vauxhall Victor.

Opel Rekord P2 sedan front 3q © 2010 Tvabutzku1234 (PD)
The last version of the Opel Olympia Rekord sedan sold in the U.S. was the P2, which remained available through 1963. Although only a compact by American standards, the P2 was on the larger side for a European family car: 177.8 inches (4,515 mm) long on a 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase. U.S. cars were powered by a 1,680 cc (103 cu. in.) OHV four making 64 gross horsepower (48 kW). (Photo: “Opel Rekord P2 grey” © 2010 Tvabutzku1234; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2012 by Aaron Severson)

In the early sixties, an improving U.S. economy and the arrival of GM’s senior compacts quickly made the Rekord and Victor superfluous. Pontiac threw in the towel in 1962. Buick almost did the same, but with the arrival of the new Kadett, they decided to stay the course. By 1968, the Kadett was the second most popular import in the U.S., selling more than 80,000 units a year.

By the early seventies, inflation and the rising value of the Deutschmark were threatening to push Opel’s U.S. prices beyond what the market would bear. The German-built 1900/Ascona and Manta were withdrawn in mid-1975, but a year later, Buick dealers began selling the Japanese-built Isuzu Gemini — which was based on the new Kadett C platform — as the Opel Isuzu (and later the Buick Opel). Only about 50,000 of the rebadged Geminis were sold before Buick finally gave up in 1979. A number of subsequent GM products have been based on Opel/Vauxhall designs, but neither brand has yet returned to the U.S. market.

32 Comments

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  1. Excellent article which covers all bases of this car’s history.
    Great job and keep up the good work guys!

  2. Great article. I always have had a fond desire for the GT. My mom bought a brand new Kadett in 1966. So when the GT showed up, I wanted one. Never got it, but always admired them. Thanks again…

  3. I am rather surprised that nothing was mentioned about the Pontiac Banshee. To me it seemed closer in styling and concept. Though I don’t know that the development of the Banshee had anything to do with the Opel.

    1. I mentioned it in passing in the sidebar (and I discussed the Banshee project at length in the Fiero article), but as far as I know, there’s no direct connection between the two other than their general conceptual resemblance. Bill Mitchell was obviously aware of both of them (and was apparently keen on the idea of a small sports car), but most of what I’ve read about the Banshee suggests that it was driven more by DeLorean than Mitchell.

      Still, the Opel and the Pontiac were developed at roughly the same time, and it does raise the question, “Why was Buick selling a small sports car in 1969 when GM had vetoed Pontiac’s attempt to do the same thing five years earlier?” I think the answer has more to do with Buick’s established relationship with Opel than anything else; if Buick had developed the GT in-house, I suspect they would have gotten the same response DeLorean did.

  4. Growing up in germany in my late teens the Opel GT (and the Ford Capri) immediately caught my attention as it brought some drama to a rather uninspired car design scene. Unfortunately my pockets weren’t deep enough to afford one. But during the 1969 IAA in Frankfurt I was invited to the Opel Design Center in Ruesselsheim. I had the good fortune to meet Erhard Schnell who showed me round the less sensitive areas including clay models of the Aero GT and the Opel CD Concept.
    Allow me two comments. I am surprised you did not include a picture of the NSU Prinz 4, the absolute best clone of the original Corvair, albeit at miniature scale.
    The pictures of the Kadett B coupe show the later LS version not the first coupe version, which to me looked more harmoniuos. Thanx for another great and well researched story

    1. Thanks!

      The main reason I included a picture of the Imp, rather than the Prinz 4 or some of the other obvious Corvair scions, was just that I had one handy. The list of cars obviously influenced by the Corvair is lengthy — Paul Niedermeyer over at Curbside Classic did a more exhaustive survey last year.

      There are two different Kadett coupes shown: a red one that I *think* is a ’67 (please correct me if I’m wrong) and a 1969 LS fastback coupe. They’re definitely not the same car.

      1. I am afraid that all three Kadett B coupes shown(plus or minus wheeltrim and vinyl roof) are of the "LS" type built between 8/67 – 7/73. The first B coupe had different sheetmetal from the B-pillar rearwards. It was built from 8/65 – 7/70. Here is a picture of it [Wikimedia Commons]

        Again thank you for the great work!!!

        1. Thanks for the clarification! Detailed information on workaday Opels of this vintage is a little scarce for those of us who don’t read German, and identifying model years is made more challenging by the disparity between when models were released in Germany and when (or if) they appeared in the U.S.

      2. While my parents lived in Paris during the mid ’60s, they owned a Simca 1000, one of the many Corvair clones. I drove that car to the 1967 Le Mans 24 hrs and watched Foyt and Gurney make it two in a row for Ford.

  5. Thanks for the fantastic story of the Opel GT. The latest in a long line of brilliant, well researched and informative stories about the auto industry and its most interesting products. I always lusted after one of these when I was in high school. Keep the great stuff coming.

  6. I owned two Opel GTs at different times in the late 1970’s. One of them was the actual J. Edgar Opel (!), so I can attest to its still existing in 1977-1978, in upstate New York (Dutchess County).

    By the time I had it, it had passed through several hands. The original paint job Car& Driver gave it had been painted over in a not-very-appealing metallic brown. It still had all of its C&D installed modifications, exhaust, etc. The engine was a little tired by the time I had it, compression was down – it had led a “well used” life by every owner flogging it in the spirit of C&D. It was an absolute blast to drive.

    Up until then my interests leaned more to American iron – Mustangs and the like were a core part of my automotive formative years. J. Edgar Opel, low compression notwithstanding, opened my eyes to how much fun a great handling ‘European sports car’ could be. At the time it was nothing less than a religious revelation – it would take hard 90 degree turns at 40 mph with barely a trace of body lean. The stock Opel GT I had which came before it was a delightful car, significantly mroe civilized than the MBGs and the like of the time, much more comfortable and practical as a ‘daily driver’ sports car, but J. Edgar Opel was a mystical experience for me.

    I traded it for a 1972 Camaro SS396 – mistake. The person I traded it to was going to rebuild the engine and repaint it back to the original C&D colors. I didn’t personally stay in touch with him, but heard through the local grapevine that he wrecked it hooning around one night, which would have been around 1979. The rumor was that a few years later the wrecked car was still in his garage in Kingston NY in the early 1980’s.

    I’ve now owned 103 cars in my 38 years of driving, and this is one of the ones I regret selling. I’ve been trolling e-bay and craigslist for years looking for a nice, stock GT.

    1. Hello, I don’t know if you’ve found your dream stock opel gt or not, but I have a 1970 1900 GT that is almost all stock except for things you wont miss like the original solex carb, and Points. it has a weber 32/36. it has electronic ignition and an aluminum radiator. it has an added ignition relay and a modern sony stereo. but the engine,transmission and exhaust are all original, as is the interior. here is a link to my CL post, which will be active until it’s sold. some great pictures. my plan for it was to install a 98 VW TDI engine(minimal computer)using an Acme Adapter and a Toyota 5 speed, but this car is too nice at 44 to go swapping in a non stock engine and the stock engine runs beautifully and sounds so nice it would be kind of a shame. it’s a very exotic looking car for sure.

  7. Aaron,
    Thank you for the memories, so to speak.
    I was in Munich in the summer of 1970 where I saw a red Opel GT in its natural enviroment on Belgium Block pavement. A fantastic memory. I returned home excited and smitten by the GT. Later in late spring 1971, I learned that the local Buick dealer had a red 1970 1.9Litre CIH GT in stock which had languished at the dealership , I initially believed, because of competition from the Datsun 240Z and Porsche 914. I was able to buy that car with a $500 discount for about $3000. Later I learned that Opel GT’s sold because of enthusiasts like me despite the indifference of Buick and its dealers to the Opel brand. Buick never properly understood the potential of the GT and later the Opel Manta, but we owners did.

    Shortly after I bought the Opel GT, I swapped out the stock Goodyear tires for Michelin XAS tires, added a rear anti-roll bar, and Koni shocks–the results were transformative. It was such a fun car to drive both in summer and in winter with snow tires. I also loved watching the headlamps swivel with the forward push of the headlamp lever–because it was a manual system, the headlamps never failed to open and engage, summer or winter.

    During the winter there were many great skiiing road trips to Vermont with the GT initially stopping at Smith College in North Hampton to pick up a girl friend on the way usually to Stowe. The GT easily ran at over 100+ on the Interstate with two sets of ski’s on the diminutive ski rack. Driving the GT on Vermont 100 was always great fun. It handled the curves with the pleasure one experienced during a fun mogul run. Wow, was it fun.

    The only downside of the GT was the poor rust conditioning/prooofing. By 1976, despite solid mechanics at about 113,000 miles, the tin worm had been very destructive and I unfortunately sold my loved Opel GT for the worst car of my life, my disastrous VW Rabbit–but that is another story for another time.

    Thank you for reminding me of all of the great miles and smiles I had with my GT.
    Vic

    1. Rust seems to have been an endemic problem with the GT. The GT’s body WAS rust-proofed by Brissonneau et Lotz, but from what I can tell, the design of the body structure appears to have made it particularly susceptible and more challenging to repair once rot (or serious collision damage) does set in.

  8. The Steinmetz kits were available in the US. They were sold and installed by MORE Opel in Seattle. Modified Opels with 125 to 140 BHP gave spirited performance, easily matching the 240Z, but for much more money!

  9. What should a 1969 opel gt 1900 with 33.500mls very good con cost me

    1. I’m sorry, I’m not able (or qualified) to assess or estimate values for cars.

  10. I am trying to restore a 1973 Opel Gt. anyone know a mechanic in Toronto that can help with an engine swap or fixing the original engine?
    anyone have an old body they would like to sell?

  11. I had three Opel GT 1969, 1970 had 4 weber carbs fast, 1973 had a automatic was the cleanest and should of kept,
    The 1900 engine I fItted a down draft 2300 ford pinto carberator and it fit with a manual choke.

  12. Thank you for the article. I had heard and read of the Corvette connection in a Corvette magazine article and it made passing reference to the link between the Corvair and the GT.

    I bought a field-find 1969 GT a couple of years ago sort of as a joke. We’d paint it up as a Compuware Corvette and take it racing in the 24 Hours of LeMons. That was three years ago, and the little car has done well in its 12 or so races plus a trip to Bonneville. It certainly has grown on me, and it has developed a bit of a following in LeMons circles.

    To show you how much I have been sucked into the Opel world I am now the editor for the Blitz, the Opel Motorsport Club’s newsletter. I’d love to be able to reprint this article in the Blitz.

    BTW, Opel GTs and to some extent the Mata are still well supported. There is a company in California that hoards old parts and when needed has reproduction parts made. The is also a company in Germany that does the same. Prices are very reasonable.

    Mike

    1. Mike,

      If you’d like to talk about reprinting the article, drop me a line — I’d be happy to discuss it. Thanks!

      1. Aaron,

        I happened on this article, and my post above, while researching the J Edgar Opel. I never got your reply. I’d still love to be able to reprint the article.

        1. Hey Mike,

          I either missed, forgot, or somehow lost your inquiry. Feel free to send me a message via the contact form and we can discuss it. My apologies — I do try to reply even if the answer isn’t always yes.

  13. Hey guys anyone know where I can find a ’69 Opel GT windscreen , just fully restored and in order to sell im going to need a windscreen, im based in Cape Town – South Africa

  14. Where can I sell 1969 opel gt engine and transmission in good running condition.I am located in south western Virginia and its taking up space in my garage and needs to go.

    1. Sorry, I can’t help with buying or selling cars or parts!

    2. Grey this is Mike do you still have the Opel engine and transmission I would like to buy the parts my email is mkniazuk [at] msn [dot] com thanks

      1. Mike,

        I took the liberty of editing your email address to make it a little less obvious to spam bots. If you want me to put it back the way it was, I will, but I take no responsibility for any consequences. (I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of spam email as it is!)

  15. I had a neighbour, when I was a boy in the 1970s had a 1971 Opel GT coupe. At the time, I thought it was the ugliest car in the neighbourhood. At the time, I thought the Toyota Corona and Corona Mark II was the best looking car, or the American Chevy Nova. But with time, I found the car more attractive than any of the American cars sold during the 1970s and the 1980s. And certainly better looking than the Toyotas, Datsun/Nissan cars sold during the 1980s.

  16. GREAT article and a great reference for restoring my 1970 GT!

  17. Always loved this car. Mine was a Orange 1972 with white interior. Once on a whim I drove it to find out the best mileage I could get on level roads at 55mph I was able to get 36.2 mpg. The car had 47000 miles on it, all stock. Sold it for what I paid for it in the 70’s. Wish I had never sold it, never saw a better one even the clock ran perfectly.

  18. Great history on the GT! Thanks!

    Age 16, I had saved my pennies for 2 years working part time after school and mowing grass on weekends, bought a 2 year old 69 1100cc GT. It was silver with red interior, a great color combo for this car I thought. It was very reliable and ran good even with the small engine, I sold it after 3 yrs for what I paid for it!

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