Son of Stingray: The 1969-1973 Opel GT

OPEL GT VS. 240Z

The Opel GT returned for 1970 with a variety of minor refinements. The most notable was that factory air conditioning was now optional, reinforcing the perception that the GT was more of a stylish tourer than a sports car. The 1100SR engine remained nominally standard, but it was on its way out, having sold poorly even in Europe. It accounted for only about 10% of 1969 production and a tiny handful in 1970. The grand total was only 3,573 cars.

With the 1900S engine, the Opel GT acquitted itself well against rivals like the aging MGB, but the Opel had a formidable new rival in the Datsun 240Z, which arrived in the U.S. for the 1970 model year. The Z was slightly bigger than the Opel, just as well equipped, and far more powerful, with 151 hp (113 kW) from its 2,393 cc (146 cu. in.) six. It also had better handling than the GT, with fully independent suspension. In Europe, import duties tended to push the Datsun into a higher price class, but U.S. cars were aggressively priced, listing for only about $100 more than a GT with the 1.9-liter engine. Against the Z, the Opel’s only real tangible advantage was that it was possible to get one for something close to list price, while Datsun buyers faced waiting lists and substantial dealer markup.

1969 Opel Aero GT side - Copyright 2012 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive. (GMMA 16670, photo 205823)
At the 1969 Frankfurt show, Opel showed a lift-roof version of the GT, the Aero GT. Developed by styling director Chuck Jordan, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the later Pininfarina-styled Dino 246 GTS. Two of these cars were built, but for whatever reason, Opel decided not to pursue the lift-roof version for production. (Photo copyright 2012 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.)

GT production was down for 1970, but still topped 24,000 units, not bad for a small two-seater. European sales slumped badly, however, thanks, we suspect, to the popularity of the less pretty but more practical Capri. More than 85% of GT production now went to the U.S. Hoping for a little extra publicity, Buick became a sponsor of the popular TV spy spoof Get Smart. The fictional Maxwell Smart drove a Rallye Gold Opel GT throughout the show’s final season, which coincided with the 1970 model year.

TUNING POTENTIAL

Despite stock Opel GT’s middling performance, it had obvious potential. In 1970, Opel dealers in Italy persuaded Turin-based race builder Virgilio Conrero, famous for his Alfa Romeo racers, to prepare the GT for Group 4 competition.

The Conrero cars had five-speed ZF gearboxes, flared fenders, wider wheels, and an upgraded suspension with anti-roll bars and a Watt’s linkage replacing the Panhard rod. Their engines were bored out to 1,979 cc (121 cu. in.) and tuned for about 185 hp (138 kW). Conrero GTs competed in a variety of events from 1971 to 1973, including the Sestriere hill climb and the Monza, but their best showing was the 1971 Targa Florio, where a Conrero Squadra Corse GT driven by Salvatore Calascibetta and Paolo Monti won the under-2-liter GT class, taking ninth place overall. A few Conrero GTs were sold to private customers and Conrero offered tuning kits for interested buyers.

Around the same time Conrero started work on his GT, Henri Greder of the Greder Racing Team obtained two cars of his own through designer Franco Sbarro. The Greder cars were also expanded to about 2.0 liters (122 cu. in.) and fitted with cross-flow heads, giving around 200 hp (149 kW). When Sbarro and Greder were done with them, the cars themselves were Opel GTs in name only, with new tubular-steel chassis, fiberglass body panels, and fixed headlamps. One Greder GT, driven by Jean Ragnotti, achieved 10th place in the Lyon-Charbonnières Rally, but the cross-flow head proved problematic. Greder soon abandoned the GT in favor of newer Opels.

1969 Opel GT-AL 1900 engine © 2011 RUD66 (used with permission)
Opel’s long-serving CIH engine, seen here in a European Opel GT-AL 1900, with a single two-throat Solex 32 DIDTA-4 carburetor and a modified valve cover to clear the GT’s low, sloping hood. The CIH (“cam in head”) engine had a single chain-driven camshaft mounted in the cylinder head adjacent to the valves, actuating them via stamped steel rocker arms. For its day, the CIH engine offered excellent mid-range torque and respectable specific output, but its noise levels and refinement were much criticized; Car and Driver compared it to a tractor engine. (Photo © 2011 RUD66; used with permission)

Another source of customized GTs was former BMW team manager Klaus Steinmetz, who offered an assortment of factory-approved tuning kits for Opel engines. Steinmetz offered a series kits for the 1,897 cc (116 cu. in.) CIH engine, ranging in output from 107 to 140 PS (79 to 103 kW), as well as a full-race version with around 200 PS (147 kW). The kits were sold in the U.K. through John Rhodes Tuning in Birmingham, but emissions restrictions meant that they weren’t available in the U.S.

Opel also used the GT as the basis for a number of one-offs, the most famous of which was the Diesel Rekordwagen, with special aerodynamic bodywork and a 2,068 cc (126 cu. in.) turbodiesel engine. In July 1972, the Rekordwagen averaged 119.3 mph (190.9 km/h) for 72 hours on Opel’s test track in Dudenhofen, setting a host of speed and endurance records.

1971 Opel GT side
The Opel GT received very few styling changes over the course of its short life, but you can distinguish the 1969-1970 cars from the 1971–1973 models by the location of the “Opel GT” badges. Early cars carry their identification on the front fenders, aft of the front wheelhouses, while on later models, the ID badge is on the tail, just below the fuel filler. This 1971 GT’s white side marker lights probably came from a European model; U.S. cars had amber lights. (author photo)

In the U.S., the best-known tuned Opel GT was probably the one modified by Car and Driver magazine in 1970. Christened “J. Edgar Opel,” the C/D car had a blueprinted but emissions-legal engine with freer-flowing exhaust headers, making 100 net horsepower (75 kW), about 11 hp (8 kW) more than stock. The magazine also fitted a limited-slip differential with a 4.22 axle ratio (not on the U.S. options list, but homologated for competition), front and rear anti-roll bars, and a set of E60-15 Goodyear Wide Oval tires on Minilite wheels (the installation of which involved reshaping the inner fenders). The modifications trimmed more than a second from the GT’s 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times and improved cornering and braking grip considerably, but the big tires, extra unsprung weight, and aftermarket anti-roll bars created clearance problems, compromised ride quality and revealed the basic limitations of the front suspension geometry. The C/D car was eventually sold to artist Russ von Sauers, Jr. We don’t know if it still survives.

THE OPEL GT/J

While Opel made no move to offer any performance upgrades as factory options on the GT, the production car could have used the help. For the 1971 model year, GM mandated that all its U.S. engines be detuned to allow the use of lower octane low-lead and unleaded gasoline. Since the 1900S engine was octane sensitive (testers noted that it could ping even on 98 RON fuel), Opel reduced the compression ratio of federalized versions to only 7.6:1. Power nosedived, dropping from 102 to 90 gross horsepower (76 to 67 kW); SAE net output was now a meager 78 hp (58 kW). The lower compression ratio was accompanied by a switch from mechanical to hydraulic lifters, which were quieter, but cut the CIH engine’s usable rev range by about 600 rpm. The changes increased the GT’s 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times by more than a second and reduced top speed by about 5 mph (8 km/h).

1971 Opel GT rear
The small slots above the Opel GT’s backlight are exhaust vents for cabin air. As with the C3 Corvette, many critics found the GT’s flow-through ventilation system inadequate in warm weather, particularly on cars without air conditioning. This car’s rear window louvers are not stock, but they do underscore the resemblance between this car and the earlier Monza GT concept car. (author photo)

The GT also faced another difficult new rival, this one from Opel itself. The new Manta coupe, Rüsselsheim’s answer to the Ford Capri, arrived for the 1971 model year, offering sporty styling (including a GT-like Kamm tail), similar performance, and much greater practicality for a significantly lower price. Despite its larger dimensions, the Manta wasn’t substantially heavier than the GT and actually handled better, thanks in large part to a new coil spring front suspension and anti-roll bars at both ends. Even in Europe, where the GT’s straight-line performance remained unchanged, it was hard not to see the Manta as a better value.

1972 Opel Manta A 1600S front 3q © 2011 Charles01 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
A 1972 Opel Manta coupe, seen here in 1600S form with a 1,584 cc (97 cu. in.) CIH engine making 80 PS DIN (59 kW). Introduced in the fall of 1970, the Manta was based on the new Ascona sedan, although the coupe actually bowed first. In the U.S., both the Ascona and Manta were initially sold as the Opel 1900, although federalized coupes belatedly adopted the Manta name for 1973. Buick decided to import only the 1,897 cc (116 cu. in.) CIH engine, probably to simplify emissions certification. (Photo: “Opel Manta A first registered in England November 1971 1600ish cc” © 2011 Charles01; resized 2012 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Opel GT production for 1971 dipped below 15,000 units, fewer than 1,100 of which were sold in Europe. To make matters worse, in 1970, Renault had purchased controlling interests in both Brissonneau & Lotz and Chausson. Since Renault considered the GT a competitor for its own Alpine A110, Opel was compelled to move production entirely in-house, an unwelcome extra expense for a low-volume model.

Hoping to boost sales by appealing to younger buyers, Opel introduced a new GT model at the 1971 Geneva auto show. Called the GT/J, it was comparable to American budget Supercars like the original Plymouth Road Runner: a brightly painted 1.9-liter Opel GT stripped of all nonessentials, including chrome trim and carpeting. Starting at 10,685 DM (about $3,070), the GT/J was still slightly more expensive than a Capri 2300GT, but considerably more affordable than the plusher GT-AL 1900S. The GT/J was not sold in the U.S., but it was moderately successful in Europe, accounting for 10,760 units through 1973.

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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