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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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