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.
As it took shape, Projekt 1484 began to look quite a bit like the Monza GT. The Opel design was not mid-engined, nor was it in any way Corvair-based, but it shared many design cues with the Monza: a sloping nose with concealed headlamps, a low-slung fastback roofline, and a cropped Kamm tail with quad taillights.
We don’t know if MacKichan had been involved with the development of the XP-797 (it appears that the Monza SS and Monza GT were built after he left for Germany), but Bill Mitchell later confirmed that the Opel design was indeed based on the Monza GT, a design of which Mitchell was very fond. An additional connection was Tony Lapine, who joined MacKichan at Opel in 1964 and was involved in the sports car project’s subsequent development. (Interestingly, while Projekt 1484 did not share the Monza GT’s lift-up canopy, that feature reappeared on the 1969 Opel CD, a concept car based on the Diplomat 5,4.)
By 1965, Projekt 1484 had reached the full-size prototype stage. While it had found some support outside the styling department, principally from marketing executive Bob Lutz, senior Opel officials had little interest in pursuing the project even as an auto show confection. Opel’s philosophy at the time was that the company should show what it sold, and Opel was not in the sports car business.
In July 1965, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was promoted to group VP of GM’s Overseas and Canadian Group, following successful stints as general manager for Pontiac and Chevrolet. MacKichan had worked with Knudsen at Chevrolet and knew of his fondness for sporty cars. We assume that most GM executives were aware that Knudsen had revived the moribund Pontiac division with a new emphasis on performance. Suspecting that the sports car would be right up Knudsen’s alley, MacKichan and Lutz arranged for him to see the prototype. As expected, Knudsen loved it and gave his support for exhibiting the car on the auto show circuit.
The prototype made its public debut at the Frankfurt International Auto Show in October. Prosaically dubbed Opel Experimental GT, it was described as an aerodynamic test chassis for Opel’s new high-speed test track in Dudenhofen. Despite that cautious presentation, response was sensational. The car attracted hordes of curious showgoers and raised many eyebrows among the representatives of other automakers, who expected nothing more from Opel than bland porridge.
Seeing the enthusiastic reaction, Opel management reexamined the sports car project in a new light. There seemed to be a market for a production model. The question now was how to build it.
THE GT AND THE KADETT
Given the sports car’s likely volume — and the likely complexity of its body — Opel decided to outsource production of its body shell. Initial thoughts involved Karmann, but in early 1966, Opel officials met with representatives of the venerable French coachbuilder Brissonneau & Lotz, who had been trying unsuccessfully to pitch the idea of a Rekord convertible.
Brissonneau & Lotz were interested and signed a deal to produce tooling and bodywork for the prototypes. The actual stamping, welding, and body assembly would be subcontracted to the Parisian firm Chausson, best known today for its recreational vehicles. The Brissonneau & Lotz plant in northern France would handle paint, trim, and wiring before sending cars back to Opel’s Bochum plant for mechanical assembly.
There was little chance of any exotic hardware under the skin. Even if Opel management had been willing to make large investments in a relatively low-volume new product, selling price was a concern. Market research suggested that the sweet spot would be around 10,000 DM (about $2,500 at the contemporary exchange rate), where the new car would face little direct competition. At that price, a bespoke platform was out of the question. Instead, the sports car would share most of its mechanicals with the Kadett B.
The one major concession the stylists and engineers wanted was the location of the engine. The Kadett’s engine was normally mounted well forward in the interests of packaging efficiency, which was problematic with the sports car’s sloping nose. To preserve the prototype’s sleek profile, the styling team wanted to relocate the engine 15.75 inches (40 cm) farther back, but Opel’s cost accountants balked, seeing the engine relocation as an unnecessary expense.
Hoping to appeal to Teutonic pride of engineering, proponents insisted that the change would make a perceptible difference in the car’s handling and overall feel. To test that thesis, Hans Mersheimer authorized the construction of two test mules, one with the engine relocated, one without, and hired Porsche works driver Hans Hermann to test both at the Nürburgring. Predictably, Hermann’s professional opinion was that the car with the relocated engine felt better, so Opel management grudgingly conceded the point.
The running prototype shown to the press in 1967 had the 1,897 cc (116 cu. in.) version of Opel’s new cam-in-head (CIH) engine, recently introduced on the Rekord. In the prototype, the engine used an experimental 4V Solex carburetor and a modified head with 10.0 compression, giving a net output of 128 PS DIN (126 hp, 94 kW) and 115 lb-ft (156 N-m) of torque. Since the prototype weighed less than a ton and was quite slippery aerodynamically, it had excellent performance and a claimed top speed of 130 mph (210 km/h). It looked very promising.
THE PRODUCTION OPEL GT
Clare MacKichan departed long before Opel’s new sports car went into production. In 1967, he returned to the U.S. to become director of advanced styling, turning over the reins at Opel to Chuck Jordan, who had spent the previous five years as GM’s director of exterior design. Jordan would oversee final development of the production sports car, now known simply as Opel GT.
Inevitably, the GT’s shape underwent many changes between prototype and finished product, emerging taller, thicker of snout and plumper of hindquarters, with a more sharply cropped tail, a prominent hood bulge, and a pair of cooling slits atop the nose. Some of the changes were undoubtedly driven by production necessity, others by regulatory requirements (the prototype’s rectangular pop-up headlights would not have been legal in the U.S.), while others were dictated by wind tunnel testing. In production trim, the GT had a drag coefficient of 0.39: not great by today’s standards, but first rank for the late 1960s and significantly better than the C3 Corvette, to which the Opel was now taking on a decided and probably non-coincidental resemblance.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The introduction of the GT/J brought total Opel GT production to more than 17,000 units for 1972, but the end was in sight. The Kadett was about to be redesigned, so continuing the GT past 1973 would have necessitated a major revamp to accommodate the floorpan of the new Kadett C and the 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers that would be required for U.S. cars starting in 1974. Furthermore, the rising value of the Deutschmark following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates would make it difficult to hold the line on price, something that would ultimately drive Opel out of the American market entirely.
The GT returned for the 1973 model year, but it would be for the last time. A sure sign of the model’s imminent demise was that when Opel prematurely ran out of taillights in early 1973, they hastily adapted the lights from the Manta rather than ordering more of the original units. European cars were little changed otherwise, but federalized GTs had further emissions-related changes, reducing output to 75 net horsepower (56 kW) and 92 lb-ft (125 N-m) of torque.
Opel GT production ended in August, although some leftover cars lingered on dealer lots into 1974. The final tally was 103,464 units.
GT/W, GT/2, AND THE BLACK WIDOW
In the early 1970s, Opel considered a number of possible successors for the GT, including one based — once again — on a mid-engined car intended to replace the Corvette.
In 1971, Clare MacKichan’s Advanced studio in Detroit developed the XP-897GT, a mid-engine car based around GM’s two-rotor GMRCE2 Wankel engine, then in development. The XP-897GT, built but not designed by Pininfarina, debuted at the Frankfurt International Auto Show in October 1973 as the Corvette 2-Rotor. Had it reached production, GM considered offering an Opel version as a next-generation GT. Opel stylists developed their own mid-engine rotary concept, originally called GT/W (for Wankel), but the termination of GM’s rotary engine project meant that the GT/W got no further than the non-running prototype stage. It was shown publicly in 1975 as the Opel Genève.
An alternative was another in-house Opel concept, a fastback 2+2 coupe nicknamed “Schwarze Witwe” (Black Widow), a name previously applied to Tony Lapine’s own modified Kadett (which allegedly inspired the original Kadett Rallye). Presumably based on the Kadett C, the Schwarze Witwe was seriously considered for production, but was canceled during the OPEC oil embargo in 1973–1974.
In 1975, some months after the public unveiling of the Genève, Opel developed a sleek, futuristic concept car called the GT/2, which was shown at Frankfurt, London, and Paris late that year. Built by Michelotti but developed by Erhard Schnell’s Advanced studio in Rüsselsheim (then under the direction of Henry Haga), the GT/2 was based on the GT/E version of the new Manta B, powered by a fuel-injected 1,897 cc (116 cu. in.) CIH engine. The GT/2 was even more aerodynamic than the first GT, with a claimed drag coefficient of only 0.33. It featured a hatchback roof and manually operated sliding doors with their latches concealed beneath the side mirrors. (Regular readers will recall that the latter feature was originally patented by Howard “Dutch” Darrin in 1948 and used on the short-lived Kaiser Darrin, although Darrin’s patent expired well before the GT/2 was built.) Opel officials suggested that a toned-down version of the GT/2 might become a production car later in the decade, but it never happened.
A second-generation Opel GT did not emerge until the 2006 Geneva auto show, going on sale later that year. Based on a 2003 Vauxhall concept car, the VX Lightning, the new GT was a two-seat roadster based on GM’s Kappa platform, shared with the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. Ironically, the new GT was built in the U.S. alongside its Pontiac and Saturn siblings, but it was sold only in Europe. The Kappa GT survived only three years, dying with the Solstice and Sky in the summer of 2009. Production totaled 7,519 units.
The original Opel GT has often been dismissed as a Kadett in a Corvette suit, but it wouldn’t have taken much to make the GT a credible sports car. Most of the pieces were there, and in some respects (aerodynamics, ergonomics, fit and finish) the GT was actually superior to the C3 Corvette. With more power and some chassis development work, the GT could have given sports cars like the Datsun 240Z a run for their money. Admittedly, getting more power out of the CIH engine while keeping it emissions-compliant for the U.S. market would have been tricky (fuel injection was only a partial answer — even with injection, the last U.S.-market Asconas and Mantas had only 81 net horsepower/60 kW) and exchange rates would have remained a sore point, but neither problem was necessarily insuperable.
We suspect the real challenge would have been convincing Opel management that making the low-volume GT into Europe’s answer to the Corvette was worth the investment. As the array of mooted successors indicates, Opel was not oblivious the GT’s value as a traffic builder, but, with the possible exception of the GT/W, Rüsselsheim’s thinking appears to have focused on greater practicality (e.g., 2+2 seating, greater cargo space) rather than greater performance. In some respects, that made sense; the GT sold well by Triumph or MG standards, but was nothing compared to the almost 2.7 million Kadetts Opel sold between 1965 and 1973. However, that also weakened the case for the GT as a separate product, particularly since Opel already had an attractive and perfectly competent four-seat sporty coupe in the form of the Manta.
The fate of the original GT suggests what might have happened to the Corvette had the ‘Vette not enjoyed continuing support from staunch defenders like Zora Arkus-Duntov and Bill Mitchell. The original Corvette was on very shaky ground for the first decade of its existence and at several points came close to either being canceled or transformed into a Camaro-like four-seater. While the Corvette eventually became one of GM’s most profitable cars, the GT didn’t last long enough to reach that point, perhaps in part because by the time its sales began to falter, many of the people who had originally championed it had moved on. Erhard Schnell was still running Opel’s Advanced Design studio, but both Clare MacKichan and Chuck Jordan had returned to the U.S., replaced by Dave Holls and later Hank Haga. Bunkie Knudsen had left GM in 1967, Bob Lutz had gone to BMW, and in 1969 Tony Lapine had gone to Porsche, where he would design the 928 and 924.
The 1969–1973 Opel GT now has a fair collector following, although many cars have succumbed over the years to rust or collisions. The GT’s body was well assembled by the standards of its time, but it was not easy to repair and it was years before resale values were high enough to make full restorations worthwhile. Quite a few survivors have been modified as well, with everything from later CIH engines (which remained in use through the 1990s) to Weber carburetors and even small block Chevrolet V8s.
If the Opel GT never got the chance to become a great car, it was nonetheless an interesting one, and in some ways it was remarkable that it was built at all. The Monza GT never got past the prototype stage, nor did a contemporary sports car concept from Vauxhall, the 1966 VXR. The GT remains an attractive little car, but we can’t help thinking that it could have been much more than a pretty face.
The author would like to thank Bob Nichols, Pat McLaughlin, and Rudi Simon (RUD66) for the use of their photos and Kathy Adelson and Larry Kinsel of the GM Media Archive for their kind assistance in locating historical images.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Information about the development and history of the Opel GT, including road test data, came from “1.9 Opel GT: Not bad but not up to expectations,” Road & Track Vol. 20, No. 10 (June 1969), reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 2007), pp. 60-63; “1969-1973 Opel GT,” Sports Car Market, n.d., www.sportscarmarket. com, accessed 8 April 2012); “A Rare Opel,” World’s Fastest Sports Cars 1968, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 12-15; Sam Abuelsamid, “1969 Opel Aero GT is rarer than you think,” Autoblog 27 April 2010, www.autoblog. com, accessed 8 April 2012; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “Opel GT,” HowStuffWorks.com, 5 June 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ opel-gt.htm, accessed 8 April 2012; “Autotest: Opel GT 1900,” Autocar 11 September 1969, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 76-80; Patrick Bedard, “Car and Driver’s Opel GT,” Car and Driver Vol. 16, No. 1 (July 1970), pp. 29-33, 53; Jean Bernardet, “Opel GT in Production,” Style Auto No. 23 (April 1969); John Blunsden, “GM’s Second Sports Car,” Sports Car Graphic April 1969, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 26-29; Jim Brennan, “Hooniverse Lost Car Weekend – A 1972 Opel GT,” Hooniverse, 13 August 2011, hooniverse. com/ 2011/08/13/ hooniverse-lost-car-weekend-a-1972-opel-gt/, accessed 7 April 2012; Martin Buckley, “Drag Act,” Classic & Sports Car June 1993, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 38-42; “Car and Driver’s Opel GT,” Car and Driver Vol. 16, No. 2 (August 1970); reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 127-131; “Collectible Classic: 1968-1973 Opel GT,” Automobile October 2009, www.automobilemag. com, accessed 8 April 2012; Ican Coomber, “From Olympia to Monza – Opel in the United Kingdom,” Vauxhall Bedford Opel Association, 2006, www.vboa. org.uk, accessed 7 April 2012; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Eric Dahlquist, “The Conversation Factor,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 8 (August 1969), pp. 36-38; “Der perfekte Keil: Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato, 1969 – 1975,” Zagato-Cars.com, n.d., www.zagato-cars. com, accessed 8 April 2012; “Die Opel GT Entwicklung,” Opel GT World, n.d., www.opelgtworld. de, accessed 8 April 2012; Ben Field, “Fruity Opel,” Practical Classics February 2002, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 150-153; Craig Fitzgerald, “1968-1974 Opel GT,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #16 (December 2006), pp. 91-94, and “Opel Manta: GM’s Stylist Sport Sedan,” Hemmings Motor News March 2009; “GM’s [Germany] New GT,” Sports Car World November 1968, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 18-19; Charles Goin, “The Definitive Opel GT Guide for Year, Color and Parts Identification,” Opel Association of North America, 1998-2000, clubs.hemmings. com/clubsites/ oana/tech/GTYears.pdf, accessed 8 April 2012; Stewart Grant, “Opel’s fruit,” Popular Classics September 1990, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 154-159; Dennis Jenkinson, “The Opel GT: A sports 2-seater,” Motor Sport September 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 118, 165; David LaChance, “1969-1973 Opel GT: This sporty German two-seater is flying well under collectors’ radar,” Hemmings Motor News January 2009; John Lamm, “Trying to Live with Big Brother,” Motor Trend Vol. 24, No. 3 (April 1972), reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 166-169; Richard M. Langworth, “Crystal Ball: Opel GT,” Automobile Quarterly 1982; Heinrich Lingner, “Zwei Sportcoupés abseits des Mainstream,” MotorKlassik 12 April 2010, www.motor-klassik. de, accessed 8 April 2012; Longrooffan, “Curbside Classic: 1968 Opel GT: Jutta’s Daily Driver,” Curbside Classic, 26 May 2011, www.curbsideclassic. com/ curbside-classics-american/ curbside-classic-1968-opel-gt- juttas-daily-driver/, last accessed 11 April 2012; John Matras, “1970 Opel GT 1.9: Mini-Vette?” Special Interest Autos #159 (May-June 1997), reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 192-199; Gunther Molter, “Opel GT,” Road & Track Vol. 20, No. 4 (December 1968), reprinted in ibid, pp. 20-21; “Motor Road Test No. 24/70: Opel GT: For sporting gents—at a price,” The Motor 20 June 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 107- 112; “New Cars for 1970: Opel Kadett and GT,” World Car Guide February 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 92-93; Eric Nielssen, “GM’s Gee-Whizzers: Exciting Things from GM’s Brains Abroad,” Car Life December 1967, reprinted in ibid, pp. 6-10; “Opel Experimental GT,” www.medial. com/opel/expgt.htm, accessed 8 April 2012; “Opel GT,” Imported Cars 1971, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 122-126; “Opel GT,” Road Test January 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 101-103; “Opel GT,” Road Test January 1971, reprinted in ibid, pp. 132-133; “Opel GT,” NetCarShow, no date, www.netcarshow. com, accessed 8 April 2012; “Opel GT 1.9,” Car and Driver Vol. 15, No. 3 (September 1969), pp. 66-69, 82; “Opel GT: Big Surprise…at your friendly Buick dealers,” Car Life June 1969, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 48-53; “Opel GT: throughout the years,” SYL.com, 1 October 2006, www.syl. com/travel/ opelgtthroughouttheyears.html, accessed 8 April 2012; Opel Motorsport Club, “Opel GT + FAQs,” OpelClub.com, 2008, www.opelclub. com/html/ opel_gt___faqs.html, accessed 8 April 2012; “Opels with Hairs on Their Chests,” CAR May 1971, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 162-163; Herman Pelgrom, “Honey, I Shrunk the ‘Vette: The Opel GT Story,” Motor Authority, 30 May 2010, www.motorauthority. com, accessed 8 April 2012; Sylvia Poggioli, “Marking the French Social Revolution of ’68,” NPR, 13 May 2008, www.npr. org, accessed 22 April 2012; “Road Test: Opel GT: ‘Mini-Brute’ Stage 11,” Motorcade June 1969, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 56-59; L.J.K. Setright, “Opel GT,” CAR August 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 104-106; Mike Siegel, Opel GT: Story of a Dreamcar [trailer], Eldorado Film, “OPEL GT – DRIVING THE DREAM out on DVD !” YouTube, https://youtu.be/rXUrGF4-Jio, uploaded 11 December 2008, accessed 8 April 2012; Jerry Sloniger, “3000 Miles and Two ‘Small’ Rallies in an Opel GT,” World Car Guide November 1969, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 84-88, “Opel GT,” Foreign Car Guide February 1969, reprinted in ibid, pp. 22-25 and “Preview Test: Opel GT,” Car and Driver Vol. 14, No. 6 (December 1968), pp. 74-75; Daniel Strohl, “Might Mouse: The diminutive, but sporty, 1969 Opel GT 1.1L,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #7 (March 2006): 20–25; “The history of the development of the Opel CIH engine, 1966-1993,” Customs ‘n Classics, n.d., www.customs-n-classics. dk, accessed 7 April 2012; “The $3500 GT: Comparing the Datsun 240Z, Fiat 124 Sports, Opel GT, MGB GT and Triumph GT6—a closer contest than we expected,” Road & Track Vol. 22, No. 11 (July 1971), reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 136-142; “Three Ways to Approach a GT,” Sports Car Graphic March 1970, reprinted in ibid, pp. 94-100; Jerry Titus, “Corvair Monza GT: Chevy’s Forward-Look Exercise is in the right direction,” Sports Car Graphic August 1963, reprinted in Corvair Performance Portfolio 1959-1969, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 58-61; “Tuning Test: Opel GT: More power from GM’s German coupe,” CAR May 1971, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 164-165; Bart van Ark, “Manufacturing prices, productivity, and labor costs in five economies,” Monthly Labor Review July 1955, pp. 56-72; Bruno von Rotz, “Opel GT 1100 und 1900 – nur Fliegen war schooner,” Zwischengas. com, 31 October 2011, www.zwischengas. com, accessed 8 April 2012; Glenn Waddington, “Opel Fruit,” Classic Cars August 2000, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 43-47; Sydnie A. Wauson, ed., Opel GT • Kadett • 1900 • Manta 1966-1975 Shop Manual, 5th ed. (Arleta, CA: Clymer Publications, 1986); “Why the Excitement at Buick-Opel Dealers: Opel GT is a new, honest to goodness sports car for highway or race course,” Road Test July 1969, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973, pp. 64-70; “Wklopf,” www.opelgt. com/ forums/general-discussions/ 28343-i-think-im-love-again.html, accessed 8 April 2012; Michael Wood, “Opel-escent,” Your Classic, January 1994, reprinted in ibid, pp. 188-191; the brochure “Opel GT – Das klassicsche Sport-Coupé,” published by Opel in 1998; the Wikipedia® entries for the Bretton Woods system (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bretton_Woods_system, accessed 1 November 2011); Get Smart (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Get_Smart, accessed 1 May 2012); the Isuzu Gemini (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isuzu_Gemini, accessed 7 May 2012); Opel (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel, accessed 8 April 2012), the Opel Rekord Series C (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_Rekord_Series_C, accessed 20 April 2012), the Opel GT (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_GT, accessed 7 April 2012), the Opel Kadett (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_Kadett; accessed 30 April 2012); the Opel Manta (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_Manta, accessed 27 April 2012); and Opel’s OHV engine (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_OHV_engine, accessed 30 April 2012); and the German Wikipedia entry for the Opel GT (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_GT, accessed 8 April 2012).
Additional information on competition Opel GTs came from Phillippe Calvet, “Opel GT Greder Sbarro, 1969,” Franco Sbarro: Another vision of car, n.d., sbarro.perso.neuf. fr, accessed 10 April 2012; “Der Steinmetz Opel GT,” Opel GT World, n.d., www.opelgtworld. de, accessed 10 April 2012; “Opel GT Motorsport (1968-1975): Documenting the career of a mighty sports car,” European Car February 2009, www.europeancarweb. com, accessed 8 April 2012; Stefan Örnerdal and Andrew Horrox, “Formula 2 Register: F2, Voiturettes, FJ, F3 and Le Mans Results, 1998-2012,” www.formula2.net, accessed 8 April 2012; Gianni Rogliatti, “The Opel GT Lives!” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1 (1st Quarter 1972), pp. 50-55; Studio Futuro, Conrero Official Site,www.conrero. com, accessed 8 April 2012; and “World Sportscar Championship,” Racing Cars Chassis Numbers & Database Races Results, 2000, wspr-racing. com, accessed 10 April 2012.
Information on the Opel GT/2 came from Syed, “1975 Opel GT2 Concept,” IEDEI, 16 March 2012, iedei.wordpress. com/ 2012/03/16/opel-gt2/, accessed 8 April 2012; “Tomorrow’s Car Today: Opel’s Car for the ’80s,” Asian Auto July 1976, reprinted in Opel GT Ultimate Portfolio 1968-1973), pp. 186-187; and Ron Wakefield, “Opel GT-2: Stylish and economic sports car of tomorrow,” Road & Track Vol. 27, No. 4 (December 1975), reprinted in ibid, pp. 183-185.
Additional details on Opel design and other Opel vehicles of this period came from “Bochum Plant, Facts and Figures,” Opel Media/GM Europe, no date, media.opel. com, accessed 10 April 2012; Bill Bowman, “Corvette 2-Rotor,” Generations of GM, GM Heritage Center, history.gmheritagecenter. com, accessed 27 April 2012; “Brissonneau & Lotz: Historique,” Floride Caravelle Club de France, 2011, fccdf.free. fr, accessed 7 April 2012; “Car and Driver Road Test: Opel Kadett L Station Wagon,” Car and Driver Vol. 13, No. 8 (February 1968), pp. 53-54, 92; Corvette Museum, “2011 Corvette Hall of Fame Clare MacKichan,” YouTube, https://youtu.be/KNkDFmTzUBo, uploaded 17 November 2011, accessed 8 April 2012; David R. Crippen, “Reminiscences of Irwin W. Rybicki,” 27 June 1985 [interview], Automotive Design Oral History Project, Benson Ford Research Center, Accession 1673, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Rybicki_interview.htm [transcript], last accessed 8 April 2012, and “Reminiscences of William L. Mitchell,” August 1984 [interview], Automotive Design Oral History Project, Benson Ford Research Center, Accession 1673, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/Design/ Mitchell/ mitchellinterview.htm [transcript], last accessed 9 April 2012; “Engine & Drive — Where should they go?” Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 11 (July 1973): 34–41; Mike Fordham, “Friday Car Crush #21: Opel GT/W ‘Geneve'” (28 October 2011, Influx, www.influx. co.uk, accessed 27 April 2012); “Group Test: Ford Capri 2000GT, Opel Manta 1.6S, Vauxhall Firenza 2000, Morris Marina 1.8TC Coupe, Toyota Celica,” The Motor 23 October 1971, pp. 74-79; “Johann ‘Hans’ Christian Mersheimer,” Opel History Wiki, 1 July 2011, www.cokebottle-design. de, accessed 12 April 2012; “Jordan, Charles M.,” Generations of GM History, GM Heritage Center, history.gmheritagecenter. com, accessed 8 April 2012; “Knudsen, Semon E.,” Generations of GM History, GM Heritage Center, history.gmheritagecenter. com, accessed 13 April 2012; Michael Lamm, “Opel Kadgett & Caravan 1000 Road Test,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 4 (April 1964): 42–46; Michael Lamm and David R. Holls, Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); “Lapine, Tony,” Generations of GM History, GM Heritage Center, history.gmheritagecenter. com, accessed 8 April 2012; Randy Leffingwell, Corvette: America’s Sports Car (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997) and Porsche 911: Perfection By Design (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 2005), p. 65; Paul Niedermeyer, “Automotive History: How The 1960 Corvair Started A Global Design Revolution,” Curbside Classic, 15 August 2011, www.curbsideclassic. com/automotive-histories/ automotive-history- how-the-1960-corvair- started-a- global-design-revolution/, last accessed 21 April 2012, “Curbside Classic: 1966-1973 Opel Kadett (B) – It Dethroned the Volkswagen,” Curbside Classic, 9 March 2012, www.curbsideclassic. com/ curbside-classics-european/ curbside-classic- 1966-1973-opel-kadett-b- it-dethroned-the-volkswagen/, last accessed 14 April 2012, and “The Story Behind the Best Bob Lutz Photo Ever,” The Truth About Cars, 4 October 2010, www.thetruthaboutcars. com, last accessed 14 April 2012; “Obituary: William L. Mitchell, Auto Executive, 76,” New York Times 15 September 1988, www.nytimes. com, accessed 13 April 2012; “Opel Design: The Story,” GM Europe, 2006, planer-motorshow. gmeuropearchive.info, accessed 8 April 2012; Ken Polsson, “Chronology of Chevrolet Corvettes,” 4 April 2012, kpolsson. com/vettehis/, accessed 18 April 2012; “Rybicki, Irvin W., Generations of GM History, GM Heritage Center, history.gmheritagecenter. com, accessed 21 April 2012; Michael Scarlett, “2 Car Test: Sunbeam Rapier – Opel Manta,” Autocar 10 December 1970, pp. 57-61; Mark Theobald, “Strother MacMinn: A Man of Wit and Genius,” Coachbuilt, 2004, www.coachbuilt. com, accessed 12 April 2012; and Anthony Young and Mike Mueller, Classic Chevy Hot Ones: 1955–1957 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe & B. Hould Publishers, 2002).
Background on the Corvair Monza GT came from “2 Magnificent Monzas: General Motors Styling bridges the gap between dream and reality,” Road & Track Vol. 14, No. 12 (August 1963), pp. 16-18; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1962 and 1963 Chevrolet Corvair Concept Cars,” HowStuffWorks.com, 13 November 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/1962-and-1963- chevrolet-corvair-concept-cars1.htm, accessed 8 April 2012, and “Sweet Dreams: Those Memorable Corvair Specials,” Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981), pp. 14-19; Gerry Aubé, “Corvair Design Studies: General Motors’ Experimental Corvairs,” CorvairCorsa.com, n.d., www.corvaircorsa. com, accessed 8 April 2012; Bill Bowman, “1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza GT Concept,” Generations of GM History, history.gmheritagecenter. com, accessed 8 April 2012; Richard M. Langworth and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, The Complete Book of Corvette (New York: Beekman House, 1987); Randy Leffingwell and David Newhardt, Mustang: Forty Years (St. Paul, MN: Crestline/MBI Publishing/Barnes & Noble Publishing Inc., 2006); and the Wikipedia entry for the Corvair Monza GT (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvair_Monza_GT, accessed 8 April 2012).
Some exchange rates for the dollar, the sterling, and the Deutschmark were estimated based on Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies,” MeasuringWorth, 2011-2012, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission. Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of U.S. and British or German currencies at the time, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate, provided solely for general reference; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
- A Tale of the Shark and the Rat: The Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (C3)
- Bucking the System: The 1963-1967 Corvette Sting Ray (C2)
- Cheap and Cheerful: The European Ford Capri
- Plan C: The Short-Lived Six-Cylinder MGC and MGC GT
- Contrary Compact: The Life and Death of the Chevrolet Corvair
- The Original Datsun Z-Car