Here’s your fun fact of the day. Once upon a time in America, you could buy a new Opel. And no, not the rebadged Saturn versions from the late days of the “different kind of car company.” Actual Opels, with Opel badges and everything. But if you’re a little more “yootful” than your author, what really might surprise you is that they were sold through–envelope, please–Buick dealerships. Yes, really.
Vauxhall (UK) and Opel (Germany) were GM’s bread-and-butter European divisions back in the day. In the late Fifties, there was a surge of interest in imported cars in the United States. Maybe it was because domestic iron was getting just too big and gaudy, or maybe it had something to do with the 1958 recession and cutting household costs (my personal guess is VW, VW and VW), but at any rate many folks were suddenly buying foreign cars. Even obscure brands, such as Citroen, Hillman and Skoda, saw sales increase. Even Renault, for Pete’s sake. Of course, VW sales went even further through the roof. GM, then the Land Yacht Corporation, decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start selling some of their European makes in the States. For whatever reason, Pontiac dealers got the Vauxhall brand and Buick dealers got Opel.
The $64,000 question is why they did it that way. GM had so much cash at the time, why didn’t they invest in free-standing dealerships? How many Bonneville buyers were going to cross-shop a Victor? How many people looking at Electra convertibles were going to decide to buy a Kadett?
But I am guessing it was in case they tanked sales-wise, there wouldn’t be a bunch of moribund dealerships sitting empty–and dealer franchises to buy out. Vauxhall was the first casualty, disappearing from American shores in about 1961. Opel hung on, and with the introduction of the Kadett B saw a brief renaissance in the US import market. In 1968, a fastback was added, looking an awful lot like a 3/4 scale Nova.
I spotted our featured example way, way, wayyyy back in April 2012, sitting in front of a repair shop. Other than a lime green Manta circa 2008, a total parts-car quality yellow GT about ten years ago, and burgundy 74-75 Manta Luxus (with burgundy velour!) in Nauvoo, IL a few years back, I have not seen any Opels around here. They were well-built in their day, but their economical nature meant that most of them were driven into the ground and retired decades ago. And even the hardier surviving examples would have had trouble finding parts by the late 70s and early 80s, at least in the U.S. So I was very surprised at the time, to see this Kadett.
The nice lady behind the counter told me that it was a 1969 model, and that the owner was trying to get it functional. She said to take as many photos as I wanted. It was in remarkably original shape, right down to the wheel covers. It’s a local car too. The chrome dealer tag on the back is from Schwind-Boeker, a former Buick-Cadillac dealer in Davenport that closed in the late ’80s. Amazing that this car is still in the area after all that time.
Due to rising exchange rates (and perhaps partly due to Car and Driver’s gleefully negative article on the Kadett wagon) Opel sales started to slide in the US starting in about 1970. In 1971, the new Opel Ascona was introduced (dubbed the Opel 1900 in the US) and the Kadett became just an Opel.
The Ascona/1900 was a bit bigger and sleeker than the ‘Opel’ and included a new four-door sedan in addition to two-door sedan and wagon models. The ex-Kadett continued as a two-door sedan and two-door wagon; both would disappear after 1972.
The 1900 coupe (which was renamed the Manta in ’73) was especially sharp. In addition to the top-trim Luxus shown above, there was a basic coupe and a Rallye version with blacked-out hood, stripes and fog lamps.
For 1973, the Kadetts were gone, with only the 1900 nee Ascona available to US customers. This was the last year for a full lineup, as inflation and the rise of the German mark were making Opels a much harder sell.
The two-seat Opel GT was also in its last year, a victim of declining sales and stricter bumper regulations. There would be no mini-Corvette for 1974.
Oh, and speaking of, just two days ago my Uncle Dave spotted this one in his neighborhood. Guess Maxwell Smart was in town.
Some Opels returned for 1974, but the lineup was severely pruned. In addition to the aforementioned GT, all 1900 models were gone, save the 1900 wagon, which was renamed the Manta Sport Wagon. The only other models in the lineup were the Manta coupes, still available in Luxus, Rallye and standard versions.
1975 was the end of the line for German Opels in America. The Manta returned in a single version, as did the Sport Wagon. In an unusual move, the 1900 two-door sedan returned.
All Opels now featured Bosch electronic fuel injection. The 1.9L inline four now produced 81 hp and 96 lb ft of torque. For 1976, the Kadett C would replace the Manta/1900 in the US, but they would be built under license by Isuzu and renamed Opel Isuzu, then Buick Opel for 1977-79.
While not bad cars, they still had to deal with Buick salesmen trying to sell them to their LeSabre and Regal clients, and Opels in any form disappeared from American roads for good after 1979. Ironically, after GM gave up, Isuzu started selling the very same car under their own name as the I Mark, and did much better than the Buick salesmen. How much better would Opel have done in the States if they had dedicated Opel-only dealers, mechanics and salespeople? Could Opel have lasted longer and sold more cars under those circumstances?