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Opel: A Bit of History


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Smelly and noisy, the motor car was widely considered an undesirable addition to the streets and cities when it first appeared. Yet the Opels persevered with cars, earlier they'd done the same with bicycles even though many people, including Adam Opel himself, had felt at first that two-wheelers were only hazardous toys. Adam Opel's decision to make sewing machines was in many ways his most dangerous move of all! Delivering his second machine to a customer, he expected a warm welcome, instead Opel and his machine were showered with threats and stones from angry tailors who had heard the dreaded labor saving device was coming. It was a minor setback for the 26 year old Opel, then on the threshold of his 30 year career as an importer, innovator, manufacturer, salesman, and founder of a company and also a dynasty.


Adam Opel was born on May 9, 1837, to Wilheml, a locksmith, and his wife in Russelsheim. Adam studied with his father until the age of 20, when he received his travel pass. The pass enabled him to be an apprentice locksmith in Belgium, in Liege, Brussels, and Paris, where he arrived in the Summer of 1858. While in Paris, he took an interest in the newest innovation - the sewing machine. In 1859, he went to work for a maker of sewing machines to get a closer look. Adam's younger brother, George, also came to Paris to absorb this new technology. In 1862 Adam returned to Russelsheim.

Adam's uncle offered him an unused cow stall in Russelsheim to set up a workshop in which to build his own sewing machine. In 1863 George returned from France to help in the slow production of the machines. In April of 1867 Adam was preparing to build a new two story factory near the railroad station, when his father died. Adam attached a new home to his factory and married the daughter of a well-to-do family. Sophie brought with her a substantial dowry, which helped Opel expand the plant. In 1870 he introduced a new machine named the "Sophia" after his new wife.

In the 1880's sewing machine production jumped ahead, with steady expansion of the plant, and by 1899 more than a half million machines had been made. The milestone of 1 million machines was reached in 1911, the same time a fire destroyed much of the plant. The Opel brothers decided to give up the sewing machine production and try to produce the more profitable manufacture of bicycles and cars.

Adam and Sophia had 5 sons (Carl, Wilhelm, Heinrich, Friedrich, and Ludwig), who took wholeheartedly to wheels, and who would pilot the Opel enterprises down the automotive path. Bicycles came into the picture when Adams curiosity was stirred by a high-wheeled bicycle he saw in Paris. Intrigued, he ordered a set of parts from England. After putting together the bike, Adam tried it with disastrous results. He decided he'd have nothing further to do with those "bone breakers." Two things changed his mind; one being he found them easy to sell with a greater profit than he could earn with the sewing machines. Second, his sons begged him mercilessly for bicycles of their own.opel

By 1886 the Opels had made a bicycle of their own, and the following year young Carl went to England to study the new industry and bring back samples of the latest designs. This led to serious production of cycles, including low-wheeled, and three-wheeled types as early as the end of 1887. The growing bands of enthusiasts

for this new locomotion knew they could count on Opel for the newest and best ideas in cycling in Germany. Every one of the Opel brothers was an outstanding prize winning racer.

Adam Opel never lived to see the automobiles built by the company he founded. He died in 1895. His will set up for a new organization for the company in which his widow Sophie held the primary interest and his two eldest sons had lesser shares.

Their first crisis was a sudden deflation of the boom in bicycles in 1898, a collapse caused by the over expansion among the many makers of cycles. They managed to carry on. New products were introduced that kept on the more than 1500 employees, most grown up in the industry with Opel. The bicycle plant expanded eventually becoming the largest in the mid 1920's, with a capacity of 4000 cycles a day from automatic painting and plating equipment in halls pressurized for ideal cleanliness.

By the 1930's times had changed. In 1936 Opel sold its bicycle plant to NSU in Neckarsuim, which started making bicycles at about the same time as Opel. Under the company's many different names tow and a half million bikes in all had been produced. Now however, new records were being set for the manufacture of power four wheelers. By 1937, Opel could lay fair claim to being Europe's largest maker of automobiles.

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