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Opel Manta: GM's Good Small Car


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"1971-1975 Opel Manta: GM's GOOD Small Car"
Reprinted from July 1990 OMC Blitz

You've no doubt heard about "Rude Awakening," the breathless new book that recounts General Motor's travails in the Eighties. In an introductory chapter, author Maryann Keller, one of Wall Street's top auto industry analysts, declares that one of GM's big problems in the Seventies was that it "couldn't build a good small car to save its life." But Keller is thinking only of Chevrolet's hapless Vega. GM did have a good small car back then. We know, because we bought one. It was the Opel Manta.

Opel has never been a household word in America. Even some enthusiasts don't know that Adam Opel AG is GM Germany, that it dates from the turn of the century, that GM acquired it in the late Twenties, or that Opel is to Russelsheim (near Frankfurt) what Buick is to Flint, Michigan. Fewer still know that may GM bigwigs have "apprenticed" at Opel or that Opel engineering has figured in GM cars from the humble Chevy Chevette to today's turbo-charged Pontiac Sunbird and Grand Am. (Note: Add also the more recent Cadillac Catera and the Saturn L-Series).


But that's the way it is with "captive imports," the overseas products of American automakers that historically get short shrift stateside. Those few Americans who still recognize the Opel name probably think of the little GT fastback of 1968-1973, mostly for styling a la the 1968-vintage "shark" generation Corvette.

If the GT was a mini-Corvette, the Manta was a mini-Camaro, Opel's answer to Ford of Europe's smashingly successful mini-Mustang, the Capri. The Manta landed on US shores a year after its European launch (and about 6 months after Capris appeared at Lincoln-Mercury dealers), part of a new 1971 "1900" series that included two- and four-door sedans and a two-door wagon. Buick Motor Division had been selling Opels since 1958, but had never offered so many models because the new 1900 line bolstered an existing group of smaller Kadetts.

At first, the US Manta was just a "1900," referring to the 1.9 liter "cam-in-head" four-cylinder engine that also powered the new sedans and wagons. There were two coupes, standard and Rallye. The latter sported a racy matte-black hood, twin upper-bodyside tape stripes run up and over the rump, fog lights, twin chrome extensions on a single tailpipe, tachometer, oil pressure gauge, ammeter, clock, exposed-lug wheels with chrome rings, and a 3.67:1 final drive (versus 3.44:1) for sprightlier takeoffs.

All 1900's shared a conventional but well-executed chassis. Drive was to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual gearbox or three-speed automatic. Steering was manual rack-and-pinion (power assist was neither available nor needed), brakes were vacuum-assisted front discs/rear drums, and springing was by coils all-around. The front suspension employed upper A-arms and lower transverse links; in back rode a live axle on lower trailing arms and Panhard rod. Both ends used an anti-roll bar. Styling, created in Germany under Chuck Jordan, was clean and handsome -- recognizably GM but somehow "international." All 1900's rode a 95.7 inch wheelbase, but the coupes stretched an extra 5.4 inches to 171.0 inches overall because of their shapelier lines. Despite their trim dimensions, all 1900's offered fine passenger and cargo space (coupes had a usefully boxy 11.5 cubic-foot trunk), abundant glass, and a tidy reverse-slant dash reminiscent of the early Camaros. The result was an airy interior with a comfortably upright driving stance and good visibility.

Journalists were quick to appreciate the overall balance of the 1900's, particularly the coupes. The Rallye edged the rival Capri and Toyota's then-new Celica in a 1972 Road & Track comparison test. It also nipped Mazda's new rotary-powered RX-2 and way outdistanced Chevy's Vega GT in a six-way Car and Driver matchup that year. The latter characterized the Opel as "uncommonly well engineered for its price," initially a reasonable $2490. "It's German in the same way Porsche's and BMW's are German...the Teutonic automotive know-how is...there. The engine has manners. It whirs like a BMW and never shakes. The suspension is German too...The ride is well controlled and the car never floats or wallows."

Handling was heartily praised. The Opel couldn't outcorner a Capri on R&T's skidpad -- both circled at 0.665g -- but on winding roads it could "simply walk away...in spite of its cheap bias tires (skinny 165-13's)...There is understeer, but not too much." R&T found "a remarkable competence about the Rallye's road behavior, from the precise steering through the lack of any unseemly bump-steer to the utter confidence it imparts to its driver as he hurls it into corners. Superb -- and we wonder what it would do with a set of large radials." Competitors in the Sports Car Club of America's new Showroom Stock Class soon found out. So completely did Manta's dominate the proceedings that they were barred from SS after 1972, surely the highest handling praise of all.

Where the Opel lagged was in acceleration, a victim of GM's new policy mandating lower compression ratios so all its '71 cars could tolerate low-lead fuel. Thus, while Europeans enjoyed a healthy 102 horsepower, low 7.6:1 compression left the US at 90 bhp SAE gross -- a measly 75 net. A strangling two-barrel Solex carb didn't help. Somehow, Car and Driver timed 0-60mph at 11.6 seconds, but Road & Track's 13.5 second result came closer to the truth. At that, the Opel would outrun a Vega or Ford Pinto and stay even with a Celica, but was left behind by an RX-2 or 2.0 liter Capri. (See: Note below)

So-so acceleration may have hampered the 1900's showroom performance, for the 1971 Rallye attracted just 8378 US buyers. The '72 fared little better at 10,647, perhaps because both coupes were unchanged save a manual steel sunroof as a new option.

Changes were more noticeable for 1973: belated Manta badges on trunklids, slim bumper rub strips, and a third coupe called "Luxus" (German for "luxury"). The Luxus featured attractive four-spoke steel wheels and plush corduroy-type interior trim keyed to silver, burgundy or dark blue paint. As ever, these Opels were pretty well equipped. The only options were tinted glass, electric rear-window defroster, whitewalls, radio, dealer-installed air conditioning, and vinyl roof.

But the Deutschmark was strengthening, forcing prices ominously higher. The base 1973 manta rose to $2817, the Rallye to $3046, and the Luxus started at $3058. Tough the last looked like a shrewd move, garnering 17,536 orders to the Rallye's 8360, sales for the entire Opel line remained far below Buick's expectations.

Accordingly, the GT and 1900 four-door were dropped for 1974 (the Kadetts had departed after 1972). Remaining models were burdened with five-mph "crash bumpers" that added five inches to length and some 170 pounds of heft. Happier developments included a pair of outboard "penny flap" dash vents (supplementing a central duo), higher-set auxiliary gauge cluster for the Rallye, reclining front seats reshaped for better support, Luxus wheels as an option for non-Luxuses, optional radial tires, and a "Sportwagon" package that gave the little hauler most Rallye equipment. Prices kept creeping up, to just over $3000 for the base Manta and a pricey $3535 for the Luxus. Thus, despite as unprecedented energy crisis and an overnight boom in small-car demand, Opel sales withered again, the Luxus sinking to 14,026, the Rallye to 7959.

There was no getting around the worsening currency situation, which boosted prices another $450 for 1975. But there was compensation as Opel exchanged carburetors for Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection that boosted horsepower to 81 (77 for California) and brought 0-60 dashes down to 12.7 seconds by Road & Track's stopwatch. The Rallye and Luxus were gone, but the standard Manta continued with their best features. "The Opel Manta has been a good car," said R&T in July 1975. "Now with fuel injection it has not only regained all the performance lost in the intervening years but actually gained some. Nice going, Opel."

But the Manta as its sisters were going, too, replaced by Japanese "Opel by Isuzu" coupes for 1976. They were cheaper (and smaller), but hardly a substitute for the genuine German article, even if they were derived from the same new Opel Kadett C-car that also spawned Chevy's subcompact Chevette. Ironically, continuing inflation would soon render the "Buick/Opel" even costlier than the German models.

Captive imports aren't (generally) collected in America, so buying a Manta is no way to make money. These Opels, can, however, be entertaining "cheap wheels." The obvious picks are the Rallye, Luxus, and the "fuelie" 1975 coupe. But there's a catch. Though a pristine example won't cost much to start with, it's usually tough getting parts for orphan cars 15 years later. So consider buying two Mantas: the best one you can find, for driving, and a scruffy one for parts -- US Opel specialists are few and far between.

The car itself poses few problems. It does rust, though reluctantly (make the usual inspections and avoid salt-belt habitués), carburetors are finicky, and upholstery on early Luxuses tends to fade and split under severe sunlight. (Buick conducted a recall, but some cars likely didn't get the sturdier replacement fabric). Otherwise, these Opels are almost bulletproof, certainly more so than most contemporary rivals.

Again we speak from experience. Our 1972 Rallye was a faithful and enjoyable companion for a dozen years. It died only of neglect after we moved from Denver to Chicago, where we didn't need to drive it nearly as often; even then, the atrophy was slow. Today we sometimes wish we'd spent the money to rejuvenate it, but the outlay would have grossly exceeded the car's worth -- and our disposable income.

Keep that in mind, but don't dismiss a good Manta if it comes your way. One magazine called this Opel "one of the finest cars produced by General Motors Corporation." It still is -- maybe the best small car GM ever gave US buyers. Let's hope GM Chairman Roger Smith remembers it. His vaunted forthcoming Saturn should be so good.

Notes:

Installing replacement high-compression pistons, along with other upgrades such as a Weber 32/36 DGEV carburetor, higher lift camshaft, and electronic ignition, can boost engine power output considerably.

See OMC's Tech Tip Index, for references to articles with additional performance details.

The overall US sales numbers given for the Manta, do not match other sources (which reported higher figures).

"Per 17 U.S.C. Section 107 and related statutes, the presentation of excerpts of materials relating to Opel model vehicles, is intended for educational and research purposes only."


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