Opel: Bicycles, Rockets and Racers
By Wayne Batty
The March 2017 purchase of Opel and its twin-sister brand Vauxhall by PSA Group, followed by the 2021 merging of PSA with Fiat Chrysler Automotive has all but guaranteed the continued survival of the Opel and Vauxhall brands. That’s great news for anyone interested in automotive history, as there’s more than 320 years of that behind their storied and – from 1972 on – intertwined names.
It may be hard to imagine it nowadays, but Opel was once synonymous with luxury vehicles. With grandiose-sounding names such as Diplomat, Admiral and Kapitän, powered by even more grandiose V8s, these cars were the equal of Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class. When US President Gerald Ford toured Germany on a state visit in 1975 his carriage was a long-wheelbase Opel Diplomat V8.
These days we only think of Opel as makers of mainstream Astras, Corsas and fleet-friendly SUVs, but the name has been associated with everything from sewing machines, bicycles and ‘Frigidaire’ fridges to motorcycles and various rocket-powered machines. Opel’s 159-year history is littered with the fruits of Adam Opel and his sons’ industrious, creative, entrepreneurial endeavours.
Buried in the heart of a Rüsselsheim plant buzzing with camouflaged prototypes (at the time of my visit in 2015), is a tidy workshop and storage facility that is home to everything Opel. It’s not open to the public, though its custodian, Uwe Martin, has high hopes of moving the collection into a purpose-built museum in the not too distant future. Naturally, Opel’s survival as a carmaker has taken priority in recent years.
Ground floor is a feast for any historical buff, not just for fans of the brand, with everything from the sewing machines and the 1928 record-setting solid-wood-wheeled bicycle that set a speed record of 122.7kph in 1928 to a 191kW 12.3-litre race car built in 1914 and the stunning trio of concepts that preceded the 1968 Opel GT. Also present, amongst many others, are examples of the Lutzmann, Darracq and Laubfrosch cars plus every generation of Kadett. The back half is littered with immaculate race and rally machines including the Manta driven by Rauno Aaltonen and Walther Röhrl at the 1974 Nurburgring 24Hour, Frentzen’s DTM Vectra, the 1968 Rekord C ‘Black Widow’ and the 1982 WRC-winning Ascona.
With so much to see, I simplified it down to twelve products that have symbolised Opel over the last century and a half.
1. Sewing machines
As a 20-year-old apprentice locksmith and metalworker, Adam Opel left his home in Rüsselsheim, Germany. After a brief stay in Belgium he moved on to France where he worked in a sewing machine factory. Once armed with the necessary fabrication skills, he took the idea back to Germany in 1862, founded Adam Opel AG and began to produce sewing machines in a barn in Rüsselsheim. Around one million units were made before a fire destroyed the factory in 1911.
It’s said that after falling off a penny-farthing (or similar large-wheel bicycle), Adam Opel decided these were too dangerous for any his five sons to ride and so began production of a safer, small-wheel design in 1886. By the mid-1920s, Opel was the world’s largest bicycle producer, but overcapacity and a collapsed market forced Adam’s sons to expand the product portfolio. Opel bicycle production ceased in February 1937.
Best known for its cars, it is interesting to note that founder Adam Opel died four years before his company’s first foray into the world of the automobile. This was probably a good thing as it is said he wouldn’t have liked it much anyway, dismissing motor vehicles as dangerous and smelly. Fortunately, his wife and sons did not share this sentiment as they launched into partnership with coachbuilder Lutzmann in 1899 resulting in the Opel Patent Motorwagen Lutzmann. In truth this was basically just a motorised coach and a mere 65 were built over a two-year period. The Opels wanted something more modern and so established a badge-engineering joint-venture with French manufacturer Darracq before starting to build cars of its own design in 1903.
While not a prolific manufacturer of motorcycles, many Opel-branded one- and two-cylinder two-wheelers did enter the market over three distinct periods between 1901 and 1930. Perhaps the most impressive of these being the 1928 Opel Motoclub 500cc which even today remains highly sought-after.
5. Rocket-propelled planes, trains and automobiles
Fritz von Opel, race car driver and grandson of Adam, teamed up with astronomer and test pilot Max Valier to develop a rocket-powered car. Using solid-fuel rockets, RAK 1 hit 62mph in eight seconds in April 1928. A few weeks later, now carrying 24 rockets packed with 120kg of explosives, the aerodynamically refined RAK 2 hit an estimated 148mph on the AVUS track in Berlin. This was followed up by an unmanned speed record-setting rocket-propelled rail vehicle called RAK 3 – the world’s first jet train, sort of. RAK 4 was supposed to beat that record but it blew up causing German authorities to put an end to Fritz testing his next machine: a rocket-powered motorcycle. Undaunted, he pressed on with the even crazier idea of flying a rocket-powered plane. After two aborted attempts, his plane took off on rocket power alone, flew at 93mph about 25 metres above ground for around 80 seconds before being destroyed in an emergency landing. Respect.
6. Race cars
Opel’s motorsport trophy cabinet may not be as stuffed to the intakes as those of Porsche or Ferrari, but its involvement in track racing stretches all the way back to 1903 with the Opel Rennwagen: a 44mph race car that developed 12hp from its 1.9-litre, two-cylinder motor. Just ten years later, Opel’s Grand Prix racer featured a 4.5-litre, four-cylinder engine that already employed four valves per cylinder and overhead camshaft technology to boost power to 108hp and top speed to 105mph. It’s also hard to forget the brutal but beautiful 12.3-litre Grand Prix Rennwagen aka Grünes Monster (Green Monster).
Over the years Opel’s many on-track successes include its giant-killing feats in South African production car racing where the company captured 13 titles over a 14-year period from 1988-2001. Watching specially homologated 2.0-litre Kadetts keeping mighty 2.7-litre six-cylinder BMW 325is at bay is the stuff of legend.
Closer to home, John Cleland delighted Vauxhall – and Opel – fans with his stellar efforts in British Touring Car racing, taking the driver’s title in 1989 behind the wheel of an Astra GTE. We won’t mention the 1992 finale. On the global scene, Opel’s most notable victory came in 1996 when Manuel Reuter clinched the International Touring Car title driving an all-wheel drive Calibra.
7.‘The Big Three’
An Opel able to genuinely mix it with an S-Class Mercedes-Benz? Hardly likely nowadays, but back in 1964 that’s exactly what happened as Opel entered the luxury sedan market with its so-called ‘Big Three’. The Kapitän, Admiral and Diplomat sedans embraced the size and linear styling of their US cousins offering six-cylinder and V8 engines combined with either a four speed column gear shift, central shift or two-speed auto. Top-line Diplomat models featured deep-pile carpets, plush upholstery, real-wood veneer dashboard, four electric windows, side mirrors adjustable from the inside, foot-well lights in the rear, fog lights and hydraulic assistance for the steering and brakes. A 5.4-litre V8, borrowed from the Corvette, powered the Karmann-built Diplomat V8 Coupe to a top speed of 127mph making it one of the fastest production cars in Germany in 1965. Second-generation KAD models, launched in 1969, had a newly developed chassis with a coil-sprung De Dion rear axle, slightly smaller dimensions, more efficient engines including a six-pot with electronic fuel injection, and a three-speed automatic option. By 1978, combined sales of all KAD models totaled more than 150,000. Opel’s replacements. Senator and Monza would never quite reach those heights.
8. Astra née Kadett
Although badged as Astra for several decades already, the Kadett started life almost 80 years ago as a more compact version of the Olympia, powered by a 1.1-litre four-cylinder engine. A self-supporting, all-steel body was offered in both sedan and convertible forms. Production was halted through the second world war before being resumed in 1945 under Soviet control in Russia as the Moskvich 400.
1962 saw the return of the Opel Kadett in more powerful 1.0-litre OHV guise, built in Bochum, Germany. The 1965 Kadett B was sold in a variety of body styles from two and four-door notchbacks to the fast-back limousine. Two coupe versions as well as three- and five-door station wagon versions also formed part of the prolific line-up. The Kadett C range, introduced in 1973, was capped off by a sporty GT/E coupe with a fuel injected 1.9-litre engine driving the rear wheels.
Kadett D arrived in 1979 in hatchback and station wagon form and ushered in the front-drive, transverse era. Sales were strong but really took off with the 1984 Kadett E which included the iconic Mk2 GSi/GTE models. Five years later, sales of all Kadetts breached the ten million mark. The following F-generation saw the continuation of the alphabetic sequence, but Opel chose to standardise model names across all brands and replaced the Kadett moniker with Astra. Astra G, H and J followed. Quite amazingly, the recently introduced K model is the tenth generation of this family car stalwart.
We’ve already covered the historical importance of the ground floor’s contents, but what lurks below only amplifies Opel’s emphasis on heritage. Where other makers might have been tempted to sell off all ‘non-essentials’ such as one-off prototypes and obscure concept cars, they’re mostly all still here in the basement of this unassuming building. It’s a wonderland for car design nutters. Remember the 1983 Opel Junior concept with its avant-garde individualisation options and visionary navigation system? What about the Corsa Moon design study, the Frogster, Antara GTC, or the Trixx? They’re all here, along with a truly unusual wide-bodied, high-riding Speedster (Vauxhall VX220) coated in textured matte paint – please shout if you know what that’s about.
10. A car for the whole family
It took 115 years of automobile production for Opel to name a car after its founder but given the successful launch of the Adam and the follow-up, entry-level Karl (Adam’s first son was Carl), why stop there? After all, Adam Opel had five sons with wife Sophie. Who’s up for an Opel Wilhelm? Opel Heinrich? Friedrich, Ludwig…?
11. Rally cars
Before Group B rallying became all about all-wheel drive, monstrous power and, sadly, death, Walter Röhrl and co-driver Christian Geistdörfer drove a rear-wheel drive Opel Ascona B 400 to overall victory in the 1982 World Rally Championship, beating the Audi Quattros of Michèle Mouton, Hannu Mikola and Stig Blomqvist.
In 1983, Ari Vatanen won the Safari Rally, also in an Ascona.
12. Record breakers
Back in 1972, Opel set several records for diesel-fuelled cars with a modified version of its GT sports car. Fitted with a 2.1-litre turbodiesel engine producing 94bhp, the car hit a top speed of 123mph. Designed specifically to beat that record, Opel returned to the test track 30-years later with the Eco-Speedster. Based on a lightened and rebodied Opel Speedster/Vauxhall VX220 powered by an 110bhp 1.3-litre Ecotec CDTI engine, the 660kg Eco-Speedster topped out at 160.1mph, averaged 141mph over 24 hours, and set an economy record of 2.5L/100km or 113mpg.
Article by Wayne Batty