1862 - present
In the history of Opel there have been more than a few clangers that should have spelled and end to the marque, but somehow Opel were always able to make the right decisions despite the occasional dud automobile
. It was as a result of their good decision making that they were successful, at various points in history they even outselling Volkswagen on the German market, such as in 1973 when they had 406,000 registrations against VW's 367,000, and, in 1978 when they became the second largest of all the divisions within the enormous General Motors
organisation except for Chevrolet.
Adam and Sophie Opel
Opel was started by Adam Opel, the son of a locksmith in Rüsselsheim, then a small trading town. He embarked upon a career as a sewing-machine engineer, which occupied him for the rest of his life, from the foundation of the business in 1862. When he died in 1895, he left his widow Sophie the major interest in the firm, which she ruled firmly and shrewdly with the increasing help of her five sons. All the boys pursued technical studies, and were all distinguished racing cyclists, not merely from predilection but from the knowledge that the successes they gained would impress the customers for the bicycles that the firm was building in ever-increasing numbers since they began in 1887.
Two years after Adam's death, the elder Opel brothers were appointed official observers of Germany's first motoring competition, a trial run from Berlin to Potsdam and back. The brothers felt that cars might be a new business that could reinforce the flagging work at Rüsselsheim, where the factory was suffering from the collapse of the bicycle market; and they took a special interest in the car that was judged to have performed best in the competition, a car built by another locksmith, Friedrich Lutzmann.
Carland Wilhelm Opel
After Benz and Daimler, Lutzmann was one of the pioneers of the motor vehicle in Germany, building his first car in 1893, and setting up a manufacturing two years later under the official patronage of the Court of Anhalt. The Opel brothers enjoyed courtly patronage too, from Ernst Ludwig, the Grand Duke of Hesse, who was keen to advance the industrialisation of his duchy, and judged the Opels on their established record to be the best men to establish a motor industry in his domain. So, Carland Wilhelm Opel went to see Lutzmann immediately after the Berlin event, and negotiated an agreement by which Lutzmann moved his machinery, workers and stock from Dessau to Rüsselsheim, where Lutzmann was put in charge of the new car department and set to develop suitable new models for Opel to make.
By 1899, the first Opel cars were on sale - smaller, less ornate and more orthodox than the Dessau cars, and capable of about twelve mph thanks to a 4 hp 1½
-litre single-cylinder engine, driving the rear wheels through a two-speed belt transmission. Starting these cars was pretty elemental: the driver reached down and seized the big flywheel, giving it a spin to start the engine. How long it kept going was another matter. Cylinder bores were difficult to finish satisfactorily, and piston
rings broke with frequently. The Opels had to study entirely new skills and techniques, designing and building their own boring machines, experimenting with different ring materials and developing engines that ran faster and developed more power.
The Heidelberg Hillclimbs
They built a two-cylinder engine next, capable of driving a four-seater car at 27 mph, and experiments continued with improvements including pneumatic tyres, an all-steel tubular chassis and stripped two-seater cars prepared for competition. With their cycling background, the Opels knew the value of racing successes, and it was an Opel that made the fastest time in one of the first hill-climbs held in Germany, near Heidelberg. Despite their efforts, the Opels did not meet much initial success. Examining the products of their competitors at the Nuremberg Show early in 1900, they realised that the cars they were building to Lutzmann's designs were clumsy, backward, inelegant and inefficient. It was the French who were making the real progress, with designs so radical that there was no hope of incorporating their features in the established Lutzmann-Opel designs.
Lutzmann himself was proving a disappointment, devoting too much of his time to his own locksmithing inventions, and both production and sales from Rüsselsheim faltered. Eleven cars had been made in 1899, only 24 the following year, and the business was simply unprofitable - and the car division was closed down, after all the components on hand had been assembled. Lutzmann was dismissed, never to return to the motor industry. Two years later, after toying with motor-cycle manufacture, the Opel brothers pursued their faith in the car by entering into an agreement with Renault, giving them the exclusive representation of the make in Germany, but they soon discovered that the French company, still small, could not supply them with enough cars to justify the effort and investment involved. Accordingly, the brothers entered a further contract with Darracq, acquiring not only the agency for Germany and Austro-Hungary, but also the right to build their own bodies on Darracq chassis, and even to build cars to Darracq design.
The German / Austro-Hungarian Darracq Agents
This was a well judged move: the Darracq was a good car, and was well received. Its single-cylinder 8 hp engine and a later 9 hp variant featured then modern features such as shaft drive, with the chassis carrying a handsome four-seater body; and the car could be sold at 5000 marks, twice as much as the earlier Opel. The Darracq business flourished, and the Opels continued to import cars from France at the same time as introducing their own versions of Darracq designs, with more cylinders and different bodies. A two-cylinder 10/12 hp car was ready as early as the end of 1902, a four-cylinder car the following year, and two new versions of each in 1905. By that year, in which 358 cars were built, the Opels were well enough established for them to feel independent and they discontinued their co-operation with Darracq in 1906.
Already Opel had become very active in sports and racing events, gaining more than 100 victories in 1905 - and also in 1905 the firm was able to open a new car factory with its own power-generating plant. Much of the power was consumed in engine testing, as Opel devoted a lot of effort to ensuring the quality of their cars before releasing them from the factory. Each engine, after assembly by a skilled man and his assistant, was set up in the test-bench hall where it was motored over for at least ten hours, after which it was run for another ten under its own power. It was then dismantled, checked, reassembled and run for a further eight-hour cycle, under load for the final five hours. Similarly, gearboxes and axles were motored for five hours or more to ensure silent running, and after the complete chassis was assembled, it too was run on stands for several hours in all the gears. Only after a track test, under the burden of an extra-heavy test body, was the chassis passed for coachwork to be mounted, the painting of which alone occupied four weeks.
Such cars were inevitably expensive, the dearest (the 6.9-litre 35/40 hp Opel) being priced at upwards of 17,000 marks. Equally inevitably, it was the small Darracq-inspired cars that enjoyed the greatest popular demand, especially a style-setting 8/14hp two-cylinder 'doctor's coupe'. Publicity was sought through further racing and sporting events. Special cars were built for the Kaiserpreis, one of the three major international events of 1907, and two of the team of three Opels survived to finish third and fourth. The race was won by Fiat, as were the other principal events of that year, but it was to Opel that Kaiser Wilhelm II personally presented his own trophy for the first German car to finish. This did a great deal of good to the Opel reputation, although the make suffered a setback in the 1908 French Grand Prix.
The Prinz Heinrich Trial
In 1909, a relatively small four-cylinder Opel was entered for the rally-like Prince Henry (Prinz Heinrich) Trial, organised by the Kaiser's brother. Wilhelm Opel drove the winner, and other Opels were third, fifth, sixth, tenth and thirteenth. New cars were built to defend the title in 1910, low-built machines with overhead inlet valves
in 7.3-litre engines said to develop more than 100 horsepower; the best of them finished fourth in a field that started more than 200 strong. Opel were doing well in every way - and then in 1911 the factory was destroyed by fire. Thankfully the Opels had developed a "Disaster Recovery Plan" as early as 1905 - it was enacted and the rebuilding commenced with such determination that, by 1912, the new factory was open on the Golden Jubilee of the founding of the Adam Ope! company.
The Grand Duke did the honours again, with mother Sophie on his arm. In the following year she died, and the future of the firm was in the hands of the second generation, already mature industrialists whose sons were being trained for future participation. In that year, Ope! began to build trucks, having already celebrated the delivery of their 10,000th car in 1912. The new factory had been designed to admit the most modern production techniques, and business once again flourished. The racing programme was not so successful as the cars built for the French Grand Prix
of 1913 were failures, and the new one built for the 1914 event, with its engine modelled unashamedly on the twin-camshaft 16-valve four-cylinder Peugeots that had been successful thanks to the design of Ernest Henry (and, it must be admitted, the inspiration of Hispano-Suiza's Marc Birkigt) could only finish in tenth place.
Later that summer, the GP Opels were taken to Britain to race at Brooklands
, but had to be abandoned there upon the outbreak of war. Years later, one of them was prominent at the track in the hands of a distinguished newcomer to the sport, Henry Segrave
. During the war, Opel provided trucks and other vehicles for the army, and also built BMW aero engines, while completing in 1916 the prototype
of their first six-cylinder car, which was intended for the post-war car market. Alas, the Ope! master plan did not accurately forecast the immediate post-war situation: in December 1918, the French forces occupied Rüsselsheim, and ordered the destruction of tools, equipment and materials that could have been used to help rebuild the shattered nation's economy. The factory was declared within the demilitarised zone, which effectively meant that its supplies of raw materials and finance were restricted. Thugs terrorised the workers, the communists caused further upheavals and the antiquated cars that were all that could be put into production held very little attraction for the market, which had been reduced to a chaotic state by the runaway inflation of the currency.
Surprisingly, the currency of the Opel name was maintained by racing. The firm had completed a test track near the factory at the end of the war, a banked concrete oval 1½
kilometres long. It was the only private testing track operated by any German car manufacturer, and it doubled as an excellent racing circuit. Frequent race meetings were held there, and even when Opel cars and drivers did not feature among the winners, the name was still advertised, because the place was known as the Opelbahn. Nor were Opel's racing activities confined to their own district: their leading driver Carl Jams, who had joined them in the Darracq days, achieved some spectacular successes in an enormous racing two-seater built in 1913. This car had a 12-litre engine, built in Henry style, and was said to develop 260 horsepower, but distinguished by the location of the valve springs above the rockers so they projected above the engine and into the cooling air through holes in the bonnet-a valve-spring arrangement derived from a prototype
Opel aero engine of 1911.
In 1923, this car was timed at 206 kmh on the sands of Fano, a Danish island where Malcolm Campbell
had the day before just exceeded the existing land-speed record with 219.3 kmh. The Opel brothers were by now more interested in production records than speed records. In the beginning of the decade they had set themselves to study the American methods pioneered by Olds, Leland, and Ford; and they were soon convinced that the profitable course for Opel would be to transform the Rüsselsheim plant with modern assembly lines for the quantity production of a low-cost car.
While the national economic crisis reached its peak in 1923, with the declaration of a state of emergency and the issue of a new currency, the Opels ripped out the old-fashioned countershafting of their factory, installed self-powered machines, scrapped all previous production models and insisted on a completely new start on everything in the drawing office. The only remaining question, and one that had to be answered quickly and correctly if the firm were not to collapse, was what car they should make. Once again, the Opels found their inspiration in Paris. There, in 1919, Europe's first assembly line for mass production had been inaugurated by Andre Citroen, who in 1922 began building there a small car known as the Type C or 5 CV with a body style that earned it the connotation Trifle or Cloverleaf - although the popular nickname was Citron or lemon, because it was usually painted yellow.
It was a beautifully simple little four-cylinder car, designed to survive the maltreatment of the meanest French peasant and the roughest French roads, to give practical and economical transport to people who could afford nothing better and find nothing cheaper that was much good. This was what the Opels wanted, and this was what they made - almost a carbon copy, except for a magneto and 12 V electrical system instead of a distributor and six volts, for minute differences in track and wheelbase, and for a slightly larger cylinder-bore dimension. There was only one other significant difference: instead of being painted yellow, it was normally painted green, and so the Opel version too acquired a nickname, the Laubfrosch or Tree Frog.
The little green Opel was a tremendous success soon after it was put on the market in the spring of 1924. Stability was returning to the German economy, more quickly after the establishment of the Reichsmark in August, and the miniature boom in the car business that then developed was ripe for exploitation more effectively by Opel than by any other domestic manufacturer. The car was progressively modified - if only to quieten the anger of Citroen, who had been prompted to take Opel to court for their candid plagiarism of the French design. Longer chassis, bigger engines, more capacious bodies, all followed in due turn, even six-cylinder cars; and as things grew progressively better, a six-litre straight-eight known as the Regent was introduced in 1929.
Two years earlier, sales of the Tree Frog alone amounted to 39,000, and Opel had had the sense to build up a widespread service organisation throughout Germany. They were the first in the land to guarantee repairs at fixed prices, and their commercial acumen was rewarded with a 37.5% share of the German car output in 1925, by which time they had 5000 employees building 250 cars a day. There were other statistics of even greater importance, however, as while their production was 37.5% of all German made cars, their sales were 44% of them - but only 26% of all the cars bought in Germany. The impact of the American industry on the German market had been far greater than expected. German cars had for obvious reasons fallen behind in technical progress, while the new exchange rate of the dollar to the mark made the prices of the American imports very favourable. Moreover, the tariff policies then current allowed American cars into Germany with only token payments of duty.
It followed that the cars many Germans bought were American, and that they acquired a taste for them which prompted several of the few surviving German manufacturers (there were 65 in 1924, only 23 by 1925) to produce cars in the American idiom. Adler
for instance built a virtual Chrysler, Stoewer a pseudo-Gardner, and when Opel were tempted to go and do likewise they were guided by their appreciation of quality to emulate the best of American practice, which was why the new cars marketed in 1927 resembled the current Packard
. But even these "American Emulation" strategies were not enough to protect the German manufacturers against the Americans. The big powers such as Ford and General Motors
not only exported complete cars but also set up local assembly plants where cars could be put together from imported parts even more cheaply.
Alfred P. Sloan
GM had just such a factory in Berlin, but then transferred their attentions to England where, after failing to make the Austin Motor Company
their own property, they bought the little Vauxhall company for a trifling 2½
million dollars. The Opel family judged this to be of such significance that they made a proposition to GM the following year. 'The General' was in no hurry, and took time to act. Some of the senior GM administrators wanted to expand the Berlin factory into a manufacturing operation, while the President (Alfred P. Sloan, the visionary who made General Motors
the magnificent giant it became during his office) favoured an affiliation with an existing German maker. Sloan and two aides called on Opel during a European trip late in 1928, and he was so impressed by what he saw that he promptly negotiated an option for GM to buy Opel.
A team of investigators followed him, reporting favourably: 'The buildings were well designed, 70% of the machinery had been purchased during the past four years, and had been well selected. The plant was flexible and readily adaptable to new models. A good supply of high-class labour was available.' The die was cast, and in January 1929, in preparation for the sale, the Opel family company was transformed into a joint stock company under the name Adam Opel AG. In March 1929 GM took a substantial share of the stock, and in two subsequent transfers it bought the remainder, becoming the sole owner in October 1931, at a total cost of 66,724,000 dollars.
The Rocket Powered Opels
It was not the beginning of the end, but it was the end of the beginning. It was the end of a lot of things - of the bicycle business and of all the rallying and racing. It was also an end to the exploits of the rocket-propelled Opel experimental speedsters of 1927 and 1928. Opel's rocket powered cars was a fairly casual affair, sparked off by a letter to Fritz von Opel by an Austrian author, lecturer and rocket enthusiast named Max Valier. He thought that the young von Opel (son of Wilhelm Ope! who, with Carl and Heinrich, had been given aristocratic status by the Grand Duke, allowing them to use the name von Opel) might provide the money to support his proposed programme of rocket research, which was aimed at the ultimate development of rockets for flights into space.
The two men met late in 1927 and, while Valier noted that young Fritz was interested in aviation, the latter realised that the demonstration of a rocket-powered car would be an inexpensive and very effective publicity stunt. He accordingly rushed Valier into the preparation of a rocket-propelled car, without embarking on any basic research in rocketry; so ready-made solid-propellant rockets were acquired from the specialist Sander, who made them for marine signalling and line-throwing. After experiments in secret with a hastily converted passenger-car chassis, the first special .Opel rocket car, nicknamed Rak (for Rakete or rocket), was demonstrated before the press in April 1928. Although it did not go as fast as intended (only seven of the twelve high-thrust rockets ignited properly), the smoke and noise of the 65 mph demonstration earned Opel tremendous newspaper publicity.
The Rocket Powered Rak II
This encouraged Opel to make a completely new car, the Opel Rak II, with an ultra-Iow chassis and a bullet-shaped body, sprouting two dozen rockets at the back and very large negative-incidence wings on each side to provide aerodynamic
down thrust to ensure that the car remained on the ground and steerable. The angle of incidence of these wings could be adjusted by the driver, but when the time came, Fritz von Ope! was too busy steering
the rapidly accelerating car to adjust them appropriately. With a total jet thrust exceeding 13,000Ib, the car reached 142 mph while covering two kilometres of the Avus track, and the nose of the car started to lift! To say that von Ope!'s aim was disturbed would be to confirm what Valier had felt for some time. The two men had entirely different objects, and eventually Valier went his own way.
Fritz von Ope! persevered with some unmanned rocket vehicles running on rails, and finally built his dream machine, a rocket-propelled aeroplane. After some false starts it made a clean take-off in September 1929, with the press looking on, but at an altitude of about 100 feet something went wrong and the aircraft made a heavy landing that was tantamount to a crash. The Opel rocket adventures were finished. The General Motors
adventure was already under way, under the aegis of the former Oldsmobile
manager, I. J. Reuter, as Managing Director. While the world reeled in the great depression of 1930, his American and German engineers worked together on a new simplified range for 1931. It was a well planned, simple and integrated range, employing many common parts, and based on a one-litre four-cylinder car and a 1.8-litre six that was like a miniature Cadiliac
The Opel Kadett and Admiral
Alfred Sloan attracted some derision when he forecast eventual Opel production of 150,000 vehicles a year; the 1932 figure was only 20,982 cars and trucks, but within another seven years the annual output was within 6% of Sloan's prediction. Opels were marketed abroad as well as in Germany, the 1074cc Kadett of 1937-1939 selling in England for a mere £135. Larger cars were successful, too, up to the 3.6-litre six-cylinder Admiral. The GM range of cars prior to the outbreak of World War 2 were cheap, effective, simple and by no means devoid of technical innovation. Independent front suspension of Dubonnet type was introduced in 1934, and spread to all models by 1939.
The Opel Olympia
The 1935 Olympia was the first quantity-built German car with an integral pressed-steel body and chassis, and the first car in the world of its size and price class to feature this weight-saving form of construction. The engine had an intriguing crankshaft: at a time when most four-throw cranks had three main bearings and some only two, while no mass-producer would dream of providing five, Opel did even better with four. In their engine, the place of the centre main bearing was taken by a bobweight that relieved the crankshaft of bending stresses. Stylistically, too, the Olympia was a pacemaker, with headlamps faired into the bonnet, valanced wings, enclosed spare wheel, and an alternative body style to the two-door sedan which was called a Cabriolet but was in fact less elegant, a simple sedan-type structure in which the steel roof panel was replaced by a fabric top that could be furled to leave the doors and window frames in position.
The Opel Kapitan
As for the six-cylinder Kapitan of 1938, it not only had a unitary hull construction
but also parallel-wishbone front suspension with coil springs and a torsion anti-roll bar
. At the time this was an advanced specification for what was essentially a cheap car, but everything that Opel did in the 1930s seemed spectacular. Alas, its sole stockholder did not profit greatly thereby. Strict regulations against the export of currency from Germany kept the Opel profits from reaching General Motors, who accordingly ploughed them back into the company. It was good for Opel but not entirely welcomed by the Nazi government, which did not like foreign domination of domestic industry.
Mr Hitler is the boss of our German factory
In 1940, an Opel official complained that more than 240 government departments were interfering with the company's affairs, and said that a single export sale required 54 documents to be completed. In June of that year, the whole situation became out of hand: GM declined the government's invitation to produce munitions in the Opel plant and, as it were, bit the bullet. They resigned from any and all responsibility for Opel activities, acknowledging 'with some regret that Mr Hitler is the boss of our German factory'. Car production at Rüsselsheim came to a halt in October after the production of 1,300,585 vehicles. It did not do a great deal thereafter, not being considered trustworthy enough for major munitions assignments in view of its foreign associations. In any case, the Opel factories, both at Rüsselsheim and Brandenburg, were given a thorough going-over by the allied air forces, and by the beginning of 1945 there was very little left.
The Berlin Plant is relocated to the Urals
The Russians seized the remains of the Berlin plant and transported it, lock, stock and barrel, to the Ural mountains - along with all the tools and drawings for the Kadett, which was put into production as the Moskvich 400. Not until December 1947 were GM allowed to resume car production at Rüsselsheim, which they did with an updated version of the Olympia, but even then they were not allowed control of the company, and when in 1948 the possibility arose they were not at all sure that they wanted to take it. Sloan suggested that GM take the helm of Opel again for a two-year "probationary" period to see whether the economic conditions, then called "close to stagnation" in Germany, would improve. Sloan set other important goals: "General Motors should risk no additional capital in Opel. Credit facilities should be available. We should have complete freedom in personnel policies and administration. The products produced by Adam Opel AG should be solely within the jurisdiction of management, and if prices had to be approved by government authority, a reasonable return on the capital should be allowed."
With these guidelines in mind, the Opel question was put again on May 3 to the GM financial policy committee, which then withdrew its objections to a return to Rüsselsheim. Many details still had to be worked out, both within GM and in the U.S. occupied zone of Germany, before this could actually occur. At last, the official word was released on November 1, 1948: GM resumed management control of Adam Opel AG Edward W. Zdunek, formerly regional manager for Europe of General Motors
Overseas Operations Division, was named managing director. The appointment of Zdunek to this post was a move of special significance. An experienced motor industry executive, he was not merely liked but indeed loved by those who worked for him. The sensitive hand of Ed Zdunek was the perfect choice to guide the fragile Opel ship through the roiling waters of postwar Germany. He continued in that critical position until 1961. By 1953 output had risen above 100,000 vehicles for the first time since the war.
The Opel Rekord
But the post war Opel's were not very prepossessing vehicles. Neither was the Moskvich, which retained its Opel characteristics until 1959, by which time Opel themselves were preparing to introduce a new Kadett. It eventually appeared in 1962, built in a new factory at Bochum. The next year, the Olympia became the Rekord, and alternative engine sizes were later offered, eventually with overhead-camshaft cylinder heads
. Things gradually grew better, a notable technical step being the introduction of the surprisingly roadworthy Diplomat in 1965: handling
the output of its 5.4-litre Chevrolet V8 engine was a well executed version of the de Dion rear axle, serving notice that the company's new engineers were intent on producing cars of much better road manners than had characterised their previous spongy lurchers.
By 1969, a sporting image even became apparent, as the company began actively to support rallies. They even brought out what was called a GT coupe, a beautifully streamlined little two-seater based on Kadett mechanical elements but enlivened by an optional 1.9-litre overhead-camshaft engine, checked by front disc brakes, and kept clean with the aid of retractable headlamps. In its faster version, this car could do 115 mph, handled impressively, and was extraordinarily stable in strong cross winds, even when running at very high speeds. The following year, 1970, saw the introduction of a new high-performance six-cylinder car, the Commodore, with fuel injection
as an option.
The Opel Manta
A year later still came one of the most significant models produced, the Manta. This was a sporting coupe that was seen as Opel's answer to the Anglo-German Ford Cap ri, a car that was not only strikingly beautiful in its styling, but also blessed with impressive manners in everything from steering
and roadholding to the adjustment of the elegant and comfortable seats. In time it was given every imaginable treatment: there was an economy version, a luxury version, one with fuel injection, another with turbocharging
. This last was not very satisfactory, prompting the British division of GM to commission a special turbocharging
installation developed in England by Broadspeed. It appeared in 1974, but a much more important car based on the Manta platform was announced in 1971, only a fortnight after the Manta itself. This was the Ascona saloon, an outwardly ordinary family car that soon proved unexpectedly adept in international rallying. GM was officially not interested in motorsport, but nor could they overlook their gifted and enthusiastic design team, featuring Chuck Chapman as chief engineer, Chuck Jordan as chief stylist and Karl Brummas chassis designer.
Their next work, a completely new Kadett, proved at least as extraordinary in its combination of competence and simplicity as anything they or anybody else other than Fiat had ever produced. Opel's long standing commercial insight had dictated placing emphasis on simple design and sophisticated development with the result that second generation Mantas and Asconas were blander than their predecessors but better cars in every way. The same could be said of the 1978 Rekord and Commodore which were more mature, more expansive, softer even, but never less than respectful of teutonic marketing tastes.
Also see: Opel Car Reviews