In 1968, Chevy released the C3 Corvette, arguably the last base-model ‘Vette of the 20th century that could be counted among the world’s best. With its Coke-bottle shape, low, menacing front-end, and the power and handling to back it up, it was enough to make even non-Corvette guys green with envy. But it started at $4,320, putting it well out of reach of most car buyers. If all you wanted was power, $3,245 could get you an AMC AMX, $3,101 would land a Pontiac GTO, $2,896 would by a 340-powered Plymouth Road Runner. But for those cash-strapped buyers who wanted a new Corvette more than anything else, for $3,300, then General Motors had the car for you: the Opel GT.
The GT was by no means a great sports car. Honestly, it wasn’t even a very good sports car. But it was charismatic, beautiful, and had a tremendous amount of potential. It was a pure, unashamed copy of the Corvette in almost every way, but despite its diminutive size, lackluster handling, and underwhelming performance, it did exactly what it was supposed to do: sell in strong numbers and make Opel appeal to a younger demographic. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last long for the GT, and despite being a common sight in the ’70s, it’s all but forgotten today.
You may not notice them, but Opels are all over American roads nowadays – albeit badged as Buicks and late-model Saturns. In the 1960s, however, GM sought to position its German brand as a low-cost import-fighter available in the U.S. through Buick dealerships. The Opel brand had never really done sporty before, but by the muscle car era, it was willing to give it a try.
At the beginning of the decade, Clare MacKichan had been reassigned from the Chevrolet division to Opel’s Russelsheim studios. MacKichan had been instrumental in designing the tri-five Chevys, and it’s likely that he saw the designs for the C3 and Mako Shark II concept before he left Detroit. In 1965, the brand surprised the press by debuting a compact grand tourer at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Called simply the GT, Opel was adamant that the car was a pure concept, with no production plans. But public response grew too loud to ignore, and within months, the car was fast-tracked for production.
In an era when Ford’s 289 cubic inch V8 wound up under the hood of the compact Sunbeam Tiger and affordable British roadsters were carving corners with the best of them, the GT was somewhat of an impostor. Under MacKichan’s gorgeous bodywork was an crude platform shared with the Kadett B economy car. The engine was front-mid mounted to improve weight distribution, and front power disc brakes helped slow things down, but neither the 67 horsepower 1.1 liter and available 1.9 liter 102 horsepower engine delivered much in the performance department, especially when mated to the three-speed automatic slushbox. Contemporary road tests clocked the GT’s zero to 60 sprint at 10.2 seconds, and complained about its penchant for understeer.
But then there was that styling, which forgave a multitude of sins. Its mini-Corvette lines were incredibly flattering to the small car, and the low nose and kammback styling gave it an air of sporting pretension regardless of what was under hood. The Corvette similarities carried over on the inside, though some road testers actually reported that they liked the GT’s ergonomics and fit-and-finish better. The car’s party trick, however, was its pop-up headlight system. Unlike being operated by vacuum (a la Corvette) or by electric motor (like the Mercury Cougar), the GT’s headlights were operated by a lever below the dashboard that mechanically flipped the headlights up. It was more cumbersome than an automatic function, but to this day, it’s one of the GT’s most memorable features.
But the world was changing fast, the the Opel GT simply couldn’t keep up. In 1968, a memorable hit piece in Car and Driver was so damaging to the Opel brand that GM responded by pulling all of its ads from the magazine. And strict new safety and emissions regulations meant that the GT’s performance would need to be watered down even more. After 1971, the 1.9 liter’s power fell from 102 horsepower to 83. Its swan song came in 1973; we shudder to think of what it would’ve looked like if it were subjected to the federally-mandated post-1974 five-mile-per-hour bumpers.
There were, of course, other factors that were working against the GT too. In 1970, Datsun released the 240Z, single-handedly legitimizing the Japanese sports car and putting affordable European competitors on notice. For $225 more than the Opel, buyers could get a 150 horsepower sports car with fully-independent suspension, disc brakes, twin side-draft carburetors, and an overhead cam straight-six. If the Datsun offered practical performance for the future, the GT was stubbornly rooted in the past. To GM, it would’ve cost too much to redesign the car to meet new regulations and take on this new generation of performance car at the same time. By the end of the decade, the Opel badge was relegated to selling brand-engineered Isuzus in America dealerships, and the brand left our shores altogether in 1981.
In Europe, the GT nameplate was revived as a rebadged version of the Saturn Sky/Pontiac Solstice and sold between 2007 to 2010, though just over 7,500 cars were sold before production ended. In recent years, Opel has struggled to stay profitable in Europe, where the economy has taken much longer to recover from the global financial crisis. The brand has lost $18 billion since 1999, and has long suffered from quality control issues and a reputation for building boring cars.
Very little is known about the new concept except that it’ll be unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show in March. Car and Driver says the new car is likely to be based on the new Opel Astra platform, though it points it could also share its bones with the Alpha platform, which underpins the Cadillac ATS, Chevy Camaro, and recent Buick Avista concept. At this point, there’s no word on whether or not the car will see production, or if it would ever make it to America. But with Opel and Buick being closer than ever before (the Regal, Cascada, and Encore all began life as Opels), we certainly wouldn’t rule it out. It would be great to see the beautiful little sports car live up to all the potential it had the first time around.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.