1973 Opel GT
1973 Opel GT . Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

The Opel GT was one of the sweetest little sports coupes of the 1960s, a product of General Motors’ subsidiary Adam Opel AG, of Russelsheim, West Germany.

The five Opel brothers had begun making bicycles and sewing machines in the 19th Century, and started getting involved in manufacturing automobiles in 1898 with a single cylinder, rear-engined model based on the Benz-influenced German Lutzmann.

This wasn’t very successful so they moved to a two-cylinder model, which also failed to impress them. In 1902 a deal was struck with the French Darracq company; Opel would produce Opel-Darracqs under licence until 1906 while developing its own model line.

The Opel company offered a wide range of cars, and like many other early manufacturers competed actively in motorsports to prove their durability and performance.

In 1924, Opel became the first German auto manufacturer to adopt the moving assembly line that had been pioneered by the Ford Motor Company in Highland Park, Michigan in 1913. By 1928 it was Germany’s largest automobile maker, and coincidentally, the largest bicycle builder in the world.

An economic downturn in the 1920s forced the Opel family to become a publicly held company, allowing General Motors to acquire enough stock to gain controlling interest in 1929.

In spite of its early sporting activities Opel had become a builder of fairly conservative, reliable sedans. It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise when a concept Opel sports car appeared at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1965.

It was the Opel GT, a low, fashionable fastback two-seater coupe that predicted the styling of the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette. This was not surprising because it was the work of GM stylist Clare MacKichan, now in Russelsheim, who had played a major role in the design of the very successful 1955 Chevrolet and other GM models.

Opel claimed it had no plans to put the GT into production, but public response was so positive they changed their minds. The production Opel GT appeared in 1968.

Although it looked attractive in a bobtailed kind of way, the production version lost some of the sleekness of the concept car. The similarity to the Corvette was unmistakable with its swoopy lines and lack of a trunk lid.

The GT rode on a 2,431 mm (95.7 in.) wheelbase, was 4,112 mm (161.9 in.) long, 1,580 mm (62.2 in.) wide, and only 1,224 mm (48.2 in.) high. To aid entry and exit the doors extended into the low roof. It weighed 955 kg (2,105 lb).

The GT was based on Opel Kadett sedan mechanical components, which were adequate but not outstanding for a sports car. The engine was moved back 406 mm (16 in.) for better balance and handling. Unlike the fibreglass-bodied Corvette, the GT had a steel body with the body/chassis unit built by French body builder Brissonneau and Lotz.

Front suspension was by A-arms and a transverse multi-leaf spring while the rear was a solid axle, trailing arms and coil springs. Brakes were discs front and drums rear.

As in the Corvette the headlamps disappeared, a mechanical operation via a lever on the centre console. The headlamps rolled 180 degrees on a longitudinal axis.

The GT was to have either a 1.1-litre (65.8 cubic in.) overhead valve four-cylinder engine or a 102 horsepower 1.9-litre (115.8 cubic in.) single overhead cam four. With only 67 horsepower, the smaller version would have been somewhat anaemic and it’s doubtful that any reached North America. Power went to the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission, with a three-speed automatic available.

The GT’s performance was respectable. Road & Track (6/69) recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 10.8 seconds and a top speed of 182 km/h (113 mph). In comparison, the MGB roadster took 12.1 seconds to reach 96 (60) and had a top speed of 167 km/h (104 mph); the closed MGB GT was slightly faster.

R & T found its handling only mediocre with a strong tendency to understeer. They considered the 165 x 13 tires too small for the job although the testers praised the comfortable ride.

In spite of being a pleasant, stylish little sports coupe with ample performance, the GT lasted only six years and remained virtually unchanged for its entire life. The main styling change was the fitting of four-spoke steel wheels in 1973, the year it was announced that it was being discontinued.

Among the reasons for ending production was the formidable new competition from such cars as the Datsun 240Z; to remain competitive the GT would have required a redesigned. Also, Brissonneau and Lotz wished to terminate their body building
contract.

The Opel GT “mini-Corvette” was a popular car with more than 100,000 built from 1968 to 1973. It combined attractive styling with reasonable comfort and excellent performance. Some cars that offered less soldiered on much longer.

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