The Opel GT springs from modest beginnings. Germany’s Adam Opel AG in Russelsheim built sewing machines and bicycles before turning to cars. Like General Motors, which acquired Opel in the late Twenties, its stock-in-trade was practical, reliable family transportation at a fair price, and it maintained an enviable reputation for same right into the Sixties.
It was in that expansive decade that Opel, like most everyone else, responded to the growing demand for sportier, more youthful cars. One of its earliest and most visible moves in this direction appeared at the 1965 Frankfurt show, a slick one-off two-seat fastback coupe simply called Opel GT. At the time, Opel said it had no intention of selling copies, but the show car generated intense public interest that couldn’t be ignored, and a production version appeared just three years later with the same name.
The Opel GT was styled chiefly by GM’s Clare MacKichan, who’d played a big part in designing the 1955 Chevrolet before his tour of duty in the Russelsheim studios. This may explain the up-front similarity between the GT and the newly styled ‘68 Corvette, with the same low, sharply profiled nose, blade-type bumper, and hidden headlamps. The latter operated manually on the Opel, revolving up out of their recesses to give the car something of a frogeye look.
Another difference was the pair of cooling slots between the Opel’s lamps. From the cowl back, the production Opel GT was broadly the same as the show car, with an abbreviated tail bearing four round lights (again echoing Corvette), plus shapely flanks and doors predictively cut up into the roof (with hidden drip rails). Somehow, though, the production styling wasn’t as graceful, though you wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t seen the show car.
Beneath this sporty exterior were the chassis and running gear of Opel’s humble little Kadett in its beefier GT form. That meant transverse-leaf front suspension, front-disc/rear-drum brakes, ordinary worm-and-roller steering, and a coil-sprung live rear axle located by radius arms and Panhard rod. There were two engine choices, both ohv fours: 60-horsepower 1.1-liter and the new 1.9-liter cam-in-head unit developed for the mid-range Ascona sedan (which served as the basis for the 1969 Manta coupe series styled by Chuck Jordan, now GM Vice-President of Design but then an Opel colleague of MacKichan’s).
Only the 1.9 came to America and was favored in Europe, as the smaller engine had too little power. A telling comment on Opel’s vision of GT buyers is that the 1.9 was offered with automatic transmission as an optional alternative to the standard 4-speed manual. No self-respecting enthusiast would have a “slushbox” in Sixties Europe -- or in America, come to that.
Despite its fairly pedestrian mechanicals, the Opel GT was a winsome little car: stylish, obedient, practical, refined, and quick enough with the 1.9-liter engine and manual gearbox. It could even boast “custom” coachwork, as the independent French body builder Brissoneau & Lotz fashioned its unit body/chassis structure from Opel-supplied Kadett floorpans.
The cockpit was unusually roomy and functional, with full instrumentation set in an impressive-looking dashboard. Like Corvettes since ‘63, the Opel GT lacked an external trunklid, so luggage had to be loaded from inside, behind the seats, where it was concealed by a little curtain. Why a German car had to inherit this American inconvenience remains a mystery.
There’s no mystery about the Opel GT's popularity, which was high for a European sports coupe of the day. It has yet to develop much of a collector following, probably because it’s an Opel, a make still not closely tied to high performance in most minds. But at least the GT got people to notice that Opels could be something other than dull people-movers.
The Kadett’s 1972 redesign on the then-new T-car platform (later borrowed for the American Chevrolet Chevette) effectively ended GT production, and there was no direct replacement. Despite early rust problems, GTs are still running around in the care of loving owners with a taste for the unusual. A mini-Corvette was no bad thing to be 20 years ago, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea now. How about it, GM?