It must have been an odd sight – a miniature Corvette sitting in a showroom across from herds of loaded Buick land yachts, but the Opel GT was a big success for Opel and for American Buick dealers. But the creators of this transatlantic success knew U.S. showrooms fairly well.
Flint’s finest had begun offering Opel Rekords as a successful sideline in the 1950s, but the big 3’s “compacts” wiped out the Rekord in 1960-61.
Opel’s diminutive Kadett, which looked like a scaled-down Chevy II, modestly regained ground mid-decade as the domestic ”compacts” got bigger – not coincidentally, it’s styling was directly informed by a Chevy designer.
But one group of imports that never suffered from domestic competition were small sports cars.
Neither Buick nor Opel were historically associated in any way with that market, but the times were a’chaging.
Clare MacKichan Goes to Germany
GM sent ex-Chevy styling boss Clare “Mac” MacKichan – who led many iconic 1950s Chevy designs including the Tri-Fives – to jazz up Opel’s conservative line of cars in 1961 at the request of Opel’s MD Nelson Stork.
From there “Mac” built up an expanded design studio and and an experimental group led by Opel veteran Erhard Schnell. MacKichan likely brought with him some of the shapes of the Corvair Monza GT (XP-777) and Monza SS (XP-797) concept cars which were being worked on for a 1963 release.
MacKichan had Schnell begin work on Opel’s very first sports car, then “Projekt 1484” in secret using themes from the swoopy Corvair concepts by Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine. 1484 was strictly a secret, back-room project and Opel’s management had little interest in sports cars – but it gradually got closer to something that could actually be built.
Aside from young marketing exec Bob Lutz, 1484 didn’t get much support for production until Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen became GM’s Overseas VP in 1965.
Knudsen knew and liked sports cars and allowed the prototype to be shown at Frankfurt that year, generating huge interest from the public and ultimately getting the green light – but the car had be based on existing mechanical pieces for cost reasons. As MacKichan returned to the U.S. for a promotion, Schnell worked with his replacement – Chuck Jordan – to rework the car around Kadett componentry.
Brissonneau & Lotz
A niche product, Opel couldn’t build the projected volume of 20,000 cars a year on its own, and turned to French coachbuilder Brissonneau & Lotz, then building Renault Caravelles, for the shells.
The pop-up headlights were manually actuated by a lever near the shifter. Two versions of the car made it to production – an ohv 1.1L and Opel’s cam-in-head 1.9L, both fours.
The 1.1L offered style, but not power, and was not offered outside of Europe – where even the car’s sexy looks couldn’t convince more than about 3,500 buyers to take one. But the 1.9 was a different story.
The 1.9 was fast, quiet, stylish, and reliable – and a big hit. The cars arrived in 1968, and in the U.S. the 1.9 was immediately popular, selling above sticker into 1970, when the 240Z began to bite into sales. The GT was faster than several traditional sports cars and being a coupe, more practical for some buyers.
Over 100,000 GTs were made, with 70% heading stateside, before Opel began to lose interest around 1972-3.
By then exchange rates were hurting Opel imports and a total redesign of the niche GT was deemed too costly. Opel’s contract with Brissonneau & Lotz was also ending – and with it the GT. But even late in the game they still moved quickly at the Buick dealer – nearly 12,000 were sold in the final season of 1973.
The GT was not replaced in Europe, with many returning customers opting for Manta Bs instead during the Coupe-happy 1970s, but the Manta B was not offered in North America.