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Some American Opels
August 15, 2005, by Bill Cawthon
I recently received an interesting press release from General Motors marking the fortieth anniversary of the Opel Diplomat. The Diplomat was a limited run, V8-powered, luxury coupe with more than a passing resemblance to a Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu. In fact, it was marketed as the "European American" car. The Diplomat was based on the Opel Admiral sedan but had a Chevrolet 5.4-liter engine, a three-speed automatic transmission and a special two-door body built by Karmann. From the summer of 1965 until production ended in 1967, just 347 Diplomats were built, giving the model one of the smallest runs of any modern Opel production car.
If you are under thirty, you won't remember the days when Opels were sold at your local Buick dealership but from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, Kadetts, Rekords and Mantas could be found on the lot with the Specials, LeSabres and Rivieras. This all ended in 1976, when GM slapped an Opel badge on an Isuzu Gemini and stopped importing the German cars.
Even then Opel's presence in America did not end. The first car built by Korean automaker Daewoo was an Opel Kadett E sold in the U.S. as the Pontiac LeMans. The Cadillac Catera was a slightly restyled Opel Omega and the recently discontinued Saturn L was a reskinned Opel Vectra. None of these were particularly successful, especially the LeMans, which was a credit to neither Opel nor Pontiac.
In fairness, GM has attempted to sell rebadged American vehicles to the Germans with equally little success. The Sintra minivan was a Chevrolet Venture wearing an Opel logo. The accountants who rule General Motors loved the idea, but the Europeans didn't. The Sintra was too large and GM sold just 35,000 of them in two years.
More successful was the Opel Ascona, which we knew as the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunbird. The Ascona was the basis for a number of GM cars sold around the world.
Opels have been around a long time. In fact, the company celebrated its first one hundred years as an automaker on January 21, 1999, making it older than any remaining American car brand.
The history of Adam Opel AG begins on May 9, 1837 when Adam Opel was born in Russelsheim, Germany. His father was a locksmith and Adam learned the family trade. When he was twenty years old, he traveled to Belgium to become an apprentice locksmith. He went from Liege to Brussels and from there to Paris, France, where he arrived in 1858. There he became fascinated with the sewing machine. (Note: While the modern sewing machine was patented by Elias Howe in 1846, the first practical sewing machine was developed by Barthelemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, in 1830. Other French tailors, fearing unemployment, burned Thimonnier's factory to the ground.)
In 1859, Adam Opel went to work for a sewing machine manufacturer. Opel's younger brother, George, also came to Paris to learn more about sewing machines.
Three years later, Adam Opel returned to Russelsheim where he set up a workshop in an unused cow stall provided by his uncle. In 1863, George Opel returned from Paris to work with his brother.
In April 1867, Opel began work on a new factory. He married Sophie Marie Scheller, the daughter of a wealthy family and used her dowry to expand the factory and build a home. In 1870, the company introduced the Sophia, a new sewing machine named for Sophie.
Opel's sewing machines were quite successful and over a half-million were sold by the turn of the century. The tally hit the one-million mark in 1911.
While Adam was making sewing machines, he and Sophie were also making a family. They had five sons, Karl, Wilhelm, Heinrich, Friedrich (Fritz), and Ludwig. The Opel brothers are the ones who created the automobiles that carried the family name.
In the early 1880s, Adam Opel saw a bicycle in Paris and decided to buy one. It was delivered to Russelsheim in kit form and Opel put it together and tried to learn to ride it with less than favorable results. Though he decided against two-wheelers for his own transportation, his sons' enthusiasm for cycling persuaded him there would be a good market for the "bone breakers," as he called them.
By 1886, Opel and his sons had built a bicycle of their own. A year later, eldest son Karl went to England to learn more about bicycle production and the latest designs. Following his return, the Opel company got into the business in a big way, gaining a reputation for quality design and innovation helped by the fact each of the Opel boys was successful racing on the family bikes.
Within ten years of the first Opel bicycle, the boom in the market was over. It had become crowded with manufacturers all competing for the same consumer dollar. The Opels were able to overcome the slump, keeping the 1500-employee factory busy even while the brothers' attention was being diverted to a new invention: the automobile.
At the 1898 Berlin Auto-Revue, the Opels met Friedrich Lutzmann, who had a small carriage-building company in Dessau and had been working on automobile designs for several years. After the show, Fritz and Wilhelm Opel visited Dessau and bought Lutzmann's company and engaged the entire staff including Herr Lutzmann himself.
The first car developed by the new enterprise appeared in 1899. The Opel Patent Motorwagen, System Lutzmann, wasn't state of the art, even for those times and the Opels were soon looking around for a new partner.
In 1901, the brothers went to France where they established a licensing contract with the Alexandre Darracq. The new car, which made its debut in 1902, consisted of an Opel body mounted on a Darracq chassis and was called the Opel System Darracq.
The new car was a success. In fact, it was so successful; the brothers were soon looking to bring the whole operation in-house. In 1907, the Opels were ready with their own designs and ended their relationship with Darracq.
Ironically, the founder of the company never saw the automobile that bore his name. Adam Opel was just 58 when he died of typhoid fever on September 8, 1895. He left the company to Sophie and their sons.
Building upon its success with the Darracq cars, Opel moved to establish itself as a manufacturer of reasonably priced cars. In 1909, the company brought out the "Doktorwagen," a car designed for physicians who often had to drive long distances on less than ideal roads. Priced at under 4,000 marks, a low price for the time, the car soon became very popular. By 1912, Opel-Werke had produced 10,000 cars and by 1914 it was Germany's largest automaker.
In 1917, Heinrich and Wilhelm Opel were elevated to "Geheimrat," the German equivalent of a privy councilor. They were now members of German nobility and added the "von" before their last names. Karl received the same honor in 1918.
In 1926, after twenty-seven years in the automobile business, the Opel family was ready to sell the company. By then, their numbers had dwindled. Sophie Opel, Adam's widow, had died in 1913, followed in 1916 by Ludwig, her youngest son, who was just 36 when he died. Karl, the eldest Opel brother, had passed away in 1922.
At the same time Wilhelm, Heinrich and Fritz von Opel were looking for a buyer, General Motors, which already had a factory in Berlin, was looking for German company it could acquire to get around the high customs duties it was paying for components, so the von Opels entered into secret negotiations with Alfred Sloan.
To facilitate the transaction, Opel-Werke became Adam Opel AG, a German corporation, in 1928. That was the same year the company established a finance company and an insurance company, patterning its business structure on the successful program created by Sloan at GM. Sadly, it was also the year the Opel brothers lost another sibling with the death of Heinrich.
In January 1929 General Motors paid Fritz and Wilhelm Opel about $30 million for 80% of the stock, with an option on the remaining shares. The transaction was completed and American management moved into Russelsheim on October 18, just a week before "Black Friday" when the American stock market crashed. Fritz and Wilhelm von Opel had gotten out just in time.
In 1931, General Motors acquired the remaining 20% of the stock and Adam Opel AG became a wholly-owned subsidiary of GM. The company had grown to 13,000 employees and built five hundred cars and six thousand bicycles every day.
The Opel Olympia, the first popularly priced German car with an integral steel frame and body, made its debut in 1935. With the success of the Olympia, GM decided to focus the company's resources on automobiles and sold the bicycle operation to NSU in 1937.
Fritz von Opel died in 1938, leaving Wilhelm as the sole surviving member of Opel's founding family.
There are many stories about what happened at Opel during the Second World War. Officially, relations with General Motors were severed in 1940, though it has been said that it was really business as usual or that Opel was under suspicion because of its American ties, depending on which source you consult. However, it is a fact the Reich could not overlook the facilities and workforce that had been assembled and Opel factories were definitely producing a variety of war materiel when the Russelsheim factory was bombed by the Allies. Opel's factory in Brandenburg was turning out the famous Blitz trucks, which were also produced by Mercedes-Benz. After the war, the Opel plant in Brandenburg fell into the hands of the Soviets, who dismantled it, moved it to the Soviet Union and eventually used it to produce the Moskvitch. Wilhelm von Opel, who had worked with the Nazis, lost his fortune but was not prosecuted as a war criminal.
The Allies had allowed Opel to resume limited production of trucks, which were in short supply in postwar Germany and they now were looking to GM to come back and handle the rebuilding. However, GM had been allowed to write off its investment in Opel and was not sure it wanted the company back.
Alfred Sloan shrewdly offered to take Opel for two years, setting a number of conditions on the deal. Citing the miserable state of the German economy, Sloan said GM would not invest any money but would have to have complete freedom to run the company and develop new products. The Allies agreed and GM resumed control of Opel on November 1, 1948 almost exactly six months after Wilhelm von Opel died at the age of 76.
The first new Opel car was a refreshed Olympia. Other cars soon followed. By the mid-1950s Opel automobiles began to show some of the same styling themes that were appearing on their counterparts in the U.S.
In 1958, General Motors began selling Opel Rekord sedans and Caravan station wagons at Buick dealerships in the United States. Much smaller than anything in GM's domestic lineup, the new Rekords were promoted for their "German Engineering and American Style." The Rekord remained the primary offering until the early 1960s, when a new Kadett, built at the new works in Bochum, was introduced.
The Kadett, in various forms, remained the sole American Opel until 1968 when it was joined by the popular Opel GT sports car. Styled by a team that included Clare MacKichan, Erhard Schnell and Chuck Jordan, the GT was designed specifically for the American market. Two-thirds of all the GTs produced were sent to America where they attracted more than 70,000 buyers.
The last true Opels offered to American car buyers were the 1970-1975 Opel 1900s, based on the German Ascona. The 1900 was offered as a two-door sedan, four-door sedan and station wagon, as well as a two-door coupe called the Manta A, which was intended to compete with the Ford Capri being sold through Mercury dealers in America.
Brekina made a nice model of the U.S.-spec 1960 Rekord a few years back. More recently, they introduced a model of the Rekord PII in coupe and station wagon form. This is the last of the Rekords I can say for sure were imported to the U.S. Wiking currently offers models of the 1968 Opel GT and the 1971 Ascona-based Manta A.
Surprisingly, there is no equivalent 1:87 replica of the little Kadett. The real car was offered as a sedan, wagon and special Rally version and was the most popular of the American Opels. With all the classic Opels that have appeared in the past few years, perhaps a Kadett is already on the drawing board as a future project. I hope so.
I want to mention an important milestone in our family life (and the reason this column appeared on Tuesday instead of Monday). Our older son Christopher married Misty, his longtime sweetheart, on Saturday in a really beautiful ceremony. I don't think I have ever seen Chris smile as much and I wish them both all the happiness in the world.
Needless to say, I was taking pictures of family and friends instead of models. However, there were a few miniature autos involved. My friend Wayne Calder of the Shepherd of the Heart United Methodist Church in Pearland, Texas, conducted the ceremony. Wayne is a collector and modelbuilder and will soon be the owner of some new Herpa models as my personal thanks for making the long trip from Pearland to the far west side of Houston and performing such a nice service.
Incidentally, our younger daughter caught the bride's bouquet. I hope the other young ladies in the group realize they are going to be single for quite a while.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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