Hemmings recently reminded us that it has been 60 years since General Motors first offered cars from Opel for sale at Buick dealerships in the United States. But The Standard Catalog of Imported Cars disagrees. It reports that the first Opels arriving at Buick dealerships from Germany showed up in October of 1957, with the Rekord 2-door sedan and the Caravan 2-door station wagon offered as 1958 models.
I’m not here to quibble about dates, but I do want to thank Hemmings for reminding me about GM’s former Germany subsidiary, now part of the Peugeot-Citroen (and soon-to-be Peugeot-Citroen-Fiat-Chrysler automotive empire), and about my personal experiences with its vehicles.
An initial impact
In 1969 I was a recent college graduate and a newly hired sportswriter for The Grand Rapids Press. Michigan International Speedway had just opened and the paper needed someone to cover motorsports, which I had done for a newspaper in Illinois while attending journalism school.
It also was in 1969 that Opel launched and GM began importing a sports car, the Opel GT, which looked like the Chevrolet Corvette’s little brother. Hoping to get some publicity about its new car, a local Buick dealer called the newspaper and offered a week-long test drive of its new import.
I guess because I was the motorsports writer, I was assigned to the story. I picked up the car at the dealership and had driven it maybe 2 or 3 miles when there was a collision on the southbound lanes of the US 131 freeway. I was in the northbound lanes, which had become clogged with people who wanted to see what had happened across the freeway. Among those people was the guy driving the pickup truck immediately behind me. Pity he was so busy gawking at the accident that he didn’t notice that traffic had come to a halt. And now there was another accident, this time in the northbound lanes as he smacked into the Opel.
Fortunately, no one was hurt. Information was exchanged. Nervously — my first “press car” experience and the car was damaged within a few miles! — I got to a phone and called the dealership.
How bad is the damage, I was asked. Actually, there’s wasn’t much damage. The flat Kamm-design tail end had a couple of dents, but the lights were not broken and still worked.
OK, the dealer responded, we’ll worry about the car when you bring it back in a week.
I remember more about the accident than my week driving the car. I also remember that after I returned the car, the dealership turned it into an SCCA racer, and a probably saw it again at the local sports car track or maybe at the sports car hillclimb that used to take place in John Ball Park.
Buick dealers weren’t the only ones selling Opels. Cadillac dealers also got their turn in 1996 with the Catera. You may not remember the car, but you might recall “The Caddy That Zigs” advertising campaign featuring a cartoon duck, inspired by the Merlettes from the Cadillac crest, and, for the Super Bowl commercial, Cindy Crawford.
The Catera was an Americanized Opel Omega, a mid-sized car that sold well in Europe.
As part of the Catera’s introduction, Cadillac invited the American automotive “buff books” to Germany to drive the Omega/Catera in hopes that we’d write wonderful things about the car. At the time I was managing editor of AutoWeek magazine, and off I flew.
The Omega was, indeed, fun to drive, especially in its most popular form — a station wagon with a manual transmission, which as I recall, we properly exercised on twisting roads through the Black Forest. We were impressed.
Of course, when the cars arrived in the United States, there were no station wagons and no manual transmissions, and I’m guessing not that many came with the 300-horsepower version of the double-overhead-cam V6, with the 200 hp version instead.
They were mundane sedans (they all seemed to be beige in color and weighed down with luxury features) and with automatically controlled gear selection. All the cartoon ducks in the world weren’t enough to convince enough people to buy the car.
However, the car did produce a television show character. The writers of the Chicago Hope, a CBS hospital drama sponsored in part by Cadillac, turned the “Lease a Catera” line from a Catera commercial into Dr. Lisa Catera, who in one episode actually says, “When you can’t zig, you zag.”
The Nurburgring luggage van
Chevrolet discontinued production of its Camaro sports coupe in 2002, but brought it back, all modern and updated and with a new more muscular design for the 2009 model year. Motorbooks contracted me to write a book on the development of the new car and I spent my advance on two trips to meet up with the engineering team.
The first trip was to Australia, where much of the development work on the car was taking place at GM’s Holden subsidiary. The second trip was to Germany, where one of the last iterations of the pre-production prototypes would challenge the famed Nurburgring race track.
Before the trip to Germany, I made arrangements with Opel to borrow from its press fleet a diesel-powered Opel Zafira, a sort of compact-sized mix between a minivan and a sports utility vehicle. What I didn’t know was that the vehicle was actually diesel-underpowered, and especially when the Camaro engineers decided my ride would serve as the luggage van for the entire group.
The good news was that they finally took pity on me after we left the Nurburgring for a 3-day road test to Lucerne, Switzerland, Lyon, France, and then back to Germany. I had been constantly struggling to keep up with the much faster cars.
Not only did a couple of the engineers volunteer to do stints in the Zafira, but violated GM policy by inviting me to drive the Camaro SS prototype and a pre-production version of the Holden Commodore, a sedan that would be coming — with a Corvette V8 under its hood — to the United States for the 2008 model year as the Pontiac G8 GXP.
So there you have it: A crash, a Catera and a Camaro. Together they comprise my Opel experience.