By on May 12, 2009

I apologize. The pictures of this beautiful Manta are crap. I let myself get carried away. Hanging around with that pugnacious little Fiat 850 infected me with a burning desire to catch an Opel: Chrysler-Fiat-Opel, the new Holy Trinity. Part of me knew better; I had enough on my plate already. And I haven’t seen an Opel in Eugene in ages. But my desire was downright Napoleonic. As is the result.

The owners put me through their version of the 14-step program. Knock on door six times. Leave note on door four times. Talk to (presumably dead or incapacitated) owner’s wife four times. “You’ll have to come back later.” “Who are you writing for?” “What do you want with the Opel?” My desperate pleas to offer to push the Manta out of the carport were rejected. In the end, the best I got was “you’ll have to come back when my son is in town this summer.” My desires don’t usually last that long.

By then I felt so familiar there, I just grabbed some shots as I was leaving for the fourteenth time and called it good. True confession; there, I feel better now. But my experience trying to nab this Opel does not auger well for Fiat. Or maybe I’m just not Napoleonic enough (too tall?).

But it was a noble pursuit. When was the last time you saw such a well-preserved original Manta? It’s 1972, and I’m in love again. If it didn’t have an automatic, I’d be there knocking on the door with my checkbook this summer when the son is home. I may still, if only to fulfill family karma.

Both my father and grandfather owned Opels. But then, their experiences with them were also less than fulfilling. My grandfather was a collector of doctorates. One of them was in medicine, so for a while he practiced gynecology in Silesia during the twenties. And he bought himself an Opel, like so many other doctors in Germany at the time. But he could never master its unsynchronized transmission and ended up hiring a driver to take him on his rounds. Until he decided to pursue another doctorate and sell the Opel.

Eerily similar experience to my own father. Having never driven until our move to the US in 1960, he initially bought only automatics for the family chariots. But when we moved to Baltimore in 1965 he needed a second car for his commute to the hospital (yes, another doctor). So he bought a frog-green 1965 Opel Kadett A.

The tiny, tinny box with a 993cc engine had a hair-trigger clutch, and he just could never get the hang of it. He perpetually made the car hop just like a frog. Is it a coincidence that Opel’s extremely popular small car in the twenties was called the Laubfrosch (tree frog)? Well, after only three years, the Opel was showing fatigue from all that hopping, so off it went.

And just now it occurs to me: That’s why this Manta is an automatic. It’s tormenting me for my family history of abusing Opel clutches and transmissions. It really is hard to escape family karma. And my endless blathering about it. Sorry, again.

The Manta was Opel’s Camaro to Ford of Europe’s Mustang (Capri). But except for its sporty skin, it was an Opel Ascona sedan (called 1900 stateside) in every way. Which was mostly a good thing. The Ascona/1900 qualifies in my book as the best small car GM ever sold in the US.

The Manta and Ascona/1900 were a balanced package. Delightful handling (for the times), despite no IRS. Just good attention to details to make a very tossable, controlled and vice-free ride. The 1.9 four wasn’t exactly inspiring, but adequate, for the times. Europeans got a full choice of engines starting with the Kadett’s 1.2. And the interior was decent and accommodating, especially for us taller folks.

That’s because the Manta shared the same overall dimensions with the 1900, including height. Great for un-Napoleonic folks like me, but it does make the Manta look a little tall and unbalanced, especially on the stock wheels. Slam it an inch or two on some decent rubber, and its GM golden-age styling still looks fresh.

In 1972 I drove a Manta from the mountains of Wyoming to Iowa, courtesy of a driver who picked me up hitchhiking and needed a break in his non-stop cross-country sojourn. I felt like I was making love to his girlfriend while he was sleeping. The Manta didn’t have enough power to wake him up but had plenty of good moves to keep us both grinning for hours on end. Finding this Manta was like stumbling across a long-lost girlfriend, still looking nineteen years old. Can you blame me for the illicit photos?

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42 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1974 Opel Manta...”


  • avatar
    bill h.

    I remember these fondly, both the 1900 sedan and the Manta. A 1974 Manta was bought new by a high school friend (who later became my brother-in-law) and I used to ride with him in that car many times (the alternative was my ’71 Super Beetle) over our college years. I liked the way the manual gearshift lever was set up; the shaft had a kink in it so that it stuck up and back, hence the motions working the 4 speed were up-and-down rather than back-and-forth. Slick.

    The sedans were even better in one sense; the back seats were more habitable. My mother’s employer had one of these, and I often wished I had bought it.

    The only downside to these Opels was the servicing, by the Buick dealers of the day. Mostly indifferent, if not downright hostile. Heh, in those days they’d rather push the Apollos (i.e. rebadged Novas) with the 10 mpg 350 V-8s. Not good in those days of the Oil Embargo.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Very nice article. I haven’t seen one of these in years. They still look great. Wasn’t there a “Luxus” version with corduroy seats?

    The Opel 1900 sedan and wagon were also very good looking – probably the best-looking small car, foreign or domestic, of that time. The little two-door wagon was especially cool.

  • avatar

    Nope. Can’t blame you. Absolutely wonderful, whimsical account. So many odd things tied together by this car–the clutch stuff, the analogy on the ride from Wyo to Io. The interesting family history (what happened to the doctor gene?) Really put a smile on my face this morning.

  • avatar
    Dave Skinner

    Paul-

    With those bumpers, your Mustard Manta must be a ’74. That helps explain the perfect nose. A plethora of American drivers “park by ear”- bumping up against barriers to measure the length of the car.
    Since the pointed sheetmetal above the grilles on the early Manta extended past the bumper, using this braille parking method often resulted in a nice nose kink. Almost all the Mantas I saw as a kid had this affliction, until the the new regulations extended the bumpers in 1974, eliminating the “problem”.

  • avatar
    Sutures

    Beautiful car… reminds me of my 1974 Manta Ralleye, which met an unfortunate end at my hands… I’ve been searching for another ever since.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I had forgotten all about these. I only remembered the Opel GTs and Kadetts.
    GM’s handling of Opel in the 70s may go down as Exhibit No. 1 in the company’s uninterupted fall to its state of tody.

    The cars were good, the styling was great, Opel had a pretty good reputation and very good name recognition. So, what did they do when exchange rates went unfavorably? Axed the real Opels and introduced the Opel Isuzu. “What’s an Isuzu” went everyone. Within a year or two the Opel name was gone. What may have been one of the best inexpensive european sporty cars sold in the US was replaced with a second rate Japaneese car that sold on price and little else. And now Isuzu is all but gone here too.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive manual as a teen in the 1990s in my uncle’s 1974 Opel Manta Ralleye. No A/C, power steering or anything nice. Two-speed wipers. Foot pumped windshield washer. AM radio. It also was turning over 3,000+ RPM at 60mph. It was actually a very fond car and I had some good memories in it.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    Having raced one in SCCA in both Showroom Stock and B Sedan, I can testify to the goodness of these neat coupes.
    The real problem in GM at the time was the hubris of the US Tech Center crew who actually believed that their Chevy Vega was even in the same league with the Manta/1900.
    Had they just taken the Opel design and put it into production, GM might have established a beachhead in the small car market instead of a sinkhole.

  • avatar
    newfdawg

    With those bumpers, it has to be either a ’74 or ’75. I once had a ’75 Sportwagon; it was a great car except for the fuel injection which required almost constant maintenance to work properly. I lost count of the times I had to have injectors cleaned or replaced.

  • avatar

    Ah, the Manta. It also fathered an endless series of Manta driver jokes that portrayed the driver of said conveyance as the male counterpart of the dumb blonde.

    The epitome of the Mantawitz is:

    Two guys at a bar. “Hey, I just heard a new Manta joke.” “Watch yourself, I drive one myself.” “Don’t worry. I’ll tell it very slowly with simple words.”

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    @ Bertel, Interesting how the same car can project create such a different image. In Europe, the Manta really WAS the Camaro; in the US, totally different owner crowd and image.

    @newfdog and others, Yes, of course it’s a ’74. I knew that, but…

    @David Holzman, I practice without a license. I delivered my kids at home, the third one all by myself.

  • avatar

    Ah the irony, as I just posted a Manta on my website this morning as the “car photo of the day“! The example shown is a rather tarted up one compared to the one shown.

    I’ve never had the chance to drive, or even ride in one, as I thought they’d all been rusted or wrecked by the time I started driving in the early 80s. The styling always reminded me of the contemporary Ford Maverick, which shared the basic shape, but lacked all the basic charm.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    VerbalKint

    I seem to recall a C&D or R&T road test back around ’72-’74 of several compacts eligible for Showroom Stock Sedan class racing.

    The Opel was the quickest, Vega and Pinto mid-pack (though the Pinto’s engine was better) and the poor old Karmann Ghia was a great place to watch the race because you’d never be in it. I don’t recall the other vehicles tested– probably Corolla, Fiat, and ummm… I dunno.

  • avatar
    Bunter1

    ’72 Manta & ’75 Wagon (put front clip of a ’73 Manta on it, bolted right on)
    dad-’73 manta
    bro’-’74 manta

    newfdawg- you must have got a bad one (or I a good one) my ’75 wagon never gave me any einspritzen problems in 70-80k miles and it was a beater when I bought it.

    Good looking and nice handleing cars.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Bunter

  • avatar

    I had a ’74 Sportwagon and drove it for 9 years. It was and still is one of the favorite cars I’ve ever owned.

  • avatar
    willbodine

    This reminded me of another long-shudda been dead car seen in regular daily service. I used to have lunch in a locally-owned diner in Laurel Village in San Francisco. I would often see this overly well-dressed older couple (60s?) having lunch there, always dressed as if it were a special occassion. The I happened to notice their ride. A circa 1968 Renault 10 that they probably owned since new. Black plates (pre-68) with the plate frame of a long-departed local Renault-Peugeot dealer. It was a pretty pale yellow (too pale to be chartreuse) in quite decent shape. I had to take a look inside and what I saw blew me away. It had the (very rare) pushbutton automatic. If I am not mistaken this was basically a manual with an auto clutch and an electric shifter. Very trouble prone, needless to say. And yet this thing was still puttering along 30 years later. God, I love old cars!

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    @willbodine, I’m on the hunt for an R-10. Will find one too.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    I had a 1971 Opel 1900, basically the same car. I hated it. I’ll stipulate, right at the beginning, that it had excellent handling qualities and was very sure-footed, and decent performance. But in build quality it was a German Vega. Any time I drove over 50 or so, the shift lever vibrated and buzzed loudly enough to be very irritating. Dealer wasn’t any help, claiming that they all did that. I ended up duct-taping a piece of 1-inch barstock to it; that moderated the buzz somewhat. By 10k miles, the carpet was coming out from under the sill plate on both sides. Its throttle response was weird because of the two-barrel carb; nothing much for the first half of the pedal travel, then a surge. Great in parking lots, really fun.

    It did have one feature that I thought worthy of emulation; the lights were wired with the left marker lights and right taillight/stoplight in one circuit, the right marker lights and left taillight/stoplight in the other. That meant that you wouldn’t lose both taillights if one fuse blew. Of course the reason I knew this was that one of them started blowing regularly after I got it back from the body shop after getting t-boned by a Buick Riviera.

    I traded it for a used 1972 Celica, which was a much better car in every way, except of course for the handling. I think that was what irritated me the most about the Opel: It could have been a joy to own if it hadn’t been such a pita.

    • 0 avatar
      view2share

      I owned a new ’73 and it was very cool indeed, as in handling and looks.  Problem was the engine — basically started acting up at say 8,500 but I did not take it back I guess to the dealership in time and it went really south after 12K and the the one year warranty.  Could have had a better engine / more HP.  Ah the days of no air conditioning, 13″ wheels, and basic radio.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    Paul, the lady with the mustard-colored Opel probably was scared that it would cost her some money if it moved even as far as out of the garage.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    God my Uncle Tim had one, his first new car after he got his first real job. He drove it for about 10 years till it melted into a puddle of rust in our NW Ohio climate. It was the same yellow and I think I rode in it once but it’s a really cloudy memory. (I was born in 1977 after all.) It’s the only foreign car the man has ever owned. He replaced it with a series of American made coupes, Pontiac Grand Prix, Oldsmobile Cutlass, and ancient Buick Lesabre coupe literally purchased out of his father-in-laws barn. Right now he’s driving one of the last run 30th Anniversary Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertibles, emerald green with a tan leather interior.

  • avatar
    autobahner44

    I had a ’74 Manta Luxus. I called it a “poor man’s BMW.” It was a great car, and I learned to drive a stick on it. Paid $650.

  • avatar
    albert

    For that time Ascona & Manta were great cars.
    In a time where most cars started to deteriorate after three years or 60kmiles they showed that 150.000 m were no problem at all.
    BTW: this was the first “Lutz” car. Before this, Opels never had a decent roadholding.
    In that time I regularly drove my father’s and my brother’s Ascona. When I drove my boss’s BMW 2002 in a certain wellknown corner I had to do some real steering because it reacted way heftier than these Ascona’s.
    The successor in Europe took over the good stuff and eliminated most of the bad stuff and combined it with good looks. Great car.
    The american successor shows that GM already then didn’t understand selling cars. They are only interested in short term money, not in satisfied customers.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    The Manta is the first car I drove. There was a HUGE turnout of Opels of all types last year at the Carlisle Import & Kit Car National in Carlisle, PA. I suspect there will be a huge turnout of Opels again this year, which is this weekend. And I’ll be there enjoying the view.

  • avatar

    Back when, sophomore summer from college in the late ’60’s, I was seriously awkward with women. Stayed the summer working in Westchester staying at the house of college friend who was seriously un-awkward. And he had a girl friend with serious curves, a lucious balcony and low-cut dresses…who drove a Manta. Just friends, she would always stop and flirt with him. Pure torture for me, wallpaper by the side. That’s how I remember Mantas…..

  • avatar
    davey49

    I remember the Opel models sold in the US when I was a young one. Wasn’t old enough to experience them fully before the Isuzus came out. Looking back, I probably would have gone for the Apollo mentioned above. The Manta looks a bit small.

  • avatar
    Bunter1

    Frank-The neat thing about the sport wagon was that they didn’t trash the suspension because it was “just a wagon”. IIRC Datsun threw out the IRS and stuck friggin’ leaf springs in the 510 wagon.
    A number of others tossed the coils for leafs on their wagons but the Opels kept the same set-up.

    Lutz had a hand in the 1900 series? Great, that will give me a fond memory of him. Probably shouldn’t have gotten’ so far up the food chain, stuck with what he was good at.

    Bunter

  • avatar
    NickR

    Two simple circles for tail lights? Please let that come back into fashion. Still the best looking arrangement for just about any vehicle.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    What a nice car.

  • avatar
    oldyak

    My Opel story is probably boring to most but here goes..
    I crashed my Audi 100LS into a light pole by trying to drive to work under the influence of… Nyquil!
    Hey boss called me in!
    It was pretty bad so I nursed it to a dealer nearby and asked to trade on the cheapest car they had,REALLY.
    In a far corner of the lot,covered with snow,was a ‘baby shit brown’ Opel Rallye,the predecessor to the Manta(no fuel injection I believe was the biggest difference along with real bumpers)
    After digging it out of the snowbank it started right up and $1500.00 later I was on my way home.
    I drove it for 4 years and never did have it fail me!
    Only problem was that the battery was located above the fuse box and the tray would rust out and leak onto the fuse box.
    I sold it for about for what I paid for it.
    Great car…
    Sorry to run on about it…

  • avatar
    C. Alan

    My dad was an Opel nut in the 1980’s, because of this, My syster drove a orange 1973 ralley, my brother had a 1974 purple Manta. When I got my license in 1989, I was given a silver 74 manta that my Dad had been driving for years. I learned a lot from that car, like how to change a fuel pump in my girl friends driveway, and how to change a clutch. They were great cars.

  • avatar
    yankinwaoz

    Ah… my first high school car. Banana yellow, black interior, and only $200. I drove that thing for 3 years. Loved it.

  • avatar
    obbop

    Tilt head, squint left eye, prop right eyelid open with finger.

    Grimace slightly and tilt eyes inwards.

    Stare at pic.

    Sure, far from an exact match but do I detect a semblance of the 1968 Plymouth Barracuda in a vague sorta’ way in the general outline of that Manta?

  • avatar
    shaker

    “But my experience trying to nab this Opel does not auger well for Fiat.”
    I think that ‘augur’ was the spelling you were looking for…
    Back in the day in the steel town where I grew up, the only place you saw Mantas were in the Buick showroom.
    On the street (in ’73, ’74) more than a few Vegas, Pintos, Mavericks.
    I eventually caught the Euro Bug; I bought a ’72 Fiat 128; the only pleasant memory of the car was lifting the back end of the car off the ground by the bumper to impress a girl and getting laid in the same car later that night.
    Of course, my ‘feat’ of strength was likely aided by the fact that half of the unibody had flaked away as rust…

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    @shaker You’re right. And you’ve answered the long-lingering question of how to impress a girl with a Fiat 128. BTW, I know there’s one in Eugene somewhere…

  • avatar
    shaker

    Heh heh — you could pull the headrests, move both front seats all the way forward, then fold the seatbacks almost flat; a bit lumpy, but ‘do’ able… damn shifter was an issue, though.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    @Paul Niedermeyer :
    Interesting how the same car can project create such a different image. In Europe, the Manta really WAS the Camaro

    …complete with the stereotype that all owners have mullets.

    http://www.hairweb.de/frisuren-vokuhila.htm

  • avatar
    blowfish

    The real problem in GM at the time was the hubris of the US Tech Center crew who actually believed that their Chevy Vega was even in the same league with the Manta/1900.
    Had they just taken the Opel design and put it into production, GM might have established a beachhead in the small car market instead of a sinkhole.

    Sure Uncle Sam had just landed on the Moon not that long ago, What else cannot be done?
    so why would GM had to blow someone’s horn.

    The Vega is not something GM would have put out, if they had the wisdom of consulting Madamme Cleo the psychic is only $1.99 a min.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    Little did ve forget Agent 99 ( It could be another one ) Get Smart, drove an Opel GT and a Vee Dub Karmann Ghia too.

  • avatar
    kurtamaxxguy

    I drove the Rally variant for 6 years. It got me around PA ok, but wasn’t much fun in winter (weak heater, front weight bias = awful traction), or summer (no ventilation from side vents). Plentiful oil leaks (Oil was black after 5k miles), valve tappet rattles, point fouling. The trans lasted for 5 years before synchros faded, the seats rotted out after only 4(was an exercise rebuilding them). Handling beat the VW Superbeetle, while ride was kinda harsh. It was transportation.

  • avatar
    EKO

    A Great work and a great car that is, Paul!

    I am also a Manta fan and I have a similar 74 Manta, upon which I have spent 6 years!

    if you want to take a look, please go to http://www.imagehousing.com/imageupload.php?id=254427

    and tell me what you think.

    I am sorry that she is not clean in this photo.

    I am now in NY for a year (Columbia Univ) and still looking for some spare parts, she is taking some water inside when it’s raining.

    Keep driving!

    P.S. (I definitely agree on the automatic transmission problems. Many times I have thought about swapping to manual, then I gave up quickly as ı thought that it would be the best to leave her as she is, in the originial way)

    BR

  • avatar
    shearwater26

    Sorry for the long delay, just found the site. I had two ’65 Opel Kadettes. One, a parts car, looked just like the ’65 above. The other also tan (were they all tan?) had a different face, almost like the ’66 with square headlight bezals but the same vestigial fins. That was during my Opel phase which unfortunately extended to getting my then-girlfriend a ’69 Rallye with serious rust issues. Should have stopped with the ’65s.


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