While JFK was busy capturing the hearts of the German people with his Ich bin ein Berliner speech, the GM engineers at Rüsselsheim were busy at work finishing their next big project – the series of full-size (on European scale) luxury models, called Kapitän, Admiral and Diplomat. Introduced in February of 1964, the new models were meant to take on Mercedes-Benz, though they shared something in common with contemporary America cars, in that they were really just one car, offered in different equipment levels, and with different engine options. Kapitän was the cheapest, with an inline six under the hood, standard manual transmission and relatively sparse equipment. Its size, equipment and power put it somewhere between American compacts and midsize cars of the time, like a smaller 1964 Chevelle, with a dash of Buick styling.
The other two models were more interesting. The Admiral added some equipment, and available V8 engine – the venerable Chevy Small Block, in 283 cubic inch guise. The top of the line Diplomat, which came with even more luxury, shunned the six cylinder altogether. It was produced with a choice of the 283ci V8, and the famous 327, both teamed with a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The Diplomat even spawned a sexy, Riviera-like V8 coupe model, with only 347 examples and now exceedingly rare – and terribly expensive.
In the next four years, nearly 90,000 KAD Opels were built. Most lived their lives on Germany’s roads and Autobahns, but some went to other countries. A few even got to the other side of the Berlin Wall. And at least two or three (although probably more) made their way to Hungary.
Around the time of the KAD’s final production run, a white Galaxie 500 coupe, with a 390 big block engine, rolled off the Ford assembly line on the other side of the world.
For the next half a century, those were totally unrelated events. While the Galaxie 500 puttered around Southern California, preserved by the desert climate, the Admirals and Diplomats in Hungary led eventful, hard lives, which lead them in the state of wrecks.
But their stories were meant to come together. Early in the new century, a Hungarian guy called István bought up three KAD Opels, and started putting them together to build one good car. And some time after that, the old guy owning the Galaxie decided to put it on eBay, where a young guy from Czech Republic saw it, and decided to buy it. That guy was me, and the goal was to import the car, have some fun with it and then flip it for a profit. It didn’t work, because I chose the wrong car. Instead of buying a nicely preserved, but uninteresting four-door, with shiny paint and gleaming chrome, which would sell easily in Europe, I decided to buy a car muscle car enthusiast would like – two-door with a big block engine, discs in front… but also with faded paint and lots of dings and scrapes. Which meant the car didn’t sell, and as my attempt on US classic car importing business fell apart in the global financial crisis, I was stuck with a car I had no means to restore.
At the same time, István fixed up his Opel. He put the best parts of the two or three cars together, fixing up the best body, rebuilding the 283 engine, fitting the modern 200R4 transmission with a bunch of hot-rodder upgrades, and painted the whole thing flat black, to achieve the cool hot-rod look. To spice things up, he added red wheels, and dual exhausts with glasspack mufflers. But before he got around to restoring the interior or finishing details, he got fed up with the thing. He needed change, and he wanted to go American.
I guess you can see where this is going. Two guys with cars that are hard to sell, both in Central Europe, both lusting for what the other one has.
I don’t even recall for sure who did the first contact. I think it was me. We exchanged e-mails for some time, sending photos of our cars, details about their condition, lists of what was done (on his) and what needed to be done (on mine). And eventually, we came to agreement that we really like each other’s car, and that we’ll go through with the trade. It was decided that it would be me who will do the trip, trailering my Galaxie to István’s place in Budapest. I called a friend of mine with a Seat Alhambra and a car trailer (yes, my American friends – while you think that your ¾ ton truck may not be enough to trailer a car, we do it with minivans), we agreed on a date, and off we went.
The trip itself would be quite uneventful, with the exception of my idiot friend conveniently “forgetting” he was meant to do it for free (to repay some money he owed me), and needing me (totally broke at the time – partly because of said idiot’s actions, like blowing up transmission and differential in my Chevy Caprice) to pony up the fuel money. The exchange went well, I got a tour of the speed shop where István worked, full of cool muscle cars, hot rods and motorcycles. I did a test drive, and fell in love with the car. We shook hands, loaded the car, and off we went.
My slight annoyment about having to pay for the fuel grew into full-blown rage when I found out that we’re nearly out of fuel, have no Hungarian money and may not make it to the first gas station in Slovakia. I firmly decided to unload the Opel and proceed home, leaving my idiot friend stranded in Hungary – with no money, and no ability to understand their language. Fortunately, the venerable 1.9 TDI turbo-diesel marvel once again shown its unbelievable efficiency and took us to Slovakia, and then home.
So, I was now in possession of a huge (for Europe, it was about the size of the S-class) beast with a slight identity crisis. The car wasn’t sure whether it’s Admiral or Diplomat (although the paperwork said Diplomat), and most of all, it was a cross between an old German luxury sedan and typical American muscle car. With some hot rod influences here and there, starting with the red wheels and Mooneye decals, and ending with the monstrous roar from the exhaust.
Simply put, it was a perfect car for my daily driver, and that was exactly what I wanted to do with it. At the time, I basically had no other fully street legal and functional vehicle, except for the steady stream of press cars. And I had this idea that unlike the 1967 Dodge Coronet, which I also owned at the time and which could only be registered as “antique”, slightly restricting the daily-driver duties, the Diplomat was the perfect solution for times when I had no press car.
Of course, using the nearly half a century old hot rod for daily driver duties has its problems. If we dismiss the obvious stuff, like fuel consumption(circa 10 to 16mpg) and its enormous size, there was still the other white elephant – it’s a hot rod.
Those of you who live in good old US of A are probably familiar with what a Chevy Small Block with glasspacks sounds like. For the rest of you, it is best likened to four Harley-Davidson motorcycles with loud pipes, running in unison. Slight problem, if you want to go somewhere, or come from somewhere, during the night, and don’t want neighbors to key your car or throw stuff at you. But this could be avoided by leaving and approaching your home while idling – at least that didn’t set off car alarms.
But being a hot rod, meant for nice, sunny days, the Opel had no choke. And starting a carbureted vehicle with no choke, especially in colder weather, means revving the engine for at least a minute, before you set off. Or it would stall. Which gives your neighbours about a minute to come out of their houses and murder you.
Also, the car lacked some other unnecessary stuff, like a heater. And the lowered front end was pretty cool to look at, but the wheel lock was a bit reduced by the tires rubbing against wheel arches. Which sucks for maneuvering in parking lots.
But non of it mattered, because, oh, boy, it was fun to drive. Of all the cars I owned, this got closest to my ideal of a big, evil, noisy hot-rod/muscle car thing. Not that it drove any good of course. Those big Opels were basically midsize American cars, modified just very slightly for European use. And even pure European cars of that time weren’t significantly better driving or handling than American ones – this came much, much later.
I don’t remember the handling of that thing very much, mostly because it didn’t have any. By turning that monstrous steering wheel in front of you, you were able to somehow tell the car where it should go, and it somehow obeyed. With disc brakes, it was somehow able to stop. But driving fast into corners wasn’t something that would ever cross your mind.
And the funny part was that it wasn’t even fast. It sure sounded fast, and with an open diff and 185-section tires, it was able to lay rubber, peg-legged, for maybe 60 feet. But the 283 was totally stock, with a 2-barrel cabrburettor, and it had 190 horsepower originally – which I suspect were SAE gross horsepower, leaving the “real” number somewhere around 160hp. I can imagine how slow the thing had to be with original Powerglide two-speed, but thankfully, the 200R4 made things a bit more sprightly. And extremely firm shifts of the hot-rodded tranny helped the “feeling of speed”.
The car roared off the line, with heavy jolts on each shift, squealing rubber… and then got beat by just about anything at least remotely quick, including some faster diesels. In a way, it was a really safe way of having fun, because you were going slow all the time, anyway.
I had big plans for the car. Buying some nicer and bigger wheels, fixing up the annoying problems like too loud glasspacks or missing heater. Or at least registering it in my name, instead of running on the expired Hungarian temporary tags all the time. I even thought about adding some more horsepower, either by massaging the 283, or selling it to someone who wanted a stock engine, and building a Chevy 302. Actually, I think that was one of my best project car ideas of all time – German sedan with 8000rpm-revving Chevy engine.
But then life got in the way. A failing business meant debts to pay – and a lot of them. That’s why I still drive a borrowed Town Car, and why I had to sell the Opel some three years ago. I don’t think I drove it for more than maybe a thousand miles, but even in that short time, I’ve made tons of memories with it.
When I offered it for sale, no one in Czech Republic wanted it – even when I lowered the price way under its worth. I nearly sold it for peanuts, when I realized I didn’t try Germany. And of course, because Germans love old German cars, it sold – in about three days, for basically what I wanted in the ad (and I regretted not wanting more afterwards).
Last I heard from the new owner, he sent me some pictures of the car with new Cragar mags, straightened bodywork and a new paint (again flat black), and scoop sticking out of the hood. I guess the Opel is still alive and well, terrorizing the Germany’s streets.
Opel, myself, Radek Beneš, István Zitas (pictures in gallery below)
@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic, who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz and serves as editor-in-chief at www.USmotors.cz. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a borrowed Lincoln Town Car. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.