By on April 20, 2014

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Photo credits:
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.

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39 Comments on “Ich bin ein Hotrodder: A Story of My Opel Diplomat...”


  • avatar
    gtrslngr

    …… and thus we witness from a first hand account the very early stages of the beginning of what promises to be the eventual end of OPEL [ and Vauxhall ] Both victims of having a relationship with the ever clueless Black Widow Spider of the automotive world known as GM .

    Seriously . 60′s American muscle w/zero 60′s American handling handling for European roads . Ludicrous . As sales of this car proved all too well

    Sorry Herr Dobes . Cool car and all and I’m sure you love it. But it did spell the beginning of the end of what once was … OPEL . OPEL now having morphed into badge engineered DaeWoos that no one in Europe ( DW .. Auto Motor und Sport etc ) wants to buy

    • 0 avatar
      Vojta Dobeš

      Opels are not badge engineered Daewoos. Only once did Opel sold the same car as Daewoo, when the Kadett E was badge engineered into the Daewoo Racer (and Pontiac LeMans). But that car was developed as Opel.

      Today’s Opels use GM platforms, engines and such, but are still distinctive Opel products (and some Buicks are in fact badge engineered Opels).

      They’re not even truly bad cars, they’re just not good enough to stand up to the fierce competition.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        “Opels are not badge engineered Daewoos”

        Correct, its Chevrolet who sells badge engineered Daewoos.

        • 0 avatar
          Vojta Dobeš

          I wouldn’t even call them badge engineered Daewoos by now. If you look at cars like Cruze or Orlando, it’s clearly visible that they were meant to be Chevys from the beginning. They’re just Korean-designed Chevys.

          The point where Chevrolet Europe screwed up was putting the Bowtie on cars like Lacetti or first-gen Aveo.

          If they waited a little bit longer, and kept the Daewoo name for old models, only selling stuff like Cruze, Spark and new Aveo (which should’ve been called Sonic in Europe as well), they could’ve persuaded people that those cars are really different. Because they are.

          I had the misfortune of driving the old Aveo, and it was terrible in a spectacular way. The Cruze, Spark or Orlando are not the best out there, but as alternative to other cheap brands, they’re quite good enough.

          It would be easy to persuade people that the Cruze, Sonic, Spark or Orlando are cars made by different manufacturer than the old junk from Daewoo.

          But no, GM, with it’s typical elegance in badge engineering, just had to slap Chevy badges on terrible stuff like Lacetti – and since then, no one in Europe will ever believe that any Chevy is anything other than rebadged Korean junk.

          • 0 avatar
            CJinSD

            http://www.carscoops.com/2008/10/2009-daewoo-lacetti-aka-chevy-cruze.html

            Here’s an October, 2008 story about the 2009 Daewoo Lacetti. You may recognize it, as a couple years later it would be sold as the Chevrolet Cruze.

  • avatar
    rdeiriar

    The Diplomat V8 engine was apparently not a standard Chevy small block.

    Bob Lutz on the development of the Diplomat -spec 283 :

    “A lot of the initial 283s failed in high-speed durability, much to the surprise and disbelief of Chevrolet, which had experienced no failures in the U.S. So it sent us the heavy-duty “Police Interceptor” package, with more oil capacity, more cooling, and premium bearings. They all failed, too. Next, we got some selected Corvette parts installed, but the results were only marginally better.
    The folks in the U.S. grew impatient and questioned Opel’s test results. When they learned we were designing in durability to cover 125-mph autobahn driving for hours on end, in hot weather, they were categorical: “Your customers are nuts! You need to explain that one shouldn’t drive over 70 mph–it isn’t safe!” That clearly not being an option in speed-crazed Germany, we wound up with a 283 small-block of essentially endurance-racing specification, including sodium-cooled exhaust valves, special pistons, unique forged connecting rods, tri-metal bearings, a massive cast, finned aluminum oil pan, and a huge oil cooler. ”

    Source: http://www.motortrend.com/features/112_0506_favorite_small_block/

    • 0 avatar
      Vojta Dobeš

      Yeah, now I remember I read somewhere about Opels getting modified engines, but I forgot about it later. Thanks for clarification!

    • 0 avatar
      Johannes Dutch

      Accelerating from 0 to 60 is one thing. Cruising (way) over 100 mph each and every day is a different story.

      • 0 avatar
        Vojta Dobeš

        Yeah, I’ve read that’s the reason why the Opel Omega V8 didn’t come to be. It wasn’t, and I’m fascinated Germans have even a word for that, “vollgangsfest”. E.g. – it wasn’t capable of going flat out on the Autobahn for extended periods of time without frying the engine.

  • avatar
    korvetkeith

    Wow you’re a dick. I’ve been on the receiving end of treatment like that by supposed “friends”. I really can’t stand when someone expects someone else to foot the bill or their time for your delusional hot rod or boating fantasies.

    Like Chris Rock said, “If you ain’t got no money, you better stay your ass at home and figure out how you can get some.”

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Sweet car and I’m not a Hot Rodder .

    Thanx for the fun write up and story , too bad it got away .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    HerrKaLeun

    So you have a friend who offers to drive you to Hungary with a trailer to pick up an expensive (to own) hobby car and you expect him to pay for fuel (plus wear and his time) because you are a deadbeat who doesn’t have money? All the while spending any money left on useless hobby cars? And then you call him an idiot on this site and leave him stranded in Hungary?

    Yeah he is an idiot alright, for helping you out in the fist place.

    I hope you have a lot of friends, because you will lose one after another every time they do you a favor.

    • 0 avatar
      Vojta Dobeš

      Well, seems that I have omitted a VERY important bit in the article, which I’m going to fix right now.

      The said former friend owed me money – quite a lot, actually – for various things, including blowing the transmission and differential in my Chevy Caprice by doing wild burnouts (which I forbade him to do when I lent him the car). This was one of the reasons I was quite broke at the time, and he was supposed to repay part of his debt by this job.

      And he was supposed to bring his own fuel.

      Actually, he never repaid the debt and I’ve stop seeing him since, as he went to hiding from lots of other people who he owed even more money.

      • 0 avatar
        HerrKaLeun

        thanks for clarifying… yes indeed, that was an important omission in your story :)

      • 0 avatar
        Johannes Dutch

        Owing money to a lot of people…..in Central Europe….

        Ahem, I wish him good luck with his survival run.

        • 0 avatar
          Vojta Dobeš

          He was still alive and well when I met him about two years ago. I guess he got his ass kicked one or two times, and he will probably never own anything that needs to be titled, or get an official job in his lifetime (unless he successfully files for bankruptcy, which would require him to be able to pay at least 30% of his debt according to our law), but as long as he is working illegally for cash, and able to find someone to title his cars, he’s fairly safe.

          Our legal system is probably still easier to beat than those of Western countries, and Czechs are generally non-violent people. The odds of him getting killed is virtually zero, and odds of him getting jailed for fraud are still fairly low.

          We’re safe country. Unfortunately also for fraudsters and con artists.

          • 0 avatar
            NN

            That Alhambra is probably going to need a new tranny after hauling the old Detroit iron to Hungary. So I’d say you’re even.

  • avatar
    Johannes Dutch

    I remember the big Opels from the seventies and eighties (the Senator with its straight 6 engines) very well. Excellent build quality and finishing, good rust proofing (for that era) and lots of room and comfort. Available at a fraction of the price of a W116 V8.

    The big Opels had only one major problem: the brand name. Opel was THE typical Joe Average car (Kadett and Ascona), so the big Opels suffered from a complete lack of snob appeal so to say. Mercedes was King in this class and then BMW and somewhat later Audi started to climb the ladder. These domestic competitors killed the high-end Opels in the early nineties.

  • avatar
    j.grif

    Great pictures of this European live solid rear axle v8 car, agree with couple of other posters about the cheap gene and help etiquette, not nice. more articles on European car scene would be cool.

    • 0 avatar
      Vojta Dobeš

      Oh boy. Traps of English as a second language. When I wrote he was “meant” to do it for free, I thought it clearly states that there was a reason why he wasn’t getting money.

      I clarified it both in the article and in the previous comments. The guy owed me money, mostly for breaking one of my other cars by his own stupidity, and this trip was a way to repay for part of his debt. Which included him bringing his own fuel, not showing up (late, of course) with quarter a tank of fuel and innocent look in his face, saying “I guess you should get some fuel”.

      I should’ve punched him.

      • 0 avatar
        j.grif

        Sorry Vojta, You clarified your story after my post, Your clarification should have been part of the story to begin with, makes for an interesting story, which was already pretty good to begin with. It was interesting to see the mustang under restoration and some of the other European cars as well, if you can elaborate on this part of the euro car scene, that would be cool, I did not know that there was a rear drive v8 powered live axle sedan that was not Mercedes.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Great article.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    I was an exchange student in North West Germany in the summer of 68.

    We car-pooled down to Munich in an Opel Commodore, that thing flew on the Autobahn.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    How could you have possibly towed that beast with a 1.9L turbo-diesel minivan? Without a 3/4 ton pickup with at least 6.0L V8 you should have died a fiery death! Oh right, you aren’t in America, so you probably have a clue. Carry on.

    I sure would love one of those lightweight European car-hauling trailers.

    That is a pretty cool car. Very “Mid-Atlantic” as the Brits say.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al from Oz

      @krhodes1
      Talking of required power to do a job with a vehicle. I think we forget how much power is really necessary to do a job. Even in Australia everyone wants to tow 3 tonnes at 130kph.

      We had these Toyota Dyna’s in the late 70s in Australia. They became popular with city builders and plumbers.

      They could handle over a 2.5 tonne load in the bed or around 6 000lbs.

      They only had a 2 litre gasoline engine! They were reliable and slow.

      Many don’t realise but the original Japanese vehicles used much British engineering from the 50s, to the point of what the British thought was powerful enough to do a job.

      I think part of their popularity was they came off the showroom floor with a Toyota dumper body.

      http://img03.carview.co.jp/trade/img06/cars/668645/11764418/japan%20car/1977+toyota+dyna+truck/16.jpg

      http://image-cdn.beforward.jp/files/pictures/201311/167925/BF172596_2.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      Onus

      Good question. I think current truck buyers are spoiled. The aluminum trailer also probably helps in this situation.

      But, i have a 1983 f250 with 120hp straight 6. With a 4 speed manual, granny gear (6.32:1 first gear ), and 4:10 rearend ratio. I’m sure it would move stuff. not very fast but it would. People used setups like this for decades with no complaints.

      These days we have it too easy. Ever since i say the cummins diesel came out there have been some insane power wars.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      In the 70′s it was fairly common for club racers to use a 1.6 liter Japanese pickup truck to haul a sedan racer on a heavy US style car trailer. Car and trailer would be a little over 3000 pounds, plus another 500 pounds of spares and tools in the back of the truck, and quite honestly no one thought twice about it. It wasn’t fast, but it got you to the track.

      I don’t know why people think they need so much power these days, traffic’s not really moving any faster than it did back then.

    • 0 avatar
      Johannes Dutch

      A Ford Escort Van with a 60 hp non-turbo 1.8 liter diesel is enough to pull a tandem axle trailer loaded with approx. 3,500 lbs of sand.

      First hand experience. It took a while, but I got home before dark.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    I remember a Movie which featured one of those diplomats,I cant remember the name of it but it featured a lot of W111 Mercs too (heckflossen ) From what I can see it’s a Vauxhall Cresta with Holden influence in the front and Chevrolet based power. We now know the truth about Gm’s SBC too,75 MPH is too fast…..ha ha ha (maniacal laugh from a dyed in the wool Merc enthusiast)

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    The same guy who designed the Diplomat designed the Holden HD in 62.

    It’s very evident looking at the two vehicles.

    http://www.uniquecarsandparts.com.au/car_info_holden_hd.htm

    http://www.carsguide.com.au/news-and-reviews/car-news/how_the_hd_holden_got_its_front_guards_20131224

  • avatar
    Joss

    British engineering in the 50′s – produced the Comet… By the early 70′s the Vauxhall Cresta became the fairground scruff for towing gypsy campers.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al from Oz

      @Joss
      The Comet was pushing the envelope in aeronautical engineering.

      Remember, back in ‘them days’, they didn’t have computer modeling like we have now.

      De Havilland’s mistake with the Comet was a lesson learnt globally, could of happened to any airframe manufacturer of the time.


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