Now, again, it’s rumored that General Motors may be selling its German division Opel to Europe’s last-standing collection of automotive fuckups, PSA Peugeot Citroën. This is not a surprise. General Motors spent nearly an entire century—no, I am not exaggerating—running Opel like a crazy person.
GM got tied in with Opel all the way back in 1929, buying complete ownership in 1931. It was a period of consolidation for the automobile industry back then, and shaky independent Opel was looking for a bigger parent company to help it survive the Depression. While other German makes like Audi, Horch, DKW and Wanderer joined together to form Auto Union, Opel hitched itself to big GM. Ironically, one of Opel’s most prominent cars from its independent era was a knockoff of a Citroën.
For what’s been nearly nine decades of GM ownership, Opel continually cranked out conservative, current cars in line with the standards of European cars at the time. Opel was never the most radical car company out there, but it made fine middle class machines with acceptable, middle-of-the-road performance. Opel is just... kind of a car, for the most part.
Some of us idealize Opels here in the U.S. for their foreignness, but they’re not exactly desirable back home in Germany. There’s a reason why luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz have been designing and selling increasingly affordable lower-class cars; nobody really wants to be seen in an Opel. People buy Opels because they’re fine. They’re just fine.
And you know what? That’s exactly what Americans want to buy. Look at our consistently best-selling cars. Chevrolets in the 1950s and ‘60s. Oldsmobiles in the 1970s. Tauruses and Camrys in the ‘80s and ‘90s and F-150s and vanilla crossovers today. America does not want daring. America wants doofus-proof.
As such, you would think GM would do nothing but shove Opels in our American faces. Instead, GM half-assed every single shot at sales here in the U.S.
Americans first got Opels just as Opels, sold through Buick dealers. There was no rebadging. There was no mysterious naming schemes. They were foreign cars like all the other Simcas and Sunbeams we were buying back then.
The first Opels we started getting after World War II were too flimsy for America’s postwar tastes, even in the late ‘50s downturn that gave Volkswagen its first dominant import success. By the mid-1960s, though, Opel started selling more sturdy cars like the Kadett B. That model outsold the aging VW Beetle back in Germany and climbed up to the number two import spot here in America. Basically, it was like an American car, only smaller and more frugal. The styling was handsome and the design matched our tastes. Surely GM marketed the shit out of the thing, gave it its own dealers and watched the brand prosper, right?
Hell no. GM dumped a metric fuckton of money into the foolhardy Vega instead. That car was possibly the greatest flop by a major automaker in history. It was a bad car, and it was a product of hubris. GM in America thought it would best the froofy Euros at their own game, and failed.
Worse still, Opel could have bloomed in the United States. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, Opel was selling some of its most handsome and desirable full-size cars back home in Europe. The Record, Captain, Admiral and Diplomat were like better handling, better trimmed versions of our own Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and even Buicks and Cadillacs at the top end.
GM in America was cutting costs back then and cheaping out our cars, letting BMW and Mercedes make beachheads in our upper crust’s driveways. Opel was a great opportunity to stay at the front of the import curve, but GM had too much pride to bother with it.
So Opel withered at Buick dealerships only offering compact cars with increasingly confusing branding. GM decided in the ‘70s to sell Opels as “Buick Opels.” These cars suffered with their name, and hurt worse thanks to currency fluctuations with the Deutschmark that made the German-built Buick Opels punitively expensive.
Rather than bring production here to America (a plan that at Volkswagen at first struggled with but then Honda applied with great success) GM started selling Isuzus with the same chassis and design and Opels but branded as Buick Opel by Isuzu, as Hemmings notes. This was possibly the worst brand name for a car ever. Remember that during all this time, GM could have simply been selling Opels as Opels, just as Honda was selling Hondas and VW was selling VWs and Toyota was, well, you get the idea.
The same currency problem blunted sales of the lovely mini-Corvette Opel GT, the car that had possibly the coolest pop-up headlights in history, manually operated by a huge lever.
The Opel Manta, a kind of German Camaro, also never got a chance here in America. Back in Germany it became the ultimate redneck-mobile and the star of possibly the greatest automotive hick movie ever: Manta, der Film.
Opel finally died in the U.S. as its own brand in 1980 when GM shuffled the ‘X-Car’ Citation (also badge engineered as the Buick Skylark among other things) into showrooms. In a near carbon-copy rollout to the Vega a decade prior, these cars were a colossal failure at beating the imports at their own game. GM has been losing market share just about ever since; if it ever succeeded at making small cars, it was with ones from or engineered in South Korea.
It is at that point that things started to get really quite confusing for Opel and GM as a whole. The octopus arms of General Motors started flopping over each other and different markets got different world-beating new cars, many of which competed with each other.
GM got bored with Vauxhall and started selling Opels in the UK with a new badge.
GM got bored with Chevrolet and Oldsmobile and started selling Saturns.
GM got bored with Holden and started selling Opels in Australia with a new badge.
GM got bored with Cadillac and gave it a lone Opel for a few years in the tail end of the Clinton years, the Catera, the Caddy that ostensibly “zigged.”
GM got bored with Saturn and started selling Opels here with new body panels.
In foreign markets, GM at least built these Opel-designed cars in their respective countries. Only in the mid-2000s did our Saturn-bodied Opels start getting built here, though by then Saturn might as well have been Geo the brand was so undesirable.
Eternally short-sighted, GM did give Opel a few interesting cars over the years. The Opel-designed Omega A of the early ‘90s got tuned by Lotus and became one of the fastest cars in the world, though it was mostly sold as a Vauxhall.
There was also the Opel Speedster, again part of a Lotus tie-up. It had a neat turbo motor! It didn’t match the rest of the lineup and struggled to justify its own existence!
The Opel GT, a rebadged Saturn Sky, itself a rebodied Pontiac Solstice, also never really made sense. Opels are staid cars. A two-seater roadster wasn’t changing that.
Nor was the fun-but-forgotten Calibra or Tigra or any of Opels many interesting racing programs. The brand ran in everything from touring car’s glory days to the Group B era of the World Rally Championship.
You can see that GM never really had a clear plan for Opel. Maybe it could have worked if Opel hadn’t been forced to support Buick and Isuzu and Vauxhall and Holden and Cadillac and Saturn. Maybe it could have worked if Opel was given all of those programs’ funding instead. Maybe it could have worked if its planning had been clear: a world car from the start, built in America and marketed with the best of them.
Instead Opel’s German engineers kept plugging away at their own designs and GM employed their work to patch whatever momentary problem it had elsewhere in the world.
To say that Opel was GM’s duct tape would be too kind. Opel has had to do the job of a plaintive bumper sticker, desperately holding the crashed ass of GM together, never able to do the job repeatedly asked of it.
Surely, a company with a proven track record of success like PSA will do right by them.