Thursday, December 11, 2008

General Motors, My Dad, Me, a Couple of Opels, a Few Corvairs... And Now It's 2008 (Pt. 3 of 3)

The Opel GT was completely different from any other car I had owned. It looked cool. It was cool. No one made fun of it. I got a lot of "thumbs up" from other drivers when I drove it.

Having a car that drew so much attention meant I had to keep it looking presentable and running well. I taught myself how to work on it. I learned how to rebuild carburetors because the Solex on the Opel was a piece of crap. I was constantly adjusting the hidden headlight linkage (a diabolical system which I believed was designed by the same person who invented the "Shoots & Ladders" game) and learned about things like pinions. I read as much as I could about the car and all cars in its class. It was the beginning of me becoming a full fledged (and completely annoying to most people) car geek.

I've had many, many cars after the Opel GT, but if I had to make a list of some of my favorite cars, the Opel GT would definitely make the list. I still see them from time to time at car shows and still think about buying another one.

My first cars were Opels and Corvairs and both, I believe, have a lot to do with where GM is right now; almost bankrupt and with little credibility.

The Corvair was a radical departure for an American car company. It was small (by US standards) and had a rear mounted engine. The early ones had a swing-axle suspension set up. This was not a perfect suspension, but it was hardly a GM exclusive. Mercedes, Triumph, VW, Porsche and others used this set up. That didn't stop Ralph Nader from blasting the car in his book "Unsafe At Any Speed".

Nader's "science" was flawed, not to mention that the later (1965 - 1969) Corvairs had an independent suspension which made it one of the better handling American cars.

In fact, after thoroughly testing the Corvair in 1971, the NHTSA concluded "The 1960-63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests," and, "The handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic." (The complete report, PB 211-015, can be obtained from the National Technical Information Service)

GM, unbelievably, decided that instead of going after Nader's flawed science, they would take on Nader himself. They hired a private detective to follow him and allegedly paid to have a prostitute try to seduce him so he could be "found" by the GM private eye in a compromising position (so to speak). Unfortunately for GM, Nader was exactly what he looked liked; a squeaky clean geek. GM got nothing on him.

Word leaked out about GMs tactics. Nader sued. It made headlines. People started wondering just what it was that GM was hiding and Nader became a folk hero.

Opel was another story. No one disliked it. In fact, at one point Opel was selling more cars in the U.S. than any other imported car brand except for Volkswagen (Which was selling the original Beetle at the time).

Early Opels, the Rekord and Kadette, were well built, but unexciting automobiles. That changed when GM started importing the Manta and 1900. These cars looked good, were fun to drive and, like the earlier Opels, were well built.

GM started importing the Manta and 1900 in 1971. In 1975 they pulled the plug on them, deciding that Americans did not want expensive (by earlier standards) sporty German built coupes. No one at GM seemed to notice that a company called BMW was, for the first time ever, gaining a foothold in the US market by selling an expensive, sporty, 2 door car; the now legendary 2002.

GM replaced the Opel in the US with a god-awful Isuzu, which they badged "Buick / Opel by Isuzu". This car made virtually every other car on the market look exciting. It, mercifully, only lasted a few years, but it ruined the Opel name in the US.

The Corvair caused the nation to look a GM in a different way. No longer were they untouchable. They didn't defend their product. They went after a little insignificant man and made him a hero.(It could also be argued that GM's response to Nader gave us George W. Bush and all the disasters that have come with him. If Nader had been proven wrong would anyone know him now? Would he have been able to run for president? If so, would enough voters have voted for him over Gore in Florida to give the election to Bush? OK, that's all a stretch, but something I think about)

The Corvair would have disappeared in time anyway. Rear engine cars were falling out of favor with the public. But GM's handling of Nader and his accusations made people take a second look at this American icon. They didn't like what they saw. Many people who in that past would have never given a non-GM brand a thought, started looking around. Many liked what they saw and never came back. Toyota, Honda and Nissan (then Datsun) took full advantage of that.

Had GM kept the Opel line alive in the US would they now have an established German sports / luxury brand? Would they have a real line of cars to fight BMW and Audi now? Probably. Opels are good cars and well regarded in Europe. Instead GM chose to fight the imports with cars like the Cadillac Cimmaron, a joke of a car if there ever was one.

GM sold an Opel in the US recently. It was the Cadillac Catera. It got good reviews, even though a lot of the "europeaness" had been engineered out by Caddy, and sold modestly. It was just too little too late though.

They should have watched what was happening back in 1975 and kept Opel alive in the US. America would have had another choice in European cars and GM would have had a sure winner.

Decisions made starting almost 40 years ago are hurting them now. A little foresight back then would have prevented this mess. All we have is hindsight now and it ain't pretty.


Anonymous said...

Great story and interesting insights.

I love this blog. There's something different all the time.

Keep it up!

Scott Witthaus said...

Dave -
Two memories that stick with me about the Opels Dad had: First was him parking it pointed downhill for a time when he had to kick start it and watching him doing that, and the other was the day we woke up to find that some guys in the neighborhood turned the car on its side as we slept. Cracks me up to this day.