Ask the average American about Opel, and they’ll probably talk about jewelry. Auto enthusiasts, on the other hand, know Opel as one of the world’s oldest and largest car companies. Even then, they can usually name only one model—the Opel GT. And for good reason.
About 70,000 of the more than 103,000 GTs built in Germany came to the U.S. via Buick dealerships, which is plenty more than the 40,000 or so Volvo 1800 coupes built worldwide. Opels quickly descended into obscurity, however, as Father Time (and rust—lots of rust) hasn’t been kind, depleting the Opel population considerably. For years, they’ve been one of the cheapest vintage sports cars you can buy, offering the look and feel of a C3 Corvette that has been shrunk down for a fraction of the price. Some have caught on to the bargain potential of these little coupes, and prices are on the way up. If you’re looking for a cheap classic sports car that’s a little out of the ordinary, it’s still worth considering.
Opel produced sewing machines for several decades before building its first automobile in the 1890s. In 1929, it became General Motors’ main European subsidiary, a partnership that lasted until 2017. In the 1960s, Opel generally supplied bland commuter boxes like the Rekord, Caravan, and Kadett to the European market. That’s why it came as such a shock when Opel unveiled a sharp, well-proportioned coupe prototype at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1965. It was like your quiet cousin went off to a private school and came back a rapper.
The Opel prototype wasn’t just a styling exercise, as so many great concepts turn out to be. Interest was strong enough to justify building the car, and Opel had the right people pushing for it. Clare MacKichan, previously of Chevrolet and who served as Opel’s chief of design from 1962–67, had just revamped Opel’s styling department. Another well-known American designer, Chuck Jordan, arrived at Opel in 1967 to get its new sports car production ready.
From the get-go, the GT would have to be a compromise, using the same chassis, transmission, and brakes from the humble—but at least somewhat sporty—Kadett Rallye. Suspension was independent up front and live axle in the rear, and buyers had the choice of two engines. The base 1.1-liter overhead valve four wasn’t popular, and most have the unusual 1.9-liter, 102-horsepower “cam-in head” four. It features a camshaft placed over the combustion chamber and doesn’t use pushrods, but it isn’t a true overhead cam unit since it operates the valves using tappets and rocker arms.
At first, the bean counters at Opel didn’t even want to let the engineers set the engine further back in the GT’s chassis than the Kadett, but a test at the Nürburgring with Porsche team driver Hans Hermann convinced them otherwise, and the GT’s engine was moved back nearly 16 inches in the interest of weight distribution. The final shape wasn’t as graceful as the prototype had been, but Opel had taken the car to the wind tunnel at the University of Stuttgart and succeeded in making the GT one of the most aerodynamic cars you could buy in the late ’60s.
Since Opel’s factories were already at capacity building stodgy commuter cars, the company contracted with French firm Brissoneau & Lotz to paint, trim, and upholster the body shells, then leave final assembly to Opel. So, with American Corvette-esque styling, German parts, and partly French construction, the Opel GT was truly an international affair.
The interior, too, has a Corvette-like design with low-set bucket seats, and dealer-installed air conditioning was available. A few had a tragic three-speed automatic and a handful came with the pokier 1.1-liter engine (which will reportedly return 50-plus mpg), but the majority came with a 1.9 and a four-speed. Road & Track reported a 0–60 time of 10.8 seconds, which was on par with other sports cars of the day, and it could run with an MGB GT all day long. The Opel also feels light on its feet, because with only about a ton to move around, it is.
There is a fair bit of room behind the seats, but you’ll be frustrated to find that there is not an opening trunk lid out back (again, just like in a Corvette). Arguably the GT’s best party trick, though, is its headlights. They’re not so much “pop up” headlights as they are “pop over,” as they rotate sideways. And they don’t rotate at the touch of a button. You have to yank on a lever next to your right knee with your own, God-given muscles. One less electrical thing to worry about.
The Opel GT hit dealers in 1968. Despite sharing the showroom floor with Buicks, a lack of brand recognition in the U.S., and overly modest ads like “Our car may not win at Le Mans or Sebring, but it’s great if you just want to have some fun,” the GT sold reasonably well and found nearly 12,000 American buyers in 1969. Even with those encouraging numbers and with Maxwell Smart driving an Opel in the final season of Get Smart, a few things came together to kill the car in just a few short years. Emissions regulations were strangling performance, and the upcoming bumper regulations for 1974 would require a major redesign. Plus, the Datsun 240Z turned the affordable sports car world on its ear in 1970. The GT quietly disappeared after 1973.
Opel GTs haven’t gained much more than a cult following in the 40-plus years since, and they have never commanded much money. And despite their accessibility and fun-per-dollar, they surprisingly aren’t very popular with younger buyers. The buyer interest measured by Hagerty shows 45 percent are Baby Boomers, 30 percent are Gen Xers, and 15 percent are Millennials, which is a lower percentage of young folks than the market as a whole.
Those who do buy Opel GTs, however, seem to be willing to pay more and more for them. At Mecum Kissimmee in January, a lovely orange 1971 GT, which we rated at #2 (Excellent) sold at no reserve for a whopping $23,100, which is the highest price we’ve seen for one. A handful of GTs have also sold well on bringatrailer.com.
The average condition #2 value was up 4.3 percent at the end of last year to $17,100, which is an increase of over $2000 from five years ago. Currently, a best-in-the-world #1 (Concours) Opel GT is worth $26,700, and the current #3 (Good) value is $8700, well within entry-level territory. With the upcoming release of new Hagerty Price Guide values, however, Opel GTs will be up across the board, and #3 cars will break five figures for the first time. Although prices have jumped, our data doesn’t indicate that they’ll be rising too much higher, and Opel GTs still represent a lot of quirk, style, and fun for not a whole lot of money.
If shopping for one of these baby Franco-German-American Corvettes, keep in mind that bodies are quite prone to rust and that minor trim or other little bits are so hard to find that it might be worth buying a junkyard donor car just for the parts. Major components, though, can be found at places like Opel GT Source in California. The engine has a tiny three-quart sump, so check oil regularly. Overheating and vapor lock are not uncommon problems. And beware of amateurish performance mods.
If you keep all of that in mind and buy yourself the right car, you’ll not only have a fun classic ride, you’ll likely have the only Opel at Cars and Coffee.