A 1987 Opel Corsa GT at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show: How did we get here?

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1987 Opel Corsa GT Ronan Glon

The future is electric. The future is autonomous. The future is not a yellow, 32-year-old hot hatch treated to a full restoration. 

Bringing a 1987 Opel Corsa GT to an ostensibly forward-thinking event is an appallingly expensive endeavor, so I was pleasantly shocked to see one basking under the bright lights in a far corner of the Frankfurt Motor Show. It served as a reminder of how companies from all over the automotive spectrum reached the vantage point on which they stand looking to the 2020s.

Erroneously labeled as a 1982 model, the 1987 Corsa GT that Opel displayed in Frankfurt rotted in a Portuguese garage before being driven across Europe to receive a full in-house restoration. This unpretentious, front-wheel-drive hot hatch is powered by a carbureted, 1.3-liter engine whose four cylinders scream their way to 70 horsepower at 5800 rpm via a five-speed manual transmission—one more cog than base model buyers got.

I can’t imagine an automaker trotting to a major international auto show to unveil a sports car this spartan in 2019. The Corsa GT is as boxy as a bar of soap, unbelievably small and correspondingly cramped inside, and more basic than a modern-day New Holland. If produced today, it certainly wouldn’t be street-legal in Europe or in North America, and I’d bet you the cost of this Corsa GT’s restoration not enough people would buy it to make the numbers add up. Even Dacia, Europe’s uncontested low-cost champion, couldn’t get away with it. Lotus couldn’t, either.

1987 Opel Corsa GT
Ronan Glon
1987 Opel Corsa GT
Ronan Glon

1987 Opel Corsa GT
Ronan Glon

Car companies are businesses above all—just like Amazon or your favorite brewery. They don’t exist to please smartphone-wielding armchair purists, especially not at the risk of summoning the media’s dark cloud of disapproval, or inviting eye-watering fines from the ever-stricter regulators tirelessly bending the global automotive industry into a new shape. 

This 1987 Corsa GT represents its own era of industry dynamics—a time when automakers put their cars in track suits to advertise the might of their engineering departments. Opel built a city car that could sail past a Mercedes-Benz 190D at over 100 mph on the unrestricted sections of the German autobahn—a feat fully out of reach for someone driving a regular Corsa econobox. It was up to the driver, unaccompanied by electronic babysitting aids, to keep the 1700-pound GT on its four wheels and to control it under heavy braking. The only extras speed-craving motorists could count on were a tachometer and an oil pressure gauge.

For mainstream brands today, performance is increasingly taking a back seat to the aching need to be perceived as a cutting-edge, technology-led firm. Those who disagree with this shift are overshadowed and quickly shut up by the overwhelming majority of motorists who would view riding in a Corsa GT as a felonious violation of their Apple-given right to enjoy a quiet, comfortable, and internet-connected commute. Talk cars with someone whose brain isn’t soaking in Shell Rotella, and CarPlay will come up more often than coil-overs.

Technology has permeated so many aspects of our lives that our cars have become robots, but digitalization and performance aren’t mutually exclusive. Progress isn’t our sworn enemy; it’s actually pretty cool in the right application. It has also fully changed what buyers expect from a car, and how automakers—especially mainstream ones—position their top models. While performance was once the hallowed pinnacle of a model range, in 2019 flagships are increasingly high-tech, not high-horsepower. That’s why sales of coupes and convertibles are cataclysmic, while mammoth SUVs are hugely popular. 

1987 Opel Corsa GT
Ronan Glon

The GT’s rose-tinted simplicity is very much a matter of perspective. Today, there is not a single new car I’d describe as tantalizingly slow—something with a 0–60-mph time of, say, over 20 seconds—yet that kind of supreme pokiness was common in the 1980s, especially in Europe. The Amish-like humility the GT exudes in 2019 came off as far more boastful in 1987. It wore a full body kit, a GT-specific grille, alloy wheels, plus special graphics and emblems. There are still some stripped-down, bare-bones new cars on the market (google the Mitsubishi Mirage), but alloy wheels no longer denote a truly special car. 

Welcome to 2019, then. Opel offers a Corsa that brakes itself, but not one you’d seriously want to take to the track. While it’s too early to tell whether the 2020 range will again expand to include a hotter variant, a hot hatch developed with an eye on the 2020s will inevitably be bigger, heavier, techier, and overall less hardcore than the canary-colored box Opel paraded in Frankfurt. 

Whether we like it or not, the Corsa GT’s time has come and gone; that’s why it’s a vintage car. Consider this, as implausible as it might seem: in 2051, enthusiasts will convene to talk about the features they miss from the 2019 Corsa. Its infotainment system might look delightfully retro, or they might pine for the ability to drive the thing.

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