Bitter CD: the non-Italian supercar

Yes, it’s fast and sleek, but it’s also reliable and surprisingly subtle. Meet the finest creation of Erich Bitter

Bitter CD: the non-Italian supercar

Never heard of Bitter? That’s no big surprise; most people in the English-speaking world are in the same position. Yet the premium sports brand produced what is probably the most unpretentious supercar of all.

I first saw the Bitter CD on the pages of a German auto magazine in around 1980, and I was instantly smitten. The car looked like a million dollars. Well, like a million Deutschmark... It had Italian styling flair, but Germanic roots, and was based on utterly reliable Opel running gear. It was an ideal supercar of the period, devoid of the fragility so typical of much Italian iron in those days – like a Sophia Loren who would always appear on time and would never catch a cold.

It would also start every morning, regardless of the weather, and the wipers would actually wipe the windscreen in the rain. Yet to explain the genesis of this stylish-cum-plebeian creature, we need to go way back in time.

Erich Bitter was born in Schwelm, Germany, in 1933. His parents ran a bicycle shop, so it was only natural that young Erich would learn to ride a bike – and to ride it fast, because his nature was fiercely competitive. After a while he became so rapid that he was able to easily contest the Tour de France, arguably one of the world’s hardest cycling events.

As a well known professional cyclist who also happened to sell bikes, Erich forged a good relationship with the NSU company, which, apart from producing cycles, also built cars. Enticed by those fantastic, rear-engined, pocket-sized monsters, he decided to try his hand at motor racing. At first, in his own words, ‘everybody was overtaking him’, but he learned quickly and soon mastered the NSU’s handling traits. It wasn’t long before he started winning.

Between 1958 and 1969 Erich raced not only NSUs but also Porsches, Mercedes and Ferraris, and he became an Abarth factory driver at some point, too. In 1962, buoyed by his racing exploits, he established a company called Rallye-Bitter, which sold tuning kits, racing equipment and even flameproof Nomex overalls under the ‘Bitter’ brand.

Erich stopped racing in 1970, after the Abarth 1300 SP in which he was practising at the Nürburgring crashed, landed in the forest and burst into flames. He was saved by his fireproof racing suit, but he decided to forgo racing in favour of the car sales business. He became the German Abarth importer, which proved to be a wise move.

Not such a great idea was Erich’s contract with emerging Italian supercar maker Intermeccanica. The cars were of such appallingly poor quality that the honourable German almost went bankrupt trying to satisfy the warranty demands of his irate customers.

Instead of plunging into despair or becoming disillusioned, Erich treated the whole episode as part of his own personal learning curve. He knew that one could make money selling supercars, and that customers liked handmade, beautiful bodywork. But he also learned the hard way that no right-minded citizen would buy a motor that couldn’t be started each morning at the turn of the key.

So he came up with the idea of building a short series of handsome, original automobiles based on the mechanicals of a mass-produced model. He was known to say that he wanted a beautiful, quick car, but that he also wanted to be able to get in it and actually drive away. Erich knew what he was talking about.

In 1968 he raced and beat more powerful Porsches in a black 150bhp Opel Rekord. He was so impressive behind the wheel of that car, called ‘The Taxi’ and, more affectionately, ‘Schwarze Witwe’ (Black Widow), that Opel’s Rüsselsheim management started to treat him with friendship and respect. Thus the foundations of his long-term relationship with Opel, and GM in general, were created.

Let’s focus on Opel for a moment to understand the provenance of the Bitter CD, the first series-produced, Opel-based sports coupé built by the entrepreneur from Schwelm. The Rüsselsheim boys needed a halo car for their stand at the 1969 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Opel's designers, led by Chuck Jordan and encouraged by the formidable Bob Lutz, produced something really special under the codename Astra, which was better known as the Styling CD. It was a sleek, exquisitely proportioned coupé based on a shortened Opel Diplomat V8 chassis with its sophisticated De Dion rear axle.

The styling study received enthusiastic reviews, but was impractical and not really engineered to form the basis of a production reality. What it did facilitate, however, was Opel management choosing to consider the possibility of manufacturing a sporty, elegant coupé.

A year later, the Italian Frua design house produced its own iteration of the Styling CD concept, this time with regular doors that actually worked – a major drawback of the original. It was also based on a shortened Diplomat chassis, and numerous members of Opel’s top management used it on a regular basis. They did their sums, and knew that producing the tooling for a luxury coupé was an investment they could ill afford, as the Opel badge might discourage the buying public from paying a price that would mean even a break-even result.

Enter Erich Bitter. He saw the car during one of his visits to Rüsselsheim, and instantly understood that he could do what the GM bosses could not: he could try to build the car under his own name, purchasing the running gear from Opel, sparing the Rüsselsheim company the cost of small-volume tooling, but also sparing it the embarrassment of failure in case nobody would buy an Opel-badged extravagant Gran Turismo. Methodically, Erich started work. It was 1971.

The Bitter CD body, closely related to both of the Styling CD prototypes, was manufactured by the renowned Karosserie Baur company of Stuttgart. The Baur family business not only made the body panels, but also mated them to the Opel Diplomat running gear.

Meanwhile, Erich did not just buy the Opel chassis parts in batches, he extensively retuned the suspension according to his own taste, changing the springs and introducing Bilstein shocks along the way. The 5.4-litre Chevrolet V8 engine was carried over from the Diplomat without alterations.

The car was publicly presented at the 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show, and an ecstatic Erich Bitter collected 176 firm orders already at his stand. The joy didn’t last, however, as the oil crisis struck soon thereafter and most orders were cancelled.

Even so, by 1975 Erich had managed to build and sell 100 Bitter CDs, never reaching the initial production target of 200 units per year. He persevered and survived long enough to see the tail end of the oil-crisis scare, ramping up production slightly. Until production was halted in 1979, Baur had managed to produce 395 Bitter CD coupés in total.

The 327ci engine was fed by a Rochester Quadrajet carburettor (what a name, by the way!), and produced a leisurely 230bhp and 315lb ft of torque (427Nm), accelerating the car from 0-100kph in 9.6 seconds, and onward to a top speed of 210kph. Not rocket performance, surely, but respectable for a big car weighing in at 1762kg. Today we are used to hot hatches outdragging 1980s Ferraris, but seen in perspective, the performance was on par for a respectable Gran Turismo with huge – for the day – 215/70 VR 14 tyres.

The car I am driving is a patinated, fully authentic and unrestored example from Opel’s classic car collection at Rüsselsheim, normally hidden away and accessible only to organised tour groups.

There is a wide smile on my face as soon as I lower my bulk into the wide, comfortably padded seat, as although there are no Opel badges anywhere, I recognise all the familiar controls, steering wheel and column stalks from various Opels I have owned. The ergonomics of those cars were exemplary, and never repeated. Yes, there is a cognitive dissonance between the familiar Opel parts and the Bitter’s elegant interior and smooth, Italianate bodywork lines, but what the heck. I am loving the ambience.

The visibility from the driver’s seat is stunning. Thin pillars and a huge glass area mean that instead of needing blind-spot cameras, radar, ESP and all that jazz, you simply avoid hitting things. What a revelation. Today’s cars take over some of the responsibility because one simply can’t see out of them in most directions. I take the view that it is always much better to steer around an obstacle than smash right into it.

That smooth, rumbling V8 says, ‘relax, we'll make it on time, whatever it is’. Push the lever into D and move off. This is not a machine built to scream around a racetrack, but it is hugely capable, composed and smooth around corners, and it loves fast roads. I want a car that delivers a steady stream of endorphins, with a rumble from the exhaust and a lazy gearshift. All that, and more, is provided by the Bitter CD.

Seriously, if I suddenly lost my mind and desperately wanted to own a Maserati Khamsin or a De Tomaso Mangusta, I'd have to work on it 24/7 just get it reliable enough to drive it once a week.

The alternative would be to find a well kept Bitter CD for €70,000-100,000 and, knowing plenty of old Opel parts fit it, laugh all the way to the bank. I could drive it every day, savouring the blank glances of pedestrians and enjoying the incredulous reactions of those people I would choose to tell it’s virtually an Opel.

After the CD, Erich Bitter wanted to continue working with Opel. More importantly, Opel headquarters wanted to work with him. The new, range-topping Senator was introduced in 1978, and Erich decided to base his next car on that platform. Opel agreed to supply the required components, but this time Erich had to go it alone in terms of design, as there was no template such as the Styling CD.

His new car, called SC, looked a bit like the Ferrari 400i, but that was no bad thing. He was helped by Opel designers, Michelotti did the details and the car was tested in the Pininfarina wind tunnel. The work to get it to production lasted two years and cost eight million Deutschmark, some of the money coming from a Swiss investment partner and some from smaller investors. Baur was unavailable at the time to assist with bodywork production, so Erich went to Italy to look for partners.

He found one in the OCRA company in Turin, which was supposed to make the panels then join them to form complete bodies. These would later be sent to Schwelm, where the rest of the components would be installed along with the Italian-made interior trim. However, after only 79 bodies were made by OCRA, a disappointed Erich had to terminate the contract, as brand-new bodies were already rusting heavily.

He swapped OCRA for Maggiore, a much better choice, also in the Turin area. He prepared an SC Cabriolet prototype, as well as one of a four-door SC sedan. Cars were produced at Maggiore and Schwelm until 1983, when Erich moved the production site to Steyr-Daimler-Puch in the Austrian town of Graz. Sadly, in 1985, the money ran out and production ceased.

Later, at intervals, Erich regularly presented new prototypes such as the Tasco or the CD2. These were never built in series, but they did leave lasting impressions on the automotive world.

Erich had always enjoyed a cult following in his native Germany, so when he announced in 2007 that he would be staging a comeback with a Holden HSV-based Vero sedan, the press loved it. As it was he was only able to complete about ten cars until the company stopped trading again in 2009.

Today Bitter Automotive and Erich Bitter are still extant. The company produces altered versions of Opel production cars ‘by Bitter’, and one can buy an Opel Adam or an Opel Mokka X wearing Bitter branding. The Opel badge doesn’t even appear on the radiator grille, while the interior trim has been extensively reworked as well. It’s a far cry from the stunning CD, the non-Italian supercar that combined practicality with stunning looks. It’s sad, but that’s progress...

Photography by Bartlomiej Szyperski