Going underground in an Opel GT

With a car as small as an Opel GT, even twisting mountain roads feel large. It takes a special setting to get the most out of this sporting miniature

When the original Opel GT went on sale in Germany in 1968, the advertising slogan for the car was Nur Fliegen ist Schöner – only flying is more beautiful. As romantic as the notion was, there was a grain of truth to the claim.

The Opel GT was first shown publicly as the ‘Experimental GT’ styling concept in 1965, and it entered production in 1968. To most, it was obvious that the car – which looked like a Corvette C3 mistakenly put through a really hot wash cycle – had American roots.

Opel was a part of the General Motors empire, and in the early 1960s GM Styling was the biggest and most powerful design organisation in the world. A lot of the other auto manufacturers made do with tiny design departments, whose members were not especially respected. GM was different, and had been so for a long time.

Back in 1927, the Art and Color Section was established and headed up by the great Harley Earl. A decade later it was renamed GM Styling, and the following year General Motors presented the Buick Y-Job – the first genuine concept vehicle in automotive history. By 1956, GM Styling and its 1200 staff members had settled into a brand-new building designed by Eero Saarinen at GM’s Technical Center in Warren, near Detroit. A direct result of that was the opening in June 1964 of ‘building N10’ in Rüsselsheim. Based on GM Styling’s Michigan base, the modern construction was probably one of the most secure locations in West Germany, as all of Opel’s prototypes and new models were developed there.

The Experimental GT, the fruit of the endeavours of designers Murat Nasr and Erhard Schnell, bore a number of the basic styling cues that later surfaced in the series production Opel GT. The Coke-bottle waist, the elongated nose, the proportions close to the Corvette C3’s in miniature, and the trademark hideaway headlights were all present. The young and dedicated team incorporated a number of extremely talented individuals, most of whom later made their names at other companies: Anatole Lapine, George Gallion, Charles M ‘Chuck’ Jordan, Herbert Killmer, Chris Bangle and Hideo Kodama. The Rüsselsheim studio was a beehive of activity, and, as with most Western Europeans, the staff believed that the world was entering a new, prosperous era.

Using the floorpan and a lot of the mechanicals from the popular Kadett B, the GT made financial sense. Meanwhile, the bodies were fabricated by a subcontractor – a French company called Brissonneau & Lotz, which had made a Renault 4CV-based car in small numbers.

The engine under that long bonnet was either a humble 67bhp 1.1-litre unit from the Kadett, or a 1.9 motor from the Opel Rekord, complete with an overhead camshaft and around 102bhp. The gearbox was a four-speed manual, although a three-speed automatic was available in some markets. In total, 103,463 cars were sold before production ceased in 1973. All this, despite the fact that the car was a fastback with no conventional trunk opening or rear hatch. If you wanted to bring baggage, you had to fit it behind the seats.

The bigger-engined model was capable of 0-62mph in less than ten seconds, and reached a top speed of around 115mph. If that doesn’t sound like much, compare the acceleration with that of the four-cylinder Porsche 912: 13.5 seconds. In the right hands and on roads with not too many straights, a well driven Opel GT could go Porsche-baiting and win. It was also more predictable on the limit or in the wet than its Zuffenhausen competitor. The impressive performance of the baby Corvette – as it was often called – was mostly due to its low weight (between 845 and 960kg) and good aerodynamics. We know from tests performed in-period that it was much more than a pretty face.

The drive

To drive the Opel GT on normal, scenic, twisting roads seems too understated, even in our test car's banana-yellow shade. But, fortunately, underneath one of the old factory buildings at the Opelwerk in Rüsselsheim, on the outskirts of Frankfurt, lies a network of tunnels.

Built post-war, the tunnels were an ingenious idea whereby supplies and personnel could be moved under the factory floor without disrupting work topside. We first explore a part of the network on foot; it looks the perfect setting in which to film a long chase scene for a Bond movie. There are numerous doors, symbols, codes, forgotten boxes and vacated cloakrooms with personal lockers left open and dusty. The smell is slightly musty; nobody really ever comes here.

But not today. I manoeuvre the Opel GT down a ramp. Low-speed running is not easy, as the twin carburettors need fettling. The car wants to stall all the time. The only quick cure is stomping on the throttle pedal (the choke is automatic and cannot be manually activated), which means most of the time you’re moving much too fast for the narrow corridors, which intersect at right angles and throw in some dead ends to maintain that element of surprise. At least there is plenty of grip on the polished floors, the tyres being a ‘sporting’ size for the era, namely 165 R 13.

The visibility is excellent, and it helps. That and the grip means it’s difficult to stop yourself; you try to cover the same sections faster and faster, and there's a real sense of exhilaration in running at speed in a narrow tunnel with fluorescent tubes strobing across the windshield. It’s like a movie chase, or a computer game.

That rorty engine note rebounds off the walls, bounces off the low ceiling and re-enters the cabin. This thing is alive. The underground tunnel compresses all the sensations – it feels like I'm driving in air that's more dense, heavier. The directness and honesty of the GT's responses are more apparent here. It’s impossible not to enjoy myself as I come close to fulfilling a secret desire to work on a movie set as a stunt driver.

The Opel GT was, and still is, a seriously good car to drive. Don't let the looks deceive you; this is not an Instagram model with a plastic bosom and silicone lips. This machine is the real deal – and it really scoots. It’s worthy of being on anyone's bucket list.

Pictures courtesy of Blazej Zulawski

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