Never Drive Your Heroes Vol. 4: 1970 Opel GT
Photographs by Nick Farrell
While most gearheads drool over close-coupled sports cars, at 6′ 3″, I usually just wonder if I could possibly fit inside. Family history told me that I’d fit into Opel’s pint-sized GT – as it turned out, too well.
The Opel GT was one of the only production cars that emerged from a series of somewhat similarly styled sports car concepts developed at several GM divisions in the 1960s, including the 1962 Corvair Monza GT, 1964 Pontiac XP-833 (Banshee I), and Opel’s own 1965 Experimental GT. The other notable production car that drew inspiration from these concepts was the 1968 (C3) Corvette – hence the GT’s reputation as a “baby Corvette.”
In the best budget sports car tradition, under its sexy bodywork – aerodynamically refined from the ’65 concept and made in France by Brissonneau & Lotz – the GT was a bit of a parts-bin special. It shared its 1.1 and 1.9-liter inline fours with the Kadett economy sedan, although they were mounted further rearward in the GT to improve weight distribution. Light weight – around 2,000 pounds – kept performance peppy, although the smaller engine proved too small for sports car buyers; sales of the 1.1-liter amounted to just 3% of all GTs sold between 1969 and 1973.
Andy Kelchner’s 1970 GT, seen here, is one of the 97% equipped with the 1.9-liter engine, and one of the rare survivors that’s still running strong without having been restored. Other than a few areas that were repaired after a minor accident, most of the blue paint is original, and the car is rust-free and awakened from a multi-year slumber with minimal fuss when Andy bought it earlier this year from the estate of the original owner. It still wears its original blue California license plates, with license plate frames from the Buick-Opel dealer that sold it new.
For me, the GT is the stuff of family lore. My grandmother had a ’72 and my dad’s first car was a ’73 in the same blue as Andy’s. Both of my parents learned to drive stick in an Opel GT – my dad on the drive home from the dealer. My mom and all three of her sisters would pile into their mom’s GT, the two on the parcel shelf sitting with their legs criss-crossed. My dad still had his GT when my parents got married, although they sold it shortly thereafter – for $200, which went toward the purchase of two beach cruiser bikes from Pep Boys. My grandmother still says the Opel was one of her very favorite cars out of many that passed through my grandparents’ driveway.
As, I dunno, say, Mustangs are to most families, Opel GTs are to mine – the cool car that your relatives had before you were born, the mythical proof that things were weirder and looser and more fun before you came along and everyone decided to stop wearing short shorts and start driving Chevys.
So, getting into the Opel prompted a sobering realization: I’m a fair bit older now than my parents were (and not that much younger than my grandmother, who is shorter and much thinner than me, was) when they were so limberly climbing in and out of this tiny, low little car. I whacked my head on the A-pillar, had to contort my legs to avoid marring the impossibly white vinyl on the door panel with my shoes, and generally felt creaky and old.
Once inside, I found the seat reasonably comfortable and the steering wheel comically tiny. (Mind you, I’m used to bus-sized steering wheels.) The seat offered more fore-and-aft adjustment than I was expecting and, honestly, I ended up putting it too far back. I realized this at the same time I became aware of the extremely long travel of the clutch pedal, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
A special delight was testing out the flip-up headlight mechanism. I should say flip-around; with a very satisfying thunk of the pistol-grip lever on the center console, both headlights pivot open from right to left along a central axis. It is a purely mechanical process, and more fun than anything so simple has a right to be.
My drive in the GT was brief and humbling. Getting used to the nuances of any old, manual transmission car takes a little time, and the lack of this commodity – the GT’s headlights were inop, we were running out of daylight fast, and I wanted to make sure Andy had time to get home safely – coupled with my maladjustment of the seat meant that I think I got a fair approximation of my dad’s experience the day he bought a car he didn’t know how to drive and tried to get it home.
I got the car going after a few frightening attempts to not roll it backwards into the tree that had seemed like such a scenic photo backdrop, built up a little momentum – uphill, of course – got it out of first, and…could wrangle the lever neither into second nor back into first.
It took several tries before I realized that the engagement point on the clutch was nearly beyond the reach of even my long legs because I had pushed the seat back too far. Give the Opel points for a more accommodating cabin than its petite size would suggest! Once underway again, I made it all the way into second gear before running out of time. So, I can say that, at the lower end of its power band, the 1.9-liter Opel is a spirited performer with (thankfully) adequate brakes and a rather vague shifter. First gear in the GT is much longer and more useable than in my BMW with its big six, the better to wring more flexibility out of the Opel’s little engine.
If the opportunity should arise to drive an Opel GT again, I will definitely jump at it, but there was something right and special about this awkward first encounter. It’s a rare car that can transport you back to your teenage years, but a rarer one still that takes you back to your parents’!
A million thanks to Andy Kelchner for his fabulous GT, to his neighbor, Ron Lawrence, for helping me track him down, and to Nick Farrell for the amazing photography!