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September 2012 4Word Editorial

Phil Howell
Phil Howell | Writer
Posted September 1, 2012

Wider Vehicular Taste

This 4Word isn't about off-roading, but from your letters and emails, I know some of you have wider vehicular tastes than just 4x4s. I do, too.

You may remember my first vehicle, a '61 Chevy Apache 20 pickup. A '62 Chevy pickup with a 283ci V-8 was my second. In the summer of 1972, I went to Europe, spent some time there, and became enamored with the smaller vehicles plying the narrow, twisty roads and wide, fast autobahns and autoroutes. After returning home, I had to have one of those cars. I soon procured a new German-built 1972 Opel Manta Rallye (not to be confused with the Opel GT or the older Opel Rallye Kadett).

The Manta didn't take the place of a 1972 CJ5 that was in the garage, but going to the university a couple of states away made owning something that was more frugal a necessity. Gas averaged 36 cents a gallon in late 1972, but after the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), and Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia proclaimed an oil embargo in 1973, gas prices climbed to about 70 cents a gallon. This sounds cheap, but adjusting for inflation, $0.70 equals about $3.20 today, so it wasn't cheap at all — especially for a college student.

The Manta returned 28 mpg, had a perfect 50/50 weight bias, and handled as if it was on rails. For a relatively cheap rear-drive car, it had a great coil-spring suspension with A-arms and lower transverse links up front and a live axle with lower trailing arms and Panhard rod in back. The 1.9L cam-in-head I-4 motivated the car well, although it was a bit slower in a straight line than the BMW 2002. Note that I said straight line. Once the road curved, the Opel left the BMW, and everything else in that class, in the dust.

The Opel looked great, too. My bright orange Rallye model came with a blacked-out hood, fog lights (that were immediately changed to giant Cibie driving lights) and a simple, Spartan interior that sported all necessary gauges. The seats were better than most OE offerings of that day and were quite comfortable. If there was a cloud over Opel's U.S. presence, it was that they were sold by Buick dealerships that catered to people interested in cloud-soft behemoths built for silver-haired owners who couldn't afford Cadillac luxury. Most Buick dealers treated Opels with disdain.

My university had a sports car club, so I joined to participate in the autocrosses they put on. The Opel did surprisingly well, even with me, the off-roader, at the wheel. The SCCA had just started its Showroom Stock racing series, and the Manta was one of the cars allowed. Not for long, though. The Opel Manta did so well with its perfectly neutral handling, good brakes, and useable power, the SCCA banned it from competition to give other makes a chance to win.

That didn't stop the Opel from being a great car. I enjoyed it until I started trying to work on it. Jeeps were simple compared to this car (actually, Jeeps were simple). My fellow dorm residents laughed about seeing me working on the Manta with its hood up as I tried to fix something; then, seeing the car sitting there; then, seeing a tow truck towing it away to the Buick dealer.

Every time the Opel went to the dealer's service department, it returned more fouled up. Ultimately, I limped it home to Southern California and sold it. It had no heater, a wheezing, missing mill that needed a carburetor tune that no one, including myself, could get right, and numerous problems caused by the Buick dealership that had no idea how to fix a small German automobile.

The Opel Manta didn't deserve the lack of love it received in the U.S. from its dealerships. It was, and still is, a great car that was much better than its competition in the early 1970s, the beginning of a very bad time for the automobile. I can't remember all the vehicles I've owned, but my Opel Manta Rallye still holds a special place in my heart. Driving it was almost as fun as backcountry exploring.

Almost.

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