In 160 Years, This Automaker Made Everything From Sewing Machines to Rockets

If you are old enough, you might remember that there was a time when Opel used to sell cars in the U.S. Still, their weak engines and tiny vehicles made it withdraw from the American market, even though it had GM's backup. Nevertheless, its history is not as mundane as you might think.
First rocket-powered aircraft 21 photos
160 years of innovation at Opel160 years of innovation at OpelOpel Motor Plow160 years of innovation at OpelOpel cork machineOpel heavy lift160 years of innovation at Opel160 years of innovation at Opel160 years of innovation at Opel160 years of innovation at Opel160 years of innovation at Opel160 years of innovation at Opel160 years of innovation at Opel1899 Opel Doktorwagen1901 Opel winning carFirst rocket-powered aircraft160 years of innovation at Opel160 years of innovation at OpelOpel RAK.2 on railway tracks160 years of innovation at Opel
In January 1862, in Rüsselsheim, Germany, Adam Opel established a company focused on building sewing machines. He, actually, didn't live to see his company being transformed into an automaker. But he started an evolution, and in 1886 he started to sell high-wheel bicycles. Before that, in 1885, at the suggestion of winegrowers, Adam Opel created a machine that put corks onto bottles of wine. He was also involved in the wine industry and seized the opportunity to create such devices.

Unfortunately, these "capsuleers" (cork machines) were only seasonal needed. For the rest of the year, bicycles and sewing machines made the largest part of the company's income. But he still kept it until his death in 1895. His wife and sons sold the cellar machines business to two of their employees, Blöcher and Lorenz, who successfully continued the production of the already famous "Opel cork machines."

Four years after Adam Opel's death, his wife and sons entered into a partnership with a locksmith named Friedrich Lutzmann, who dreamed of becoming a carmaker. Thus, in the spring of 1899, they produced the first vehicle named "Opel patent motor car 'System Lutzman." Unfortunately, it wasn't a successful vehicle since they only sold 65 units in three years. But in 1901, such a vehicle won the Heidelberg-Königstuhl "Mountain Race," leaving 16 other well-known German automakers in the dust.

1901 Opel winning car
In 1901, Opel mixed the bicycles that it knew with the internal combustion engines that it developed, thus creating its first motorbike. Or, to respect the company's moniker, "Motorzweirad," which translates into motorized two-wheeler. Even though its tiny engine produced just one and three-quarters horsepower, it could take its rider up to 40 kph (25 mph). It was an instant success, and other motorized two-wheelers followed until 1930. The decision to pull the plug on this business was made by General Motors, who took the majority of stakes in Adam Opel A.G. In 1929.

In 1909, the automaker launched the Opel 4/8 PS Doktorwagen. It was an affordable vehicle that quickly gained traction on the market. Suddenly, owning a motorcar was no longer something reserved just for the rich and famous of the day. That was a hit! But, inspired by the desire for innovation from the company's founder, the automaker also produced a motor plow in 1911. It was a gigantic vehicle with steel wheels powered by a ten-liter (610 cu-in), 60 PS (59 hp) engine. Behind the massive powerplant, Opel installed a metallic structure to plow the land. Unfortunately, there were not enough customers for this kind of vehicle in the Rhine-Main region, and the company was not big enough to promote its revolutionary product in other countries. Then, WWI started, and the production of this colossus was ditched.

After the turn of the century, in 1903, two American brothers flew for the first time. Soon, other aviation pioneers started to spread their wings, and soon, aviation became the new trending challenge. Opel created a 65 hp, water-cooled, inline-four engine. It weighed 130 kilograms (286 lbs), which was a performance for those times. In 1911, the first aircraft fitted with this powerplant took off from Darmstadt airport. Sophie Opel, the widow of Adam Opel, and her five sons attended the event.

The biplane was also noticed by Prince Heinrich of Prussia and Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, who were there when the flight happened. Thus, Opel also became an aviation engine producer. However, it was focused more on designing than building. It sold patents to Argus and BMW for the Type As III O and Type IIIa O, respectively. The "O" in the designation came from Opel. Toward the end of WWI, the engineers from Rüsselsheim designed a 200 hp, nine-cylinder (star configuration) aviation engine. But that never entered production.

160 years of innovation at Opel
During the Weimar Republic times that started after WWI, Opel turned its attention to the film industry. At that time, cinemas were also places where people gathered to see what happened worldwide, and the automaker sponsored news compilations. Of course, among various events, the automaker also showed daredevil stunts made with Opel-badged vehicles.

And if you think that Opel didn't dream higher, you're wrong. One of Adam Opel's grandsons, Fritz von Opel, started the first rocket program in the world. He started low with the Opel RAK.1 – a rocket-powered car that reached just a mere 100 kph (62 mph) in April 1928. Then, noticing that the vehicle needed a smoother surface to run, he turned his attention to the railway tracks. Eventually, in May 1928, a rocket car reached 238 kph (145 mph) on tracks.

But the most significant success came in June 1928 when two rockets powered an aircraft that flew for about 4,900 ft (1,500 m) on its maiden flight. On the second try, though, one of the rockets exploded. Fortunately, the pilot was able to land the plane and escape. Thus, he opened the door to a new era of rocket-powered aircraft that led, eventually to Apollo missions. But that's another story for another time.

Opel also created what we would call today a forklift, albeit they named it differently back in 1936. It was a lifting transporter that could take a three-ton (2.2-ton U.S.) payload and raise them up to two meters (6.6 ft). In the same period, Opel created one of the most successful trucks in Europe, the Blitz.

Opel RAK\.2 on railway tracks
You might never think that in some of the roots of the space programs and rockets, there's a humble, former sewing machine maker by the name of Opel.

press release

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