Opel GT: The European Baby Corvette That Thrived in the US During the Muscle Car Era

Although small and underpowered, the first-generation Opel GT was a gorgeous, Corvette-inspired lightweight sports car that delivered a thrilling driving experience.
Opel GT 12 photos
Photo: Opel
Opel GTOpel GTOpel GTOpel GTOpel GTOpel GTOpel GTOpel GTOpel Experimental GT PrototypeOpel Experimental GT PrototypeOpel GT and a Buck Riviera
During the 1950s and 1960s, many European manufacturers, particularly those in the UK, started developing small and somewhat affordable vehicles that gave the masses a pure sports car experience.

The Lotus Seven is the most famous example, followed by models like the Austin-Healey Sprite, MG Midget, or the larger AC Ace contributed to the rise in popularity of such cars, and soon other companies that weren’t known for building sports cars decided to enter this market segment.

One of these companies was Opel, a German division of General Motors, which made a name for itself by offering cheaper alternatives to the sedans and wagons produced by the likes of Mercedes-Benz or BMW.

It all started with a successful concept car

Opel Experimental GT Prototype
Photo: Opel
The idea of developing a small, two-seat sports car sprung up during the early-1960s and led to a series of sketches from Opel’s top designers. The one submitted by Erhard Schnell was awe-inspiring, so management greenlighted the creation of a fully functional prototype.

Initially, the vehicle dubbed Experimental GT was conceived as a show car, and the company had no serious plans to mass produce it. Seemingly inspired by Larry Shinoda’s timeless Corvette Mako Shark II concept, the GT’s strengths were a lightweight chassis, sophisticated aerodynamics, and a beefed-up four-cylinder carried over from the Rekord.

This combination was meant to prove that a small, lightweight sports car with a modest engine can be just as thrilling to drive as a bigger, V8-powered Corvette.

Opel showcased its latest creation at the 1965 Paris and Frankfurt motor shows, where the GT became a star. Both enthusiasts and the motoring press were in awe of the concept, demanding a production version. Encouraged by the overwhelmingly-positive reception, management eventually gave the nod, and after about two years of further development, the GT hit the streets as Opel’s new flagship model.

A gorgeous example of aerodynamic efficiency

Opel GT
Photo: Opel
Like the show car, the production version was built around a steel unibody chassis. The suspension was nothing revolutionary, consisting of independent A-arms up front and transverse leaf springs with a live axle for the rear - a setup very similar to that of the C3 Corvette.

The GT also featured power brakes with ventilated discs behind the front wheels, while conventional drums were used to stop the rears. Steering was unassisted, but thanks to the low weight and near-perfect weight distribution, the car didn’t require much effort to steer at low speeds.

The elegant bodywork - fabricated in France by coachbuilders Brissonneau & Lotz – retained the impressive aerodynamic efficiency of the show car, attaining a drag coefficient of 0.41. For comparison, the C3 Corvette coupe - which was also extensively tested in the wind tunnel - had a drag coefficient of 0.44.

Two modest engine options

Opel GT
Photo: Opel
To keep development and production costs low, the GT carried over many components from existing Opel models, including the two powerplants it could be equipped with. The standard trim, dubbed GT 1100, came with an economical 1.1-liter four-cylinder rated at 67 hp (70 PS). But, the much more popular GT 1900 offered a bigger, 1.9-liter four-pot that was good for 102 hp (103 PS). Both engines were linked to a 4-speed manual as standard, but a 3-speed automatic became optional for the 1900.

The GT seemed like a lawnmower compared to its famous American sibling, which had a 300-hp base engine. However, it was about 1,322 pounds (600 kg) lighter and only about four seconds slower from 0 to 60 mph (97 kph) than the Stingray.

This wasn’t bad considering that the GT was a fuel-efficient, entry-level sports car that has never meant to go head-to-head with the likes of the V8-powered Corvette.

On a positive note, the engines were placed behind the front axle in a mid-ship position, drastically improving weight distribution.

Crossing the Atlantic

Opel GT and a Buck Riviera
Photo: Opel
Elegant, nimble, and affordable, the Opel GT was an instant hit in Europe, encouraging GM decision-makers to bring it to American shores in the fall of 1970. It was sold through Buick dealerships with a sticker price of $3,395 ($29,446 today), which made it around $1,000 cheaper than a base Stingray.

American automotive publications tested the car extensively, but the reviews weren’t as encouraging as Opel had hoped. All the major magazines criticized the car’s tendency to understeer, but this didn’t have a negative impact on sales. Owners soon realized that increasing the tire pressure or replacing the narrow stock wheels with wider ones drastically improved handling and made the GT as thrilling to drive as a much more expensive sports car.

The tiny but mighty two-seater was manufactured from 1968 to 1973. In total, 103,373 GTs left the Opel plant in Bochum, West Germany, and about 70,000 of them found a home on the other side of the Atlantic.

This was an outstanding feat, considering it came over during the height of the muscle car era when buyers were drawn to high-horsepower machines. The GT was one of the most intriguing entry-level European sports cars available back then, proving that it could hang with the big boys in the highly-contested American market of the early-1970s.

The fist-gen Opel GT today

Opel GT
Photo: Opel
Today, younger enthusiasts who hear about the Opel GT often think about the second generation, a badge-engineered version of the Saturn Sky. The original GT has been forgotten – somewhat unfairly, I would say – and that translates to a low value on the classic car market.

Its average value currently stands around $15,000, about $10,000 less than what an example of the grossly underpowered, late-1970s C3 Stingray demands. On the bright side, this makes it a classic sports car that any average enthusiast can afford.

Though it has its flaws, the first-generation Opel GT is still a wonderful pocket-sized sports car with a gorgeous, aerodynamically-efficient body that’s guaranteed to make you smile.

If you would like to learn more about this fascinating little ride, I recommend watching the YouTube video below by Boca Brothers Classic Cars.

If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram X (Twitter)
About the author: Vlad Radu
Vlad Radu profile photo

Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories