The Long Shadows of the Past

The Ascona C (1980-1988) has cast a long shadow over Opel. Is this the car that created the persistent impression of dullness that tarnishes the Opel badge?

1983 Opel Ascona

Today’s inspiration is an Opel Ascona 2-door saloon, spotted in the north of Aarhus. The recent resurgence (maybe that’s only in my own mind) of Opel has made me reconsider where, precisely, it all went wrong for Adam Opel AG. Lying on my psychiatrist’s couch I turned over my impressions and images of Opel.

Under the rubble and tattered shreds of half-memories, I found this car. The Ascona is the car that more than any other Opel product, shaped my attitude to the firm as a maker of vehicles soaked in mediocrity. That and perhaps the Opel Omega A (1986-1993) which in the land of my youth was sold in fade-prone red with spartan grey cloth upholstery. The Ascona seemed only to come in beige with faded grey plastic trim.

It was a ubiquitous car and one which dominates my memories of that period and which I think was the vehicle that cemented in people’s mind the fixed idea of Opel as being somehow more boring than Ford and less enduring than VW. So what is it about the Ascona “C” that offends? If you compare it with its predecessor, it looks much cheaper. This effect stems from the sharp folds of the pressings compared with the rounded corners of the predecessor.

The Omega “B”, while being in many ways a commendably correct piece of industrial design also looked flimsier and cheaper than the Rekord which preceded it. The Ascona also, especially in its last iterations, has a curiously over-wrought Art Deco effect suggested by the number of grooves on the plastic trim. The interiors came in some very dreary shades too: beige, pale blue, and possibly, grey. So, my memory of the car has coloured my feelings of later Opels.

1983 OPEL-Ascona-C--1983-
A 1983 Ascona interior: not beige, grey or light blue.

In this time of revision – and looking at the orange example – I realise that the Ascona wasn’t as bad as I had remembered it and, having looked at other cars from the same period and same class, it was really no worse than their own decontended, cost-cut, recession-years finishes. Turning this around and looking at it another way, the interesting thing (if you find this kind of thing interesting) is that I remember this car with a vividness out of all proportion to the dullness of its hues. I can’t recall anything of the Cortinas and Renault 12s that did battle with this device for space on the streets of Dublin.

The other odd thing is that, in Denmark at least, the Ascona is a survivor. Its peers are gone. For some reason people here are keeping battered cars like this going. Around the corner is a really dented and rusted ’88 base model Omega (no rear armrest). Someone likes this car in the way they don’t cherish the Granada, Renault 20, CX or Nissan Laurel.

The initial reviews of the Ascona, a GM J-car were very positive. I won’t dig out the quotes from Car or Autocar but they liked this car and I can only say the copy glowed: spacious, fast and well-priced, they said. The car was front drive, even if it looked like the rear-wheel drive “B”. The Germans made the Ascona a best-seller too, the best-selling car in Germany. It was not a Golf.

The Irish went for them as well but only so as to expose the Ascona’s frail bodywork to rust and dents. We didn’t know Ascona was a ritzy lakeside resort in Switzerland. What went wrong for the Ascona was its ubiquity and the fact it was touched by the dead-hand of GM head office in Detroit. The same bodyshell was used for grade A rubbish like the Chevrolet Cavalier, Oldsmobile Firenza, Cadillac Cimarron and the Buick Skyhawk. Had the Ascona been designed in Germany for the European market it would very likely have been a more solidly considered item.

1983 Ford Cortina 1.6 L. Is this more exciting than an Ascona?
1983 Ford Cortina 1.6 L. Is this more exciting than an Ascona?

Opel is, I believe, coming out of the doldrums with a quite consistent range of well-styled and well-made cars, putting them back to where they were when they had solid products like the Monza, Senator, Rekord and Kadett in the 1970s. The story reaches a neat conclusion with the happy fact that the Astra, in my view one of Europe’s best looking mid-sized cars, is the basis for the Buick Verano which is outselling vehicles from Honda and Toyota and Ford with a blend of good pricing, good performance, use of Buick’s skill at refinement and interior design. So, the sins of the J-body ought by now to be forgotten, leaving us with a clearer picture of what Opel really means.

2012 Buick Verano

Above: 2012 Buick Verano interior

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

8 thoughts on “The Long Shadows of the Past”

  1. It’s funny how a name makes a difference. I really like Cortina d’Ampezzo and its surroundings, but I will forever connect it with a tacky Ford. However the similarly pleasant town of Ascona isn’t sullied in my eyes because I, of course, think of this car as The Cavalier. I have owned two of the Vauxhalls of this period, its smaller cousin The Astra and its larger, The Carlton, both estates. I liked them both, since they were both very honest cars. The Astra (Kadett E), in particular, had been abused before I bought it, yet it went on to perform sterling service. It never asked to be loved or cleaned, it put up with my sometimes excessive driving style and only succumbed when it was taken without owner’s consent to rob a sub Post Office. The row of gold teeth meant that the perpetrator faced justice, but not before he’d totalled the Astra beyond reasonable repair. It was replaced by a Carlton (Omega A) which boasted air-conditioning, automatic transmission, abs, power steering and nothing else. It was spacious enough, comfortable enough and handled well enough. I never had great expectations of either car, and they both surprised and impressed in their modest way. Today a car that just gets on with its job is not enough.

    The mention of VW build quality reminds me that, in the Beetle’s heyday, it was correctly viewed as reasonably idiosyncratic. Its engine was in the wrong place, it was air cooled, it was oddly shaped, etc… Also, it was well-built and, in a way, this was just another eccentricity. Why make a disposable item so well? Only Japanese cars ever seemed to get the well-made-but-disposable thing right. Three years, trouble-free with a happy owner, from new. Three more years, without even an oil check, doing minicab service. Then they just disappeared. Except for that Datsun 100A.

  2. The German perspective of someone who developed a basic grasp of the automotive landscape during the 1990s was thus: at the beginning of the decade, Opel was considered to be pretty much at eye level with VW. The boys and girls of Rüsselsheim were, if anything, seen as the more modern one of the two producers of people’s cars, thanks to some fairly advanced engineering and more cutting edge styling (think “aero” Vectra/Calibra). VWs were rather dusty in comparison, despite the Passat B3’s ill-advised attempt at modernity. This was also the era of the Golf III, which famously introduced Volkswagen to the concept of quality issues – the Opel Astra F’s tinny appearance therefore wasn’t much of an issue at first, which couldn’t be said about VW’s very late adoption of airbags as standard specification (or the Euro vs. US airbag debate). The cuddly Corsa B also became a smash success, while the Polo II appeared very creaky by the time its overdue replacement arrived.

    All things considered, Opel was in pretty good shape at the time which, in retrospect, was the period when the seeds of all future troubles had been sowed. The Astra F certainly got a reputation for shoddiness that put the Golf III’s in its shadow (its higher number of airbags presumably didn’t matter anymore once it had developed an intimate relationship with the local Opel dealership’s garage). And pretty much all new Opel models subsequently brought to the market suffered from similar issues – and boy did they look insubstantial in all their ’90s soft design glory! The Astra G and Vectra C of course tried to rectify that with styling so bourgeois, it should have come with mandatory grey orthopaedic shoes for the driver – but even that couldn’t prevent these cars from also quickly gaining quite a reputation for substandard engineering. Yet Opel’s nadir certainly came in the amorphous shape of the Sintra, which must rank among the worst cars of all time, if period reports regarding reliability, quality and crash test performance are to be believed. The Sintra formed the subsoil of the deep pit from which Opel has since tried to escape.

    Today, I believe, they are finally seeing some rays of light again.

  3. Is there, or indeed could there ever be such a thing as automotive natural selection? A sort of Darwinian thread that links those cars that have, despite everything, become survivors. What links them? Longevity, I suppose. Durability too, and some other more amorphous qualities that impel their owners to hold onto them and keep them going, long after their contemporaries have been reduced to squashed cubes. How many Sierra’s do we see in daily use any more?

    As mentioned above, the Ascona survived, as have contemporaries like the 700-series Volvos, yet the expensively galvanised Audi’s of the same era have largely disappeared. Was it the cost of repair? Were Audi’s more fragile? It was this phenomenon I attempted to partially address in the Durable car piece, posted back in December. But on the flip side of that argument, why retain a bland old car, (like this Ascona) when newer (possibly nicer) cars can be purchased second-hand for a pittance? Romance? Nostalgia? Fear of change? None of the above?

    These cars are a dying breed however. I contend that there is a year zero, beyond which the modern car became inexorably disposable. On current evidence, I’d put it at about the turn of the century. So within a time period from, lets say, 1995 -2001 there was a sweet-spot where most cars had become pretty reliable, generally rust resistant and well assembled, yet were still relatively free from electronic overkill.

    On this basis, I think it’s quite unlikely we’ll see any Insignia’s knocking about in 2044.

  4. How interesting is the range of estimates for when it went wrong for Opel. To recap, I feel it´s the moment when the Ascona C in beige, with faded grey trim became the epitome of their output. Others suggest it´s the period of the Astra F (1991-1998 model) and the Sintra. I think Sean is hinting it was the Carlton´s adequacy (and nothing more) that did it. Conveivably, it was the entire period, 1980-1990-something when most of the their cars lacking that critical something that Ford had stumbled upon and which VW had safely riveted into its identity. That said, with the exception of the Sintra, much of what Opel was making often was no worse than and often better looking than its peers´ output. The Astra F is a car which manages to find a very convincince middle way between the blandness of the last Escort and the spartan characterlessness of the equivalent Golf. Wearing my industrial designer´s hat, the Astra F has a very internally conistent form language. And if you should see one under a single neon strip light, the sculpting is first rate and subtly rich. The Omega was rated as having a better ride than its competitors and being the equal of a BMW 5 in many areas, for much less money. And so on. The core of the matter is how Opel managed to underplay their talents so consistently while VW, for example, leveraged their average skills so well and Ford had to employ real genius with the Focus, Ka and Mondeo to turn their luck.

  5. In the case of the Carlton, I really don’t view ‘adequate’ as pejorative in any way. If one could have rated the Carlton objectively, based on how it performed (comfort, load carrying, reliability, value for money, etc) it would have had a pretty high score. At the time, as a general purpose work vehicle and a car I sometimes used personally, it did everything required of it. It made no attempt to impress in those areas in which it didn’t deliver, it didn’t pretend to be a ‘Ringwagen or a fashion object. Today it’s different and many people will put up with overall inadequacy (again, not meant pejoratively, just suggesting that in certain areas such as headroom and ride comfort there might be compromises) as long as the car excels in specifics (for example your kids think you’re cool – or at least pretend to).

    Vauxhall (and, because I’m going back now, this doesn’t necessarily include Opel) have always had a problem in people’s perceptions. I’d consider the late 60s early 70s Viva and Victor better styled cars than their Escort and Cortina contemporaries, and no worse to drive (which is faint praise indeed), yet the Fords have always had the better image. Only in the 90s, when Parry-Jones got to work, did Fords really become a significantly better prospect than equivalent GM products, and then maybe only to ‘drivers’. But they also became better than various other brands. The 90s Audi I now drive, though transformed through 4WD and a fancy engine, is basically a worse engineered car than the Mark 1 Mondeo I used to drive. I imagine the same could be said of today’s equivalents, but which brand would most people choose as their company car these days?

  6. A WhatCar? comparison test from February 1980 has landed on my desk. The Vauxhall Royale (an Opel Senator “A” with a fake British accent) did battle with what I regard as the best rear-drive, V6, five-seater saloon ever made, the Peugeot 604, the Renault 30 TX and Ford´s Granada “S”.

    Further to Sean Patrick´s remarks, the car won the test, being described as “very good but not outstanding. It proves how good results can be achieved through simple honest engineering, the excellent ride/handling compromise being a case in point. It´s a car that commands respect rather than generating excitement, a formula that has proved so successful for the Royale´s closest equivalent, the Mercedes-Benz”. Could you write that today? Intriguingly, the Ford is rated in the same review as a bit of a driver´s car and something of a technical marvel what with its use of TRX tyres which allowed extremely precise steering. At the time the writers saw Ford trying to gun for BMW and Opel gunning for Mercedes. Absent from the party is Audi.

  7. Lately there has been a discussion about what do with Vauxhall in the UK. This discussion, to my surprise is not new. As far back as 1981, “Car” reported that Vauxhall dealers wanted a dual range of brands: Vauxhall would start at the small Kadett and extend up to the Cavalier and thereafter Rekords, Monzas and Senators would be sold as Opels, That might have been an interesting solution. The other aspect of my reading is the esteem Opel was held in. The Kadett was, for example, a well-regarded car, and the Senator was praised for its Mercedes-like thoroughness.

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