Anatomy Of A Star: 1991 Opel Astra

Twenty-five years ago, Opel launched the Astra F. As far as I can ascertain, this is the only place where you will find that event marked.

1991 Opel Astra: source
1991 Opel Astra: source

You might find it odd that DTW (or is it just me) continue to bang on the Astra drum. One reason that I like to draw people’s attention to this car is because the recognition of good design is often rendered harder by ancillary matters of fashion and consensus and I’d like people to see past that.

The received wisdom is that in the C-class the Golf is the gold medallist. The Golf has many positive attributes: often its quality of construction is superior to the average of the day; some versions are acknowledged driver’s cars; some versions are neatly designed. However, the Golf’s arch enemy, the Astra has lingered too long in the shadows of the Wolfsburg car and if you are blinded by consensus you are missing something lovely.

If we peel off our prejudices concerning Vauxhall and Opel and look with fresh eyes at the Astra F, it is at the least, every bit as thoughtfully styled as the Golf. It happens to be more beautiful.

1991 Opel Astra
1991 Opel Astra

A: The shut-line flows into the rear lamp, with radii at the top and bottom.

B: There’s a small negative surface above the sill that catches the light.

C: One neat feature line runs cleanly from front to rear lamps, angled at one or two degrees, with an inflection over the front wheel.

D: The famous Wayne Cherry rear wheel arch flare is dynamic.

E: The base of the side glass is subtly curved and flows clearly into the base of the rear-glass. BMW eventually managed to do this a few years later.

What isn’t apparent in the images here is the remarkable quality of the sculpting (the topmost image of the Dutch car is best). The front wing rolls over from the side to the top and at the same time makes an impeccable junction with the base of the A-pillar. This is a tricky area because of its consequences for the C-pillar.

1991 Opel Astra design analysis
1991 Opel Astra design analysis

Box 2 is about one third of box 1, probably at or near the golden section. A-B is angled parallel to C-D. Even if the A-pillar shoots ahead of the front axle-centre, you don’t see this in the metal because of the way the front wing flares. The apex of the red triangle is on top of the centre of the roof, but the roof crown is forward of this meaning it falls backward.

If the wing and A-pillar don’t join around the same plane (vertical, parallel to the car’s Y-axis) it tends to create problems back at the C-pillar: the Citroen C5 Mk1 is an example of fudging this, as is the Mk1 Megane. In the case of the Astra the C-pillar terminates in a neat crease aligned with the rear glass. It’s expertly handled.

Note the way the shutline for the tailgate flows down the C-pillar (without confusing it) and then around the tail-lamps. The Megane tried this a little while later and required a dent in the form to achieve it. All over the Astra there are neat flourishes that show up the rather stodgy way the Golf and the contemporary Escort handled similar details.

1983 Golf Mk2: classicandsportscar
1989 Golf Mk2: source

In order to like the Golf you have to like flat panels and what was a rather odd and obtrusive solution to the cant rail where the body sides meet the roof. Honda had this solved twenty years before. Also, there’s a crease on the C-pillar intersecting with the rear lower corner of the side glass. There’s not really very much there between the profile and the detailing. It’s not subtle. The selected image is flattering the banality of the mid-spec 1.4 Golfs everyone really bought.

Finding a nice profile of a Mk3/Mk4 Escort is not easy. Here’s the Merkenich interpretation of the C-class car.

Ford Escort Mark IV. Image: carandclassic

Seen against its competitors, the Astra offered a level of visual refinement this class of car was not used to seeing. It had the effect of making the 1988 Vectra A look incredibly plain and the Vectra B didn’t even match the Astra’s felicity of form, even if it improved on its predecessor and has held up very well.

Vectra A: timeless* autoevolution

I like to cite the work of David Pye, about why aesthetics matters in design. It’s because it makes us notice beauty. While the main aim of the Opel Astra F was to help Opel make money, the appearance of the car is invested with an enormous amount of care. This, in the end, dignifies the owner and makes for something better to look at on the street, whether you own one of the cars or not. The Escort and Golf were useful things, well-priced and generally made to an appropriate standard. What neither of them does is make you want to look at them for their own sake.

Opel Astra F seen in Denmark.

I might consider the Golf worth a look because they obviously insisted on an engineering style that eschewed prettiness. The Escort doesn’t even manage this, being one of Ford’s low creative points: they clearly didn’t want to waste time or effort showing us beauty. VW wanted to show us engineering. And whoever sculpted the Astra wanted to show us how something mundane like a family car could be lifted up and us with it. Happy birthday, Astra!

Author: richard herriott

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

30 thoughts on “Anatomy Of A Star: 1991 Opel Astra”

    1. A little, but not entirely. There’s a flimsiness to this Astra that I never liked, which partially appears to be going hand-in-hand with the faddish styling. The parents of some of my friends back at school used to own them in Caravan shape, and they were truly awful. Was the Astra F José Ignacio Lopez’s ‘masterpiece’?

  1. Thank you for that. Your design analyses really do help my seeing differently.
    Wouldn’t it be fairer to compare the Astra F to the Golf III?

    1. Definitely. As well as the ’91 Escort. The question is, would this change anything in comparison to the Astra?

      Sure, there is a slightly less flattish look on both of them than on the cars Richard presented here. But neither of them really is a highlight. The Golf looks somewhat odd between its rather architectural predecessor and successor. Ventures out of that topic never suited the Golf well (see also Golf V). And the Escort… It was so bad, it had to be thoroughly revised after only two years.

      Interestingly, I remember an article in a German magazine of the time which compared the Golf’s and the Astra’s design and rated the first one much higher – which is probably the mainstream opinion. I wonder if this article can still be found somewhere.

    2. The Golf III hasn’t aged gracefully, has it? And I’m not just referring to those cursed red examples, whose colour started to fade away weeks after delivery.

      The Golf II has an endearingly lumpen air of solidity to it, though. Was the Golf II Herbert Schäfer’s masterpiece?

  2. The Opel Kadett E (Vauxhall Astra mark 2) was also way ahead of the curve. Sure, the grey plastic bumpers faded within minutes of exposure to daylight, and the interior reeked of miserliness, but I was always impressed by the purity of the design. Very rorty engines too, I seem to remember.

  3. The Golf II was Herbert Schäfer´s masterpiece, I agree. And the ´91 Astra was the masterpiece of José Ignacio Lopez´ policy of replacing cheap parts by far more cheaper, often too cheap, parts….

    Concerning the design of the Astra, I remember that especially the Caravan version was very popular with young families here in Germany.- dued to its unexciting but elegant and nearly classless design. And also dued to the absence of competitors. Some years later, compact estate cars from Renault, Volkswagen, Skoda, Peugeot Citroen etc. and the new class of compact vans like the Renault Scenic were changing that soon. And the very poor quality of the Astra F combined with the nearly complete absence of rust-prophylaxe.

    1. My street is packed with Astras like this and no Golfs and but one Escort. What does that say about rust? None of them are very rusty either.

  4. I’m not sure if I could use the terms ‘Golf II’ and ‘masterpiece’ in one sentence. Solid, yes, it was and looked, but to me it remains a bloated rip-off of the original.

    1. Add ‘Herbert’ and ‘Schäfer’ to the sentence and it makes an awful lot of sense.

      In his honour, the German press invented the term ‘Heide-Design’ (moorland design), which poignantly encapsulates the petty bourgeois flair of Schäfer’s creations. Mind you, he and Giugiaro are the ONLY people in the whole wide world who know how to design a Golf!

    2. Yes, I’ve read about Heide-Design before. Was the Passat from around 1980 also his work? I recently saw a scan of a road test where this Passat was compared to the Citroën BX (amobg others). It became immediately visible how awful and disproportionate this car was – even the Audi 80 it was based on looked better by far.

  5. Interesting to read other perspectives. I have always felt that this version of the Astra is the car that the Austin Maestro would have been had Roy Axe (or any other recognised designer) had a proper opportunity to ‘smooth it out’ (Axe always described the LM10 (Maestro) and LM11 (Montego) as being ‘spiky’). I still think the Mk1 was the cleanest Astra by a mile and rather liked the GTE (but then, I was probably about 12 when the latter was launched).

  6. Daniel: I’m glad you liked it. I looked at some recent cars and thought it would be very hard to dissect them in the same way.
    Kris: by flimsy do you mean visual or weight flimsiness? If it’s the former I find it hard to see. The surfaces are full enough and the radii well judged (not too sharp). It is meatier than the Golf and far more refined than Ford’s farm appliance.

    Vis a vis rust: Denmark’s salty roads kill cars. The Astræ I’ve inspected have held up well. There are lots left – doesn’t that mean the rust protection was sufficient?

    Simon: bloated is quite a good description. Can I add “heavy” to the charge sheet along with crude?

    1. I liked your piece. Still not entirely convinced about the car it was pointed at though…

    2. The Astra has a slightly tip-toey stance (like a more common Jaguar X300/X100) and, in my humble opinion, doesn’t appear to be as visually solid as its contemporary rivals. Maybe my view is tainted, as I experienced the car first hand on regular occasions and always perceived it as being, well, flimsy.
      As far as styling details go, it’s no worse than its rivals, but its stance is one of a 1980s, rather than a ’90s car.

      But, as I’ve stated time and again, I realised that this was the car to seriously damage Opel’s reputation in Germany, even as a child/teenager. Most owners later on bought VAG cars instead. Especially the Skoda Octavia owes quite a share of its success to the Opel’s shortcomings. This was a car that drove some truly allegiant costumers into the hands of the competition.

    3. i read stories about shocked Opel-workers when they saw what cheap new production parts they got to built an Opel Kadett, Astra, Omega and Vectra out of them. So they must have been very pleased to see this picture a few years later:

      Did not start the production of the Astra G was delayed because Opel and the suppliers were not so quickly able to find the way back to more quality….

  7. The RAC sum up the Astra as a well built family car that’s stable and safe. Honest John praises the engines and ride
    Where does the truth lie between the received wisdom and the RAC?

    1. Compared with a Ford Escort of 1990, every other car have a fine ride and a good engine…

    2. My knowledge is of both the second-hand and the empirical kind, so maybe it was just that my friends’ parents got unlucky and received lemons, but this certainly was the car with which Opel’s image crisis began to spread.

      I also know a businessman who runs a company that had to use Opels because they were a big client. Starting with this Astra, he turned into a very reluctant costumer and started including both VAG cars and Fords in his fleet, as the Opels had become so unreliable that it had an effect on his employees’ morale.
      Even the Insignia – I hate to say, for I’m really fond of it – was plagued by electronic gremlins, at least in pre-facelifted form, but than again that could be considered almost an industry norm in this day and age.

    3. Anecdotally, I know of one person who traded in their mark 2 Astra for a mark 3 and regretted it. Towards the end of the three year warranty the lacquer started flaking from the leading edge of the bonnet, exposing the paint layers underneath. Clearly there was either something wrong with the paint formulation or the substrate it was applied to, as pretty soon the whole surface of the bonnet was discoloured and pealing away. Vauxhall had none of it, claiming the damage was caused maliciously or by exposure to contamination. The poor guy ended up paying to have a new bonnet sprayed up, then flogging the Astra. After that he bought Japanese, and I don’t blame him one iota.

  8. The Ignacio Lopez angle is interesting: he mangled Opel before going on to damage VW.
    After all this discussion I am inclined to think Opel’s problems weren’t in engineering but marketing and fluffy stuff related to branding. With my Vauxhall-hating glasses off I can’t see anything truly bad about their cars. Every dud like the Sintra can be matched with duds from Ford and VW: Fusion, Probe, Cougar, Phaeton, Golf Mk3, Eos. While Clarkson hated it, hundreds of thousands of Vectra Bs found buyers. Maybe that’s the car that most did most damage due to problems like the 6 hour gearbox repair or the stodgy handling.

  9. I had a maroon 5 door hatchback back in mid 90’s. When you say flimsy, I bounced mine off a grass bank in icy weather, spun 360 degrees and needed a moment or two to collect myself and next weeks washing. Once calm, I checked the car, fell over on the ice and found no damage whatsoever. In fact the only problem with that Astra was the occasional engine “hunting” from cold starts. it would rev like mad at the first set of lights and then run fine. I kept this car for a good three to four years when I thought I could move up in the world by getting a VW. But that’s another story and not a happy ending

  10. Thankyou very much for recognising the design attributes of this great little car. I have always thought the design to be attractively cohesive, clean and well thought out. I have also never seen the type F design attributed to any particular person before now, unlike many others. Even the model which superceded it, the ghastly, tip-toed, slab-sided, hump-backed, cross-eyed type G, is claimed on Wikipedia by Hans Seer (for whatever purpose that might be.)

    I don’t think the Astra F should not be compared to the Mk2 Golf or Mk3 Escort, but to their respective successors, each one of which was perfectly dull by the standards back then and also today. I also think that if you had used a picture of a more equivalent upper-tier model Astra for your photo comparison above your design analysis would sell itself a bit better.

    Unlike most experts I can speak from actual ownership experience. We replaced a mk3 Escort just like your photo with a 1.8 Astra Sport. It was solidly built and never let us down over 100,000 miles, the dash materials felt upmarket and it never rusted. I think the only fault was a crank sensor. I had a Calibra 4×4 Turbo at the time (the Astra was my wife’s) and I secretly always enjoyed the Astra more for its driving position and wheel-at-each-corner chickability. It was even as good and the Calibra in snow, despite 2 less driven wheels. We would have kept it longer had my wife not bumped it, and it was never the same after the insurance repaired it with inferior pattern parts.

    Its now 30 years on and still I see very little enthusiasm on the classic market for the type F, except perhaps the top flight GSi. Occasionally a nicely specced low mileage CD model will be exhumed from some sadly-departed old gentleman’s garage, and they get snapped up, but incredibly in todays over-exaggerated and bloated classic car world a few hundred quid will still get you a useable mid-range shunter. I’d personally pay good money to find another mint condition Sport.

  11. PS for the above, substitute Escort Mk3 with Escort Mk4. So many facelifts!

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