Within The Bounds Of Reason Are The Chains of Freedom

An Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon, Cadillac Eldorado, a 1991 Buick Roadmaster, a Chevrolet Nova, some Mustangs, an El Camino. Those were a few of the older cars I saw on a recent trip to Sweden. Most exciting was this Opel Ascona 1.6 C automatic (1981-1984)…

Opel Ascona “B” 1.6 DL automatic

The Ascona C followed on the delightfully flat heels of the Kadett as Opel’s second front-wheel drive car. While the Ascona C sold very, very well there was also some selling of the Ascona’s soul involved too. The predecessor could easily make a good claim to be quite a sporty car, one model of which had a 2.4 litre engine, the 2.4 E. (I expect you all knew this already).

Instead, the “C” majored on packaging efficiency what with its front wheel drive arrangement and slabbier form. Like the Opel Rekord “D” we discussed recently (the interest was remarkable), the Ascona here is very much out of the brutalist school of industrial design

The body turned out as something of a corporate compromise since much the same shell served GM all around the world: nine other badges adorned the bootlid. Worst of them wasn’t the Cimarron but the awful 1981-1989 Buick Skyhawk, worst because it managed to attract customers and discredit the Buick name while the Cimarron had a shorter life and was obviously appalling. The most distinctive thing about the Ascona must be its DLO and this feature seems to be have been a constant of all the badge engineering variants.

It’s the Opel version I like the best, naturally: it’s the Ur-Ascona from which all the others were spawned. Like the Rekord it mostly rolled out of the showrooms as a base-esque models (see below, an exception).

1982 Opel Ascona; source

Whatever they did sell, beige has survived as the most common colour (for the Rekord D, blue or white). This colour colours our impressions of the car, no? Imagine it then in black or dark red and undraped with car seat covers. Or like this rarity:

1984 Opel Ascona C: source

Give it a 2.0 litre engine**, a five-speed gearbox, paint it black with dark grey cloth. You never see that combination. They are always as spartan as a mid-spec Corsa.

If only Opel had retained the sporting character of the previous version not watered it down so much. If Opel’s image for drabness (quite out of proportion to their few corporate sins) stems from one car, it’s the Ascona C, something fundamentally to do with the beige and white examples that littered the streets of early 90s.

Before closing, we should remember that the Ascona in all its angular glory competed with the ultra smooth Sierra (1982 onwards), the semi-round Renault 18 (1978 onwards), angular Citroen BX (1982 onwards) and presumably lesser versions of the compoundedly subtle BMW 3-series (E30, from 1982).  That’s quite a diverse range of shapes, isn’t it? In that context the Ascona is not so strange because they all seem to be distinctive designs.

** The 2.0 engine came late in the Ascona C’s life, two years befor it was replaced.

Author: richard herriott

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

24 thoughts on “Within The Bounds Of Reason Are The Chains of Freedom”

  1. Higher specs were not that rare in Switzerland, as usual. They used to be driven mostly by elderly people who could afford more than the base model (remember the discussion about rear door openings at the Rekord). The practicality of the hatchback version also helped to sell this car well. Sportiness probably wasn’t a criterion for the target audience described here.

    Neat, but boring, was the impression I got from this car. When I was a young driver I learned to avoid at all cost to drive behind one of these. Usually they were incredibly slow and further slowed down at every curve.

    1. That probably reflects CH´s higher level of economic development compared to rainy, pebble-dashed Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s. I found a version of this car on-line with chrome-trimmed DLO and velour inside. If there was a difference between this and a base-model 3-er, it was that base model 3 looked pretty decent whereas Opel made sure you were reminded of your financial hardship every time you saw the car. In higher specs it´s a nice-looking and credible vehicle.

  2. The Ascona C / Cavalier was facelifted in 1984 and hung around until 1988. They were hugely popular with the fleet market in the UK and were the standard unmarked police car used by the Metropolitan police; made easier to spot by using the registration prefix PUV. Early 80’s base and L models were often graced with pale snot green paintwork.

  3. I recall with fondness, the hatchback dual coloured SRI trim which any aspiring sales manager in the Uk had to have. A light metallic blue shade above the waistline with black below was my favourite colour scheme with styled wheel trims to match. I can’t quite remember but it may have had a burberryesque seat pattern as well. I think the hatchback was unique to Europe.

    1. This one?

      I can definitely see the appeal.

    2. Agreed, the higher-spec models were very appealing. I always thought the hatchback looked the better styled version. Was Vauxhall first to paint the lower-body Anthracite? I know Austin Rover did similar, but I always assumed they were copying Vauxhall. It became quite popular in the 1980’s.

    3. I think Vauxhall were first and AustinRover aped it on some run out special edition Montegos and Maestros. Of course some historians might disagree and cite the 1963/64 Vanden Plass 4 litre R but it was hardly a mass market offering! Ford also did it on various Escorts I recall but again I’m sure it was after Vauxhall.

  4. The Ascona C also and predominantly competed against Passat B2/Audi 80 B2 which weren’t exactly masterpieces of desing, either.
    VW sold 3.3 million of these Passats and Opel 1.7 million Ascona Cs. Even BMW sold around 1.3 million E21.
    These numbers show that Opel was slowly losing the plot at that time which wasn’t the fault of the Ascona C alone.
    The time of sneeze factor steering and engine response that gave the impression that a string of chewing gum was used instead of a throttle cable was definitely over. Even if Passat and Audi 80 weren’t exactly dream cars for young people Opel’s deliberate targeting of elderly people somehow rendered their products unfashionable.

    1. I seem to recall the Vauxhall Cavalier was actually quite quick for its engine size, producing quite impressive bhp figures (bhp being the yardstick by which I judged a car at this time). Vauxhall were focused on the company car market in the UK, not the elderly, and in the UK the Cavalier was seen as being somewhat radical after years of Cortinas! Perhaps I moved in the wrong circles back then.

  5. Please do write an article on the signature Opel DLO, I’d say it was their most recognizable feature thought the seventies to the nineties. As seen on the Rekord E and Omega A, and the Kadett D and E.

    The biggest mystery is the Ascona, which really is a bastard of its own kind. It retained the doors of the American J-car with its hofmeister kink, going completely against Opels own design language. While the Germans managed to get its own longer boot as they thought the rear deck on the American car was too short, thus obliterating the rationale of having a world car in the first place.

    Now here’s where the story gets really confusing and interesting, look at the Isuzu version of the J-Car and tell me if the Florian Aska isn’t the discarded Ascona proposal? Look at the rear door side treatment and tell me it isn’t the trademarked Opel DLO? Where it retained the short rear deck of the American car but got its own trademarked door.

    I see before me a drama of King Learic proportions in the global GM corporate drama where the Germans could have one thing and not the other and choose the other. This is pure speculation but I bet they had to choose between either a longer rear deck or their own separate doors, because of production cost they couldn’t have both. So that’s why the Ascona had doors that differed from the common design language and that’s why GM dumped the discarded car on the Japanese. Why they even bothered boggles my mind, it must’ve been cheaper to produce one in the myriad of J-cars they already had in line.

  6. These looked incredibly dated when the Sierra came out, which I suppose is a shame as they were FWD and had better engines than the Ford. Gave all the conservative Cortina owners something to buy.

    1. I’m not sure the Sierra made this look dated, but the Sierra was certainly seen as being too radical by many people. This car seemed to hit the sweet-spot in the UK market for several years, so it probably attracted Cortina owners who were unable to stomach the Sierra. At the time the Sierra seemed to be a strange mixture of overly-modern styling and dated engines.

  7. Laurent & Sam

    Yes, the blue and graphite hatchback was cause for me to be clipped behind the ear.
    I’d just left school, started work at a the local factory and the boss turned up in one of ‘em, an E or F plate. I watched him drive in, open mouthed, dropped whatever it was I was tasked with and was promptly “scutched” for wasting time by the chief engineer who hated the big boss. I wanted one of these so badly – was I an old man at 17/18 years or properly appreaciative of decent styling? By the time I might’ve afforded one, tin worm had wrought it’s evil. Not seen either saloon or hatchback for years

  8. This is the GM J-body. The very best thing that can be attributed to examples of it is that they were the veritable cockroaches of the automotive world. With rusty fenders flapping in the breeze, rust scabs under paint that sheeted off, four cylinder pushrod engines moaning under the slightest load, and a finish that made it look five years old after only two, determined owners could be observed hunched over steering wheels in GM apehanger style due to poor seat design across the board, hoping against hope that the thing would last through the 5-year purchase plan. And they did! Once a certain degree of decrepitude was reached early in life, somehow they hung on seemingly forever just looking ruined. The Ford Tempo and Chrysler K-car were the competitors, and based on hindsight I’d have to give the longevity stakes win to GM. The stroke of genius for continued sales right up to 2004 was stuffing first 2.8 litre, then 3.1 litre pushrod V6s under the hoods. For the times, these things were genuinely quick, able to see off my Audi 90 quattro without much sweat – much lighter weight was the reason.

    I’m afraid, Richard, that your flight of fancy that the Skyhawk ruined Buick’s reputation is pure fantasy on your part. Nobody sat around bemoaning the Skyhawk’s apparent damage to Buick’s reputation. The Apollo did that all by itself in the 1970s, much as it dragged down Pontiac and Oldsmobile as well. They were all Chevy Novas, not even disguised beyond grilles and wheelcovers. The badge engineering quad continued with the X-body for 1980. Not a soul sat around opining, “there goes Buick’s reputation” about any of them bar the Apollo when it was so obviously an utter fake. Indeed the Skylark from 1963 on was just a GM A body, same car as the Chevelle, Malibu, Tempest and Cutlass. If there was one thing GM learned from BL, it was that badge engineering apparently did not upset the collective US soul, until it was so blatantly obvious that even the drudge on the street could see that the product differentiation GM used to boast about was dead and gone forever. The Skyhawk was way too late to matter in that game.

    The Detroit Three were stuck with nowhere to go when their dealers demanded a competitive line of cars to combat their own retail competitors. Buick and Oldsmobile and Pontiac dealers demanded the same lineup from small to large that the Chevy dealer down the road had on offer. The same with Ford and Mercury dealers; ditto for Plymouth and Dodge. That is what drove badge engineering and sameness.

    Buick tried several times to sell Opels, and to put it kindly found them lot poison. The dealers didn’t understand them in 1969, they didn’t understand the Astra in 2008. Moreover, they didn’t want to understand them. Training costs they didn’t want to afford for technicians to service offbeat product and their traditional highly conservative business values, all conspired to defeat “superior” Opel engineering. Move the customer over to American iron was always their mantra, and they paid little heed to GM product planners trying to hawk Euro-centric cars to them. Cheaper to merely glue on a badge proclaiming Euro, or Sport – the latter found even on panel vans. The dealers are the manufacturers’customers, not the ultimate buyer on the street, and what’s on offer to the consumer on the lot/forecourt is determined by the dealer. Hardly ideal, merely reality, in a society where the car as dutiful appliance is the norm. The Japanese worked this situation out in next to no time in the 1960s.

    I must say that, Richard, that your ideas on the American motoring scene appear to me to be based entirely on speculation you have conjectured in your head rather than than any semblance of reality. And your non-differentiation and indifference to model years and their differences exacerbates and shows up your lack of knowledge. I cannot counter your paeans to various Lancias of dubious merit simply because, I never experienced them, so cannot exalt in rapture at their peerless engineering. But I have my suspicions that the withdrawal of Fiat, Citroen, Renault, Peugeot and of course BL from the North American market had much to do with the fragility of the products. Nobody disputes that they were comfortable and handled and rode well when new. They simply did not stand up to daily use. Unlike the cockroach-like GM J-Body. That tells me that under the pedestrian skin, the structures were sound and the agricultural machinery solid. In a society where company cars barely exist, unlike the European scene where the middle class awarded themselves such perks, the owners of cars here essentially demanded that the darn things lasted long enough to be economic. It’s a quite different world, one that seems impossible for Europeans to understand. And, of course the opposite holds true as well, so old wives’ tales, myths and legends abound whenever either side discusses the automotive preferences they imagine the other continent prefers. Imagination only takes one so far when discussing such matters.

    1. Hello Bill and thanks for your long and eloquent message.

      I read that first and then I went back to re-read my post to see what I´d scribbled (I tend to soon forget what I write). It came as some surprise that my sole meaningful reference to US cars were these tens of words:

      “Worst of them wasn’t the Cimarron but the awful 1981-1989 Buick Skyhawk, worst because it managed to attract customers and discredit the Buick name while the Cimarron had a shorter life and was obviously appalling.”

      I admit I needed to moderate that reference to “managed to *further* discredit Buick” and maybe that would have saved some hammering of the keyboard. Every word you write about Nova, X-cars and the rest is correct and fascinating but essentially way off the point of the article which was about the Ascona. Given the fact Buick only came up in passing makes it looks as if you were responding to some other massive tract chock full of inaccuracies and ommissions. It was about the Ascona.

      Your insights and forthright opinions, especially regarding American motoring, are welcome. So, don´t be at all offended when I say that it seems you do me the great honour of taking my texts far too seriously.

      I´m paid precisely no pence to write this material; I´ve got a full-time job and two small kids to look after along with the rest of my so-called life to deal with. We carry no ads here. You pay zero cents to DrivenToWrite to read DrivenToWrite which provides a minimum of 500 words a day, usually more. We could always do better (me anyway) but we aren´t serving up boiler plate prose. So many other sites charge or carry ads for what is mere wallpaper and PR copy-and-paste. So, please bear that in mind when composing your responses. I love most of them a lot, I really do. That last one I loved a wee bit less.


  9. My recollections of the Ascona C are of a thoroughly median, rather characterless vehicle, which fulfilled its brief, but left no appreciable trace in its wake. In fuel injected, 1.8 litre CD form, it was a quick car and certainly its engines (petrol or diesel) were in a different league to the wheezing power units Ford were foisting upon the European buying public at the time. Also in the Ascona’s favour was a decent chassis, being nimble and entirely predictable in its dynamics. Ride wasn’t great though and power steering was well worth having.

    However, the interiors – regardless of trim level or colour choice were drearily penitential, with a huge unrelieved slab of nasty hard plastic and cheerless furnishings. A rival Sierra was on a different plane in this arena at least. The Ford also rode better (at least until the dampers went off), had more of an overall ‘feel-good factor’, but couldn’t quite boast the Ascona’s safe handling – a Sierra (particularly in low-spec form) could trip up the less experienced driver. Another string to the Ascona’s bow was that it offered a far more durable proposition. What little was there wore quite well, a matter which was not lost upon latter-day fleet managers.

    I recall receiving a well-cared for Passat B2 turbodiesel Variant off-lease at the time and being struck quite forcibly by what a strikingly competent and well honed product it was by comparison to either of the aforementioned pair. The difference in quality throughout was palpable.

    An observation regarding Mr. Malcom’s previous comment: While R. Herriott’s research may not always be 100% spot-on, neither it, nor any DTW posting (regardless of how it is received) is intentionally snide, demeaning or partial. We are, I would assert, almost tediously fair-minded in our pronouncements. We also do our level best to avoid the received wisdom, myths, legends or old wives tales beloved of most purveyors of automotive discourse.

    Furthermore, nobody here is suggesting that European products are superior to those created across the Atlantic. Indeed, the failure of many ‘old world’ carmakers to succeed in North America illustrates such beliefs to be fantasy. What is clear is the fact that most American cars are eminently suited to local conditions, just as European cars are to theirs. Trouble is, like Guinness perhaps, neither appear to travel well. But to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘that don’t make ’em junk’.

  10. “neither it, nor any DTW posting is intentionally snide, demeaning or partial.”

    I fear I may have missed out on that particular memo. Hopefully nobody’s noticed my transgressions…

    1. I fear Archie Vicar missed out on that memo as well. He probably thought it was a reminder from the landlord down the road about that unpaid bar tab and sent it to the editor as expenses…

    2. Ingvar: I don´t want to disappoint you but Archie´s excuse is that he is no longer with us. Are you somehow suggesting his peaceful death in a Rover showroom in Malvern surrounded by his family was no accident?

    3. Well, at least he went peacefully, and in his sleep, gently into the night. Not kicking and screaming like the rest of the passengers in the car…

    4. I did hear a rumour that his ghost roams the halls of Solihull, where the closure of the social club bar has left him without purpose other than to berate happless night workers on the size of the ashtray in the Rover 60. This may be fake news.

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