Under the Knife – One for the Record Books

The 1977 Opel Rekord E was a spacious, comfortable and practical car.  It was also somewhat plain and austere looking. A well-judged facelift changed it for the better.

1977 Opel Rekord E (c) autoevolution.com

The 1971 Opel Rekord D was a finely wrought and handsome design. Penned by Chuck Jordan, a GM ‘lifer’ and Opel’s Head of Design, it successfully melded GM’s transatlantic design influences with a clean, almost ascetic European reserve. The beauty was in its smooth, unadorned flanks, elegantly flared elliptical wheel arches, neatly integrated light clusters front and rear, and a total lack of superfluous ornamentation.

By comparison, its Vauxhall Victor FE cousin, released just three months later and sharing its platform and other components, was somewhat heavy-handed and certainly more brash and mid-Atlantic looking. This was tacitly acknowledged by Vauxhall in its advertising, where the FE was nicknamed ‘The Transcontinental’.

Opel wisely left the design of the Rekord D untouched over its six-year lifespan, but its replacement was dramatically different. The 1977 Rekord E, although similar in size to its predecessor, was notably more spacious inside. The price paid for this increased utility was a loss of the elegance that had characterised the superseded model. Instead, the new model was bluff and slab-sided, with chamfered corners replacing the smooth curves of its predecessor.

(c) autodata1

The detailing left something to be desired too. Rather than wrapping around properly into the front wings, the narrow indicators were precariously perched onto the corners of the car outboard of the headlamps and looked as though they might fall off with even a slight provocation. The rear light units were mounted proud of the surrounding metalwork and had a very odd pink-purple border that sat uncomfortably against both the colour of the lenses and the paintwork of the car.

The front bumper wrapped around to meet the wheel arches neatly but, inexplicably, the rear bumper was oddly truncated and barely more than a horizontal bar across the back of the car. The side rubbing strip (where one was fitted) was instead extended rearward to meet the ends of the bumper rather uncomfortably.

Despite its rather dour design, the Rekord E sold well enough on its undoubted space and practicality, roughly matching the sales of its predecessor. It was offered as a two and four-door saloon, a three and five-door estate, and a commercial version based on the three-door estate, but with the rear side glass replaced by metal panels. Tellingly, and probably wisely, Opel never offered a coupé version of the Rekord E. A coupé had been part of the Rekord range since the 1961 P2 generation model, but it is difficult to imagine how the Rekord E could have been given sufficient style and desirability to succeed in this market segment.

The Rekord E was also repurposed to become the first Vauxhall Carlton, with mixed results aesthetically. At the rear, a proper wraparound bumper was fitted to the saloon. (Oddly, the Carlton estate retained the Rekord’s truncated item.) The tail lights had black rather than coloured borders and the number plate was displaced down to the bumper by a black panel between the tail lights with ‘Vauxhall’ spelt out in individual letters. The new arrangement looked rather smarter than that of the utilitarian Record.

(c) Honestjohn

Modifications to the front were, unfortunately, counterproductive.  Vauxhall wanted to distinguish its car with a ‘droop-snoot’ similar to that of the Mk1 Cavalier but did not have the budget to do it properly. A new extended bonnet and larger indicators were uneasily tied in to the standard Rekord headlamps by a rather Heath Robinson arrangement of silver painted filler pieces, instead of the new flush headlamps the designers envisaged.

If the Rekord E was an attempt by Opel’s designers to embrace a more industrial design aesthetic, then it missed that goal by some margin. The 1981 Ascona C was a much more accomplished effort, with far better detailing. While the Ascona C was in development, Opel was also working on a comprehensive facelift of the Rekord E, and this was launched in 1982 as the E2.

This was no simple nip-and-tuck, but a major reworking of the design. The E2 featured a new and much smoother front end, with the leading edge of the bonnet now dipping down to a shallower grille between the new headlamps, and larger indicators that aligned more precisely with the leading edges of the front wings. The panel gaps and shut lines were now all much tidier and tighter in this area.

1984 Opel Rekord E2 (c) auto-data.net

At the rear, the deck was raised and squared off. The C-pillar was reworked, and the small plastic vent replaced with a larger triangular gloss black panel that completed the revised DLO profile. Larger rear lights were still surface mounted but were better integrated and lost those strange coloured borders. New wraparound plastic bumpers completed the external changes. The Carlton adopted these changes wholesale and was, badges apart, now identical to its Rüsselsheim cousin.

At first glance the Rekord E2 looked like an enlarged and smoothened Ascona C, which is in no way an insult. The facelifted car cleaved the air rather better, with a Cd of 0.36, versus 0.42 of the pre-facelift version. The Rekord’s new smoother front end would also be used to good effect on the larger Commodore, Senator and Monza models (and their Vauxhall equivalents) replacing the rectilinear, chrome-laden and somewhat chintzy original design.

(c) favcars

The Rekord’s facelift was widely adjudged to be a success and gave the model a further four years life. The Rekord E remained in production for nine years, far longer than any other generation of the model, even its handsome predecessor. As facelifts go, it was certainly one of the more assured and worthwhile efforts.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

32 thoughts on “Under the Knife – One for the Record Books”

  1. Thanks for that. It´s like catnip to me. I have to say the 1977 Rekord is to my eyes a handsome car – I agree about the front indicators. It is also sensitive to trim variations. Like the Granada, base models were very base (even more scantily equipped than any sub-B car today) and looked austere. From the middle of the range up, and with juicier paint they start evoking the best of W. Germany´s 1970s, and thereby the peculiar immanent cultural gestalt of W. Germany. If I had to have on of these it´d be the first series in a plush trim which would likely include Opel´s straight six unit. Is it me or does the Opel exude more solidity than a corresponding Granada?
    And where would one find a comparison of the Rekord and the car that outshone it, the E27 5-series?
    I have mixed feelings about the E2. It´s lovely update in isolation; I only hesitate because it seemed to steel the thunder of the Omega which is one of those under-rated designs Opel specialise in.
    Is it perhaps likely that Jordan managed the car´s design but did not conceive of the shape? Alas, only someone in Ruesselsheim knows this (or Christopher B., our Hamburg correspondent).

    1. Good morning Richard and thanks for your comments. It’s interesting to compare the base version of the E1 in the top picture above with its predecessor:

      I would argue that the Rekord D made a virtue of its lack of ornamentation, whereas the E1 needs the ornamentation to stop it looking like a ‘poverty-spec’ car.

      The handling of the details on the Rekord D’s contemporary, the Vauxhall Victor FE, was a bit clunky by comparison:

  2. From a technical point of view this generation of Opels was past its best before date with its agricultural CIH engines and ox cart suspension at the rear. That it took them another decade to finally fit IRS and develop some modern OHC engines is incredible and surely contributed to Opel’s decline in the market.

    Rekord D, E and Omega are closely related under the skin with a lot of carry over parts in their front infrastructure, including design faults. The bulkhead is too weak which leads to problems caused by insufficient structural stiffness with welding seams coming apart in the A-post/inner wing/suspension turret area because of the flex in addition to the notorious corrosion problems for which these cars are famous. Fitting a stiffening bar between the suspension mounts is highly recommended must to prevent this.
    A guy I knew from work once asked me for help with his Rekord E and when I opened the bonnet of the car I could see that the whole right side front end was held to the car mostly by the bolt on wing with the inner wing nearly completely separated from the bulkhead. By pressing on the front bumper one could move the whole arrangement back and forth. My recommendation was to throw away the car immediately!

    1. Hi Dave. Yikes! What was it with GME and front bulkheads? Didn’t the NG Saab 900 have the same problem?

    2. That’s true. Vectras and Vectroid Saabs suffered from structursl weakness in the same area.
      Rekord buyers guides recommend placing a ruler or straight bar across the bonnet and front wings and if one end of the bar is pointing upwards that’s an indicator for a suspension turret parting company with the rest of the front end, bending the affected side skywards.

    3. Here’s a picture of the critical area which also is a preferred corrosion trap:

    4. Even if the Opel D had the problems you mention, I think Opel´s decline is based on more recent trends. One is a general malaise in the middle market (see Herriott, R (2010) “The Effects of Neo-Liberalism on the Demand for Middle Market Cars ” Journal of Modern Intersocialological Comtemporary Hermeneutics” Vol 345, Number 200, pp. 4-159)
      And two is GM´s shoddy treatment of the brand starting somewhere around the launch of the Vectra B. Actually bad cars from Opel are a short list: Sintra and, er, that´s it. Alas the list of clearly good cars is equally short (due to GM´s policy of scientific management and underfunding). However, Opel have made plenty of likeable decent cars and their styling has been above average for decades.

    5. I can’t properly tell, but looks like Holden fixed this weakness (and several others) on their Australian Commodore?

    6. Holden had to do something about this structural weakness.
      A warning in every buyers’ guide for the Opels is that the Commodore and Senator six cylinder versions are particularly badly affected because the front end substructure is clearly not up to the task of carrying the weight of the heavy six pot engines and therefore the danger of disintegration of the whole front end is even bigger.
      As Holden’s engine range started roughly where Opel’s ended they needed a stiffened front end if they didn’t want to make a fool of themselves in the market.

    7. Which begs one to ask the question; if it was only the matter of a couple of bracing plates, why the hell didn’t GM implement that change all across the range?

    8. They didn’t do it because it would have cost about half a dollar more per car and because the average Opel customer didn’t care about such things and was happy with the mushy ‘sneeze factor’ steering and accelerator pedals that needed two thirds of the travel for the first twenty-five percent of throttle opening and considered anything above 3,000 rpm from their utterly unwilling to rev engines as pure racing.
      These Opels were the archetypical pensioner’s car with nine out of ten traffic queues moving at snail’s pace being led by an Opel with an elderly driver wearing a shepherd’s check coloured hat.

    9. It was this exact failure that Holden experienced in prototypes during early testing on outback roads. They had strain gauges on the cars and the Opel engineers refused to believe the readings recorded, they were so much higher than what they dealt with. I’ve driven on those sort of roads and have no doubt!

      They were the sort of roads that the original 1948 Holden made it’s name on, and the original Falcon almost sank Ford’s. Also, the sort of roads that are basically irrelevant today as thanks to changes in both roads and population they are much less frequently encountered.

      The difference in the Holden for a visually identical car is remarkable, for example rack and pinion steering which is a surprising omission from the Opel.

      Holden did a minor front end facelift for the 1981 VH model, and then a Senator-like 6-window rear roof to make the car look larger in 1984. I say Senator-like (or Rekord E2-like) because they did it without changing the main pressings which saved a substantial amount of money.

      Did sales of the Rekord, Senator and Viceroy justify all the sheetmetal differences I wonder?

    10. This sounds very similar to the story of the Vauxhall Astra Mk2/Kadett E GSi.
      Vauxhall engineers complained about excessive torque steer on British roads and Opel engineers couldn’t find anything at fault. After months of fruitless communication a couple of Vauxhall people went to Opel’s Dudenhofen proving ground only to find out that Opel tested the car at constand speed at their circular test road. When the British engineers showed them how to test for torque steer on the back roads around Dudenhofen the decision was relatively quickly made to go from 205/50-15 tyres to 195/60-14 which nearly completely eliminated the problem.

    11. Hi John H. I always thought the Commodore C/Viceroy mutant, with the elongated Senator A/ Monza/Royale front end tacked onto the Rekord E/Carlton body, looked a bit heavy-handed, the nose looking too large for the rest of the car:

      It was dropped when the E2 version of the Rekord/Carlton was introduced.

      Holden’s rapid succession of different Commodore iterations is enough to make your head spin! Is everyone sitting comfortably? Here we go!

      The first Holden Commodore related to the Rekord E, the 1978 VB, had the Rekord E body with an extended Senator A nose and a Vauxhall Royale grille. The 1980 VC had a different grille. The 1981 VH had a more inclined (and unique to Holden) front end. This front end, with wraparound grey plastic bumpers, was attached to the Senator A 6-light body to produce the 1984 VK . The final iteration to use the Senator A body, the 1986 VL had yet another (and horribly mismatched) nose:

      The whole merry-go-round started again with the Senator B based Commodore VN (why no VM?) and got to VS before switching to the Omega B body. I wonder why Holden felt the need to refresh the Commodore so frequently?

    12. I’ve read that the VK’s 6-light glasshouse is actually a unique Holden design effort (as John H implied), despite looking near-identical to the Senator A.

      Interestingly, the VB/VC Commodore seems to have mixed & matched the Rekord & Carlton rear bumpers depending on trim level.

    13. Daniel, having never known the Rekord version it looks normal! It is only 50mm longer than the Rekord. Note that the VK Commodore didn’t use the Senator body at all, it kept the same roof pressing and rear window, just swapped to the wagon/estate doors and modified the C-pillar area. Looking at pictures of the Senator, I’ve noticed for the first time the elongated rear wheel arch to accommodate the 15mm longer wheelbase with the IRS, which has answered a question of where that difference fit – I knew the doors weren’t longer and there hadn’t been anything added between the door and wheel arch which is the other usual method of extending a wheelbase.

      It is interesting that the traditional story of the Commodore we are spoon-fed in Australia is Senator nose on Rekord body, as if this was something Holden came up with – completely ignoring the existence of the Opel Commodore and its two previous generations.

      Holden had to refresh the Commodore so frequently to stay competitive in the market, plus having a new model to offer a buyer coming out of the old car so they are not tempted elsewhere. The VH model saw an updated engine that was sorely needed (little change since 1963 before that) and still not enough, there was another update for the VK and EFI. The VL in 1986 had to deal with the change to unleaded petrol – the solution was to drop the Holden six for a Nissan RB30. By then the basic styling was 8 years old – it’s hard to sell a car that looks outdated. Also there are minor and major facelifts – the minor ones don’t involve much sheetmetal change, and since the 1990s usually none at all. The Australian manufacturers were generally masters of stretching a dollar, due to relatively low production volumes.

      Don’t forget that GM is an American company where they are used to annual model changes!

    14. Good morning John H and Jack. Gosh, your right! I should have taken a closer look at the Commodore VK from the rear:

      It retains the Rekord E’s distinctive chamfer around the top of the rear wings and boot lid, and also its rear lights. The D-pillar is noticably slimmer than the Senator A’s too:

      Interesting stuff, thank you for putting me right!

  3. I think Richard has a point about the perceived solidity of the Rekord E (particularly the E1) in comparison with the contemporary Granada – I just can’t quite work out why, as written descriptions of the two cars’ designs would be very similar! Might it have something to do with the body side sections, or the radius of the curves used? The Golf Mk11 exudes the same effect.
    It certainly didn’t hurt the Rekord’s Irish sales performance: in the pre SUV world they were popular with people who needed a big car that could also tow stuff, like better-off farmers or my civil engineer uncle, who had a couple of them in diesel form.
    A thought struck me about the first image of the E2 in Daniel’s piece: in absence of a human being or anything else to give a sense of scale, it’s almost impossible to tell whether this is a small, medium, or large car. Try it: squint at it. It could be a Corsa 4dr, an Fwd Ascona 4dr, or a Rekord E2. I can’t decide if this is a consequence of the photo angle and perspective, a remarkable consistency in Opel’s studio at the time, or simply that the Rekord has achieved some weird golden mean for four door saloons design…

    1. Good morning Michael. As I recall, Opel was regarded as distinctly upmarket of Ford (and Vauxhall) in Ireland in 1960’s and 70’s because German cars were traditionally associated with high quality. I remember being unimpressed when a neighbour replaced a lovely metallic dark brown Rekord D with a Mk1 Granada!

      Regarding the perception of the Rekord E versus the Granada Mk2, the Rekord had something of the qualities of the Mercedes-Benz W124 generation 200 and W201 generation 190 models in that it looked very ‘solid’ and the steel looked somehow a heavier gauge than that of the Granada. It’s hard to identify exactly why, perhaps something to do with the (lack of) curvature in the panels and sharp creases?

    2. Michael: good question. It would fit into my as-yet-unsponsored research into the link between surfaces/panel edges and quality. Look at a modern Jaguar: nice, lovely and pleasant but as nice, lovely and pleasant as a Renault, Opel or Mercedes. Go back to 1975 and the Ford, Opel, BMW E27 and Jaguar were tangibly all of highly different qualities.

    3. Hi Michael, prompted by your question, we’ll be taking a look at both the Mk1 and Mk2 Granada in a forthcoming DTW piece. Stay tuned!

    4. Could it be to do with the depth of the steel pressings? The Granada´s proportions are just great. The Rekord´s chamfered DLO adds a subtle degree of strength. Also, the Granada´s DLO sits above the bonnet to boot line while the Rekord´s is slightly lower. It is probably the depth of the pressings though… deeper pressings cost more than shallow pressings.

  4. Incidentally my post crossed with Dave’s above: it would seem the solidity was more perceived than real!

  5. Good morning Daniel. I had no idea they were the same car, which goes to prove how successful the facelift was.

    I wonder how much of a deal Opel/Vauxhall made at the time of the E2’s drag coefficient, which was only 0.02 worse than the Sierra’s, a full year before the Sierra was launched.

    1. Good morning John. Yes, drag coefficients are often counter intuitive. Just because a car has an explicitly ‘aero’ look doesn’t necessarily make it so. The Omega A that replaced the Rekord E2 was superb in this regard, with a cd of just 0.28, thanks to excellent detailed airflow management.

  6. Hi Daniel,
    Thanks for another edition of Under the Knife!
    For me the Rekord D is hands down the best looking Rekord; such calm and clean styling. The Rekord E was not bad as such but just a bit timid and boring; the well done facelift helped a lot to improve things although I have always felt that head-on it looked too much like the Citroën CX (and this continued with its successor the Omega).

  7. Having had another look on Autoscout, I found a good number of decent Rekords for affordable sums of money. There was even a 2 door version of the car. I bet it was on sale longer than the Granada 2-door. Over in the other areas of my fantasy world, a decent Trevi is usually at least 5k now. There´s a VX on sale in Hungary for 5000 euros which looks showroom fresh. It has beige cloth which would be destroyed by young children in about a fortnight.

  8. The Commodore lived on in South Africa until 1986, again with the front end of the Senator and a 3 litre engine.

    1984 Opel Commodore 3.0 E (South Africa)

    There was a trend to use the decimal comma rather than the decimal point, hence it being described as the 3,0.

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