Best Bitter

First Pint: The Bitter origin saga. 

All images (c)

The world needs characters such as Erich Bitter. At 87, if the Westphalian runs on oil, he must have reserves aplenty, at least from wells of entrepreneurship and dogged determination. For without that close to wind, to blazes with millstones like finance and ruin, his dogged spirit and an array of automotive anomalies would never have been. Although that output may have been small in relative terms, his legacy (of which surprisingly large numbers survive) continues. Mind you, those seeking marriage or financial guidance might wish to look elsewhere.

Born in 1933, his interest in engineering began with the bicycle, his parents running a bike shop in Schwelm, thirty miles east of Düsseldorf. Turning professional saw him compete in the Tour de France four times, which helped bring about a close relationship with NSU, themselves cycle builders prior to becoming carmakers. This in turn led young Bitter to forsake his Campagnolos for a larger crash helmet and racing overalls. Motor racing from 1958 saw him flourish; a contract with Abarth opened certain doors, whereas once Opel knocked upon Bitter’s door, he entered a whole new world.

In 1968, Opel invited Bitter to pilot The Taxi, a new 150bhp Rekord. Painted black earned the nickname Schwarze Witwe or Black Widow with excellent results from its Zolder track baptism. Pilots chasing down faster class Porsches included Bitter and some Austrian named Lauda. Bitter retired from racing duties in 1969. Already somewhat business minded, he became the German importer of Abarth products, also selling Franco Scaglione’s styled Intermaccanicas as well as keeping open channels with Rüsselsheim.

1969 Opel Styling CD concept.

Intermaccanica’s poor integral qualities almost bled Bitter dry with time, money and warranty issues, spurring him into producing a car bearing his own name. EB called upon his Rüsselsheim friends, asking for “a beautiful, fast and reliable car.” With impeccable timing, Opel had chosen their new 1969 Diplomat to demonstrate GM’s all new, modern styling.

Designed under Chuck Jordan, a new V8 powered coupé, codenamed Astra but then given a more bland moniker of Styling CD, wowed the Frankfurt motor show crowds. Management, buoyed by encouraging murmurs considered the Styling CD for production, but tooling costs along with caution halted ambitions.

Bob Lutz then commissioned carrozzeria Frua to take up the refining baton, re-naming the car Frua CD, making the car practically production ready – replete with real world doors and retaining the Opel mechanicals but sadly once more, insufficient to warrant a green light. Two prototypes were built.

Carrozzeria Frua’s redesign.

By 1971, Jordan had been replaced by Dave Holls (a hot-rodder by heart) who, along with top management would frequently use the Styling CD prototype which one fine day caught Bitter’s eye. Understanding he had neither the capital nor time to set up his own factory, Bitter sought out a partnership with Opel, establishing an office base, later post production facilities and sales room in his hometown of Schwelm.

Baur of Stuttgart enjoyed strong links with domestic carmakers specialising in prototype manufacture and limited production runs and were chosen for their know-how and quality of workmanship. Baur created a hard foam lifesize model which gave Bitter’s dream substance, subsequently employed to press and make the body panels, shell assembly, fitting out the interior and mating up the mechanicals.

Bitter bought the shortened (by ten centimetres from standard) Diplomat chassis that had underpinned the Styling CD, slotting the (unchanged in any form) Chevy V8 straight in. Working to a compromise vision of both Frua and Opel’s versions, with Holls’ stylistic assistance, the results left Bitter ecstatic. Changes were subtle; less chrome, revised bumpers, discrete spoilers and some eclectic wheel arch subtleties. Dick Ruzzin explains in this video his role in Holls’ and Bitter’s beautiful car plan.

Revealed once more at Frankfurt in 1973, Bitter there obtained 176 bona-fide orders for his Bitter CD coupé. Optimistic, his plan to make and sell 200 models per year was now within reach, plans shattered by the oil crisis just weeks into proceedings. With even wealthy customers cancelling orders, just six cars were sold by the close of 1973, yet by early 1975, 100 cars had been sold. The base price came in at DM58,400.

A genuinely luxurious 2+2 coupé, sporting that 5435cc engine, which could propel this handsome beast up to 130mph with 230bhp. A nine second 0-60 time with the three speed automatic may not have raised too many eyebrows then (nowadays family hatchback/crossover territory) but Bitter’s idea was for a more accomplished result. Surrounded in opulence by leather (one option, Buffalo at Dm4000), electric sunroof, a choice of stereo and of course colour, interest may not have exceeded Bitter’s self imposed highs, yet those production figures managed a credible 254 by 1976.

Showing great vision, product placement before that term became common if you will, Bitter not only realised his potential market but also sought out suitable people and locations to see and be seen with. Fancy restaurants, glitzy hotel frontages, marinas or seafronts. Add in a popular recording artist or a footballer or two posing alongside the car, and both CD (along with the company) gained glamour by association.

Bitter had at last brought his beautiful, reliable and fast coupé to fruition. However, steadily declining sales limped on until 1979 when production ended – from a 1974 high of 99, just 37 sold in that final year with a grand total of 395 CD coupés made. Some survive unrestored, but amid those newly rejuvenated, modern, younger owners and enthusiasts can soak up its louche appeal; the following this car has aroused seemingly as strong as the man himself.

That Bitter suffered few sleepless nights as a result of the CD’s demise will be revealed in part two.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

31 thoughts on “Best Bitter”

  1. To put the CD’s price of 58k Deutschmarks somewhat into perspective: a Mercedes 460 SEL 6.9 (no less) was yours for 65k Deutschmarks (a bare bone 280S was about 20k) a Ferrari Daytona cost 82k, a BMW E9 3.0 CSi cost 31k, a 3.0CS 26k. A standard Opel Diplomat V8 with the same drivetrain as the Bitter cost a bit over 20k.

    1. I remember the comment of an Alvis club member that by the late ’50s and early ’60s Jaguar and Daimler were making far better cars than the Alvis Three Litre, for far less money, but it counted for a lot when everyone at the golf club could see that you owned a car which cost nearly twice as much as the most expensive Jaguar.

      Same also goes for the Bristol, or the Jensen Interceptor, the latter did very well for a while filling the space between Jaguar and Rolls-Royce.

  2. The Bitter CD may have been expensive relative to its humble mechanical package, but it looked very exotic had a well proven drivetrain instead of the highly-strung and sometimes temperamental engines found in Italian ‘thoroughbred’ supercars. I think there really was a place for it and it’s a shame Bitter struggled.

    Looking forward to the next instalment, Andrew.

  3. As an aside, the Opel sourced alloy wheels fitted to the Bitter CD are exactly the same design (but an obviously different offset) to those fitted to the Mk1 Ford Granada:

    I wonder who owned the patent for the design? Was it a wheel manufacturer like BBS?

    1. Daniel, that second image surely isn’t a standard Granada, is it, not with that length of rear door? I’ve tried peering at the badge on the front wing to no avail.

    2. I see nothing wrong with the Granada, that’s how they looked? I’d Imagine the badge om the wing says “Ghia”.

    3. Hi Andy and Ingvar. The second photo isn’t a Granada, it’s an Opel Diplomat. Sorry to cause confusion. I posted it to show that the Bitter wheels were sourced from Opel.

    4. To save further confusion, I was of course looking at the third picture of the actual Granada, but in my morning pre-coffee haste I read it to be about “the length at the rear of the door” and I couldn’t find anything wrong with the picture. Now I’ve had both coffee and cigarettes and I should reach normalcy pretty soon….

  4. Think Bitter’s best efforts were with other projects like the Bitter Super Aero 1978 and Bitter Rallye 1984, particularly the latter despite not being a fan of the rear light treatment.

    Both the Bitter SC and Bitter Type 3 later Bitter Berlina are not too bad aside from the awful popup front, yet while the SC is said to echo the Ferrari 365 GT4 2+2 can also see some elements of William Town’s Aston Martin Lagonda. Unattractive front ends seems to be a Bitter theme of sorts based on the more recent Vero, CD2 and Bitter versions of regular Opels/Vauxhalls.

  5. I always wondered if Chuck Jordan didn’t do much of the work uncredited after he left Opel? There’s too much of clarity of line in the car for it to be a project he merely started. There’s a wholeness to the design, it is thoroughly connected front to rear, it almost have a kind of fuselage feel to it, making it feel like it was moulded from a single bit of steel. It looks far better than the Frua car, which looks almost a decade older and stuck in old Italian panel beating ways. And there’s much Chuck Jordan over the lines, it feels very much in line with the 1971 Opel Rekord. It feels exactly for what it is, a Diplomat fastback coupe.

    1. I don’t disagree, Ingvar, yet that photo of the Frua CD seems especially unflattering. To be fairer to Frua (and I guess Bob Lutz) some of the subtlety of the surfacing and also its relationship to the original “Astra” CD isn’t so apparent in that photo.

      If you want to unwind all of the influences and influencers regarding this project, look here:

      On the page cited above, there is a caption on the following photo which reads: “George Gallion with the ASTRA CD that was a show car built a couple of years earlier, probably 1969. That is the car that Tony Lapine leveraged into a job at Porsche.” Now that it is mentioned, I see clearly how some of the body side profile of the Astra CD, and its un-round, lipless wheel openings found their way to the 928.

      Now after reading all of that, I am seeing as much of the Bitter CD in the Manta B and the 1975 Chevrolet Monza (and perhaps even the Opel Monza) as I do the commonly cited Ferrari 365 GTC/4 (a 2+2).

      Well this is quite the spider web, everybody who was anybody during that era has some connection the Bitter CD, it’s the Rosetta stone of 1960s and 1970s auto design. In that case it should be impossible for there not to be a relationship that leads to Gandini, and surely there is a strong echo of the 1967 Lamborghini Marzal reflected in the Astra CD’s side window glazing.

    2. The first photo in my above post should not have been the Anders Warming design that was stuck in my buffer, but rather this:

    3. @Gooddog, thank you so much for that information! Really interesting story…

  6. Is that Diplomadmiral not one of the finest large saloons ever styled? The cabin is nice and large. The proportions are delightful and the front a fully integrated whole. I´ve only ever seen a handful in real life. These are oddly very rare.

    1. Someone should write it up together with the Fiat 130. Those two goes together in that their respective brands were reaching for the stars but somehow just succeeded in overshooting the goal posts…

    2. I don’t think there was anything inherently wrong with it, the market just didn’t want an Opel for Mercedes money no matter how good it was? There’s a parallel to Volkswagen and their Phaeton, I think? The early to mid sixties Kapitän was a really strong seller, selling in the hundreds of thousands. But I guess brand snobbery cought up with that group in the late sixties and they went for BMW and Mercedes, because Opel could never reach those numbers again in that market.

    3. Opel already had massive problems in selling the ppredecessor KAD A. Their head of development said that this car taught them the difference between wide and too wide. The KAD B was ten centimetres slimmer but it looked American when American was out of fashion, just as Ford also discovered with Consul/Granada Mk1 or Taunus TC.

    4. It is unfortunate the KAD were not more successful then they were that also spawned earlier Vauxhall Cresta and Viscount variants (outside of the stillborn PD models mentioned in Vauxpedia), ideally clothed in fashionable styling with some longevity.

      Under better circumstances and with an earlier integration of Opel and Vauxhall, the V platform (plus Cavalier/Ascona B-sized V platform-based Cerian derivative) and KAD IMHO could have worked pretty well as a three car range (based on two platforms) for a GM Europe launch of the Cadillac marque with (UK/European-geared upmarket) models utilizing a styling theme from a car like the stretched 1976 Vauxhall VX FE Prestige prototype by Panther.

      In the absence of any suitable in-house Ford challengers, The closest to a potential KAD challenger with some connection to Ford would have to be the Cleveland V8 powered De Tomaso Deauville.

    5. @Bob, don’t forget the South African Ford Granadas with US V8’s!

      There’s also the curious Ranger made in Belgium, Switzerland, and South Africa, made up of bits and pieces from Opel and Vauxhall, because there wasn’t enough brand cachet in either? I wonder if GM could’ve done what Hyundai are doing with its Genesis brand, branching off the top of the line into its own brand. Could Ranger have done something with the KAD-line?

    6. One of those South African Perana Granadas found its way to Cologne as the company car of a certain Bob Lutz. The car gave the works’ mechanics more than a fair share of trouble because its owner has a heavy right foot and the car had insufficient cooling and sub standard brakes.

    7. Bob: indeed, if it had been a more successful car, Opel might have hung on in the top rungs of the car hierarchy. The same might have held for Vauxhall. It seems that the severe pressure exerted by Mercedes and then BMW has existed ever since the 1960s. Opel were pushed out of the really big car class; Ford never tried. Citroen tried to sell a really expensive car, as did Lancia and they had no success after the 1970s. You could say the DS was just lucky. But you have to credit Mercedes with making a first rate product and not being afraid to charge for it. There was a reason they were seen as stellar vehicles and the same goes for the BMWs of the same time. They really are cut from different cloth than cars of a corresponding size from other marques.

      The reason Opel had a go at an S-class sized car was that they had more independence from Detroit than Ford, I suppose. The 1950s and early 60s were a time where there was a rapidly growing market and customers were open to lots of different brands. In such conditions, it was easy enough to get by. Making a behemoth Opel seemed like a good way to get a bit of the Wirtschaftswunder market.

      By the way, the Admiral 1969-1977 is smaller, by a fraction, than the 1972-1980 S-class. Nobody says the W-116 is too wide.

      Is it me or does the span of time 1969 to 1977 seem huge, as in the world changing a lot, compared to say, 2009 to 2016 or 1999-2007?

    8. Fron 1969 to 1977 the world around the KAD changed a lot.
      Mercedes finally found the money to ditch their Fritz Nallinger memorial swing axles and the warmed-over tailfins W108/109 and made a real quantum leap with the W116. People obviously were prepared to pay the same money for a bare bones W116 280S as for a Diplomat V8 and I can see their point. The W116 didn’t start with a three year waiting list for nothing.
      At the same time BMW got their act together and made the E3 for a completely different kind of customer more focussed on tech and going fast.
      And maybe in the Seventies it became out of fashion to name cars after military ranks and as with most other changes it took Opel somewhat longer to recognise it. (Maybe they should have called the top of the range model not Diplomat but Grossadmiral or simply Dönitz…)

    9. Dave: yes, the naming was a bit outmoded. Perhaps Opel was too provincial though Ruesselsheim is not far from Frankfurt which is very cosmopolitan. In many other ways they provided cars people liked and bought. The next step was to replace the KAD with a more modern car but the bean counters and the Detroiters insisted on dressing up the Rekord which was never going to cut it, good an all as the Senator was. Everyone who wanted to compete in the upper echelons needed whatever Mercedes were using to assemble and trim their cars. But nobody did – there isn´t any other car with the same incredibly robust high quality cloth or plastic as the mid-70s Mercedes. Could M-B have had exclusive rights to the patents? I can´t think of anyone who cam close, not even BMW.

    10. In the Seventies GM tied Opel in to their world. The Rekord D was the first Opel to have a GM logo on its front wing and around the same time dealers started to display GM signs on their premises.
      GM tried to sell American cars as a substitute for the big Opels which didn’t work because American cars only sell in a couple of European countries but definitely not in Germany except for customers you wouldn’t want associated to your product.

  7. Evening all

    How the tiresome chores of the day sap one’s energy…

    However, thanks for pointing out the Ronal wheels which had escaped me. As for Bitter’s next ideas, I’m keeping my powder dry for parts two and three so please stay tuned.

  8. I imagine the reason that neither Opel nor Vauxhall contemplated an upmarket brand was that both had quite a few rather grand cars in their past. Even post-WW2 they were both solidly middle-market until the Viva HA and Kadett A – no attempts to compete with the A30, Standard 8, or assorted Lloyds, Prinzs, or Goggomobils.

    Holden were different and created the Statesman as a stand alone brand; a very Brougham version of the 1971 HQ, becoming ever more Cadillac-like until the pseudo-brand was retired in 1984.

  9. Looking forward to the next instalment. I knew a little about Bitter cars, but not the man. Always fascinating to learn more.

  10. In my view the reason for the (historic) great success of Mercedes (and thus the problem for the others) is a mixture of the real qualities and the consistency of the image. They were incredibly tough and well put together; it is not just that they were reliable, it was that nothing at all went wrong. I have a Fintail from 1967 that I have owned for more than 20 years; the seats haven’t collapsed, the locks all work perfectly, the switches still click and the wiring is 100%…in a 54 year old car! Most of my other favourite stuff (hydraulic Citroens, XJs etc) suffered from sagging seats, sloppy locks that you could open with a finger nail, iffy electrical connections etc. No comparison.

    Add to that the fact that they only did the big and/or expensive stuff (eg in the early 60s you could have a Pagoda, a big saloon, it’s coupe derivative or a 600 limo – there was no 190E, let alone an A class to dilute the message). Why then would anyone be tempted to venture off-piste to buy a big car from a maker of small ones, unless it was either cheaper (which implies less good) or had another sales proposition (eg BMW = sporty, Jaguar = elegant, Citroen = advanced).

    BMW similarly successfully built on the sporty reputation, but again did it for a long time with absolute consistency, brick by brick, model by model, style by style.

    Now both have chucked it out of the window, but that’s another story.

    The interesting contrast for me is Lexus; the quality is there, no doubt, but the consistency of a slowly built image isn’t as they have skittered all over the place (a Mercedes rival, or a BMW one? Then add silly grilles). What does Lexus really stand for?

  11. Late to the party again. I had no knowledge of Mr Bitter so many thanks for enlightening me Andrew. looking forward to the next episode already.

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