The Opel Kadett E story.
1984: On the world stage, Ronald Reagan is re-elected as US President, whereas in India, Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi is assassinated. Apple present their first Macintosh computer, Band Aid has the UK’s Christmas No 1, while a car designed in Germany goes on to become a best-seller around the globe in a variety of guises.
Selling 3.75 million examples over a seven year period, a third in Britain alone, along with capturing not only the 1984 European Car of the Year but Germany’s Golden Steering Wheel(1) got proceedings off to an exceptional start. But the story also contains tragedy.
Gordon Brown headed Opel’s design team, joining GM in 1964. Brown worked his way up through Pontiac and Oldsmobile, had a long spell with Chevrolet before crossing the Atlantic to GM’s Rüssellheim studio in July 1980, set to replace the angular D series Kadett.
A keen landscape photographer, Gordie as he was affectionately known, took a day off work in May 1983 to explore the Loreley cliff above the river Rhine. Wandering with camera in hand, he lost his footing and fell to his death, aged just 41. The Kadett E’s development, already well in hand, needed new guidance – Wayne Cherry chosen as Brown’s successor.
Brown, along with Hans Seer had been keen on improving aerodynamics for the new E. With carry-over underpinnings, the rest of the car came in for some futuristic design change. Gone were the angles, replaced by a teardrop effect, born of twelve hundred wind tunnel testing hours gaining the car a 0.32 drag coefficient, unheard of at the time in this class.
DNW, Holland, capable of Airbus testing along with Pininfarina’s wind tunnel helped perfect the new car’s shape. Primarily a three or five door hatchback, the range extended to include estate and van variants alongside the infamous saloon and a pretty, Bertone built(2) two door convertible, powered by a plethora of rock-oil engines.
Opel invested some DM 1million in the Bochum factory, focusing upon robotic welding and the use of adhesives to build the all-steel bodyshell. The wheelbase remained unchanged regardless of variant at 2,520mm, as did track width at 1400mm. Weights topped out at 1,025 Kgs (with the drop-top only five less) but a base three door with the lowly 1.2 litre, 55hp engine feathered the scales at only 855Kgs. Independent front suspension combined with rack and pinion steering and a compound control arm rear axle gave excellent road holding.
Britain’s Ellesmere Port factory gained a £65M investment package with similar amounts spent in Belgium and Azambuja in Portugal (subsequently closed 2006) to build on platform T-85, with the rather lonely sounding internal factory code of P-2275. The E’s original launch date was for October 1985. Brought forward twelve months in anticipation of benchmark VW’s expected (and feared better) Golf III, the aim was for Astra/ Kadett to convincingly lead the class.
With “switched on and influential” chief engineer, Fritz Lohr at the helm, his determination to outshine rival designs was strong. Oscar was utilised for placement(3) in full scale line drawings. Both scaled and full size wood and clay models used styling cues taken from the Tech-1 concept car. Revealed at the 1981 Frankfurt motor show designed by Erhard Schnell, with its panoramic windscreen it managed a cd figure of just 0.235.
Commercially impractical, other more workable solutions were sought including flush bonded glass, rounded A pillars, roof mouldings replacing gutters, partially enclosed wheel arches and a free-flow front bumper made from self-healing polypropylene, handy for low speed prangs.
Initial concerns considering such a curvaceous shape impacting upon internal measurements were quickly displaced by highly encouraging outcomes. Rivals Escort, Maestro and Golf all had less interior space, headroom and luggage capacity. Astra was also quieter with judicious use of NVH dampening materials, again heavily tested and constantly modified.
Road testing too was extensive, from the Artic to Arizona; Milbrook to Miramas. The Dudenhofen test track subjected the car to 30,000 miles of testing, including 1,200 eyeball rattling pavé miles. The Stelvio pass was used for brake testing; lambent discs and increased heart rates but the fluid didn’t boil. Also include the destructive testing hydro-pulse laboratory – high oil pressured rigs to shake the car, literally to pieces.
In Britain, the very first Astra was built on 24th August 1984 with customer’s keys turning two months later. Subjected to a heavy advertisement campaign, centred around the aerodynamics, one of the few criticisms faced was the ugly eggbox grille. The car’s shape quickly became the norm as rivals not only looked but were aerodynamically, old hat.
The base model 1.2, three door Astra started at a precise £4,493.72 with plenty of options upwards to the crowning glory of the GTE, a car still admired today. With its 1800cc mill shoving out 115bhp and 126mph, the narrower, sportier grill provided an even more slippery 0.30 cd, for £7,344.19; the Cheshire factory had difficulty keeping up with demand.
Eighteen months from the T-85’s launch, the public faced a new dilemma; hatchback or boot? The UK Belmont, all of ten inches longer to the rear, was a six-light saloon of unequivocal dullness, equipped with two tag lines, “Travel Belmont class,” alongside “A more elegant way to travel.”
A more upmarket offering to the hatch, the Belmont GLS shared the GTE’s engine but was often relegated to the inside lane, junior representative fleet. While the hatchback, especially in higher trims offered dynamism and shouted loudly, the practical, sensible Ford Orion rival whispered in the wind. Belmont enamoured itself not in the market, selling just over 40,000.
Designed in-house by Opel, Bertone built the cabriolet. The E was never originally designed sans roof but rivals forced the issue; chassis strengthening and a roll hoop keeping everything from wobbling. Even with its manually-handled ragtop, the car kept close to its tin top brethren with a 0.34cd. Two petrol engines could be had; a 1.6 with either automatic or five speed manual transmission arrived in April 1987. The 2.0 litre GTE arrived first, in January. Only available as a manual, this new engine, the 20NE (LE4) provided 115bhp. One’s hairdo could be buffeted for £11,699 – quite the hike over a decently specified hard top GTE equating to small numbers built.
Like so many GM products, the T-85 was subjected to yearly tweaks of debatable nature and in accordance with the time, special editions as laudable in name, inasmuch extra content. The 1988 Swing edition was cheaper due to using up excess four-speed gearboxes, whereas the 1989 Tiffany, only available in Midnight Blue or Ruby Red had little more than badging over a standard car. The Starfire was an aubergine coloured, spoked alloy wheeled and gold pinstriped affair for just £7,895. No wonder it was dubbed The Showstopper.(4)
The Brown/Seer/Cherry car remained a top-seller until the next deviation arrived in 1991. The GTE, both hard and soft top persist as sought after. As for the lesser models, including the only a mother could love Belmont, a mere handful survive. At the time of writing, the Astra’s new overseers, Stellantis, are undecided on the Ellesmere Port factory’s future. As a political hot potato, one wonders how long the Astra lineage will continue in the UK.
One hopes Gordon would approve of what he started.
(1) Not forgetting the 1985 Semperit Irish CotY.
(2) Designed in-house by Opel, Bertone built the cabriolet. The E was never originally designed sans roof but rivals forced the issue.
(3) Oscar Eightball was a mannequin used by Northrop in 1940’s for dangerous testing. GM adopted the name for the initially cardboard cut out figure. Oscar could be configured from a 108 pound female to a 270 pound male.
(4) Had a sunroof, too.
The car had many international names; in Canada, the Passport Optima. The states had the Pontiac LeMans whilst Brazil the Ipanema and of of course the Korean Daewoo Nexia, an altogether different story.
Editor’s note: The UK market Belmont Saloon became notorious, largely owing to its rather pretentious ‘Keeping Up With Appearances‘ name, rather than its Omega in miniature appearance.
Sources: Deans Garage/ Vauxpedia.