Long Shadows of the Past

The Ascona C (1980-1988) cast a sizeable shadow over Opel. Is this the car that created the persistent impression of dullness that tarnishes the Opel badge?

1981 Opel Ascona. Image: Favcars

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 27 February 2014.

Today’s inspiration is an Opel Ascona two-door saloon, spotted in the north of Aarhus. The recent resurgence (maybe that’s only in my own mind) of Opel has made me reconsider where, precisely, it all went wrong for Adam Opel AG. Lying on my psychiatrist’s couch, I turned over my impressions and images of Opel.

Under the rubble and tattered shreds of half-memories, I found this car. The Ascona is the car that, more than any other Opel product, shaped my attitude to the firm as a maker of vehicles soaked in mediocrity. That, and perhaps the Opel Omega A (1986-1993) which in the land of my youth was sold in fade-prone red with spartan grey cloth upholstery. The Ascona seemed only to come in beige with faded grey plastic trim.

It was a ubiquitous car and one which dominates my memories of that period and which I think was the vehicle that cemented in people’s mind the fixed idea of Opel as being somehow more boring than Ford and less enduring than Volkswagen. So, what is it about the Ascona C that offends? If you compare it with its predecessor, it looks much cheaper. This effect stems from the sharp folds of the pressings compared with the rounded corners of its predecessor.

A 1983 Ascona interior: not beige, grey or light blue.

The Omega B, while being in many ways a commendably correct piece of industrial design, also looked flimsier and cheaper than the Rekord which preceded it. In addition, the Ascona, especially in its last iterations, has a curiously overwrought Art Deco effect suggested by the number of grooves on the plastic trim. The interiors came in some very dreary shades too; beige, pale blue, and possibly, grey. So, my memory of the car has coloured my feelings of later Opels.

1983 Opel Ascona
Today’s subject. Image: the author

In this time of revision, and looking at the orange example above, I realise that the Ascona wasn’t as bad as I had remembered it and, having looked at other cars from the same period and same class, it was really no worse than their own decontented, cost-cut, recession-years finishes. Turning this around and looking at it another way, the interesting thing (if you find this kind of thing interesting) is that I remember this car with a vividness out of all proportion to the dullness of its hues. I can’t recall anything of the Cortinas and Renault 12s that did battle with this device for space on the streets of Dublin.

The other odd thing is that, in Denmark at least, the Ascona is a survivor. Its peers have gone. For some reason people here are keeping battered cars like this going. Around the corner is a really dented and rusted ’88 base model Omega (no rear armrest). Someone likes this car in the way they don’t cherish the equivalent Ford Granada, Renault 20, Citroën CX or Nissan Laurel.

The initial reviews of the Ascona, a product of the GM J-car programme were very positive. I won’t dig out the quotes from Car or Autocar but they liked this car and I can only say the copy glowed: spacious, fast and well-priced, they said. The car was front-wheel-drive, even if it looked like the rear-wheel drive Ascona B. The Germans made the Ascona a best seller too; the best selling car in Germany was not a Golf.

The Irish went for them as well, but only so as to expose the Ascona’s frail bodywork to rust and dents. We didn’t know Ascona was a ritzy lakeside resort in Switzerland. What went wrong for the Ascona was its ubiquity and the fact it was touched by the dead-hand of GM head office in Detroit. The same bodyshell was used for grade A rubbish like the Chevrolet Cavalier, Oldsmobile Firenza, Cadillac Cimarron and the Buick Skyhawk. Had the Ascona been designed in Germany solely for the European market it would very likely have been a more solidly considered item.

2012 Buick Verano
2012 Buick Verano. Image: gm.com

Opel is, I believe, coming out of the doldrums with a quite consistent range of well-styled and well-made cars, putting them back to where they were when they had solid products like the Monza, Senator, Rekord and Kadett in the 1970s.

The story reaches a neat conclusion with the happy fact that the Astra, in my view one of Europe’s best looking mid-sized cars, is the basis for the Buick Verano, which is outselling vehicles from Honda, Toyota and Ford with a blend of good pricing, good performance and use of Buick’s skill at refinement and interior design. So, the sins of the J-body ought by now to be forgotten, leaving us with a clearer picture of what Opel really means.

Author: richard herriott

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

38 thoughts on “Long Shadows of the Past”

  1. We got these GM ‘J’ cars on this side of the world as the Holden Camira. No two door versions here just a four door sedan/saloon and the essential for the Australasian market, four door station wagon/estate. The pressings that made the wagon version were only made in Australia, so any wagon versions of the ‘J’ car sold anywhere else in the world were partly Australian made. These wagons had a Citroën GS inspired liftup bumper to provide a low, flat loading opening at the rear. The series 2 vesions also brought in unique frontal styling and the 2 litre version of GM’s Family II four cylinder engines. Many of these engines for Europe India, Uzbekistan, Thailand and South Korea were also made in Holdens plant in Port Melbourne. The success of this venture leading to the GM 24 valve alloy V6 also being made there, including all the Fiat, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia versions. It seems odd to think that all this investment in a modern casting foundry and engine assembly plant making such high quality products for a worldwide market was abandoned so quickly a few years later.
    Camiras have largely disappeared from the roads now, but occasionally you come across one.

    1. There was no Holden based V6 in Italian cars except the one in the Alfa 159/Brera which had heads with direct injection developed by Alfa anyway. This engine was one of the reasons for the 159’s failure in the marke.
      Any V6s in Fiat Croma (154) and later Lancias are versions of the Busso V6, a pure thoroughbred Alfa engine if ever ther was one. Lancia for a certain time used the PRV which also has nothing to do with GM.

    2. Dave, my near namesake, it appears you are right and I am wrong, at least partly, and as the current owner of a Gamma Coupe, and previous owner of a Thema V6 and Renault 25 V6 who is well aware of the work Lancia did in refining the PRV V6, (‘odd fire’ and bigger capacity), I am quite embarrassed. In mitigation,several years ago, a Holden engineer I know mentioned in passing that the GM High Feature V6 was to be the new Saab V6 and the replacement for all the uses of the Busso V6 by Fiat Group. I imagine that this was to be the case but the collapse of the Fiat/GM merger put paid to that and I never checked. So thank you for correcting me. The point I was trying to make is that the engine was manufactured in Australia by the same foundry that made the engines for the later Asconas

      This is what the much maligned Wikipedia says…

      ‘The JTS direct injection system was first used in a V6 engine in 2005 with the introduction of the Alfa 159 and Brera. This is not related to the Alfa Romeo V6 engine, but is instead a derivation of the GM High Feature engine; built in Australia by GM Holden. While it retains the High Feature engine’s 89 mm × 85.6 mm (3.50 in × 3.37 in) bore x stroke and chain driven camshafts, it is modified by Alfa for their performance, fuel economy and sound characteristics. These modifications include: “TwinPhaser” variable valve timing (cam-phasing on both inlet and exhaust cams, thus the name), gasoline direct injection and a higher compression ratio of 11.25:1. It also operates with a lean burn system up to about 1500 rpm, as on many other engines from the company and is capable of generating 191 kW (260 PS; 256 hp), a number matching the larger LY7 3.6 L variant used by GM. Alfa Romeo stopped using the V6 JTS engine in 2010.

      Displacement: 3.2 L; 195.0 cu in (3,195 cc)
      Power: 191 kW (260 PS; 256 hp) at 6200 rpm
      Torque: 322 N⋅m (237 lb⋅ft) at 3800 rpm ‘

      …Oh and there was one more ‘Lancia’ V6 to add to your list. The one from the other Thema the 300C based one, the Chrysler Pentastar V6

    3. Off topic, but I recall someone flooring the throttle in a Brera V6. All of a sudden the engine made a sound that I associate with machine guns and not cars. The thing went into limp mode immediately after that. That hurt his ego quite a bit.

    4. The Alfa/GM V6 started life in Australia as a complete GM engine, then was shipped to a FIAT plant in Mexico where it was disassembled and then shipped to Italy for Alfa specific parts installation (Heads, cams etc). And that was, according to the bean counters, the most economical way of doing it.
      Anything below the heads is in a large degree interchangeable between other versions of the GM V6 and there’s people that revived/rebuilt their dead 3.2 to a 3.6 spec by changing block and ancillaries.

  2. Good morning, Richard. It’s been ages since I last saw an Ascona C. They were a common sight here, even though the Netherlands at the time was Kadett-country.

    The Ascona is a three box saloon in the way a child would draw a car (for how much longer I wonder, with most of the saloons gone). I don’t like the shut lines of the door and the vent on the C-pillar, but other than that it’s fine, if a bit boring.

  3. The one good thing about the J car was that you could replace the clutch without removing the gearbox,you removed a plug at the rear/side of the box,with a small slide hammer retracted the whole input shaft,removed a cover,unbolted & dropped down the clutch,simple.
    I have never seen another front drive box with this same feature.
    The rest of the car was rubbish…

  4. The length of the shadow varies considerably, depending on where it starts. Here in the UK, if one’s memories (both actual and inherited) go back far enough, it begins with the Opel Kadett in the late 1930s. This perfectly adequate machine was sold here for considerably less than in Germany, partly in a last-ditch attempt to gain foreign currency and partly to enable General Motors to see some return on their German investments. But whatever the car’s merits, the subsequent global conflict left the marque tarnished by association.

    Fast forward to the ’60s & early ’70s and for most Brits (still shamefully insular) an Opel was a Vauxhall with different badges and therefore a lesser breed. Unless you were a Ford man, in which case it was beneath contempt. But my company Mk2 Cavalier was an excellent car; maybe slightly boring but entirely competent and fit for purpose – and totally reliable. Exactly what I needed it to be as I racked up well over 100,000 miles.

    In passing, the tooling for that original Kadett passed, in 1946, to the Russians and it continused in production as a Moskvitch.

  5. I find it interesting that Richard’s image of this car and mine differ cnsiderably, given that I suspect we are much of an age and grew up in similar worlds (although I suspect mine was a bit less urban). My impression of the Ascona C was of a neatly styled car which made the rival Cortina look old-fashioned (not especially difficult) and the later Sierra lumpen. The weak point was the austerity of the interiors, but this was an era when VWs were pretty grim inside as well. If anything, I think some Opel buyers rather interpreted the grim black/grey-ness of it all as a sign of quality: no fripperies on my car, at all, all… That said, I remember our parish priest having a model one step up from base which was actually rather nice looking inside, because some actual colour was involved!

    1. + 1 to all of that, Michael. Although spartan in lower trims, it was viewed as a thoroughly modern and competent car – the car that saved Vauxhall, in the UK (Vauxhall was jokingly called the ‘Cavalier Car Company’ at the time). Even (perhaps especially) the base models have a well-designed tautness to them, to me and I particularly like the saloons. Isn’t the styling in the same vein as the Opel Kadett D / mk1 Astra?

      Turning to Opel /Vauxhall’s chances, now, I think they’re better than they have been for decades. I suspect that they will have more freedom (and responsibility for their own destiny) under Stellantis compared with their time as part of GM.

      Here’s a UK advert from the time which I think has nicely-judged humour and does a good job of showing-off the car in a very short timeframe.

  6. Hi Richard, the question of Opel is interesting indeed. It is especially curious that Ford of Europe, itself part of a large American corporation (which back then equated ‘global’ oh, how times have changed) and prone to costing their products to within an inch of their lives, had a much better image* than Opel did. The dead hand you mention might have a lot to do with it, limiting freedom and forcing all manner of cost cutting and technology sharing that counteract any brand building by Opel (although I’m not sure how aware the European market would be of J-cars’ American cousins). GM seems to be particularly skilled at draining the life out of the marques in its care.

    Image matters, of course. Ford had value for money added with some sportiness (and for Europe, perhaps a dash of exotism, with the most interesting Fords – Escort RSs, Capris** – coming from across the channel); the French their quirkiness; the Italians sportiness at one end, ruthless but joyful spartanness at the other; VW had the ‘gründlichkeit’ thing cornered early on, later adding prestige and a sort of semi premium feeling; the Japanese first had dull reliability, later almost all of the above distorted through an idiosyncratic Japanese lens. Possibly that just left too little for Opel.

    *Ford themselves seem to think they no longer have said image, given the conspicuous sparsity of Ford branding on the ‘premium’ Mustang Mach E, but that’s another matter.

    ** I seem to remember Capris having a better reputation (if only just) than the equivalent Opel Manta, which was associated with what Americans would call trailer trash.


  7. Good morning all. Interesting memories and perceptions of the Ascona C, a.k.a. the Cavalier Mk2. I remember it quite positively, liking its contemporary lines and thinking how baggy and old fashioned the Cortina suddenly looked by comparison. I thought the disciplined, linear styling conveyed an impression of it being more solidly constructed than the Cortina. By 1981, early Mk4 Cortinas, at five years old, were already beginning to look tired and tatty, so that might have influenced my thinking.

    Opel also played the trim and equipment hierarchy game expertly too: the SRi and CD models were great for company car bragging rights, especially the former, with its distinctive alloy wheels and black-painted lower body and window frames:

    1. Some did just that, Mervyn: I recall an acquaintance changing jobs to a less secure one simply to be able to swap his Ford Orion company car for a Cavalier SRi. It didn’t end well…

  8. Hello Richard, thank you for this article. I do remember Ascona. It was popular here, and to be honest I liked its styling. For my personal taste, it was a good looking car. Mind you, it was considered an expensive car, it belonged to the medium size class. The small size kadet was far more popular, and the big size rekord was rare to be seen. This happens when you live in a poor country. The clean lines of Ascona were understood as teutonic and honest and not overly styled. This car blended correctly with the general architecture of the era, I mean the buildings, the other themes and aspirations of these years. To me it is correctly positioned, I can not write it down better. Indeed, the austere passenger cabin was seen as germanic quality, like the Golf mark 2, and I still like the simple and
    “empty” layout of these interiors. When driving, there is not much to do inside the car, so you look outside and concentrate on your driving. I like the rear lights, the plastic vent, the bumpers!, some wheel designs. I generally like the opel Ascona – Vectra styling. While it is a family car for europe standards, it was a car for more grown up people here, the young family would have to have a kadet.

  9. Growing up in Croatia in the 90s, there were Ascona Cs all over the place. Towards the end of my childhood the car was in that in between phase – kind of old and unfashionable, but not yet a classic. These days though there aren’t any around at all. It seems rust sealed their fate before they were able to reach the classic status.

  10. The Ascona C had a styling feature of the ‘what were they thinking’ category.
    On pre facelift cars rhe headlights were too small, resulting in an enormously wide gap between the top of the light and the leading edge of the bonnet which gave the car a curiously ‘astonished’ look. Post facelift the lights were larger with a normal gap.

    1. Wow, one imagines some GM parts form incorrectly filled in. That’s up there with Audi’s “hey, your bonnet’s about to fly open!” styling.

      Or this gem that passed by these pages a while back: the Saturn Ion:

      Not only does the headlamp not fit the bumper (or the other way around), the vanity plate doesn’t fit properly either. That would be three GM parts forms then…

    2. Well spotted, Dave. One can’t help wondering how that got all the way through to production without somebody noticing. Even if the gaps were intentional, someone should have spotted that the lights looked ill-fitting, especially the indicator which looks as though it came from a completely different car. The Rekord E had a similar issue, also addressed on the facelifted E2:

    3. The Saturn’s crap was the result of acheap, badly executed facelift. The original loked like this

      Somebody at Opel noticed the fault and the headlights were changed, but only the lens and not the reflector which resulted in the strange strip at the top of the light.

    4. With the Ascona C pre-facelift, it looks as if this “wide gap” was deliberate and made on purpose. I think unintentional sloppiness can be ruled out.
      But I do wonder why they did it that way. Strange…

    5. The large panel gap undoubtedly was done deliberately. The question is why they did it. It not only looked peculiar, it also must have had detrimental effects on aerodynamics, something that an area of great attention already at that time.

  11. Hello Richard,

    I think you might be a bit too harsh about all J cars and calling them rubbish. Funny thing is that american sites about older cars (curbside classic etc.) usually tend to make nasty points about European cars being too complicated, over engineered, expensive to maintain, and not very durable. It shows that European and American view of motoring is still quite a bit different. After years of reading sites from both sides of the pond, I’ve come to the conclusion that both continents still have a lot of weird car related biases, often with only a little to do with the truth. Especially today, as cars are more and more similar globally.

    Regarding Opel, I think the problem is that they always tend to offer “just enough”. My brother has Astra K Estate since 2017. It’s really fine car – there is nothing wrong with it. It was exceptionally well priced, but…. yes – it is very boring.

  12. I remember the Ascona C quite fondly. A friend of my dad’s had bought a brand new (post-facelift) 1.6 GLS as an upgrade from his workhorse Fiat 124 – he was a civil engineer. Ownership of a car with an engine this large was quite a feat in 1980s Greece: back then, continuing a trend copied from the Italian an French tax systems and exacerbated by the first (right-wing) post-junta government, engine displacement determined your income tax. So, most of the so-called middle class was stuck with cars with engines less than 1.3 liters in displacement. Our friend was quite proud of his car, and rightly so.

  13. While I find the Ascona C quite pleasant to look at, it also carries for me an air of boredom and dullness.
    When I started driving in the early 90s, cars of this type were still abundant in Switzerland, especially in liftback guise. No coincidence, as Opel was the best-selling car brand in Switzerland during most of the 80s.

    I soon started to realize that very often when I had to slow down because of a row of slow cars in front, the first one of them was an Ascona, preferably driven by an elderly gentleman. Thus, it became a sort of pet hate for me.

    1. I supppose if a particular model is sold it will be more likely to feature in traffic jams. From a scientific point of view it doesn´t follow the car itself is the cause. You´ll notice the complete absence of Opel Asconas has not reduced the number of traffic jams. They are caused by other cars. It´s the elderly drivers who are the cause, to some extent. Opel just supplied a lot of cars and some of them ended up belonging to elderly slower drivers. Ascona! A magical name and a magical car!

    2. I’m actually not quite sure either if the observations of my 18-year-old self would withstand scientific scrutinity… But the point is, once something is established in one’s mind, one tends to see it everywhere, and all further observations will inevitably confirm one’s opinion. It’s like having a car featured at DTW and suddenly all streets seem to be full of them, although I don’t remember having seen one for years.

    3. As the regular user of a motorcycle I most probably overtake more traffic jams than the aveeage car-only driver so my base for statistics is a bit broader. I can confirm Simon’s view that the number of Opelistas at the head of particularly slow moving traffic jams outweighs their market share by far.

    4. By the way, I was not mainly thinking of traffic jams. The topic was rather drivers who drive 65 km/h on open country roads (the Swiss limit there is 80) and still have to slow down even wih the slightest oncoming curve. They don’t actually cause jams, but just slow down a youthful driver to a level almost unbearable in his impatience.

  14. My comments can not be objective, because my icons regarding car design have been shaped by these cars of late 80s and early 90s. The Audi 80 of 1986, Peugeot 405 and 406, Renault 21, Seat Malaga, VW Passat of 1988, the first generation Audi A4, the Citroen Xantia, the Opel Vectra MKI and MKII, are the cars that have defined the design style.

    1. Of those cars, I can claim to have tried just a few: the A4, the 406, the 1988 Passat. I´d really like to try any Vectra to see if they are as incredibly, uselessly, reptastically, baldness-causing, unenjoyably terrible. My benchmark is the 406 which is an all-around excellent car. A priori I expect the Vectra to be a bit less handy to drive but slighltly more practical and slightly more durable. We´re talking under one percentage point of a difference either way. All these volume, middle-market cars are cross-compared by their makers so they don´t and can´t differ much from what this very demanding bit of the market asks for. I think the Xantia might be an outlier.

  15. The irony is that the American-market J cars had been intended as a more upmarket and “international” style compact car alongside, and priced above although smaller than, the X bodies which were made for the traditional Detroit compact-car customer. The Chevy Cavalier was priced at the Honda Accord level at launch with the Pontiac, Buick and Olds versions each slightly higher (the “Cimarron by Cadillac” was a last-minute effort to use that word loosely).
    Unfortunately, further cost-cutting on top of Opel’s cost-cutting meant they simply didn’t have the refinement to compete at that level, especially in first-year form with the carbed ohv 1.8 and a four-speed being the only manual option. Second-year ’83s got better engines – a bump to 2 liters and single-point EFI for Chevy, that or the Brazilian-made 1.8 OHC also with SPI for the other divisions – and price cuts starting with a decontented “Cavalier Cadet” late in the long ’82 model year and continued into ’83 only.
    It was neither the first nor the last time that Roger Smith-era GM’s unwillingness to put in the cost-per-unit to make a car feel *nice* if it was anything other than a traditional Big American Car (and a ’70s holdover at that), while spending $billions on assembly-line robots and corporate reorgs. The exact opposite of putting the money where the customer could see it.

  16. A little tangential to this is the notion of the repmobile. Asconas, Cortinas and maybe some other mass produced saloons ended up being categorised by their association with fleet-car users. These days we still have reps and fleet cars with the difference being there´s no one car bearing the burden of the repmobile tag. Or is there? I would hope the surviving member of the mid-sized saloon class are now no longer thought of as repmobiles. They would seem to me to be cars for a comfy kind of life rather than box-luggers or family taxis (back to their roots?)

    1. Hello Richard, it’s an interesting question. Do reps still exist in the old, luncheon voucher sense?

      The top-selling business vehicles (provided by the business, but not necessarily for pounding motorways) are Golfs, Corsas and Qashqais, etc. They’re not a source of derision, as they’re not forced upon people, and are cars people like. The Ascona / Cavalier we were discussing the other day was forced on people, but was at least a decent car.


    2. Charles: luncheon voucher? You´ve reminded me of Green Shield Stamps. I
      “A Luncheon Voucher (LV) was a paper ticket (voucher) used by some employees in the United Kingdom to pay for meals in private restaurants. It allowed companies to subsidise midday meals (luncheons) for their employees without having to run their own canteens.”
      It seems evident to me that businesses providing cars to employees as BIK and the leased car have distorted the car market. If I was a benign emperor of it all, people would use their own income to buy their own property just as they buy their own undies and sofas. I am not sure how to ban leasing without falling foul of a useful bit of human rights law though. Maybe leasing could be left to bulk purchases as per taxis and rental car firms. Have we any accountants in the house?

    3. I remember receiving luncheon vouchers back in the mid-1980s when I first moved to London and was working for a British merchant bank. If I recall correctly, luncheon vouchers weren’t considered part of taxable income, so were (marginally) worth the faf associated with providing them.

    4. I think you’re right. I’m no accountant, but the whole UK tax system needs to be put in the bin and something fairer and more effective put in its place. And while car manufacturers get volume from business sales and leasing, they lose out on profit, so no one wins. Unhappy people consuming things they don’t really want and using the world’s resources to do it. On a positive note, I think the last few years have shown manufacturers that volume isn’t everything (hence Volkswagen Group’s move to reduce ranges and Jaguar’s planned vast move upmarket). I think there may also be a recognition that they won’t be able to compete with the Chinese, if / when they get going in Europe.

      Anyway. Back to your question and on a positive note, I think Mondeos and Insignias and the like are just large, unpretentious cars, now.

  17. Hello all, well, in my country I do not think that company car fleets even existed in the 80s and before. Some commercial companies just had vans and lorries to move their products around and that was all. There was something equivalent to the lunch vouchers, and nowadays it has been replaced by a credit card, that is used to pay meals and also super market purchases. Some restaurants do not accept it.

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