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?
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.
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.
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.
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.