Bonsai Buick

Shrink-fitting the American dream to size.

Image: the author

In a now distant past, many car manufacturers located in the old world – as well as in emerging Japan – looked to the USA when it came to desirable features to adapt and styling to emulate. Several specific circumstances in areas of the globe outside America such as taxation laws, fuel prices, disposable income and available space on roads and in city centres resulted in the stateside amenities, and especially the styling, mostly to emerge elsewhere in reduced form.

To name just some, Peugeot’s 402, the Volvo PV444, Vauxhall’s Victor F and Cresta PA and the Japanese Prince Skyline all displayed a clear American influence in their appearance. Even Ferrari proved not immune to the trend, witness the finned 410 SuperAmerica.

Opel and Vauxhall especially – the European subsidiaries of GM – would find their styling direction in virtual lockstep with GM’s American brands for years, although the end-product would invariably not only be quite a bit more compact but also lag a few seasons behind the latest fashions displayed by their American inspirations.

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Today’s subject, the 1958 Opel Kapitän P1, was a prime example of this phenomenon. Its all-new styling lasted just one year and was itself inspired by a Buick that was not very well received and started a precipitous decline for the American marque from which it would only recover in the mid-1960s.

Since 1949, Buick had occupied fourth place in the American sales statistics behind the traditional ‘low-priced three’, Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth. This was an impressive feat as Buick was perceived as considerably more upmarket than those three. In fact, it was seen within the GM empire as the last step before graduating to a Cadillac.

In 1955, the almost inconceivable happened. Buick moved into third place, relegating Plymouth (despite its fresh, all-new ‘Forward look’ styling by Virgil Exner) to the fourth spot, and it would hold on to this position for the following year as well. This performance was achieved by utilizing a very aggressive pricing strategy whereby the entry-level Buick, the Special, was placed squarely in Plymouth territory.

There was, however, a serious downside to this: because demand for Buicks exploded, assembly quality suffered and the Flint maker was soon confronted with scores of disappointed customers, many of whom would not buy another Buick.

Image: the author

Thus, in 1957 Buick dropped back to fourth and the brand went into freefall after that, the gaudy 1958 vintage selling  just over half of the 1957 tally(1). Apart from the quality issues however, and despite being mostly all-new, the 1957 Buick was also seen as more of the same, styling-wise. This was not totally illogical as it had been conceived during the heady years of 1954 and 1955 when there seemed to be no end in sight to Buick’s prosperity.

But Virgil Exner’s second version of Forward Look styling with its clean, lithe shapes and prominent fins temporarily wrested styling leadership within GM and caught the entire domestic US car industry by surprise when it broke cover in the fall of 1956. Well advanced 1959 car designs were cancelled and it was literally back to the drawing boards for competitors.

In Rüsselsheim, the first P1 examples of Opel’s flagship Kapitän model rolled off the assembly line in June of 1958. While lower (by 2.5 inches), longer and wider than its predecessor – itself also very obviously influenced by stateside products – the Kapitän continued to use its 2.5-litre inline six-cylinder engine, which was massaged a bit now to put out 80bhp.

Those who knew their cars easily spotted the resemblance to GM’s American output; panoramic windshield, a generous amount of chrome, and a jaunty reverse angle to the C-pillar; it was basically a bonsai iteration of the 1957 Buick Roadmaster. Not that the Kapitän really was that small at 15.5 feet long with a 110-inch wheelbase but, alongside the Buick’s 17.9 feet length and a wheelbase spanning 127.5 inches, it was notably condensed.

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With the widespread admiration for many things American at the time, it was understandable that a version sized for European roads and drivers was thought to go over well. However, in this smaller rendition, a few problems arose: that unusual rear roofline may have looked distinctive, but it resulted in a small rear door opening which hampered entry and egress for rear seat passengers, while headroom was also not exactly generous. In an effort to compensate for this, Opel moved the front seats forward a bit. This in turn ate into the available space for drivers and front seat passengers whose knees would regularly become painfully acquainted with the ‘dogleg’ reverse-rake A-pillars of the panoramic windshield when trying to enter or leave the front seats.

The Kapitän P2. Image: the author

As a result, the P1 Kapitän was a sales dud and Opel realised it had to do something about it quickly. To their credit, as early as July 1959 the reworked Kapitän P2 was ready to hit the showrooms; it had a slightly bigger 2.6-litre six with more power and larger wheels (14 -inch as opposed to 13-inch for the P1) but the most important and useful difference was in the styling. A totally new and more conventional roofline plus new rear doors eliminated the P1’s access problems for drivers and passengers. Overall, the P2 also appeared to lean a bit less on American stylistic elements, although the panoramic windshield remained.

The P2 was produced until the end of 1963 and would in fact end up the best selling of the Kapitän family, which was offered between 1938 and 1970 in eight generations

(1) Illustrative of how badly hurt Buick was is the fact that it discontinued all its well established series names (Special/Super/Century/Roadmaster) after 1958 and replaced them with LeSabre, Invicta and Electra, starting with the 1959 model year. It would in some cases be many years before any of those earlier names would reappear on a Flint product.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

30 thoughts on “Bonsai Buick”

  1. Here you can see how short the P1’s rear doors were even with their shutline cutting straight through the c pillar.

    A friend of my parents had a ‘keyhole’ P1 in primrose yellow but I have no particular memories of the few times I rode in the back seat.

    Keyhole Kapitän

  2. Good morning Bruno. Another hidden history revealed, thank you. The Kapitän P1 really was a dud. I guess Opel must have realised that even before it was launched in order to have a completely re-skinned replacement ready in just thirteen months. The P2 was still pretty American in favour, but much cleaner looking and not a bad effort in the circumstances:

  3. For me, the (keyhole) P1 is the most beautiful of the Kapitän series and one of the few old Opels I would like to own.
    I also see the P1 as a bit of a precursor to the Rover P5 (Coupe) – which admittedly is classes better looking and more desirable – and what Mercedes did with the CLS.
    Opel was too early and made the mistake of not offering the P1 in two body versions (4-door saloon / 4-door “coupe”) from the beginning.

  4. The Opel Kapitän was for a long time the only car bought by US soldiers serving in Germany after the war for civilian use. Not just because it looked like American cars.

    1. American soldiers in Germany could buy any car they wanted and they paid in $USD for them, tax free.
      They had car selling outlets of the PX system which made you envious for the prices (and domestic dealers sold them US versions at interesting and subsidised prices), they had their own fuel stations with prices in $USD, allowing them to drive any gas guzzler they liked.
      You always could tell the exchange rate between $USD and Deutschmark by the cars the members of the occupation forces bought. With a favourable exchange rate they tended to buy used BMWs or Porsches, otherwise it was new US domestic stuff.

    2. OKAY. I read about the Opel Kapitän in a recent

  5. American soldiers in Germany could buy any car they wanted at interesting prices. But there was no modern new car with an eight-cylinder engine on the closed market. The BMW Baroque Angel was new, but not modern. Only Mercedes-Benz (with Hitler’s nostalgia) and Opel offered six-cylinders.

    1. I grew up in the US occupation zone and I can neither remember a particular affinity to the Kapitän nor a specific tendency towards six cylinder cars amongst the members of the occupation force.
      When they wanted a V8 they bought US stuff brand new at the PX, including cars not normally available on the German market. They didn’t have to care for fuel consumption as their fuel cost next to nothing at the AAFES filling stations.
      Some of them bought used European cars they could never have afforded back home like BMWs or old Porsches, but only when they got lots of Deutschmarks for their Greenbacks. These cars were often sold on from one member of the US forces to the next because they couldn’t get them on the road in the US.

  6. I don’t remember similar criticism of the PA Cresta, which debuted in 1957, in fact it seemed to me to be quite popular. The 1961 face-lift made it even nicer-looking. I’m not sure the tamer PB Cresta was as popular, but maybe they were just less noticeable…

    1. My parents’ first cars were both late 1950s Vauxhalls, which as you well know, had plenty of US car styling influences. Mom’s was a PA Cresta with a grey/burgundy paint scheme and dad’s was a Victor F in grey. Unfortunately, we have no pictures of either and all this was way before I was born so I can only rely on their memories for any details.

  7. It has indeed been a very long time since being American-looking added cachet to a car design (with some later exceptions like Mustang-referencing Toyotas or a mini-Corvette Opel).

    I have to say that one of this Kapitän’s predecessors does a convincing job of looking American as well:

  8. American cars were for a long time the default choice globally for larger non-luxury near premium cars, simply because most domestic makers didn’t make cars that large at affordable prices. The entry level Ford, Chevrolet, or Plymouth was already larger than most European luxury cars. That changed about 1955 or so, when the American cars became too large and gaudy, almost jokingly so, while the competition was keeping up. If Mercedes became the default entry level premium car for the bourgeoisie in the mid sixties, Opel did have a window of opportunity in the decade before it. The Kapitän sold well simply because there were no other alternatives at that price point, they had found a green sweet spot in the market between affordable luxury and mass production.

    1. We should remember that these Opels sold at a time when BMW struggled to get the 700 to market between Isetta and ‘baroque angel’.
      In late Fifties’ Germany people considered themselves lucky when they could afford a 250cc NSU Max and dreamt of a car. When you had a Lloyd Alexander you’d made it – at least to four stroke motoring.
      There were only were few cars in that category – BMW ‘baroque angel’, Mercedes ‘large ponton’ or ‘long fintail’, Opel Kapitän and maybe Borgward Hansa.
      VW made Beetles and all Fords were smaller.

    2. My point is, this was the case all over Europe, and the Kapitän sold well not only in Germany but all over Europe as well for the same reasons. For example, it was the most sold six cylinder car in Sweden during those years, I would guess it was the same even in countries like Italy and France because the six cylinder cars they had were specialty cars sold in low numbers.

  9. The Auto Union 1000 SP was calles poor man’s Thunderbird. With fintails and covered wheels it looks more american than the T-Bird, apart from the europeanized dimensions.

    1. I think the real “poor mans’ Thunderbird” was the Sunbeam Alpine/Tiger – the designer had worked for Ford USA when the original Thunderbird was created.

    2. I remember seeing a 1000 SP at the Earls Court motor show in London in 1960. It was a white roadster, and my thoughts were not so much ‘it looks like a Thunderbird’ but more like ‘how are THEY making THAT – and with a two-stroke !
      I notice the Wiki page on this car mentions some being made with a two-stroke V6….

    3. There is no such thing as a DKW officially built with a V6 engine.
      Hans Müller, former head of DKW’s test departmemt, worked as a freelance engineer designing two stroke engines. He designed the Saab two stroke and his pet project was a V6 engine intended as a retrofit kit for DKW cars and built by Heinkel (who also had made the Saab engines).
      Some 1000 Sps were converted as private initiative and are very much sought after in circles of two stroke aficionados. As long as Hans Müller was alive his home town Andernach was the smelly two stroke Mecca.

    4. Dave, I think it´s a Series 1. Series 2 had round edged fins.

    1. They’re not that bad and at least they solve the narrow rear door problem!

    2. Yes – some of them aren’t bad. Some Opels of the ‘50s and ‘60s really did get some height in to their bodywork, though. It’s good to see them, nevertheless.

    3. Some definitely look like the builder had more chrome strips than he knew what to do with.

  10. I am having trouble figuring out how you can build a car on such a big wheelbase with such a small back door. Several smaller cars with a similar C-pillar shape come to mind, that didn’t suffer from this problem – Hillman Minx, PA Vauxhalls, to name two. The car doesn’t look obviously misproportioned, yet somehow they would up with no back door to speak of. Strange.

  11. The greenhouse is too small for the look they wanted to achieve, and pushed too much forward. With that kind of canopy, there should only have been room for a four light DLO even without the rear panorama screen. For that look they would’ve needed a longer greenhouse with a six light design, where the panorama screen intruded into the space of of the sixth light instead of the rear door. Also, front and rear panorama screen together makes the car look kind of pinched, as the bottom edges of the screens are too close to each other. Add to that that the rear door has an almost vertical trailing edge in front of the wheelarch. Compare that to for example Mercedes very traditional design language where the rear door follows the wheelarch almost to the top of the curve. With a Mercedes door the car would’ve gained an extra decimeter in door width, but that would’ve been impossible to match with the panorama screen, it would’ve necessitated a four light design. Quod erat demonstrandum with the Kapitän P2 redesign.

  12. late to the party, but wanted to add there’s some strong Peugeot 407 SW vibe in the Rekord P1‘s roofline. or vice versa. successful? neither.

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