Opel: Ireland’s No.1 Supporter

An insight into GM’s Irish satellite. 

Arnold O’Byrne promoting his memoir. Image: newsfour.ie

It was somewhere mid-pandemic, and the book shelves had been exhausted. The situation could only be remedied with the delivery of a book called Shenanigans. Written by Arnold O’Byrne and with the sub-heading ‘Lifting the hood on General Motors’, it is the lively memoir of a Dublin native whose career in the motor industry began in 1966 as a senior financial clerk at Vauxhall’s Luton plant, to his retirement as Opel Ireland’s Managing Director at the turn of the millennium.

According to O’Byrne’s period characterisation of Luton, it was “not a pretty place.” The Bedfordshire town was home to a large Irish population at the time, many of whom worked either on building the new M1 motorway or in nearby factories, Vauxhall Motors being a major employer. O’Byrne’s account is littered with stories of him dealing with fiery senior staff, bullies and corporate ladder climbers – some better than others. His first encounter saw him about to leave Vauxhall for Chrysler owing to ‘incompatibility issues’ with the finance comptroller, when senior executive Bill Delong stepped in and opened a door to a similar role at Dunstable.

By 1973 O’Byrne had become Credit Manager of GMUK and by 1979, Chief Auditor for the UK and Ireland. This position saw him dealing with sixteen GM operations, gaining an understanding of all aspects of production, parts and finance. The position came with a company car (he fails to mention which model), along with exclusive access to the executive toilets and waitressed dining hall.

During one of his many factory visits, on this occasion the Kennedy Way, Belfast factory which manufactured parts for the US, O’Byrne upset a senior official when he noticed workers eating from cardboard plates, and using plastic cutlery. Appalled, he attempted to sort the situation with the (unnamed) factory manager who exclaimed that he would rather have “that lot eating from vending machines.” O’Byrne took it upon himself to redirect more appropriate culinary ware from the soon to close Wellingborough plant, whereupon the manager told him he had interfered above his station, leading to “fraught” relations for years to come.

Another anecdote revolves around a company car scandal. Company policy allowed senior management to purchase two cars every year direct from the factory, at a 19% discount[1]. During a random check back in Luton, he noticed an unnamed model with a tinted windscreen – this not even an available option. Further investigation found upgraded carpets and gearbox and, suspiciously, no build card for the vehicle. A nightshift senior executive was coercing staff to build cars for him to sell on privately at GM’s expense.

O’Byrne notified his superior, who warned him to “tread carefully” since the executive in question was a friend and fellow Freemason. O’Byrne called the nightshift executive’s bluff – resign or he would bring in the police. He resigned, although the fellow threatened to ‘get him’. This at a time when ‘The Troubles’ could have lethal consequences, an Opel importer being gunned down in a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, O’Byrne’s manager fumed at losing a Lodge member! 

O’Byrne (centre and Charlton (right) at the time of Opel’s sponsorship deal with the FAI. Image: independent.ie

Prior to his appointment as Opel MD in 1985, O’Byrne also investigated a Dublin Opel dealer falsifying details, again in order to resell ‘new’ cars at a non-GM secondhand dealer. The dealer was reported, yet no action was taken by senior GM management.

Action GM management were more keen on taking was, it seems, reprimanding O’Byrne for doing his job. A new Opel Corsa had burst into spontaneous inferno, to the alarm of its female owner. O’Byrne drove to the customer’s home with a bunch of flowers, to apologise and to refund her the cost of the vehicle. He then travelled to Cork harbour where new Opels were landed, and had all Corsas impounded until the fault could be identified – travelling in person to Germany to investigate. This was quickly identified; “there was a problem with the wiring design when the cars were built to right-hand-drive specification. We solved the problem and probably saved the company a fortune”.

This however did not go down well with the mothership. “But when my senior management discovered I had suspended deliveries, I was told that I had overstepped my responsibilities and had acted contrary to company policy. I had done the right thing by the customers and the company, and yet I was chastised for it,” he recounts. The lady in question remained a loyal Opel customer.

Just four months into his Irish managerial stint, Arnold was approached by the Irish Football Association (IFA) regarding a sponsorship deal to the tune of 400,000 Irish pounds over four years. The national side would wear green shirts proudly displaying Opel branding, while Arnold would star in television adverts[2]. Ireland had also recently signed the legendary Jack Charlton as manager. Rather impulsively, Arnold had acted alone, being derided by staff members and management alike for not consulting with them on the deal.

However, as the chapter is entitled, “Be what you are, not what someone else wants you to be”, the deal lasted fourteen years with every Opel sold in the Republic sporting the national flag window sticker and tagline, Opel: Ireland’s No.1 Supporter. During European and World Cup championships, sales increased but even he admits to uncertainty over just how successful the football tie-in would become. The GM high-up’s were impressed[3] as Ireland was seen as a backwater with insignificant amounts of units sold – Los Angeles alone buying far in excess of the Republic’s annual sales figures.

Charlton gives it a lash. Stock photo of the Irish squad in Opel branded kit. Image: NSS Sports

The story continues with O’Brien travelling to watch the team, being involved with their glorious homecomings – even when defeated – the nation having got behind football through Opel[4]. A hauntingly similar theme continues throughout his career as he continues with what often seem rash decisions. In his lofty position, one would be expected to drive the company forward. Buoyed by the interest in the national football squad, Arnold launched a plan to “do away” with Vauxhall by having Opel the only brand[5], saving a fortune in badging alone. The UK Vauxhall MD was suitably unimpressed when learning of Arnold’s inept plan…

Image: pressreader

Instances of him being ignored, threatened and left to fend alone by senior officials continue to the book’s close. The reader is often himself left exasperated as much by the shenanigans of GM as Arnold’s naivety. He becomes mired in political problems when attempting to attract job expansion opportunities. He faces pressure regarding the purchasing of armoured cars and locomotives through GM channels yet receives next to nothing for his efforts in sealing such deals. And gets more than his fingers burned in an attempt by an insurance company to sponsor the nation’s football team.

Arnold O’Byrne does shine the humane light strongly however. His family values seem second to none. But one must question some of his ethics, especially when considering the known pitfalls, to which he alludes from the beginning, of working for such a company. He refers to the Ralf Nader conundrum: GM preferring to besmirch a character than address a production problem, something O’Byrne encountered on several occasions. Despite it all, he maintains being a ‘GM Man’. One has to pay the mortgage, but at what cost?

Rightfully omitting many names to avoid legal ramifications, Arnold spins a good yarn but leaves us with much to try and unravel between the lines. A cautionary tale indeed.

[1] Lesser mortals having to use a dealer and receive a 17% discount on just the one car.

[2] Becoming known as Mr Opel for his appearances and his open office policy for anyone buying an Opel in Ireland.

[3] To a point. A certain ambivalence seeps out from O’Byrne’s account.

[4] Prior to the appointment of Jack Charlton as team manager, the Republic of Ireland soccer team played a rather minor role in the national consciousness. This changed when the Irish squad qualified for Italia 90 and acquitted themselves with honour. After that the country got behind ‘Jack’s boys’, win or lose. To this day, Charlton remains a beloved figure across Ireland. (ED)

[4] The Vauxhall brand had already been withdrawn from the Republic of Ireland market during the early 1980s, Opel enjoying a better reputation amid Irish motorists. (ED)

Author: Andrew Miles

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

25 thoughts on “Opel: Ireland’s No.1 Supporter”

  1. Good morning all and apologies for the delayed publication of today’s piece. We hope you enjoy.

    1. I enjoyed it very much. It was a smart move, getting involved with soccer – these days we have Jurgen Klopp doing Opel ads !

  2. Good morning Andrew and thank you for an enjoyable review of what sounds like an equally entertaining read. Arnold cones across as something of a maverick, and a poor fit within the prevailing GM corporate culture. That said, he must have been considered of value to the company, given his long career and promotions.

    The Northern Ireland incident reminded me of a similar veiled threat I faced when I went to work there and uncovered a systemic fraud. My predecessor, having heard about my discovery, paid me a visit and suggested I shouldn’t go around upsetting people, or words to that effect. I ignored him and quietly cleared up the mess he had left me. He went on to become a highly controversial figure in Irish business circles and is currently awaiting trial for fraud. Plus ça change.

  3. Good morning all. Interesting book review, Andrew. I enjoy this sort of inside accounts of the auto industry, having read a number of them.

    By the way, I didn’t know they sold Opels in Ireland instead of Vauxhalls.

    1. Good morning Cesar, Indeed they do. Does that make Ireland Opel’s only remaining RHD market? Sales are a fraction of what Opel used to achieve in Ireland, totalling just 2,857 in 2022, a market share of just 2.71% which put Opel in 14th place. The only model that receives any advertising here seems to be the Mokka.

      The breakdown by model as follows:

      1 MOKKA 741
      2 CROSSLAND X 725
      3 CORSA 682
      4 GRANDLAND X 252
      5 INSIGNIA 249
      6 ASTRA 171
      7 COMBO Passenger 20
      8 VIVARO Passenger 12
      9 ZAFIRA 5

    2. Daniel, how can it be cost-effective for Opel to produce RHD cars, especially when there is a ready-made alternative? Surely the badging and brochure/handbook printing costs aren’t worth it.

    3. Daniel, Japan has been a RHD Opel market for years, and I don’t know about anywhere else, but under Stellantis, New Zealand has become an Opel market too. (But, currently, not Australia.) Our local former Holden dealer is now an Opel dealer with heavy emphasis on the electric models. The Opel logo certainly aids that. The projected sales aren’t enough to offset Holden’s previous sales so they are also a Kia, Renault, Seat, and Cupra franchise. (An interesting example of spreading the dealership’s supply risk, formerly with one company under GM, to four now.)

    4. Hello Andy and David. Thanks, David, for the information about Opel’s presence in Japan and New Zealand, and non-presence in Australia. Once again GM continues to perplex me with its branding. I imagine that Holden enjoyed strong brand recognition in Australia and New Zealand, so why not use that brand on GM imports rather than the much lesser known German marque? I’m probably missing something (as usual!)

      As I recall, the reason Opel was chosen over Vauxhall as GM’s brand for Ireland was simply because Opel was perceived as being somewhat upmarket of Vauxhall and had positive associations with ‘Germanic’ quality. I certainly don’t recall any significant anti-British bias against Vauxhall, which had previously enjoyed decent sales in Ireland and even had a franchised local assembly operation in Dublin, McCairns Motors. Incidentally, in Northern Ireland, Vauxhall was chosen over Opel, one assumes for political reasons, so both marques are still imported and sold on the island of Ireland.

      (P.S. I’ve just spotted Richard’s comment below, which describes the Irish situation very well.)

  4. Arnold might also have a mischievous sense of humour. Given his famed association with the Irish national football team, the backdrop for the photo of him promoting his book is weirdly inappropriate: that is the Aviva Stadium, a.k.a. Lansdowne Road, the home of Irish Rugby!

    1. Soccer has been played at Lansdowne Road in the 70s, when other pitches were unavailable…

    2. Hi Mervyn. True, of course, but that’s hardly the first thing that comes to mind when you see Lansdowne Road…especially after our recent double Grand Slam triumph!

    1. Yes, an enlightening and uplifting tale, not only successfully swimming against a strong tide, but making palpable progress. Especially notable that O’Byrne managed to remain employed for his entire career at GM, no less. For me the story immediately recalled another piece about a largely unsung motoring hero of ROI provenance whose impact greatly outweighs his fame (also courtesy of Andrew, keep these coming please).


  5. Very enjoyable article, I like a lot these stories. Thanks!
    I remember Ireland´s Opel sponsored shirts, and wondering why Opel sold RHD cars in Ireland instead of Vauxhall. But that´s GM…

    1. I assume there might have been a certain amount of sales-resistance to British products in 1950s Ireland…. Far easier to sell something German.

    2. Mervyn, I’ve wondered how MINIs have fared in Ireland since the rear lights were changed to the ludicrous Union Flag design.

    3. Yes- it´s a cultural thing. Opel sounds a lot better than the name of a dismal inner London suburb. The ROI has cars sold across the border in N Ireland (under British administration) badged as Vauxhalls. People buy them and so you see Vauxhalls with ROI license plates. The Vauxhall grilles always look worse than the Opel ones. Some part of this might be to do with pointy V shapes they try to work into the otherwise smooth frontal forms. Poor old Vauxhall. Their offerings always seemed less attractive than the Opel´s they were based on. Even ads from the 1970s when Opel sold cars in the UK contrive to make the cars look more appealing and sophisticated than virtually identical Luton versions.

    4. Andy – looking at the sales stats, the introduction of the union flag designs as standard in 2018 made little difference, with around 600-odd MINIs sold each year in Ireland. Around a quarter of Irish buyers chose to have the flag lights as an optional extra before they were standardised.

      I must say that I’d prefer not to have them on purely aesthetic grounds, I think.

    5. Hi Charles. I agree: the angular graphic of the ‘Union Flag’ taillights is very much at odds with the curves that surround it. The next MINI Hatch will have much more angular tail lights and it remains to be seen how well this will sit with the marque’s house style.

  6. I join the words of praise for this article – Mr Miles on top form again. I’m reminded that there was a brief period when Opels were sold in GB (we didn’t call it the UK in those days), ostensibly in competition with Vauxhall. In the late ’30s the Opel Kadett was available in RHD form here, and cheaper than it was in Germany. Almost certainly a GM ruse to enable it to bypass currency restrictions at the time which didn’t help its German operations. Quite a few were sold and proved to be sturdy and reliable machines – a few survive to this day.

    Off at a tangent – the Classic Car Restoration Show is on at the NEC (Birmingham) Friday to Sunday if anyone fancies seeing proper cars up close.

  7. Good evening all and many thanks for the kind messages; most appreciated.

    Daniel’s sales figures (and the RHD market question) certainly tell a story. The Irish buying 170 more Astra examples than those I’ve seen on the English roads near me. Hatchbacks? What they? And that vehicle’s sales figure beaten by the Insignia! Whatever next, GM returning to Europe…?

    Oddly, I’ll end on a football and Jack Charlton anecdote. Aged seven, I wrote to Jack (i still have the letter), him being manager of Sheffield Wednesday football club, asking if he needed my ball skills for the main team – and he replied! He thanked me for my support of the club (mainly my older brother) but suggested i keep training and try contacting them again when a little older. I lost all interest in football soon after as the automobile claimed more of my time – and so that remains. Jack remained a gentleman and reading his part of the Arnold O’Byrne story confirms that.

  8. Regarding RHD Opels, my experience of a D-Type Kadett (aka Astra Mk 1) and a Mk 1 Corsa (aka Nova) was that while they had RHD steering rack and instrument panel, the brake master cylinder and servo remained on the left side of the bulkhead, connected to the pedal by a long lateral rod in torsion. They may have used larger servo units to cope with the added friction in this arrangement.

  9. It is 2023, and they’re still showing Father Ted episodes on UK TV channels, widely watched in Ireland. Just watched Father Dougal going to bed in his green Irish foootball shirt, with “OPEL” written across the front in very large letters. That kind of brand sponsorship stands comparison with Ford paying 100K for the Cosworth DFV motor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: