Opel is one of Europe’s largest automakers. Founded by Adam Opel in 1862, the company celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012. With the electric-powered Ampera, Opel established a new segment in the European automotive market and reinforced its role as a trailblazer in advanced mobility solutions.
Opel is conducting the largest product offensive in its history and will introduce 23 new vehicles and 13 new engines by 2016. Currently the spotlight is on the small lifestyle ADAM and the elegant Cascada convertible.
Headquartered in Rüsselsheim, the company has 11 plants and four development and test centers in seven European countries. Opel employs around 37,000 people in Europe, with nearly 20,000 in Germany (status December 2012). Opel and its British sister brand Vauxhall are present in over 50 countries. In 2012 over one million passenger cars and light commercial vehicles were sold.”
The company was founded in Rüsselsheim, Hesse, Germany, on January 21, 1862, by Adam Opel. At the beginning, Opel just producedsewing machines in a cowshed in Rüsselsheim. Above all, his success was based on his perfectly customized sewing machines. Because of the quick growth of his business, in 1888 the production was relocated from the cowshed to a more spacious building in Rüsselsheim. Encouraged by success, Adam Opel launched a new product in 1886: He began to sell high-wheel bicycles, also known as penny-farthings. Besides, Opel’s two sons participated in high-wheel bicycle races and thus promoted this means of transportation. Therefore, the production of high-wheel bicycles soon exceeded the production of sewing machines. At the time of Opel’s death in 1895, he was the leader in both markets.
The first cars were produced in 1899 after Opel’s sons entered into a partnership with Friedrich Lutzmann, a locksmith at the court inDessau in Saxony-Anhalt, who had been working on automobile designs for some time. These cars were not very successful and so the partnership was dissolved after two years, following which Opel’s sons signed a licensing agreement in 1901 with the FrenchAutomobiles Darracq S.A. to manufacture vehicles under the brand name “Opel Darracq”. These cars were made up of Opel bodies mounted on a Darracq chassis, powered by a two-cylinder engine.
The company first showed cars of its own design at the 1902 Hamburg Motor Show, and started manufacturing them in 1906, with Opel Darracq production being discontinued in 1907.
In 1909, the Opel 4/8 PS model, known as the “Doktorwagen” “Doctor’s Car” was produced. Its reliability and robustness were greatly appreciated by physicians, who drove a lot to see their patients, back when hard-surfaced roads were still rare. The “Doktorwagen” sold for only 3,950 marks, about half as much as the luxury models of its day.
In 1911, the company’s factory was virtually destroyed by fire and a new one was built with more up-to-date machinery. By 1914, Opel had become the largest German manufacturer of motor vehicles.
In the early 1920s, Opel became the first German car manufacturer to incorporate a mass production assembly line in the building of their automobiles. In 1924, they used their assembly line to produce a new open two-seater called the “Laubfrosch”. The Laubfrosch was finished exclusively in green lacquer. The car sold for an expensive 4,500 marks (expensive considering the less expensive manufacturing process) but by the 1930s this type of vehicle would cost a mere 1,990 marks – due in part to the assembly line, but also due to the skyrocketing demand for cars. Adam Opel led the way for motorized transportation to become not just a means for the rich, but a reliable way for people of all classes to travel.
Opel had a 37.5% market share in Germany and was also the country’s largest automobile exporter in 1928. The “Regent” – Opel’s first eight-cylinder car – was offered. The RAK 1 and RAK 2 rocket-propelled cars made sensational record-breaking runs.
In March 1929, General Motors (GM), impressed by Opel’s modern production facilities, bought 80% of the company, increasing this to 100% in 1931. The Opel family gained $33.3 million from the transaction. Subsequently, during 1935, a second factory was built atBrandenburg for the production of “Blitz” light trucks.
1935 was the year in which Opel became the first German car manufacturer to produce over 100,000 vehicles a year. This was based on the popular Opel “P4” model. The selling price was a mere 1,650 marks and the car had a 23 hp (17 kW) 1.1 L four-cylinder engine and a top speed of 85 km/h (53 mph).
Opel also produced the first mass-production vehicle with a self-supporting (“unibody”) all steel body. They called the car, launched in 1935, the Olympia. With its small weight and aerodynamics came an improvement in both performance and fuel consumption. Opel receives a patent which is considered one of the most important innovations in automotive history.
The 1930s was a decade of growth, and by 1937, with 130,267 cars produced, Opel’s Rüsselsheim plant was Europe’s top car plant in terms of output, while ranking seventh worldwide.
1939 saw the presentation of the highly successful Kapitän. With a 2.5 L six-cylinder engine, all-steel body, front independent suspension, hydraulic shock absorbers, hot-water heating (with electric blower), and central speedometer. 25,374 Kapitäns left the factory before intensification of World War II brought automotive manufacturing to a temporary stop in the Autumn of 1940, by order of the government.
World War II
World War II brought to Rüsselsheim the only year in the entire history of Opel – 1945 – in which it produced no vehicles at all, since that first Lutzmann-authored Opel was made in 1899. Before the conflict broke out, the Adam Opel AG had established itself as the largest motor vehicle manufacturer in Europe. The combination of Opel know-how with GM resources had produced outstanding results. In spite of stifling red tape, the economic atmosphere in Germany in the 1930s had powerfully fertilized the growth of this and other auto companies. But in the case of Opel, at least, it was clear that the expansion of this industrial machine was not directed in any way toward military objectives.
Even after June 1940, official connections between Opel and America were not broken and monetary gain continued throughout the war which was controlled by the J.P Morgan firm, the Rüsselsheim plant was never given a major role in Germany’s war preparations. Neither was Ford’s plant in Cologne considered trustworthy enough for a big assignment, such as tank manufacture, in view of their earlier foreign associations. Initially, of course, it had appeared that the war would be a short one settled in Germany’s favour. Auto plants were shut down, to conserve resources, but not converted to other jobs.
When in 1942 it became clearer that the fighting would go on for a while, car and truck factories were switched to war work in a modest way, Opel taking up the production of aircraft parts and tanks. Only at the Brandenburg plant did truck manufacture roar ahead at full speed. From the end of 1938 onward to big Opel Blitz trucks had been powered by the same basic 3.6 L engine used in the Opel Admiral. To meet the growing demands of wartime, 3 short tons (2.7 t) trucks of Opel design were built under license by Daimler-Benz at the former Benz factory at Mannheim.
One of the most versatile small German military vehicles, the Kettenkrad, a blend of tractor and motorcycle, was powered with a 1.4 LOlympia four-cylinder engine. Produced by NSU, it had motorcycle-type front-wheel steering for gentle turns and negotiated tight corners with brakes on the propelling caterpillar tracks. The Kettenkrad towed antitank guns and transported troops and signal gear in several theaters of war. NSU continued to make it after the war for use in mines and forests. It was one of the few vehicles that could do jobs formerly performed by horses for which, owing to the shortage of oats, there was even less fuel available than for motor vehicles.
As the war progressed, military authorities placed greater stress on the development of air-cooled engines, which they felt had more immunity to damage from weather, shellfire and misuse. To meet this demand, Opel engineers developed an unusual variation on normal cooling for the 3.6 L truck engine. It was called “air-oil cooling,” and used engine oil to take heat away from the jackets around the cylinderbarrels. The heads were directly cooled by air, there being three separate aluminum finned heads, each serving two cylinders. Of this interesting engine, which developed 72 hp (54 kW; 73 PS) at 3,000 rpm on 74-octane fuel, only three examples were built.
Other special jobs were undertaken at the Rüsselsheim factory. One that was too exotic to be typical was the construction of an intercooler for the supercharger of the famous Junkers Jumo aircraft engine. Special methods had to be developed to fabricate this vital assembly from very thin sheets of aluminum. With work like this going on, Germany’s enemies naturally took note of the various Opel plants and, starting in August 1944, began attacking them by air. Destruction was heavy at both Rüsselsheim and Brandenburgfrom the attacks by Allied bombers. Never was the outlook more bleak at Adam Opel AG than in the first months of 1945.
Opel had been transformed and rebuilt before. Beyond the efforts of the company’s staff, there was very little functioning in the factories and plants. Many of the tools with which they once had worked were gone. The Brandenburg truck plant fell into the Russian Zone of a divided post-war Germany. It did not stay there long. All the machinery and equipment – right down to the window frames and bathroom fixtures – was dismantled and shipped to a site near the Ural mountains.
Cars as well as truck production lines were lost by Opel. As reparations for war destruction, under plans of the Allied Forces, the Soviet Union asked the Allied Military Government for the tools, jigs, dies, fixtures, and drawings for the Kadett. This, they said, they would use to begin auto production at an Opel subsidiary in Russian-occupied Leipzig. The equipment was duly delivered to the Soviets in June 1946, and that was the last Opel was to see of it – but not of the Kadett.
Just a year later a new Soviet car, the Moskvitch 400, rolled off a Moscow assembly line. It seemed to be the Opel Kadett in every detail, with only the name changed (various sources provide contradictory information; see the respective article). By late 1950, the Russians were exporting these Kremlin Kadetts to Belgium, stressing in their promotion that spare parts could easily be obtained from Germany. Not until 1959 was a Moskvitch model introduced that bore no trace of Opel engineering. And by that time, Opel was just about ready to introduce a new Kadett of its own.
Only the strong resistance of the American government within whose zone of occupation Rüsselsheim was located, prevented the total dismantling of the entire Opel plant as reparations in Russia. GM had no say in these discussions and was not sure just what posture to take toward its subsidiary. GM’s Alfred Sloan recalled:
“(Opel) had been seized by the German government soon after the war began. In 1942 our entire investment in Opel amounted to about $35 million, and under a ruling which the Treasury Department had made concerning assets in enemy hands, we were allowed to write off the investment against current taxable income. But this ruling did not end our interest in, or responsibility for, the Opel property. As the end of the war drew near, we were given to understand that we were still considered the owners of the Opel stock; and we were also given to understand that as the owners, we might be obliged to assume responsibility for the property.” It was a responsibility that Sloan and his associates weren’t at all sure was worth the risk in the chaos of postwar Europe.
One resource that did not appear on the books of General Motors or on the rolls of the occupying authorities was most responsible for the recovery of Opel in 1945: the collaborative nature of its workers. They were not itinerant hires who had looked on their work at Rüsselsheim as just another job. They were men and women who had, for the most part, come from that immediate area, many from the country, and had literally grown up with the Adam Opel AG. The fate of Opel was important to its workers, for its collapse would mean the loss of the most important employer for the people of Rüsselsheim, who were finding their way home from the chaos of war.
Just at war’s end a small skeleton crew began clearing the rubble from the plant. By May 1945, this work had advanced enough to allow the beginning of production of desperately needed Opel parts. Getting the materials for them was more dependent on barter and black markets than it was on normal sources of supply, which had all but ceased to exist.
After the end of the war, with the Brandenburg plant dismantled and transported to Russia, and 47% of the buildings in Rüsselsheim destroyed, former Opel employees began to rebuild the Rüsselsheim plant.
In response to the pressing need for new trucks in a Germany struggling to rebuild, the American authorities governing Rüsselsheim granted permission to the plant to produce a 1.5 short tons (1.4 t) truck powered by the 2.5 L Kapitän engine. It was a minor miracle that even this was possible. By January 1946, the plant itself was ready to build trucks but many of the almost 12,000 parts needed to make each one were lacking. Before the big firms could begin, the small ones had to get started too. And illness and poor nutrition so crippled the staff of 6,000 workers that it was normal for 500 to be too sick to come to work and more than 400 to report sick during the day.
Overcoming these and other obstacles, Opel finally celebrated the completion of the first postwar Opel Blitz truck on 15 July 1946 in the presence of U.S. Army General Geoffrey Keyes and other local leaders and press reporters. Priced at 6600RM, the truck was designed to run either on gasoline or on wood gas, for which a gas generator could be supplied. With a ceremonial bouquet of flowers flying from its rear-view mirror, this historic Opel Blitz left the factory gate bound for a buyer in Wiesbaden on 26 July. Further production followed at a rate of 150 a month, and by the end of 1946 the production total was 839. Frigidaire refrigerators were also being made at Rüsselsheim, as were Olympia engines for the NSU Kettenkrad.
The next step for Opel was the resumption of passenger car production. It might have seemed easiest to bring back the Kapitän first, since its engine was already in production for the truck. But occupation regulations restricted German civilians to cars of 1.5 L or less, which made the Olympia the obvious candidate. Under Dr. Ing e.h. Karl Stief, who had been chief engineer at Opel since 1934, useful changes were made to this tough little car. The Dubonnet front suspension was replaced by a conventional coil-and-wishbone layout and the steering was correspondingly rearranged.
Announced in November 1947, production of the post-war Olympia, with austere painted hubcaps, began in December 1948 and allowed a modest return to export sales in that year. In October 1948, the Kapitän came back to the Opel lineup, unchanged except for such details as the shape of the headlights and improvements in the leaf springs and dampers. Prices in 1948 were 9950 DM for the Kapitan and 6,785 DM for the Olympia (the Deutschmark having replaced the Reichsmark on 20 June 1948).
Other events which would powerfully affect Opel’s future were taking place in 1948. In February and March, a GM study group came to Germany to investigate every aspect of Europe’s economic situation and Opel’s special problems. On their return they submitted a report, on March 26, recommending that General Motors resume control of Opel. On April 5, however, GM’s financial policy committee concluded that “in view of the many uncertainties surrounding the operation of this property, the Corporation is not justified in resuming the responsibility for its operation at this time…” GM, it seemed, didn’t want Opel.
Such executives as Alfred P. Sloan Jr., and Charles Wilson, GM’s President, then were considering the options. Later in April, Sloan sought to resolve the differences of opinion with a position paper that he hoped would set up conditions for resuming control of Opel that would put at rest the doubts of GM’s more conservative financial minds.
Sloan suggested that GM take the helm of Opel again for a two-year “probationary” period to see whether the economic conditions, then called “close to stagnation” in Germany, would improve. Sloan set other important goals: “General Motors should risk no additional capital in Opel. Credit facilities should be available. We should have complete freedom in personnel policies and administration. The products produced by Adam Opel AG should be solely within the jurisdiction of management, and if prices had to be approved by government authority, a reasonable return on the capital should be allowed.”
With these guidelines in mind, the Opel question was put again on 3 May to the GM financial policy committee, which then withdrew its objections to a return to Rüsselsheim. Many, many details still had to be worked out, both within GM and in the U.S. occupied zone of Germany, before this could actually occur. At last, the official word was released on 1 November 1948: GM resumed management control of Adam Opel AG. Edward W. Zdunek, formerly regional manager for Europe of General Motors Overseas Operations Division, was named managing director.
The appointment of Zdunek to this post was a move of special significance. An experienced motor industry executive, he reportedly was most respected by those, who worked for him. Ed Zdunek was regarded as the perfect choice to guide Opel through this difficult environment of postwar Germany. He continued in that critical position until 1961.
Changes in the Opel cars under GM’s management didn’t appear until January 1950, when a face-lifted Olympia was introduced. Front and rear fenders were elongated and a heavy horizontal chrome grille was added. A retrograde step was the replacement of the four-speed gearbox with a three-speed unit, with a column shift lever. Engine tuning emphasized high torque at low engine speeds so the extra ratio wasn’t too sorely missed. The cabrio-coach model was returned to the Olympia range and a kombi was also offered, built by Karosserie Miesen. In February 1951, in preparation for the first postwar automobile show in Germany, the Olympia was dressed up further with a trunk compartment that enclosed the spare tire and 15-inch (38 cm) wheels instead of 16-inch (41 cm) wheels and tires. With minor further changes, this model lasted to March 1953.
Detail improvements, such as a new dashboard and a steering column shift, embellished the Kapitän line in May 1950. Bigger changes were saved for March 1951, to anticipate the opening of the doors of the Frankfurt show on April 19 for an 11-day run. Its earlier fast-back style was modified to a mild notch-back contour, and a new horizontal grille – not the prettiest in Opel history – dominated the frontal view. With a higher compression ratio (still only 6.25:1), engine power was 58 bhp (43 kW; 59 PS) at 3,700 rpm and top speed was 80 mph (130 km/h). Output increased to 60 bhp (45 kW; 61 PS) during the further life of this model, which ended in July 1953.
More or less by ‘fait accompli’, in the absence of the tools to build the Kadett, Opel found itself in the middle-priced bracket in Germany’s postwar auto market, sandwiched between VW and Mercedes-Benz. This was a position that was not unfamiliar to both GM and Opel, and one in which it did amazingly well. In 1953, output rose above 100,000 units for the first time since the war, and in 1954, when the sprawling plant by the Main River was considered completely rebuilt, 24,270 were employed at Adam Opel AG and 167,650 vehicles were built—an all-time high. Opel actually fully recovered from the consequences of the postwar era.
Opel’s first turbocharged car was the Opel Rekord 2.3 TD, first shown at Geneva in March 1984.
Following the 2008 global financial crisis, on 10 September 2009, GM agreed to sell a 55% stake in Opel to the Magna group with the approval of the German government. The deal was later called off.
With ongoing restructuring plans Opel announced the closure of its Antwerp plant in Belgium.
In 2010 Opel announced that it will invest around €11 billion in the next five years. One billion of that is designated solely for the development of innovative and fuel-saving engines and transmissions.
On 29 February 2012 Opel formally announced the creation of a major alliance with PSA, as part of which GM became PSA’s second-largest shareholder, after the Peugeot family, with a holding of 7%. The alliance is intended to enable $2 billion per year of cost savings through platform sharing, common purchasing and other economies of scale.”
*Information from Opel.com and Wikipedia.org
**Video published on YouTube by “Opel“