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The blue collar-coupé came of age in the first months of the 1970s.
Inspired by the phenomenon of the Mustang and spurred on by the success of the Ford Capri (the car that showed the same idea could work in Europe), the years 1970 and ’71 featured a rash of new two-door, four-seater, four-cylinder coupés from the household names of motoring.
Renault, General Motors and all the Japanese marques saw a buck or three to be made on a product that could be retailed for more money – because it was perceived as ‘exclusive’ – but that was not necessarily any more expensive to build.
These bread-and-butter saloon-based coupés were the work of accountants and market researchers as much as engineers.
They were designed to be built in large numbers and a wide variety of trim levels, with engine sizes and price-sticker combinations to appeal to buyers who were willing to sacrifice doors – and a certain amount of rear cabin space – in return for a swish fastback profile.
With the weight of hefty advertising budgets behind them, it was just a matter of creating an image: most ’70s coupé ad campaigns played on buyers’ Walter Mitty daydreams and featured dorky characters who, once behind the wheel, would become suave and masterful and no longer have sand kicked in their faces.
Some coupés had rather more credibility than others. If the Morris Marina Coupé, for instance, was quite obviously just a two-door version of the saloon, then the Opel Manta, introduced at the Paris Salon in September 1970, hid its origins more convincingly.
It was a stand-alone model at first, although most observers guessed that the Manta shared its underpinnings with the still-unseen Ascona, a new rear-drive mid-range saloon launched two weeks later to fill the gap between the Kadett and the Rekord.
Opel was keen to point out that the Manta was a development of the Opel GT concept. That little two-seater, sold through Buick dealerships, helped to give the Opel name some useful profile in North America.
The more practical Manta would maintain that momentum in the US, where it was marketed for the first two seasons as the 1900 Sports Coupe and then the 1973 Manta Luxus.
It suffered the ignominy of 5mph park-bench bumpers – and progressively less power – but sold in relatively healthy numbers as a second car at a time when small European economy models were gaining popularity.
The Manta was styled by 32-year-old American George Gallion, under the guidance of Chuck Jordan before his return to the USA.
Gallion had moved to Opel from Detroit in 1969 to become deputy design director and was given six weeks in the summer of 1969 to style the car, known as Project 1450.
Despite official protestations to the contrary at the launch of the Opel coupé, Gallion’s brief from Jordan was clearly to come up with a Capri-beater.
Like the Chevy Stingray and Ford Mustang, it was christened ‘Manta’ to chime in with the prevailing fashion for naming sporty cars after the feistier elements of the animal and under-sea kingdoms: Gallion even visited Jacques Cousteau in Paris to get inspiration for the badge design.
Loosely inspired by the Manta Ray concept car and C3 Corvette, the new Opel had no body pressings in common with any other model and sat on a wheelbase that was slightly longer than the Kadett’s but a full five inches shorter than that of the Ford Capri.
From a company that had been reluctant to shake off American styling influences, the Manta, with its sleekly resolved fastback and hint of rear spoiler in its chopped-off tail, was deemed the best-looking Opel anyone could remember, and vastly more accomplished than Vauxhall’s stodgy 1971-’73 Viva-based Firenza.
The sales figures told the story: 52,200 first-generation Mantas were sold in 1970-’71, and Opel shifted almost half a million all told, compared with a derisory 18,000 Firenzas.
Luton’s failure to get to grips with the coupé zeitgeist meant that all subsequent Vauxhall-badged Cavalier Coupés would be based on the even more successful 1975-’88 Manta ‘B’.
All commentators agreed the 1970 Manta was a good-looking car. Even the no-cost-option matt-black bonnet treatment couldn’t spoil the clean lines and confident stance on its chunky – for the time – 185-section radials.
When most German cars had rectangular headlights, the quad circular lamps of the Manta gave it the aggressive visage of a Fiat Dino coupé. It also had a lot of lighting power by early 1970s standards if you opted for the halogen set-up.
The blind quarter panels didn’t do much for rear vision, but the Manta had more glass area than the Capri and prioritised a long, deep boot (with a high loading sill) over rear-seat space.
In Britain, adverts for the £1474 newcomer claimed five-seat capability – ‘Why should bachelors have all the fun?’ ran the copy – but most buyers understood that, like a Capri, a Rapier or maybe even a 2002, this was the sort of car young families with small children traded up to from an MGB GT, rather than it being an alternative to a proper saloon.
Though still wedded to the simplicity of rear-wheel drive and a live axle, the Opel engineers were given scope for creativity. The axle was located by trailing arms and a long Panhard rod, with vertically mounted progressive-rate dampers.
Additional lateral and longitudinal loads were accommodated by a torque tube that ran half the length of the propshaft.
With steering by rack and pinion, split-circuit disc/drum brakes and anti-dive geometry built into its well-insulated double-wishbone front suspension, the Manta was thoughtfully conventional rather than cynically crude.
It was widely noted at its launch that the Manta was an inch longer and two inches taller than the best-selling Ford, but had almost exactly the same 4ft 4½in track.
However, while the Ford came with the option of a husky 3-litre V6, the Manta was, at least officially, four-cylinder-only throughout its five-year production run.
The Commodore-engined TE2800 specials built in Belgium by Transeurop Engineering offered Porsche 911-style urge, but weren’t sanctioned by Rüsselsheim.
Opel had a preference for turbocharging when it came to building a really quick Manta, but the story of the blown versions built by Broadspeed on behalf of Dealer Team Opel in the UK is one for another day. Only 28 of these 125mph Mantas were built, all of them black and all with right-hand drive.
Off the showroom floor, 1970 Manta buyers could choose from standard, L or DL trim levels, or the SR Rallye package with extra dash instrumentation and stiffer suspension.
All were powered by the familiar cam-in-head unit, giving 68bhp in 1.6-litre single-carb/single-choke form, or 90bhp as the twin-choke 1897cc 1.9 S.
The latter was good for 105mph and 0-60mph in 12.5 secs as a four-speed, using the same ratios as the Rekord Sprint.
There was a three-speed GM Strasbourg automatic option with either of the twin-choke S engines.
The 1974 GT/E was a much more substantial development, however, with 109bhp extracted from its fuel-injected engine courtesy of the Bosch L-Jetronic plumbing that had become standard on US-bound Mantas.
In Britain we got the GT/E but were spared the single-choke 1.6, the 1972 1.2-litre model with its thrilling 60bhp, and various German-market special editions: Manta Plus, Holiday, Black Magic (based on the GT/E) and Sun Bazar.
We did get the luxury Manta Berlinetta, complete with sports wheel, heated rear window and vinyl roof, such as the burgundy example pictured above.
The accompanying white car with red stripes is a limited-edition Swinger, named in the days when the verb had more innocent connotations that had nothing to do with pampas grass and consenting adults. Both cars are courtesy of Opel’s historic fleet.
To the 21st-century eye the Manta is still a pretty car, if a little narrow, while appearing a touch over-bodied in relation to its dinky 13in wheels.
It is less fussily detailed than its Ford nemesis, but doesn’t have quite the same macho swagger as the Capri.
Circular tail-lights make the Manta unmistakable from the rear, and the skinny B-pillar with frameless door windows gives a visual lightness to the roof.
The Berlinetta and Swinger are both 1900 models. Lift their front-hinged bonnets and you will find Opel’s ubiquitous, oversquare cam-in-head engine, a non-crossflow design that originated in Detroit in the early 1960s.
Rugged and adaptable would be the kindest things to say about it; pretty it is not. And, being all-iron, it’s not particularly light, either.
Inside and out, the Manta twins share details such as styled steel wheels and ersatz wood trim around a basic set of instruments – bereft, in both instances, of a rev counter.
The Swinger is a three-speed automatic, with bright red cloth trim and headrests on skinny seats that are rather more comfortable than they look.
Its doorcards are more primitive than the Berlinetta’s, which have plush, velvety facings and wooden inserts.
You make do with Opel’s all-purpose hard, shiny steering wheel on the two-pedal Swinger, whereas the Berlinetta has a chunky ‘sports’ item.
The switchgear – including the heater controls – is centred rationally around the instrument cluster, while the fat C-pillars that flow into the disappearing tail don’t hinder the all-round vision all that much.
Low gearing and engines that get thrashy when extended mean that a Manta would not be your first choice for a dash across Europe – or even a sprint up your local autobahn – but judged as competitively priced, thoroughly competent transportation of 50 years ago, they are still willing, lively and stable cars that pull up straight and short, ride with appropriate firmness – without feeling harsh – and have less wind and road noise than you might expect.
The Berlinetta has a progressive clutch and a light, reasonably precise gearchange so you can deploy its ample torque to make smooth, sprightly progress; third will take you to something over 80mph if you are willing to endure the harsh tone of the engine when the second choke comes in.
Thanks to its willingness to kickdown, the automatic Swinger doesn’t feel at that much of a disadvantage on the road but, with fewer ratios to choose from, it leaves you less able to exploit the nifty chassis.
Both Mantas understeer just enough to maintain your confidence, with firm damping to help hold your line through steering that is more responsive than its 4.1 turns lock-to-lock would suggest.
They are agile and inherently safe, and offer no tricks to catch out the unwary.
Opel’s rallying prowess is steeped in the Ascona and Manta ‘B’, but you still sense the link to those cars in the Manta ‘A’, which proved that there was plenty of life left in traditionally contrived underpinnings.
In a ’70s world where it was by then well understood that a saloon could be made to handle as well as – perhaps even better than – a sports car, then a saloon-based coupé such as the original Manta couldn’t be a bad thing.
And if rare, luxurious and expensively engineered coupés were the birthright of names such as Lancia, Alfa and BMW, then Opel saw no reason why it shouldn’t have a piece of the action by selling the same dream at a price your parents could afford.
Images: James Mann
Thanks to: Opel Museum
Opel Manta A
- Sold/number built 1970-’75/498,553
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, cam-in-head 1897cc ‘four’, single Solex carburettor
- Max power 90bhp @ 5100rpm
- Max torque 108Ib ft @ 2800rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual or three-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by upper wishbones, lower transverse links, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms, torque tube, Panhard rod; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 14ft 1in (4293mm)
- Width 5ft 4in (1626mm)
- Height 4ft 5½in (1359mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 11¾in (2432mm)
- Weight 2111Ib (958kg)
- 0-60mph 12.2 secs
- Top speed 105mph
- Mpg 25
- Price new £1474
- Price now £10-15,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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