Marching to a Different Drummer—1964 Opel Kadett Sport Coupe
There were many interesting and familiar cars parked at the 2018 Hillsborough Concours d’Elegance. Ferraris, Packards, Jaguars and some vintage racecars are what one hopes and expects to see at such a place. However, amongst the highly collectable and sought after vintage cars on the field this day, there was an outlier. It was attractive, if not cute in appearance. No one really knew for sure what type of car it was until closely inspecting it. The little car parked at the far corner of the field that everyone was curious about, was a 1964 Opel.
One can imagine that an upper middle-class American, perusing a Buick dealership in 1964, was thinking the same thing. Wading through a sea of monstrous Electra 225’s, muscular Wildcats, sexy Rivieras and sporty Skylarks, the potential Buick buyer also may have curiously wondered what that car was parked at the end of the lot. “Oh that car,” the salesman may have said, “That is the new Opel, made in Germany. Now let me show the fine features included in the newly designed Buick Skylark, right over here.”
A brief history
The Opel name has been around since 1862 when Adam Opel started producing sewing machines in Russelsheim am Main, Hesse, Germany. The first Opel automobile was made in 1899. When Opel was listed on the stock market in 1929, General Motors took a majority stake in the company, gaining full control of Opel by 1931. General Motors was expanding in the European market, having also acquired the British made Vauxall in 1925.
In the late 1950s, sales of small cars where on the rise in the United States and The Big Three American manufactures took notice. Sales of American Motors’ little Ramblers were soaring and VW Beetles were starting to be seen everywhere. The industry rushed to get some small cars on the market and by 1960 GM had the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford the Falcon, and Chrysler the Plymouth Valiant. A second round for GM came in 1961 with the introduction of the A-Body cars (Skylark, Tempest, F-85) and in 1962 with the Chevy II/Nova. But in late 1957, GM wanted to get some small cars on dealer lots before 1960, so they started to import the Vauxhall to be retailed through Pontiac dealers and the Opel to be retailed by Buick dealers. Most dealers really didn’t know what to do with these little cars and General Motors did not spend much money on marketing to promote them. By 1962, the Vauxhalls disappeared from Pontiac lots, however the Opel would remain with Buick dealers.
Opel introduced the Kadett in 1962, reviving the name used from 1936 to 1940 on what is now referred to as the Kadett 1. The new Kadett was a clean, modern, fresh design, available in three body styles. Station wagon, sedan and Sport Coupe models where offered, but only as two-doors. These Opels are known as the Kadett A and were produced from 1962 to 1965 when they were replaced by the Kadett B, which was made until 1973. GM brought the Kadett to the U.S. market starting in 1964. Opel imports to the United States had been just a trickle by 1964, however the Opel brand would pick up steam in the late 1960s as more models such as the Opel GT were made available and marketing efforts by GM increased.
A new beginning for an old Opel
The 1964 Opel Sports Coupe featured here was delivered new to Turner Buick in Hayward, California. The little Opel languished on the Buick dealer’s lot for months, prompting them to have the original vinyl seats recovered in the same brocade fabric used in the 1964 Buick LeSabre in an effort to sell the car to a Buick-type customer. Finally, in September of 1964, the Lapis Blue Kadett found a buyer when it was purchased by Glen Polzin, an engineer from Livermore, CA. Polzin drove the car everyday for many years before giving the Opel to his daughter to drive when she went to college. Eventually it developed mechanical problems requiring replacement of the engine. A replacement engine was sourced from a wrecked Opel and the little car was put back into service. It continued to be used by Polzin’s daughter until she finished school, and continued to be driven until 1985 when it was no longer needed and parked. After some years of basking in the hot California sun, it was sold and disappeared until it’s current owner, Joe DeBattista, discovered it.
“The car came to me in 2005.” DeBattista recalls, “My dad had purchased three English sedans in Los Angeles. They were being delivered by a husband and wife team that transported cars. I drove my 1990 Volkswagen Cabriolet over to meet them one afternoon to take delivery of one of the cars my dad had delivered, a Ford Zodiac MKIII. The transporter’s wife simply adored my little Cabriolet. I told her it was for sale and I was asking only $1,500 for it. I had picked up the Cabriolet for free due to it having some accident damage to the front sheet metal. With a quick trip to the junk yard I sourced a hood, radiator and grill to make the car complete. She said they did not have any extra money to buy the car at the moment, so I offered the car in exchange for two car transports from Southern California. That wasn’t going to work for them either, however…. She asked if I would be interested in trading for a 1964 Opel.”
DeBattista, having grown up around the British cars his dad collected, had an appreciation for them, as well American muscle cars. He really had no interest in small German cars, but being the curious car guy he was, told the transport lady to go ahead and send him some pictures with some information and he would at least take a look. “When I received the photos I instantly fell in love with the little car.” DeBattista remembers, “Being I liked American cars, to me the Opel looked like a ’60s era Chevy ll Nova that had been shrunk down. I agreed to trade my VW Cabriolet for the Opel so they hauled it up from Bakersfield and transported home the Cabriolet.”
Busy with other projects, plus relocating his hobby garage, resulted in DeBattista putting the Opel on the back burner until 2008. “I decided to see if the little car would fire up for the first time since it was parked in 1985.” Explains DeBattista, “I changed the fluids, plugs, wires, points, rebuilt the Opel specific carburetor (of which I lost a part and had to make) and added new gas. I had spark, fuel and compression, but I still could not get it to fire up. My dad suggested removing the exhaust system at the manifold, so I did and within one crank the engine lit off and came back to life! Once I had the engine running well, I rebuilt the brakes to make it a driving car.”
After getting the car to run and drive well, DeBattista decided it would be a cool car to use as a driver. It remained a beat-up old driver with a black spray-canned hood and deck lid for another year, when in 2009, he and his dad signed up for an ROP (Regional Occupational Program) auto body class. One of the benefits of the class was the ability to bring in your own project car and learn how to perform bodywork and apply paint to it. Working on the car in class, two nights a week, and with the help of some experienced, retired body men, the Opel’s body was perfected and a new coat of the original color, Lapis Blue, was sprayed on. The paint and body work was completed in 2011, but it was not what they were quite expecting it to look like—it looked much better. “At first, I just wanted the paint and body work to look just good enough to use as my daily driver.” Says DeBattista, “But we soon realized it had come out much nicer than we thought. We knew the car was rare, and the paint looked so good, we decided to do a full restoration”
Next, the drive train was removed and detailed, as well as the engine bay. DeBattista’s friend Danny Williams had just recently graduated from Wyotech and opened DJ Designs, an upholstery business where he carefully crafted new door panels and other interior pieces to duplicate the design and texture of the originals. The original 1964 Buick seat fabric and carpet material was located in Detroit after sending samples from the Opel to get an exact match. Many of the small parts were found NOS in Germany, but some of the parts, such as the light lens are U.S. spec only and were very hard to find. There are no reproduction parts available for a 1964 Opel, with the exception of weather-stripping and some gaskets that are stocked by a supplier in the Netherlands.
During the course of restoration, DeBattista learned just how rare his little Opel really is. According to his research, less than 3,000 Sport Coupes were produced from 1962 to 1965. The Opel Motorsports Club and forum members stated that they had never seen or heard of one in the U.S., believing his Sport Coupe was the only known example in the country at the time. Since then, he has been able to acquire two other un-restored Sport Coupes, finding one in Turlock, CA, and the other in Sparks, NV. Now three had been found and DeBattista owns all of them.
Unique Details of the Sports Coupe
The Sport Coupe was the top of the line, sporty car in the Opel line-up. Styling features include a sleeker, more attractive roofline than the one used on the standard two-door sedan, plus a fancier seat pattern than the one used in the other models. In addition to the unique roof, the front end of the car is different as well. The fenders, hood, grill, park lamps and headlight bezels are unique to the Sport Coupe.
The engine used on all Kadett models is a 1.0-liter (993-cc, or 66.2 cubic inches), cast iron, overhead-valve, in-line 4-cylinder, mated to a 4-speed, all synchromesh manual transmission. The sedan and station wagon models develop 43 BHP at 5,200 RPM. The Sports Coupe came with the 1.0S, “Super Compression” engine rated at 54 BHP at 5,500 rpm, yet another unique feature. A unit-body car, the Kadett features an interesting front suspension system that features a transverse-mounted front 3-leaf spring that sits up into a channel that cleverly provides mounting for the suspension, steering and the engine. The rear suspension consists of two conventional leaf springs supporting a live rear axle. Another interesting feature is a somewhat shortened torque-tube set-up, similar to the ones used on Buicks prior to 1961. The 91.5 inch wheelbase is the same for all body styles, and it weighs in around 1550 pounds.
Car and Driver magazine tested a new 1964 Kadett Station Wagon for their May 1964 issue with a bit of a snarky subtitle title that took a shot at the popular VW, Corvair, Renault and other small cars of the era: “ New invention: funny little foreign sedan with front engine, rear drive, and four tiny cylinders- and it still makes a good car!”
The magazine’s staff made some interesting observations while testing the “funny little foreign sedan”, stating, “The steering was almost very good. ‘Almost’ because the rack-and-pinion steering gear would feed back any and all road shocks, virtually undiminished- just like the old MG-TD. To Opel’s credit, the steering is quick and dead-accurate- also like the venerable TD.” They go on to say: “One characteristic we had not expected in this ultra-light, conventionally-suspended sedan was a good ride. Yet that is exactly what it has. Not the kind of ‘What cobblestones?’ ride you get in a big domestic sedan, obviously, but quite good by any small car standard.”
The station wagon they tested recorded a 0 to 60mph time in a leisurely 21.2 seconds and turned in a blistering quarter mile time of 21.7 seconds at 60.6 mph. The testers speculated the 54 BHP engine standard in Sport Coupe and optionally available for the “power mad” buyer in the sedan and wagon, it should make the Kadett march along somewhat more smartly; albeit not smartly enough to excite anyone greatly. The inescapable truth is that any domestic car, and many of the imports, can kick sand in the Katett’s headlights anytime.”
Overall, it seems Car and Driver liked the Opel, coming to this conclusion and forecasting a bright future for the little car: “The Kadett is a bit noisy, mechanically, but it is also extremely well finished considering the low purchase price. The doors shut close with a satisfying thump, and all of the various body pieces fit with a minimum of gaps. Fully as important as the overall quality is the fact that the car will be distributed by Buick, and service will, in theory at least, be obtainable at any of the several hundred Buick dealerships around the country. With everything the Opel Kadett has going for it (including a rousing success in Europe), it might just be the smash hit of the coming sales season. We’ll be watching.”
The Kadett marches on
Though not completely “done” yet in DeBattista’s opinion, he began showing the Kadett in 2014. It has been displayed at the Monterey Car Week, where it participated in the Camel-by-the Sea Concours on the Avenue, the Little Car Show, Concours d’Lemons and the Carmel Mission Classic. It has also been to the Hillsborough Concours d’Elegance and the Greystone Mansion Concours d’Elegance, where it was admired by Jay Leno. DeBattista brought the Opel to the big Hot August Nights show in Reno, placing in several of the stock original classes at the show. A production crew recently shot a video piece on the car, and it is to be featured in a soon to be released video game as well.
It seems the little Opel is more popular than ever, as the proud car’s owner explains, “I have documented the car’s exploits and travels on Instagram, using the hashtag #littleopelthatcould. I came up with this hashtag because it is usually shown at the same shows as the monsters of the collector car world. The Opel always attracts attention and smiles, due to the fact that people love the car and have never seen one in recent times. The car has been successful, winning many of the shows it has been entered in, many times placing better than cars with expensive professional restorations. This car was a 100 percent Father/Son and friends project, and it has never been in a shop other than my own. It has been one of my greatest achievements in cars. I’ve had some other great cars, but the joy this car brings me when I drive or show it out weighs it all.”