Once upon a time, the Manta was a highly desirable car and sold in decent numbers.
Time has done the car few favours, and just 318 remain on British roads according to recent data, down from well over 2000 in 2001, and very few of them are of the original model from 1970-75 that we’re looking at here.
Opel is itself a semi-disappeared brand in Britain. Cars bearing the lightning badge were last officially imported to Britain in the late ‘80s, when the absurdity of General Motors selling two near-identical model lines with different labelling saw the German name deleted from British price lists, all models branded as Vauxhalls instead.
And there was a period a decade later, when personally imported Continental cars cost usefully less than their British counterparts, that saw some Opel Astras and Vectras making an unofficial return.
But Opel’s brief heyday in Britain came in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the Opel and Vauxhall line-ups were not entirely identical, and canny buyers discovered that the German cars were what their British equivalents ought to have been, but weren’t.
So your Opel Ascona was a better drive than your Vauxhall Victor, the Kadett a superior steer to a Viva, and the Manta a better-looking coupe than the half-hearted Firenza and Magnum, which were no more than oddly cut-down Vivas, although the rare and rapid droop-snoot Firenza (pictured) was something to covet.
The Manta emerged in 1970, a year after the Ford Capri, and was the partial handiwork of GM wunderkind Bob Lutz, who helped get Opel building better cars by semi-deliberately trashing one of its many inadequate saloons at a management ride-and-drive session in a largely successful attempt to demonstrate to fellow high-ups that Opels did not drive as they should.
It was a manoeuvre that would eventually make them among the more sanitary mainstream models of the ‘70s, Opel’s first improved effort being the Manta, whose curvaceous lines slightly resembled the spectacular fish it was named after. Like the Capri, it was merely a reclothed version of a mainstream model, sharing more of its components, including the dashboard, with its sister Ascona saloon than the Ford did with the Cortina.
Better than the Capri?
But the Manta had the edge when it came to handling and general sophistication, its coil spring rear axle doing a better job of preventing the kind of verge-threatening understeer that uncovered plenty of ‘70s fastbacks as the fraudulent sportsters that they were.
It was also a little bit more refined than the Ford, though some of this stemmed from its inability to travel all that quickly, the most powerful version mustering only 90bhp, we Brits never getting the 115bhp injected GT/E (pictured).
We didn’t get a German limited edition called ‘Swinger’, either, possibly for good reasons. But tuners Broadspeed did build 28 156bhp Manta Turbos (pictured), whose 7.6 seconds-to-60mph and huge front spoilers made these stand-out cars, though few survive.
In fact, it’s hard to find any first-generation Manta ‘A’s at all, most lost to the crusher despite styling that still looks good. The owners club offers the best hunting ground, but extinction beckons. Later Mantas are more plentiful, but they’re a dying breed too. Today Opel and its Vauxhall sibling are being subsumed into a different automotive empire - France's PSA - and we can only hope that they can somehow preserve their identities among all the Peugeots, Citroens and DSs.