Opel Car Company History: A Century of Automotive Ingenuity
1863 – 1870 – At first, sewing machines
Born in Rüsselsheim, Adam Opel (1837-1895) trained as an apprentice in padlock making. However, during his youth, he travelled to various European countries and became fascinated by sewing machines. This passion led to the founding of Adam Opel in his hometown on January 21, 1863, a company dedicated to the manufacture of this type of machinery.
That same year he presented his first sewing machine and hired an employee. It also began to be promoted in the press, specifically in the regional newspaper Grob-Gerauer Kreisblatt. In 1868, and due to the excellent progress of the business, Opel opened new facilities.
1871 – 1880 – A model businessman
Opel, a meticulous man, concerned about the well-being of his workers, establishes the first health insurance. Although the founder’s concern causes new plans to haunt his head, the plant manufactures sewing machinery.
1881 – 1890 – Also, bicycles
Opel started a new activity in 1886: the construction of bicycles. Curiously, it follows the line set by other European industries that had previously been dedicated to producing sewing machines and looms. In less than 14 years, the German brand will become the largest bicycle manufacturer in the world.
1891 – 1900 – The heirs
Adam Opel passed away in 1895. His sons ( Carl, Wilhelm, Heinrich, Fridrich, and Ludwig ), fully integrated into the operation of the company, decided, given the fall in bicycle sales, to venture into a new branch of business: the automobile, an A means of transport that, paradoxically, Adam did not like, but which is mainly responsible – along with others, such as the railroad – for the loss of importance of cycles.
In this way, Opel acquired in 1897 Anhaltische Motorwagenfabrik, one of the pioneering German companies in automotive engineering.
Two years later contract is signed with Friedrich Lutzmann of Dessau, famous for his pioneering designs – inspired by those of Karl Benz – and supplier of automobiles for the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Opel started car production in Rüsselsheim: the first model is the “Opel Patented Motor Vehicle, Lutzmann System,” which does not enjoy the expected success.
1901 – 1910 – New voyage
The failure of the first Car made the partnership with Lutzmann dissolve in 1901. That same year, Opel signed a contract with the Frenchman Alexandre Darracq to initially import his vehicles and Renault. However, this agreement eventually leads to the production of the Darracq under license in Germany. On the other hand, the brand also builds its first motorcycle.
In 1902, the first Darracq chassis was equipped with Opel bodies and sold under Opel-Darracq. The first 100% Opel vehicle is released in autumn: the 10/12 HP with a 1.9-litre 10/12 HP twin-cylinder engine. A year later, the first four-cylinder Opel engine was produced, destined for the 20/22 CV model.
In 1906 a branch was established in Berlin and, a year later, Opel won the Emperor’s Prize for the best German Car at the Kaiser Prize Race, held in Taunus. The decade was completed in 1909 with the “Doctor’s Car” (named for its reliability and robustness ), the Opel 4/8 HP, the first step towards producing affordable cars for broad sectors of the public.
1911 – 1920 – Aviation engines
Opel launches a modular production system: prefabricated bodies that can be combined with different chassis and mechanics. It also attacks new market gaps; in 1911, the first aircraft engine was manufactured, in charge of propelling an Euler biplane. The company also offers a motorized plough for large farms. In 1912 he built the car number ten thousand.
Based on the experience gained in the great fire of 1911 that practically destroyed the Rüsselsheim factory, the engineers developed the “Rüsselsheim motorized fire pump”; initially supporting the plant’s fire department, although it was later sold successfully to various German towns and cities.
In 1913, Racing cars with pioneering powertrain design: 4,000cc 4-cylinder units feature four valves per cylinder and a camshaft driven by a vertical shaft. A year later, a record-breaking vehicle is built: its 12.3-litre mechanics have the highest displacement to ever come out of Rüsselsheim.
Opel continues to grow and becomes the most prominent German car manufacturer. Production of the popular 5/14 CV “Püppchen” (doll) begins. In 1916 the first 4.7-litre six-cylinder engine arrived, used by the 18/50 CV. In 1919, the brand opened a track south of Rüsselsheim, made of concrete and banked curves. It is the country’s first permanent race and test track, the predecessor of other circuits such as the Berlin Avus or the mythical Nürburgring.
1921 – 1930 – The Car becomes popular
In 1924 Opel invested a million marks in the modernization of its manufacture and became the first German manufacturer to adopt series production with line methods. In this way, the 4/12 CV, better known as Laubfrosch or ‘Green Frog’, debuts. It also makes changes to the commercial network and introduces a maintenance standard with fixed prices. In 1926, thanks to the revolutionary mounting systems and strong demand, the price of the Laubfrosch dropped from 4,500 to 2,980 marks. Then it drops to 1,990 marks. Thus, Opel makes it possible for large sectors of the public can buy a car.
The brand already enjoyed a 37% market share in 1928 and is the largest German automaker. As a preamble to its cooperation with General Motors, it became a publicly traded corporation. The Regent debuts the first Opel eight-cylinder engine. The avant-garde Motoclub motorcycle, equipped with a stamped steel frame, is also unveiled.
Likewise, these years began the RAK program of rocket-propelled vehicles initially intended for the aeronautical sector, which would not use them until many years later due to the lack of safety of this technology in that area (there was more than one accident with aeroplanes in flight equipped with those rockets).
Designed by Julius Hatryand based on pyrotechnic systems devised by Max Valier and manufactured by Friedrich Sander, these models (RAK 1, RAK 2, and RAK 3) are designed to showcase the brand’s advanced technology: on the Opel track, the RAK 1, a kind of boat with 16 rockets and a single seat with Fritz von Opel at the controls, covers the 1.5 km of the route in 75 seconds.
Fritz von Opel, Adam Opel’s grandson, reaches 238 km / h on the Avus circuit. At the end of the decade (1929), General Motors took over most of the firm’s shares. Opel becomes the first German manufacturer to set up an insurance company and a bank to finance instalment sales.
1931 – 1940 – Under General Motors
In 1931, General Motors bought the remaining 20% of the shares of Opel, which by then produced the Blitz truck and was the first manufacturer to establish an aftermarket training school. Four years later, it presents the Olympia, the first German production vehicle with an integral steel body and frame (low weight, higher passive safety, better aerodynamics, and a new construction procedure). It also opens a truck plant in Brandenburg with a capacity for 25,000 annual units of the Blitz.
Opel became the first German brand to exceed 100,000 cars produced per year. In 1936 the first generation of the Kadett appeared, with an integral frame and body assembly. Thanks to the manufacture of 120,293 vehicles, Opel is the largest European car manufacturer at the moment. A year later, he concentrates entirely on automobiles, selling the bicycle division to NSU. In 1939 it already employed 25,374 workers.
1941 – 1950 – The drama of war
The Opel one million arrives, specifically a Kapitän. In October 1941, a directive from the Nazi regime suspended the production of passenger cars. In addition to the numerous Blitz truck models, the Rüsselsheim plant manufactures landing gears, cockpits, and bulletproof fuel tanks for aircraft.
In 1944 half of the factory was destroyed – and the Brandenburg factory was reduced to rubble due to Allied bombardments. At the end of the war, in 1945, the Kadett assembly facilities were dismantled and sent to the Soviet Union as compensation, but a year later, Opel already launched a 1.5-ton Blitz. In 1947 the production of passenger cars was resumed with the Olympia.
1951 – 1960 – A quick resurgence
At the end of 1951, the reconstruction of the Rüsselsheim plant was completed, which a year later opened a new test track. In 1953, the Olympia Rekord was the first Opel with a monocoque body. In 1958 the new Rekord appeared, the first Opel to be exported to the United States. Annual production is back above 100,000 vehicles at the end of this decade.
1961 – 1979 – Continues to grow
At the beginning of the 60s, Opel recovered the name Kadett for one of its vehicles, which was fitted with a 993 cc four-cylinder engine. In addition, this model inaugurated the production of a new factory located in Bochum, in the Ruhr Valley. In 1963 the Rekord was redesigned with 4 and 6 cylinder engines.
During these years, the Opel range was made up of large saloons and coupes such as the Kapitan, the Diplomat, the Admiral, and the Commodore. In addition, it offered V8 engines of Chevrolet origin.
In 1970 the Opel Ascona appeared, which was developed to fill the gap between the Opel Kadett and the Opel Rekord, and thus face the Ford Taunus.
The Ascona would have three generations, and its production will not cease until almost 20 years later. A few months earlier, Opel had launched the Manta, a sporty rear-wheel-drive variant of the Ascona, to compete with the Ford Capri.
1980 – 1989 – Front-wheel drive and low consumption
The oil crisis at the end of the last decade changed the philosophy of the lightning brand, which now focuses its efforts on reducing the consumption of its engines. Thus, the first front-wheel-drive Opel arrives at the Kadett D. It will be followed by the third generation of the Ascona in 1981, which is immediately successful in the mid-size saloon segment.
In 1982, Opel inaugurated the Figueruelas plant in Zaragoza, which marks a substantial commitment with Spain. The first vehicle to come out of this factory will be the Corsa, which was available in two body styles: a 3p hatchback and a 2p saloon. Its rapid rise will make it the best-selling vehicle in its class.
A year later, in 1983, Opel celebrated the production of the 20 millionth car, and in 1984 what was to be the last generation of the Kadett was presented before being replaced by the Astra. In 1986 the Omega won the Car of the Year award.
In 1985 and as part of this effort to reduce consumption, Opel will be the first European manufacturer to offer catalytic converters as standard in its cars.
1990 – 1999 – 100 years, 50 million Opel
Opel begins the last decade of the 20th century being the first car manufacturer to implement a recycling chain for plastic. This system systematically removes hazardous materials, such as asbestos and cadmium, from the manufacturing process. At the same time, it achieves a sustainable reduction of solvents and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
In 1991, the Kadett production ended, being replaced by the Astra, which incorporates the Opel Safety System, including side impact protection, anti-slip ramps on the seats, and belt tensioners. This same year, the company launched its first off-road vehicle, the Frontera, less than a year ago, became the European market leader in its class.
In 1995, Opel decided to equip all its passenger cars with full-size airbags for the driver and front passenger.
In 1999, it turned a century and celebrated it with the Opel 50 million, an Omega from the Rüsselsheim plant.
2000 – Act Financial difficulties
In 2002, Opel opened a more advanced facility in Rüsselsheim and introduced four new CDTI Common Rail diesel engines and TWINPORT technology for fuel economy in gasoline engines. In 2006 the fourth generation of the Corsa was presented.
In 2008 and 2009, GM received offers from various companies to take control of Opel, but ultimately none of these operations concluded successfully. GM files for bankruptcy, and Opel is rescued by the German government, which injects money. That same year, Opel presented the revolutionary Ampera. It is an electric vehicle with extended autonomy.
In 2010, GM’s situation improved, and the viability plan for Opel was possible. In 2011, it signed an agreement with PSA Peugeot-Citroën, of which General Motors is the second-largest shareholder, whereby they will jointly develop and build vehicles in Europe to save costs.