The story of Oliver and his cousins
Or how Opel Kadett drove the German economic miracle - Wirtschaftswunder
In 1936 Opel became the first German manufacturer to offer a sensibly priced, compact family car called Kadett. Following traditions from the Olimpia, the Kadett inherited the steel unibody construction, which compared to the still popular separate chassis and body at the time was much lighter, more robust and moved the centre of gravity much lower. All of that plus a spirited small engine meant better dynamics, much improved handling and fuel economy that was miles ahead of the nearest competition. The whole car was designed for high volume and low-cost production. The brakes were now hydraulically assisted, the suspension configuration was brand new and innovative for the brand, providing a soft ride on the mostly missing infrastructure back then.
1938 Opel Kadett I - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
After the second world war, the factory fell in Soviet hands and even with the difficulties to switch it back to producing cars, since Opel was heavily involved in the war effort by building aircraft engines, the first Kadett had a second life as a Moskvitch 400-420, which was a mirror image, followed by the Moskvitch 401. All in all, the classic Kadett remained in production up to 1956 in one form or another.
A star is born
Opel were eager to continue building affordable family cars and so they've built a new factory in Bochum, to introduce their fresh idea of a Kadett in 1962. The cute little Oliver was even more compact than its predecessor, had a light-weight unibody and a tiny 993cc engine. It was in production for only three years before being replaced, but as Richard Hammond had proven, it turned out to be very reliable, dependable and capable on all terrain. Kadett A could also claim the title "Hammond-proof", since it was drowned in the Okavango, but with some clever fixing made it to the finishing line. Not a lot of cars are Hammond-proof, that's just a fact.
Opel Kadett A interior - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The little Opel had a full, if very short production life. It had a coupe version with sloping roof at the back and even a three-door Car-A-Van, as Opel called it. The interior was simple, logically laid-out and very youthful, with the dashboard following the exterior colour.
Opel Kadett A Coupe - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Keeping with the trends
With the demand for bigger cars, Opel had to leave Oliver early and answer to the market calls, introducing the Kadett B in a hurry. However, while it was only 5% longer and 7% wider, it was a full 9% heavier, which was not beneficial for the handling. But while the Kadett B looked like a very average saloon/coupe at the time, the basic construction had an influence for certain designers who were drooling around a sports car.
Three years after the start of the production of Kadett B, Opel introduced the GT. The design was heavily influenced by the Chevrolet Corvette, but with some unique touches. Most importantly - the car shared a lot of common parts and design decision with the Kadett. The engineers in Opel figured out how to make a properly lightweight (845 kg) and dynamic car, by placing the engine behind the front axle for better weight distribution. And while the engines were nothing to write home about with only 102 hp in the most powerful configuration, things like limited-slip differential, anti-sway bars and even engine bay lights were standard in the most markets.
But the biggest star of the show were the headlights. They were not just pop-ups, but they were rotating counterclockwise from inside of the car - a truly unique exterior feature to separate the Opel GT from the rest. It was such an inspiring car that it was used by the Italian coachbuilder Sergio Coggiola to create the Opel Sylvia GT. Unfortunately the handling was sort of a letdown, after the automotive magazine "Road & Track" did a test drive and pointed out a terrible understeer, speculating the reason for that to be too small tyres.
With the development of the GM's T-Car platform, Opel jumped on the global train and put the Kadett C on the frontline battle for market share. It was the last compact Opel to feature rear-wheel drive and while the looks were nothing spectacular for the time of production, it was a market success, selling 1.7 million cars in just 6 years with 52% of those being exported outside Germany. The sales were driven by the insane diversity of the model - saloon, coupe, caravan, limousine, hatchback, GT, targa-top (called Aero), etc. You name it - Kadett has it! There was even a factory dual-tone paint option, which was incredibly rare at the time for a budget-friendly car. I'll try to list all models in the gallery below.
With the start of 1979 GM made a major investment in Opel to present a brand new family of engines and gearboxes, along with the long awaited design updates. So the Kadett D was fresh out of the drawing board and finally looked modern for the era. Going back to its roots, the base model was compact, sensibly priced and family-friendly. This time, it was a hatchback as Opel decided that was the efficient form factor to maximise usable space without going overboard with the weight and dimensions. The range still included saloons, estates and 3-door vans, but it was rather conservative, compared to the previous generation. What made this Kadett desirable was the range of engines to choose from. Small and frugal were driving the sales and then the 1.8 L GSE made the headlines as a hot hatch sleeper.
Opel Kadett D - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
But one version in particular grabbed the attention of the motoring world. Called Kadett Pirsch, it was Opel's attempt to make an SUV from a compact hatchback platform. The Pirsch was a station wagon with rugged trim, fitted with a limited-slip differential, reinforced suspension and some offroad tyres, increased ground clearance, a skid plate, and shortened front fenders for better approach angles. The main idea behind it was hunting in the countryside.
Opel Kadett Pirsch - Credit: FavCars
Long live . . the rust
The arrival of the Kadett E on the markets in 1984 was legendary, so much so, that it was voted as a European Car of the Year in 1985. The new two-door saloon design and the still affordable GSI version were aimed squarely at the younger buyers, while the sensible four-door, three-box design of the saloon and the estate were the top choice for families. There was even a convertible version, built by Bertone in 1987. The choice of engines was rich, the car was solidly screwed together and the reputation of Opel was so far good overall. This particular generation was in production for 11 years and it became particularly popular in my country (Bulgaria) in the early 90s. My uncle owned one - a classic two-door with a 1.7 L diesel engine.
1987 pre-facelift Opel Kadett E - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Unfortunately for Opel, the Kadett E turned out to be vulnerable to rust more than the previous generations. While it was a great bargain, money-wise and had a market success, being also sold as Daewoo, Vauxhall, Pontiac and Chevrolet, most of the pre-facelift models started rusting after their first encounter with winter and salty anti-freeze road mixes. I vividly remember how I've seen a lot of those Kadetts in the the mid to late 90s and almost every single one had rusted somewhere on the side. This was a big blow to Opel's reputation in Southeast Europe, which was slowly becoming one of their biggest markets, as the economies there were emerging from the communism and newer cars were in a strong demand. Opel had taken the necessary steps to address those issues in the facelift model, but the damage was already done. And the proof of that is still visible here - Opels on the road have been few and far between after the Kadett E, even though they have some great bargains and high overall reliability, plus inexpensive and widely available parts.
Opel Kadett GSI - Credit: AutoBild
This was the time when Opel decided to drop the name Kadett and go for the Astra in their next generation, since that name was in use by Vauxhall and already familiar to the customers in the UK. Of course, the Astra got bigger, gained weight and eventually became the word, describing a generic car in some parts of the world. But thanks to Richard Hammond, the legend of the small and plucky Kadett lives on! Viva Oliver! ❤️🤩🥳