History originally published in AutoWeek August 5, 2002
The Opel Kadett was advertised as the “Mini-Brute,” and one could hardly argue with the first half of the nickname. The Kadett, built by GM’s German subsidiary and imported for sale in Buick dealerships, rode on a 95.1-inch wheelbase and its front track didn’t even break 50 inches. Yet in Rallye (yes, it was marketed with that quaint spelling) trim, especially with the 102-hp, 1897-cc engine, the promise of its “rallye” stripe was more than delivered. Priced at $2475, Road & Track called it “a lot of performance for the money.”
But in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine the Kadett as successful. After all, Car and Driver had famously savaged it in a road test, and Opels, which were sold in the United States from 1958 until they were withdrawn in lieu of Isuzus with Opel badges in 1976, are largely forgotten by the general public. But in 1969, Opel was second in sales among imports – thanks in part to having the largest dealer network (Buick), and also to having a lineup that included a sports car (the GT).
The Kadett/Rallye lineup included a basic two-door sedan and wagon, a fastback two-door sedan, the more luxurious LS coupe and the Rallye. Three four-cylinder engines were available as well, including a 55-hp 1.1-liter four, plus a 67-hp four and, optional in the Rallye, the 1.9-liter four.
General Motors was master at selling the sizzle, and it hyped the extras that were standard on the Rallye, including the stripes (twin black stripes down the beltline and black panels on the hood), “running lights” (fog lights on the front bumpers), “silver” (steel) wheels with chrome lug nuts, and simulated wood steering wheel. All this was on a body that looked like a stateside GM design left in the dryer too long, with strong hints of Nova and Chevelle in the front end and C-pillars.
Certainly there was some steak under the sizzle. The aforementioned 1.9-liter four had an unusual design. Usually called cam-in-head, it had wedge combustion chambers and rocker arms, but no pushrods between the solid lifters and the cam end of the rockers. The cam was driven by a duplex roller chain with hydraulic tensioning. A two-barrel Solex downdraft carburetor was standard on the 1.9, which had a very oversquare 93×69.8-mm bore and stroke, allowing a 6000-rpm redline. Maximum power, however, came only at 5400 rpm, with 115 lb-ft of torque at 3100 rpm.
A four-speed manual transmission was standard, with a three-speed automatic optional. The latter, a massive power sink, was best avoided. The 1.9 came with a 3.67:1 final drive ratio, compared to the 3.18:1 of lesser Opels, so the Rallye 1.9 “spins a rear wheel almost as avidly as an American V8 getting off the line,” according to Road & Track. Of course, the wheels were small even for that era of 13-inch rims, at only 5 inches bead to bead, and mounted with an almost dainty 155SR-13 tire. Well, at least they were radials.
And at least the Rallye had front disc brakes, with drums at the rear. Suspension was peculiar, with a transverse leaf spring with A-arms up front. Rear suspension had coil springs on a live axle. It was, of course, rear drive, as front-wheel drive was still limited to oddballs like Saab and Mini.
It was also a small car, as we learned behind the wheel of a 1970 Rallye 1.9 owned by Glenn Dusman of Hanover, Pennsylvania. The steering wheel – simulated wood, three brushed-metal spokes at all – is set at a rather bus-like angle, the column pointed down at three rather small pedals. A fourth pedal to the left pumped the windshield squirter. It’s snug side to side, and the hood looks narrow from the driver’s seat. The seats are chair height, and the shifter truly floor-mounted. There’s not much of a console. But the Rallye comes standard with a tachometer plus a trio of auxiliary gauges under the dash. Sporting pretensions there are.
We didn’t drive this 30-year-old Opel hard, but contemporary testers achieved an 18.3-second quarter-mile and a top speed of 101 mph. Skidpad data aren’t available, but reports noted a tendency towards understeer and stable handling.
The Kadett continued for one more year, but the Rallye was dropped when the 1900 series was introduced in 1971. These would be the last true Opels sold in the United States with the Opel badge. Kadetts, as inexpensive cars, were consumed in day-to-day driving. Any surviving Kadett, particularly a Rallye 1.9, is extremely rare. Mini-Brutes maybe, but not many brutes any more.