The cars we loved.
Today Buick is one of GM’s resurgent brands with a string of hits starting with the Enclave SUV and ending with the new Regal and Lacrosse. Interestingly enough, life support for Buick came from Chinese interest and more directly in America from of one of GM’s European divisions: Opel. The current Regal, Lacrosse and departed Saturn Aura are based on the same chassis that underpins the German designed and engineered Opel Insignia. It’s not the first time that GM has called on its German subsidy to help out Buick. In the 70’s Buick like all the domestic industry was hit hard by the one two whammy of fuel crisis and emissions regulations. Not having a small car in its line up would have meant that Buick could not respond to consumers who wanted smaller more fuel-efficient products.
The compact Apollo would be the smallest Buick, but was at least three years off. An even smaller arrival the subcompact Skyhawk would be many more years away. Buick needed a small car infusion right away. The solution was to simply import Opel’s from Germany. The Kadett had been a popular captive import for Buick for years. When it’s time was up in 1972, the compact and sporty Manta took its place at the bottom end of Buick’s US lineup.
Being the cheapest Buick did not mean it was the least appealing. It simply represented a different mindset from the large rear wheel drive V8/V6 powered chrome boats that Buick was churning out. The Manta line stood out as a family of tidy rear-wheel drive cars powered by 4 cylinder engines. Under the 1900 name, they came as a coupe, wagon and sedan. In contrast to the 1.9L in the Opel, the smallest engines in the typical Buick at the time was at least 3.7 liters in V6 form. In Europe the Manta was available with even smaller engines, but only the biggest most powerful found their way here. With 90 hp, the little Opel could hold its own against some of the emasculated post-emissions Buicks with V 6 power.
The contrast in automotive culture was obvious. The Manta was hidden behind big LeSabres and Rivereras as salesmen in some markets had little experience selling this type of car to the typical Buick customer. The confusion became more obvious when Buick struggled to figure out how it wanted to market the car. At times it was called Opel by Buick, Opel 1900, Buick Manta, and then finally Buick Opel. Other Opel like the GT were overlapping the Manta in the first two years only adding to the confusion.
The Manta’s main competitor was Ford’s Capri, another car with European roots, but with a more American character. The Mantas’ small size and somewhat low weight meant sprightly performance and good fuel economy. Most cars came with 4 speed manual transmissions, but 3 speed autos were options. They even featured power front disc brakes, a feature not seen on many small 70’s era cars. Over the course of the 5 years or so that the Manta was available there were three basic model options. The stripped down base car, the Luxus with corduroy seats, color coded interior and faux wood paneling and finally the Rallye.
The Rallye was the sportiest Manta and amounted to nothing more than an appearance package with some select performance tweaking. Engines were 1.9L OHC designs regardless of what model you chose, but with the Rallye, you got a stiffer sport tuned suspension, a tighter turning radius and a black hood with other blackout treatments. There was one special edition called the Blue Max in 1973 that was similar to the Luxus models with the addition of a mechanical sunroof and automatic transmission. The Buick Opel was well received by the press and eventually the buying public, which makes its short tour of America ironic. The decision not to import models after the 1975 model year came as a result of higher import taxes and unfavorable exchange rates. Yankee pride and stubbornness might also have been behind GM’s decision to build and market a home-grown breed of smaller car based on the new “X” platform (Nova/Ventura/Apollo).
The replacements sold well, but were not nearly as entertaining to drive as the smaller and nimble Opel. It would be years before Buick called on Opel again. Nearly all of Saturn’s line was composed of Opel cars at some point late in its life (had all Saturn cars been based on Opel designs earlier, the company might still be around). It would not be until 2010 that Opel would once again be sold in the US via your local Buick dealer in the form of the LaCrosse and Regal. Not selling off Opel may have been the best decision GM has made lately. Buick most certainly would agree with that.