The cars we loved.
Back when Buick leaned heavily on Opel for small cars, the German based division provided bright spots in an otherwise dull emission strangled catalog. The most versatile cars came from the Ascona range or 1900 as they were known in America. Somewhere between the tiny Kadett and larger Rekord, the Ascona was small enough to be efficient, but big enough to make a Beetle look cramped.
The versatility of the platform meant that nearly all of the Opels sold in Buick dealerships were somehow Ascona based or related. There was something for everyone: coupes, sedans and a three door station wagon. While the sportiest versions of the coupe were usually called the Manta, it would be the wagon that would be the most practical fun in the lineup.
The 1900 Sport Wagon proved to be just as fun to drive as the Manta, but had an air of exclusivity about it as so few example were sold compared to other American bound Opel cars.
While small wagons were not new, most of them like the Ford Pinto were not sporty in nature. The Pinto made small wagons cool with its lifestyle oriented appearance packages. While trendy, it was never confused for a driver’s car.
Another interesting trait of small wagons from the period was the popularity of three door configurations. They ranged from shooting brake designs like the Volvo 1800ES to more affordable options from Chevrolet (Vega Kamback) and of course Ford’s Pinto.
The domestic trend might have been driven by cheaper development costs, but the small three door wagons looked sportier than their four door counterparts from Mazda (RX-3) and Nissan (Datsun 510).
The Opel 1900 Sport Wagon took a straight forward and unassuming approach to performance, much like some small wagons from Japan later would. With its three door configuration and rear wheel drive, the 1900 was similar to the Pinto Cruising Wagon in that they were fun, although the Opel was not obviously so and in different ways. The conceptual fun similarities ended there. Like the Pinto, the Vega did not have a true performance version in wagon form.
The Vega handled better than most small cars right out of the box and may have been the closest domestic mini wagon to the 1900 in sprit. While the Vega took many of its styling cues from the sporty Camaro, much of its visual language inside was the result of mimicking the look of various intermediate cars.
The Opel was a sharp contrast in that it had a German business-like execution with a sporty semi-console. The clean exterior lines were repeated inside with a minimalist control layout, featuring a semi-console. Americans had come to expect this type of interior in other more expensive European cars from BMW, Audi and Mercedes. The little Opel clearly had the look and feel of a driver’s car – contrast that with a typical Pinto which looked like a hastily designed scaled down version of a big car inside.
While not purely upscale, Buick took advantage of the abundant standard equipment on the 1900 and its German engineering. Many of the features offered were not found on some domestic cars (of any size). Quad headlights, disc brakes and hydraulic valve lifters were typical of the then exotic features that were usually seen on larger cars.
Other features like a slick shifting four-speed manual transmission added to the Sport Wagon’s driver’s car mystique. A 11 second 0 to 60 time did not hurt matters either, putting the 1900 SW close to BMW 2002 territory. In fact the sprint to 60 was quicker than some of Buicks larger cars like the Regal Sport Coupe or Rivera. Only the V8 powered Apollo GSX coupe was faster.
As was typical of small cars of the period, the 1900 Sport wagon came with 13 inch wheels with wheel covers. With about 90 hp, the 1.9-liter SOHC 4 cylinder engines was not muscle car like, but it had more in common with other inline rev happy engines from BMW and Audi than Chevy or Buick. Fuel injection was added in the final year, but it was already too late for Opel in America.
The exchange rate with Germany was becoming unfavorable, making all Opels more expensive (hence upscale). Buick would later decide to develop its own small cars, a bet it would lose as the Nova based Buick Apollos were not well received or big sellers by any measure.
Buick now leans on Opel more now than ever for compact cars. Few remember the small Opels today that helped Buick pull through a tough time in automotive history. The Sport Wagon helped opened the door to small fun to drive cars in a time when a small car was seen as a necessary evil. More recently cars like Mazda’s Portege5 owed its popularity conceptually to pioneers like Opel’s forgotten little wagon from the ’70s.