The cars we loved.

1972-1975 Opel 1900 Sport Wagon: Small Hauling Big Fun

1972 Opel 1900 Sport Wagon

1973 Opel 1900 Sport Wagon (with aftermarket spoiler)

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.

1974 Opel 1900 Sportwagon

1974 Opel 1900 Sport Wagon

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).

1975 Opel 1900 Dash

1975 Opel Sportwagon Dash

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.

1973 Opel 1900 Sport Wagon

1973 Opel 1900 Sport Wagon

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.

1973 Opel Wagon

1973 Opel Wagon


12 comments on “1972-1975 Opel 1900 Sport Wagon: Small Hauling Big Fun

  1. Dave
    December 25, 2013

    The fourth picture is actually a 1975 Sportwagon. This picture was taken in Minnesota before July of 2013 when I bought it on eBay. It is now undergoing a complete restoration with 2.0 engine upgrade and a Getrag 5 speed manual trans in place of the TH180 Automatic. I’m also adding tilt, cruise and A/C. Other than the built-in battery tray rust, it is virtually rust free. The suspension still has the original semi-gloss black e-coat. It is originally from Oregon. Does anyone know the wagon production figures or how many of the wagons are estimated to still be around? I really don’t find too many in operating condition on Google pics.

    • Lance
      December 7, 2015

      Do you still have the 1975 Opel sport wagon ? I am looking for one to buy ! My first car when I was 16 and I cannot find one anywhere been looking for years. Thank you ! Lance

      • Dave
        December 8, 2015

        Yes I still have it. Not for sale. Just taking a little more time than I thought to get my other projects finished. I have most mechanical parts now so should be able to work on it summer ’16.

      • Dave
        February 20, 2016

        Lance, check out ebay, there’s a nice wagon that belonged to the Opel club President. Runs , drives Factory A/C was asking $6500. Now at $2500 start with Reserve not met. Calif. car, rust free.

  2. richditch
    May 6, 2014

    I have very fond memories of my 1975 Opel Sport Wagon – a yellow 4-speed bought new and kept until 1981. A lot more fun to drive than the big Detroit sedans I’d known until then. My wife still thinks the front seats, with their tilting headrests, were the most comfortable seats in any car we’ve had in 45 years of driving.

    It was a great car for the two of us and carried a lot of stuff with the rear seat folded when needed.

    Its been a long time since I’ve seen one on the road so I’ll probably see if I can find any photos of mine somewhere in a closet.

    • Dave
      May 12, 2014

      Awesome! I can’t wait to to drive mine, hopefully next summer. The block, head & crank have been dipped and I’m looking forward to getting it back next month. I’m still looking for other 1900 wagons but have come up empty. Hope you find those pics!

  3. jerry robinson
    June 10, 2014

    love mi 73 opel wagon

  4. John
    February 8, 2015

    My first car was a 2-door Ascona 16S from March ’75 bought somewhere in ’84. Guess it was an intermediate model as it already had parts (brakes) from the Ascona B on it.
    Had a lot of fun driving it and it took me to several places in Europe.

  5. Ron Davis
    May 7, 2015

    My 1975 Sport wagon was the most fun to drive. The lack of Hp did not hurt it, because the handling made up for it. Did not hurt that it had good torque. My first Opel was a 1968 wagon, With 102 Hp + it was a 0 to 60 in 10sec car. Most of the 1900 based cars when to junk yards because of crankcase pressure which could have been fixed with 15 min of cleaning. My last Kadet had 325000mi with out rebuild and ran as a it did when new. A VW bug would be on it’s 4th engine as well as transaxle and steering box.

  6. Pingback: WHY THE OPEL SPORTS WAGON SHOULD GET MORE RESPECT! - ClassicCarLabs - Community Platform For Classic Car Enthusiasts

  7. mack
    July 18, 2017

    My first and only brand new car was a blue 1975 Sportswagen. It regularly cruised at 105mph in between Kinston and New Bern NC on late night runs to Minnesott Beach. One night it hit 110. The car didn’t feel fast but I could beat my friends 260Z to 60 somehow. I rolled it after entering a curve way to fast and not correcting in time (my reflexes were sedated). The only glass that cracked was the windshield. A fine car I often think about still.

  8. Jim P
    March 6, 2018

    I had 2, plus a Manta Rallye. My father bought the Manta right after i turned 16 in the fall of ’73. It was a ’73 model year car. It was his daily driver, but as soon as he was home, it was mine. After banging up the Manta some, in the summer of ’77 I bought a ’73 1900 wagon (they weren’t called Sportwagons yet) with front end damage. I bought a Manta front clip from a junk yard, cut both across the inner fender liner and up the “frame” rails. The Manta sheet metal was a direct match to the 1900. That car (and the Manta Rallye) were 4 speeds with no AC. They were tough as nails, well made, easy to work on, and just wonderful cars. The Manta Rallye was fireglow orange and the wagon was red, both with black interiors. My college roommate put the wagon very hard into a snowbank in February of 1980 and twisted the front of the car. It still drove well, but the front hinged hood wouldn’t latch, etc. I very mistakenly made the decision to sell it instead of fixing it – a decision I still rue 38 years later.
    In place of the Manta sportwagon (my name for it), I bought a 1971 1900 wagon I used to see parked at a house off Rt 83 in Harrisburg, PA on my way from Baltimore to Susquehanna U. The owners were very surprised when a stranger showed up at their door offering to buy their 9-year old Opel wagon, which was not for sale. But, sell it for $800 they did. It was a pretty rare car in that it was a very early production (I think September 1970) 1900 (or Ascona), had wood-grain paneling with stainless steel trim around the wood, no roof rack (thankfully, as I think they are awful looking {the ’73 didn’t have one either}), and air conditioning (!). It was also a 4 speed. It was not built as well at the ’73s (several niggling things). I stripped the wood off with a heat gun, had it painted 2-tone, fixed the AC, and started driving. Though I might complain about the relative quality of that wagon, it took me on a 11,000 mile cross-the-USA camping trip, through New England blizzards (2 on one trip!), ice storms, and on and on. I acquired a set of the black and silver 4-spoke wheels I used on both wagons (the smaller ones from ’74 not the wider ’75 version). I made a perfectly formed and hemmed tonneau cover for the cargo area (held in with twist snaps), and always had Michelin XZX tires on them. I also had KYB shocks on both wagons, a Monza exhaust on the red one, and separate-bulb halogen headlights before they were legal in the US.
    I think I drove that ’71 about 50,000 miles in the 2.5 years I had it. It took me on my 1st dates with my wife and frankly was more responsive than her ’78 Fiat Spider (but of course, the top on the Opel didn’t go down and it didn’t have an Italian interior). Finally, the ’71 started to be a pain in the butt. (for example, it threw an idler pulley (unique with the AC system) and punctured the radiator going home about 1 AM when I needed to be somewhere at 9 the next morning, the AC was never very effective, etc. I traded it in September ’82 for an Accord LX Hatchback.
    Whew! That was probably more than anyone wanted to hear. For what it is worth, I would own another Opel Ascona (1900) or Manta instantly. Looking around IS how I wound up here today.

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This entry was posted on September 18, 2013 by in 70's Cars, General Motors, Opel and tagged , , , .
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