The cars we loved.
The Manta is a car that comes to mind to only few Americans under the age of 40. Sold at Buick dealerships, the “Buick Opel” or the Buick Manta by Opel, was a small sporty gt car that was a step ahead of Buicks other small car the Apollo. When the Manta’s run ended in America in the mid-’70s, the car continued in Europe. By then, Opel had made a name for itself as a producer of efficent fun to drive smallcars, decades before GM’s other divisions would earn that reputation (that is if they ever).
After the old Ascona based Manta went away in 1975, it’s replacement the Opel Manta B, was paraell development to American H later J cars. The coupe even came as a two door or 3 door hatchback like the Monza and Cavalier.
The Manta with its four cylinder engines drivng the rear wheels was mechanically similar to Sunbirds and Monza. As GM cars go, they featured similar styling traits, but that’s where the differences would end. The German built Manta had become increasingly better built and had improved performance more on par with the German built Ford Capri than any Sunbird.
As American Monzas gave way to Cavaliers, the Manta retained its rear wheel drive configuration. While Americans were stuck with so called import fighter Type 10 Cavaliers and other bland interations of the J car, the Manta B in Europe was the real thing, especially in GT/E form. That variant in particular had carved out a niche as a cut rate performance GT car. Like other German built cars, all Manta’s had a clean dashboard designs with straight forward ergonomics highlighted by clear analog gauges. That was the kind of thing Chevrolet marketing imagined for its Cavalier in a perfect world, but the S10 and later Z24 was far from a BMW 3 Series fighter.
The Manta B GT/E on the other hand offered a feisty 1.9 (later 2.0) liter inline four cylinder engine that could push the GT/E up to 120 mph. It’s 3 speed automatic or 4 speed manual was not world class, (nor was the Cavalier’s) but shifted smoothly. Later a Getrag five speed manual gave the scrappy Manta more street cred in Europe.
Unlike it’s American counterparts, Mantas retained a rear wheel drive configuration, making them more on par with Euro market competiors from Audi and BMW. The GT/E’s up rated suspension and Recaro sport seats held the road and driver during spirited driving.
The subtle ground effects were highlighted by a functional front spoiler that increased high speed stability. Four little slits in the chromeless grille further distinguished the GT/E from lesser models of the Manta. The sealed headlights, a feature early on gave the Manta a more modern look by American standards, where cars were saddled by inferior lighting technology due to government regulations.
There was even a 400+ hp version of the Manta called the 400. Built for rally car homologation, the limited edition street version had less power, but was still the pinnical of Manta performance. By the Manta B’s final run, the GT/E had become the GSi (the designation for the top model of the upcoming Calibra). It’s 110 hp was less than the V6 powered versions of the American J car, but it was lighter and more fun to drive thanks to rear wheel motivation.
While the Manta family of cars would would go away it’s direct replacement oddly enough was a new Ascona sedan based on the J car, the same J car that underpinned Cavaliers, Sunbirds and the Cimmarron. The next American J car would mirror some of the styling cues of the Manta in 1986. This was especially apparent in the Manta coupes indirect replacement, the Calibra. It’s aerodynamic profile’s influence could be seen in the re-skin of the Cavalier/Sunfire in 1991.
A 1991 Cavalier was my first new car. I remember it as being a fun to drive car in the short time I had it. I also remember reading about the Manta and later Calibra and wishing I could buy one of those instead. The Manta was positioned similar to the Cavalier although the two cars could not have been as further apart in quality and overall performance.
GM’s fourtunes might have been better in the small car arena in America if it could have built the Manta in Lordstown, ground zero for the J-Car in North America. Was it HQ pride that kept the Manta out of The States? If I could have bought a new Manta GT/E or Calibra in 1990 , I probally would still have it today.