The car we’ll look at today comes from Germany, which is obviously not very remarkable. But if I tell you it’s a car that every single German born somewhere between 1960 and 1990 will have a story or memory of, or rather, several stories and memories, that already narrows the selection quite a bit. If I then tell you it’s a piece of German modern culture, and yet forgotten in the rest of the world, you would be scratching your head if you hadn’t seen the picture in the banner. Actually you may still be scratching your head, since the car we’ll talk about this week is an Opel, GM’s European brand not known for exciting cars in any way and not very well known outside of Europe (although the Manta was actually one very few Opel models that were sold in the US). I have a distinct feeling that this is the only time Opel will be featured on this blog, but the legendary Opel Manta shows that even brands that don’t get it right very often sometimes do, at least in creating a true legend. Enough said – this week we’ll have a closer look at the Manta but even more, at the cult and culture that has developed around it every since, and lives on to this day!
Starting with the name, a Manta (or manta ray as it’s also known) is the largest ray fish in the world. You may ask yourself why on earth an auto-maker would name a car after a fish, but remember that animals in general were popular in the 60’s, as shown notably by the Ford Mustang, and fish more particularly so, with both the Corvette Stingray and the Plymouth Barracuda. Very much in line wth the times, Opel thus opted to name its new coupé Manta, and all Mantas had a badge with the shadow of a manta fish on the left front wing. The message was clear: driving a Manta was far cooler than driving any other Opel! Unless you’re a die hard Opel fan, that’s however where all similarities with any of the above animal cars end…
The German auto scene was competitive in the booming 60’s with Opel in the running notably against Ford, as both brands shared the focus on building reasonably-priced cars for the German middle class. Family coupés were very popular at this time not only in Germany, considered a sportier way to drive around your family, typically consisting of your wife, two children and their luggage, than a more traditional sedan or station wagon. This worked since not only the family but also their luggage was for some reason far smaller than today, and Ford had brought the slick and very successful Capri coupé in 1966 which Opel couldn’t compete with as their only coupé at the time, the Kadett, was too small to fit the bill. Something had to be done, which for Opel meant giving the pen to George Gallion, an American designer, and asking him to draw a larger coupé with the Kadett as basis. So he did, the Manta was born, and Gallion became the father on what is after the 911 perhaps Germany’s most well-known car model – in Germany.
Production of the first Manta series started in 1970. Priced from 8.000 German marks and upwards, it was a car people could afford, but neither of the two four-pot engines at 60 or 90 hp were really sporty enough to swing the tail of the rear-wheel drive coupé. Still, around half a million Mantas were built over the following five years until 1975. By then the Manta was getting old and Opel introduced the series 2, or Manta B – according to commercials from the time, a car that was “dynamic, racy, sporty, comfortable, and safe”. In truth it was even less racy than the first series, at least in the beginning as it had to appeal to buyers who had just come out of the first oil crisis. It was however a better car, bigger in every dimension and more comfortable, according to Opel what buyers were looking for. If production is anything to go by, they were right. The Manta B was built over 13 years until 1988 in a total of another half million cars – longer than any other Opel model has ever been built.
The Manta was thus a huge success but not, as you’ve probably guessed by now, a very exciting car. The design of the first series is classic and reminiscent of other coupés from the same era, not only the Ford Capri but also for example the the Fiat 124 Sport Coupé, one of which I was once a proud owner. At the time the Manta set-up with a longitudinal front engine and rearl-wheel drive was the norm, but fitting the engines lacking power to a 3-speed automatic in addition to the 4-speed manual didn’t really contribute to the sportiness. The fact that the owner’s manual was shared with the grandfather-like Opel Ascona, and said so in large letters on the cover, didn’t really help either. The Manta B looks more the part here, at least if spoilers and skirts is a sign of sportiness. It did offer more power at up to 140 hp and with time also a 5-speed manual, but that was really it. Until the tuners toog center stage, that is.
The 80’s were obviously the decade of bad taste in general, and car tuning in every way, both optical and mechanical, in particular. Thanks to its relatively cheap and basic mechanics, the Manta quickly became a favourite among tuners and pretty soon also the laughing stock of the rest of the population. Numerous stories and jokes not really pointing to neither the intelligence, nor the taste of Manta drivers made the rounds, and still do today. An example of one of those that can be translated would go as follows: “what goes through the head of a Manta driver when he hits a brick wall? The rear spoiler”. The type of jokes also had to do with Mantas being cheap, as was often the quality of the tuning, and the Manta thus became a favourite among those with slightly smaller budgets and where things like big black letters screaming “Manta!!” on the side of the car, the 80’s style rear window sun curtain or even small spoilers on the windshield wipers were considered tuning. Other mandatory attributes included a fox tail on the antenna and driving-style wise, always driving your Manta with your left arm leaning out the side window. Engine-wise not much of a budget was required either to get more power out of the four-pot, or as some proud owners did, replacing it altogether!
By the 80’s the Manta was however starting to get old, with the basic construction originating in the 60’s and far more modern cars coming on stage. Opel thought a bit of marketing was all it would take to change this, and tried to re-vitalize the Manta in a big marketing campaign showing it not as a car belonging in front of a fast food joint, but rather in the front yard of a successful businessman. That didn’t really work, to put it mildly. They also tried to enter the rally scene with the Manta 400, which at 260 hp was the most powerful Manta every built. This was however the time of four-wheel drive and more modern constructions in the rally scene, and Opel’s adventure ended quickly, as did production a few years later. The legend was however just getting started…
In 1991, the German movie “Manta Manta” premiered and was subsequently watched by more than 12 million Germans, meaning around 1/6 of the population! It can be described as a mix of Grease and Fast & Furious in an early 90’s German setting, featuring a group of young Manta owners on their adventures and culminating in a race between a heavily tuned Manta and an arrogant 190 2.3-16 driver. It manages to pack every single Manta joke and combine it with 90’s-style racing scenes and some truly amazing hair cuts into 87 minuts, and if you’re into the time period and light entertainment German style (an interesting combination), it’s definitely not one to be missed. The movie was anyway crucial in continuing the Manta legend and also establishing its reputation as a car for those with somewhat simpler minds.
The Manta scene in Germany remains active to this day, with regular gatherings of everything from original cars to, well, less original ones. There is a bit of a difference to be made here between the first and second series, with the first one generally attracting a more traditional, oldtimer-focused crowd, and the second one more of 80’s enthusiasts. Both types are starting to become increasingly rare and thus to increase in price, although we’re still at relatively modest levels of EUR 15-25′ for good cars. If the 911 isn’t your thing or budget but you still want to drive one of the most legendary German cars there’s ever been, and in addition at a very reasonable budget given the not very exciting but very solid technology, you really can’t go wrong with a Manta. If it’s a B, make sure there’s no rust or damage underneath all those spoilers and that if it’s tuned, it’s done in a somewhat proper way. And whichever one you choose, should you go to Germany, be prepared for the a joke here and there – but also for a lot of smiling faces!