Plastic surgery kept the Manta looking fresh and sexy. And that’s all we ask for, right?
Marketing sells cars. An average product will get a boost from clever marketing, but an excellent product may remain invisible without the right promotion. Sometimes the brand itself trips the car up, bringing baggage that guarantees it will be prejudged from launch or holding it back from its full potential. Sometimes it gets a second chance. The Manta did.
The first car rolled out of the Vauxhall Iron Works in 1903 and established the firm as a sporting brand. Racing improved the breed and by 1910, a mere 7 years after their first car left the London workshop, the Luton built three litre A-Type achieved 100 mph at Brooklands. Just pause to consider this for a moment. The Ford Model T of the time would clatter to a terminal velocity of about 45mph with a favourable wind. The Vauxhall A-Type was over twice as fast and many times more desirable, real supercar stuff. By the time World War 1 interrupted proceedings, 80bhp, a cast aluminium sump and a four speed gear box had been developed. During the 1920s further innovations such as hydraulic brakes kept the 30-98 models at forefront of technology, and the road tests favourably compared the cars to their contemporaries from the likes of Bentley.
However, such quality engineering required investment and in November 1925, Vauxhall was acquired by General Motors. This was effectively the beginning of a significant shift in brand focus. The company moved mainstream and by the time the world went to war for a second time, the product range was still producing well engineered cars, but comfortable and durable rather than sporting and truly desirable. By the time production of civilian cars was suspended to make way for Churchill Tanks, no racing drivers would have been shopping for a new Vauxhall, as the company concentrated on building up their market share rather than building what are now referred to as “halo” cars. Of course this made good business sense post war, but by the 1960s the price to be paid was the range becoming stodgy and increasingly built to a budget. Although the occasional good product emerged from the mire, the company was going nowhere and their reputation was full of the holes caused by rampant rust problems. The economics were faltering and things were looking bleak. In an effort to cut costs and rationalise, GM brought Vauxhall and Opel closer together to share engineering and simplify the product range. It was make or break for Luton.
The big news in Rüsselsheim for 1975 was the Opel Ascona B. Debuting at the Frankfurt Motor Show it was designed to take the fight to Ford Taunus, beating the updated Ford to market by a crucial few months. Fully coil sprung with a live rear axle, flat front two or four door bodies and a choice of engines from 1.2 to 1.9 litres, the new cars were well received and also lent their underpinnings to the coupé variant, the Opel Manta B. With the new Vauxhall Cavalier in parallel development, the Manta tooling provided a cost effective opportunity to differentiate the two brands, and so it was that when the Cavalier was revealed at Earl’s Court, its Ascona body was wearing a lightly reworked Manta nose. Sharing the same aerodynamic front end, the saloon and coupé variants of the new Luton cars both bore the Cavalier nameplate. The quiet truth was that the new Vauxhalls had so much Opel DNA that they were the first of the brand to be built abroad and all rolled down the same production lines in Belgium.
Initially available in saloon or coupé forms only, a three door hatchback variant debuted as an Opel in 1977 and as a Vauxhall in 1978, the same year that the old 1.9 litre engine was replaced by the new 110 bhp 2.0 litre. Then 1979 saw the German market Manta gain fuel injection which when combined with an optional dealer fit camshaft and exhaust kit could liberate 125 bhp. Black bonnets and go-faster stripes complemented the extra turn of speed, or depending on budgets just made up for the lack of speed. Things were getting hotter across the channel, but meanwhile in Bedfordshire the Cavalier Coupé and Sportshatch stayed firmly middle ground and never really seriously engaged with their real rival, the flashier, noisier and sometimes faster Ford Capri.
By the turn of the 1980s the family of cars was 5 years old and heading for replacement. The new 1981 global J-Car project emerged in the form of boxy front wheel drive saloons and hatchbacks bearing the Cavalier and Ascona names once more. However, no new coupé was forthcoming so the Manta stayed on to plug a gap in the range; the march of the hot hatch not yet having gathered full momentum. Whilst the old model Opels had always differentiated the body shape by name, Vauxhalls marketing department had taken a different road, so when the new front drive cars emerged the old Cavalier coupés days were numbered. It would have made no sense to dilute the brand by mixing old and new, and simultaneous further rationalisation meant that the Vauxhall brand withdrew from the few left hand drive territories in which it still operated. Opelization was complete. And so, back in the UK the Manta stood alone.
For a car that was already at the end of a normal model cycle, something unexpected then happened. The old Manta gained a new lease of life. A skilful facelift with intake slats on the front panel, plastic bumpers, side skirts, spoilers and aero wheel covers instantly updated the look of the cars. The new Opel Family II engine was offered in 1800cc capacity, bringing improvements in fuel consumption and torque. Although it was not an engine that thrived on revs it was popular with cash conscious buyers. Add the Getrag five speed gearbox and suddenly the Manta seemed like a car for the 1980s when compared back to back with the rostyles, brightwork and four gears of the Cavalier from mere months before. When the fearsome 275 bhp Manta 400 rally car debuted in 1983, resplendent in Rothmans, AC Delco and Andrews Heat For Hire liveries, they revived interest in the old coupé and sales directly benefitted. The 400 was a real flagship car and although a million miles away from the showroom stock, the halo effect gave the Manta some long overdue sporting credentials, at least on the occasions the highly stressed engines held together. The homologation special road variant was frankly a damp squib in comparison with the real deal, but Irmscher sold plenty of body kits as a next best alternative and the press adverts traded on the rally cars’ success.
Car design underwent one of its largest leaps forward from the mid-70s to the early 80s. Suddenly, chrome and brightwork were very last year. Naked steel wheels were not aspirational. Advances in wind tunnel technology tucked door handles in and swept mirrors back. Even rain guttering started to become endangered. The new breed typified especially by the Audi 100 and Sierra, but also by the new Ascona, pointed their plastic noses towards the future. Against the odds, the Manta managed to bluff its way into the new era – an interloper wearing a reasonably convincing disguise. Against the Ford Capri, a fellow 70s throwback trying the same game with two tone paint and pepperpot wheels, what it lost in outright performance it gained in smoke and mirrors derived “modern” styling.
So where did this leave the sporting Cavaliers? Essentially, as little more than old fashioned used cars. Opel had become the prestige brand in UK showrooms with the Monza, Senator and Manta being set apart from the more workaday Vauxhalls. It’s the myth of German engineering versus the staid domestic product that was intended to win out, the same trick that allowed BMW to sell expensive small saloons and still charge extra for a radio. In the case of the GM cars there was no fundamental difference in the products, it was purely marketing at work enabled by a few changes in trim and fittings. The smaller performance models remained resolutely Vauxhall, indicating that the intention was to inject a particular prestige to the coupés and executive saloons.
After the decision to stop model duplication took effect in 1981 the Manta didn’t just replace the Cavalier Coupé and Sportshatch, it eliminated them from the public consciousness and you can see this evidenced at any classic car gathering today. Whereas a Manta sighting will evoke memories and reminiscence, the Cavalier variants just faded into the background and it’s a devoted Vauxhall enthusiast who would seek one out these days. The Cavalier is more classically styled, but it was the Manta 400 that lit up the rally stages in the hands of Russell Brookes and left big black tyre marks on the road. Nobody ever had an Ari Vatanen “Dear God” moment fully lit down a Manx lane in a Cavalier. The plastic endowed Manta hid its age well enough to continue until 1988 and became the last Opel model to be sold in the UK to date. The finale came with the Manta Exclusive and its full body kit, spoiler, quad headlamps, red piping on the seats and alloy wheels. It may not have been that fast in reality but it looked it. From today’s perspective the Cavalier seems to have taken on a classic demeanour that was once just that of an old outdated car. Resplendent in metallic green with a lurid plush velour interior, chrome bumpers glinting in the sun and VAUXHALL picked out in bright letters against the black rear panel, it has a period look that only the early cars possess.
For reasons best known to themselves, GM dropped the sporting Opel brand in the UK with the demise of the Manta, with the effect that when they launched the Lotus developed VX220 sports car in 2001, we would miss out on the much more alluring name of Opel Speedster. Perhaps brand association means the Cavalier Coupé and Sportshatch are undervalued and underrated classic bargains. The Manta got lucky, blossomed late, took the spotlight and lived well beyond its years. If only it had been equipped in its final year with the 20XE 16v DOHC “red top” engine from the Astra GTE with nearly 160bhp to shove it along. That would have been a proper send off.