I’ll allow myself the liberty of proclaiming the first generation Opel Manta as a sassy little number. I’m sure we all remember it from our youth, where it did magic for our eyes, dreams and tarmac fantasies.
There’s just that one little issue that it’s an Opel, so it’s invariably related with that rather unflattering pipe and flatcap grandpa image which tarnishes every Rüsselheim product. This image seems to be particularly profound within Scandinavia, and it’s a subject which has been discussed repeatedly on our Danish website over the last few years. We’ve tried talking down the phenomena, but whatever your opinion of classic Opels, there’s just no denying the existence of this impossible-to-kill image. The Opel Manta A first saw the light of day in 1970, where it was an attempt to create a fresh and sporty design with often quite modest engines. There was a strong belief that the model might do well in the USA, where there was of course a tendency of being somewhat un-modest with engine size. But with the unset of an oil crisis, things were beginning to look bleak for the oversized gas-guzzlers, so Opel’s marketing gurus reckoned the time was ripe for the cost efficient yet trendy Manta.
Inspiration for the model name and elements of the design were found in GM’s American-based department for prototypes, where they since 1963 had created multiple sports car concepts under the shark theme: Mako Shark. Along the way, the final evolution of the theme ended up with the name Manta Ray, and that’s where Opel came up with their Manta name and not least the striking Manta Ray logo. The most obvious design link is probably the round rear lights which also distinguish Opel’s Manta A-series.
The mechanical components for the Manta were sourced from the production line of the much more family-orientated Ascona model. This was to be the power source of the Manta’s sporty bodywork, where engines ended up being a variety of small but, for the time, relatively effective 4-cylinder engines ranging from a 60hp 1.2-litre with a single carburettor to a 1.9-litre with fuel injection pushing out 105hp. Hardly headline grabbing figures, but with a curbweight just below 1000kg., it still managed to translate into respectable performance. And what the Manta might have failed to deliver in topspeed and acceleration, it instead attempted to compensate for with good handling capabilities. The Manta A was praised in period by the media, but the lack of real oomph still remained its biggest shortcoming – even more so when specified with a slow 3-speed automatic in place of the old 4-speed manual transmission. With what was really a thoroughly good product, Opel had somehow managed to fall between two stools and essentially created a “looker”. A car which promised a whole lot with its strong and handsome design, but ultimately failed to deliver the goods.
One might compare it to waking up “big-spoon” behind your better half. As the morning light breaks and you’re feeling rather upbeat about the whole situation, she breaks wind. Mind you; not in a big way – just a small and discrete fluff. Talk about anti-climax! You’ve just tumbled from excited anticipation to quiet disappointment. This I suppose, is how Mr. Manta owner must have felt when he came to popping the bonnet of his brand new Manta to show of the hardware. It was made to be so good, yet ultimately something just wasn’t right.
Opel tried to improve the situation. In the Manta line-up, their top-of-the-range model was the GT/E. It performed well, boasted fuel injection and even had sexy go-faster stripes down the flanks and a matt black bonnet, but it just wasn’t quite enough for the speed-obsessed enthusiast.
Opel initiated the heavy artillery, which led to two different versions of the Manta A pumped up with a serious dose of vitamins. One was the Turbomanta, which despite turbo technology still being in its infant years at the time, was still arguably the most straight forward way of – literally – boosting the Manta. The development work was entrusted to Broadspeed in Great Britain, who were given five lhd Manta’s to use for their prototypes. They came up with a somewhat peculiar solution which combined a Holset 3LDG turbocharger and a carburettor all within the same enclosed air chamber. The engine was equipped with a thicker and stronger headgasket made of copper, which lowered the compression ratio to 7,6:1. The result was a 1.9-litre engine which delivered 156hp and propelled the Turbomanta from 0-100 km/h in 7.6 seconds. All five cars were painted “Signal Yellow” and had a bold black stripe along the side with the letters “TURBOMANTA”.
However, a bi-product was a huge thirst for premium fuel! Turbo charging the 1.9-litre engine had almost doubled the Manta’s fuel consumption, and to add further insult to injury, the build cost was equally extreme. Opel pulled the plug on the project and only those five cars were finished.
Yet one of the engineers from the British D.O.T – Dealer Opel Team, which was the motorsport department of Opel in Great Britain – was so impressed with the Turbomanta, that he convinced D.O.T. to build another 28 cars on their own behalf for the UK market and thus in rhd form. Black and sinister, these were purposeful looking coupés and they had the performance to back up those looks – and more!
Then there was the second attempt at more power: bigger engine capacity. However, shoehorning a straight-6 into the small engine bay of the Manta quickly proved to be another project which Opel neglected to give the green light. Once again, the build cost was too high and the market was deemed too small and already filled to the brim with hard competition from other marques.
But as with the turbo charging, there was someone else ready to take over the initiative. The Belgian company TRANSEUROP Engineering saw the potential and invited Opel to take part in the project by sharing their experience from their own canned attempt at a 6-cylinder Manta. However, Opel had lost interest by now, so TRANSEUROP soldiered on with their own interpretation by installing the 2.8-litre straight-6 from a Commodore 2.8GS into the engine bay of a Manta 1.9SR. Largely the whole front end of the car needed to be re-engineered with new engine mounts, larger radiator and a different bonnet to make space for the big lump of a Commodore engine. Further to that, both the transmission and the differential needed to be swapped too in order to handle the extra power.
Without the help of Opel, TRANSEUROP Engineering instead approached Opel’s own go-to tuning company, Steinmetz. They came up with a new bonnet in fibreglass which basically consisted of one massive power bulge, and delivered this to TRANSEUROP along with a complete set of Steinmetz wheel arch extensions and a specially constructed front bumper with a deep integrated front spoiler. All part of the rather dramatic changes required to make the engine transplant work. The 2.8-litre engine remained stock though, and continued to breathe through two Zenith carburettors giving the macho Manta 142hp and loads of torque through the 4-speed Commodore transmission. The all-important sprint from 0-100 km/h was now executed in a mere 7.5 seconds.
The model name was changed to TE2800, and thanks to Opel’s reluctance to take part, all Opel badges were duly removed and replaced with a “TE” logo. They built 79 cars which were sold through Steinmetz in Germany.
So even though the TE2800 is the fastest Manta A ever manufactured, it isn’t officially an Opel. Regardless, rumour has it that it was brutal enough to do bad things to even the 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera and the 1973 BMW 2002 Turbo! It was down on power compared to them both, but low curbweight and a set of well chosen gears were claimed to give the Manta a slight advantage.
Today, in some odd twist of fate, one might argue that we are lucky that Opel never went all in to create a hugely iconic and coveted performance Manta. Such a performance powerhouse could have easily ended up in the same out-of-reach league as the legendary 911 and 2002 Turbo with similar values. Without the heavy vitamin diet, the Manta A is left as “just” a really handsome and classic coupé with plenty of style, sufficient performance and good handling characteristics. Furthermore, you get to keep both your bank account and your driver’s license intact. If only I owned a Manta A, I would have other things to do than bother with “big-spoon” on a beautiful Sunday morning…