Road test: the Opel Manta Rallye Coupé

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Ford have made an unquestionable success of their Capri fastback coupé and whether they like it or not, whether it was or wasn’t inspired by the Dagenham car, General Motors’ Opel Manta, released in the UK last November, is obviously going to be compared to the Capri.

Ford of Britain are generous in their provision of test cars but their range is so extensive that I have not driven a Capri since 1969, although our tuning expert has dealt with a great many hot ones. It is therefore not so easy to look at Manta and Capri side by side. The Ford has the more “important” lines, deliberately rendered aggressive by the long bonnet. The Opel Manta, likewise an eyeable fastback 4/5-seater, is better balanced in appearance and I think it is perhaps fair to say that whereas the Capri looks and feels a man’s car (I nearly wrote a cad’s car), the Manta, light as to response and controls, is somewhat more effeminate. Whereas the Capri is available with various engines from 1,300 c.c. in-line four to 3-litre V6 and innumerable equipment options, the Manta is purely a four-cylinder car, although with alternatives of two 1.6-litre and a 1.9-litre power unit, covering two models, the two-door de luxe and the two-door Rallye or RS version. The latter has the 1.9-litre 102 b.h.p. (SAE) engine. Here it may be said that these engines have ingenious valve-gear which is yet another means of combining the low reciprocating values of an o.h. camshaft with the simplicity of manufacture and tappet setting of a push-rod layout, together, in the Opel head-located but not overhead camshaft, with immunity from bending or compressible long push-rods.

Let us look at the fire-engine red 1.9-litre Opel Manta RS with its matt-black bonnet, speed stripes and 5 1/2J x 13 wheels shod with Firestone Cavalino 185/70 radial tyres: which was delivered to the office for assessment, on its own merits—incidentally, GM of Buckingham Gate sent along another car to take their delivery driver home, instead of leaving him to fend for himself, all part of Kenneth Moyes’ impeccable Press service. I hope by saying this I shall not start another stoppage in the Motor Industry!

The Manta Rallye RS uses the engine from the Rekord and that very good GT coupé which so favourably impressed us last year, an iron five-bearing 93 x 69.8 mm. (1,897 c.c.) power unit gaining an extra 10 b.h.p. over the h.c. 1.6-litre engine by reason of its greater swept volume—it has the same Solex 32 DIDTA-4 carburetter and the same valve timing as the smaller unit and its cr. is actually lower, 9.0 against 9.5 to 1, enabling 98-octane fuel to be used in both cases. In spite of the clever valve-gear this is not a high-revving engine, maximum power being developed at 5,400 r.p.m., 400 r.p.m. lower than the 1.6-litre’s peak, maximum torque (115 ft./lb.) at 2,800 to 3,400 r.p.m., the tachometer warning being marked initially at from 5,800 to 6,200 r.p.m., and in red upwards to 7,000 r.p.m.

Good road-holding from the Manta, and it is a notable feature of the car, is obtained from torque-tube final drive and trailing lower links and coil springs for the back axle, together with an anti-roll bar, a reversion from the four- and five-link layout which revolutionised the handling of larger Opels some time ago.

The Manta offers a combination of sporting coupé with good fuel economy and light controls. The separate front seats are comfortable, with angled fore-and-aft adjustment and knob-control of the reclining squabs. The cushions, of patterned vinyl, are somewhat hard, and there is not much sideways support. The small steering wheel has a rim rendered thick by a nasty laced-on plastic cover and ridiculously thick spokes, fortunately angled downwards to give a view of the instruments. The horn-push isn’t worked by these padded spokes, only by the centre button. On a console before the driver, on a panel of the inevitable wood, are three recessed Vdo dials-130 m.p.h. speedometer lacking a trip mileometer but with a decimal total recorder, tachometer, and combined temperature/ “tank” gauge, the last named incorporating the various warning lights. On this panel, too, are the triple-quadrant heater controls, conventional two-speed wipers switch tumbler, and lamps pull-out switch. The additional instruments, a real anmeter, Vdo clock and oil gauge, Opel set centrally, not on a sloping console but upright below the inaccessible radio, so these are none too easy to read, particularly the oil gauge.

The central gear-lever is angled back to a good position and the conventional floor hand-brake is very well placed in a cavity beside the transmission tunnel, although whether this is a means of bringing it closer to the driver on I.h.d. Mantas I do not know. There is a treadle accelerator. A slender l.h. stalk-control works the direction indicators and flicks rather ineffectively for lamps dipping, and depressing a little knob on its extremities gives a set number of sweeps from the wipers with the screen washers. The centre of the facia has twin fresh-air vents, closed by circular doors, but while these admit plenty of cool air to the car, they are less effective than Ford’s adjustable gimbals at the facia extremities. Here I may say that the heater is effective but that its old-style water-tap control gives slow response when alterations in temperature are required—there is the usual two-speed blower. A rather horrid heater.

The seat squabs have easy-to-see handles for releasing them to give rear-compartment access. The back seat holds two comfortably, maybe three at a pinch, but leg room is at a premium, and the accentuated fastback body style causes vision problems at oblique junctions. The Manta is said to have a heated back window as standard, very necessary with such an inaccessible pane of glass. The test car was not so equipped, so I made good use of a Holt’s anti-mist cloth. Stowage, the back shelf apart, is provided in an unlockable drop-well before the front passenger and in an open crevice, in two parts, behind the gear-lever, where a lidded ashtray and lighter are also fitted. The n/s roof lamp has no separate switch and apparently no courtesy action. The doors possess high-quality side-locks, a grab on the n/s one, armrests, small pull-out internal handles and well-placed window winders and the side windows are hinged to augment air-flow through the vented body shell, while the frameless door windows dispense with 1/4-glasses. The bonnet is front-hinged; its under-facia release is on the n/s, with a neatly-accessible fuse box beside it.

On the road the Opel Manta Rallye is a fast but perfectly conventional car, pleasant to drive, and quiet running unless hard pressed. Modern OpeIs impress by their eager, light response to the controls and the Manta conforms. The rack-and-helical-pinion steering is light in spite of the wide-base tyres and accurate (four turns, lock-to-lock) with no vices. The gear-change, lightly spring-loaded to the upper ratios, is likewise light, if a thought bulky going down into 1st and 2nd. A lift-up sleeve protects the reverse-gear position. To get maximum acceleration the throttle has to be prodded, to open the supplementary carburetter choke, and at times the revs ran on momentarily when it was released, suggesting that the Bowden-wire control was becoming sticky. The servo disc/drum brakes call for only light pedal pressure, as does the clutch.

The Manta’s suspension functions well, giving a comfortable ride, yet allowing the tyres to grip surprisingly tenaciously, so that the cornering ability is higher than seems possible, with a minimum of roll, perhaps because the Opel goes round without dramatics, understeering slightly but not needing to be set up for rapid cornering. The Firestone radials do not squeal and had good snow traction. The penalty for such good handling is suspension hard enough to make bad patches of road evident and to set up back axle thump over them.

The gear-lever has rather long movements but functions precisely if not hurried unduly. The Opel Manta Rallye, fully extended, is quite a quick car, with a maximum speed of 110 m.p.h., and able to reach 60 m.p.h. from rest in 12 seconds (s.s. 1/4 mile =18.3 sec.). On more ordinary occasions it does not give the impression of being such a fast car and seems less “beefy” than a Capri. Along short straights the speedometer is reluctant to go much over 85 m.p.h.; incidentally, like that of a Triumph TR6, it is figured every 20 m.p.h., so that at a casual glance you appear to be going less quickly than is in fact the case.

The Hella dual headlamps throw both a long and wide white beam, but the dipped beam is dangerously poor. I obtained 29.3 m.p.g. of 4-star and the tank gives a normal range of about 220 miles. Oil consumption was disappointing, at less than 500 m.p.p. Both its filler cap and the steering column have locks. The spacious boot has to be unlocked with the ignition key—it has an interior light. The test-car came with a long box of rally spares therein. The spare wheel resides upright in the boot, which is of the kind luggage has to be hoisted into. Equipment embraces coat hooks and roof-grabs on each side and reversing lamps, but the sun vizors, black to match the internal trim, are too short and devoid of a make-up mirror for the girls. There is a hazard-warning with “instant switch” on the top of the steering column.

Altogether the “hot” version of the new Opel Manta was found to be a likeable car and it should sell well, although in its native Germany it is likely to meet with strong opposition from the 2.6-litre V4 Ford Capri, which some people, including Walter Hayes, Vice-President of Public Affairs for Ford of Europe, regard as the best Capri of all. Remember, Ford’s answer is that the only substitute for a Capri is—another Capri!

In this country the Manta in Rallye form costs £1,475. A laminated screen, automatic gearbox, sun roof, tinted glass, etc., and limited-slip differential, are extras. The test car had a n/s door which tended to bounce unshut. The automatic choke coped with starts in freezing weather but gave an initial 1,500 r.p.m. idle (normal idle 1,100 r.p.m.). The four-stud wheels have fancy, but neat, decor.—W. B.

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