“There’s Worse Things Than Opels”
Test-Pilot Anthony Phelps has many nice things to say about a car many enthusiasts consider “beyond the pale.” As a small boy I disliked porridge and, in fact, still do. The dish from which I Was forced to consume the hated stuff had been specially designed I)1. the job, and around the inside bore the slightly apologetic slogan : ” There’s worse things than porridge.” Although subsequent. post-peace gastronomic ex
perienve has compelled me, against. my every better if IStinet, to concede this point, in those days I was definitely not, prepared to do so. Nly tolerat toil Of tile Opel ilaS ‘Well similarly forced upon me. Before the war it was one of that regrettably long list of machines hardly to be called motor cars at all within the meaning of the a.et. ; a thing not to be mentioned in deeent society (let, alone in the pages of Mo-roa Seota). and if there was anything worse I just didn’t want to know. However. the fates and the Third Iteieh have eonspired to make me, if not an Opel enthusiast. at least Opel-conscious to the point, of admittin. openly and without shame that not only are there worse things than t/pels, but. that sonic English manufac turers have been producing them for years. It all happened this way. The tide of’ war ebhed one dark night to leave inv Fon! Eight smeared all over the back of a tank and myself’ in hospital, wherefrom I emerged, at length, motorless excluding, that is, a .1..1t-litre Lagonda as being unsuitable for my sort of motoring in time of war, and a 192? Singer saloon as being equally unsuitable, although for different and rather libellous reasons, and thor
oughly unpleasant at. any time. I had. therefore. very (Wieldy 0) obtain a machine which would hack to and from the aero
drome with the greatest reliability on a minimum or petrol. The chief, if not only real diffictilty to thus Was the ever-recurrent, one or finanee. Looking round with all these factors (and the latter in particular) in mind the 1/pel seemed the obvious choice. It WaS Ii odern enough (August, 1937) ami in sufficiently good condition to give grounds for supposing that it might continue to function with a Illilliinlini of bother for some time. It was alleged to be so
economical as to satisfy a D.P.1). (stieli stuff as dreams are made of ?) and last:, and most important, it was available at a [wive which stood at least an even chance of sneaking past. the bank manager. In fact, it seemed to me to lw quite the best, value on the marketat that time, in terms of modernity, low h.p., and mileage on the clock. I put this down largely to a fear of beffig unable to obtain spares and the fact that the average British citizen apparently felt sheepish about being seen in such a blatantly fifth eolumn conveyance. For some reason
the Fiat never seems to have conw under the same suspicion but, believe it. or not. I have twice been refused garage service by serious-minded patriots who would have nothing. to do with a German pro
duction, and I am convinced that to drive one up to Brixt(111 Prison on a visit, to one or I lie detainees would involve a serious element of risk. However, not knowing any of the 18 Riles, and suspecting that the spares
situation would turn out to be 110 WONe than for most other types. I was prepared I o chance it. There was also one other reason for choosing the Opel. I had long wanted
to try out one of these lightly-constructed, independently-sprung Continentid productions, and if an Opel is not the best example thereof, did you ever hear of an ” Aprilia ” going for forty pounds ? Amherst liners, with whom at the time I was much associated, had the same
urge and acquired an identical machine. Furthermore, he ilia! CVOIVed SOUe neW theories regarding low period road springs, and you certainly get those when you buy an Opel.
lle promptly tore his car apari until it. was completely resolved into its component parts–each to be subsequently inspected, ” miked .” and, if found wanting, modified or rephieed, before being finally reassembled to result in a betterthan-factory new job.
Aline, I need hardly add, never received any such extravagant attention. Later, however, it, did benefit front extremely careful carburetter and ignition treatment. by Villiers. Watching one or the real maestros at work on wliat is often considered a sititirle enough job causes one to wonder just IVAN’ Often Stall(‘ welltuned ” motors are as much that way as their owners would believe.
Appalled, as with all modern ears, at the lack of information available on the instrument panel. I felt constrained to lit a few luxuries to convey some idea of what was really going on, so another panel was made up to carry oil and water temperature gauges and ammeter and fitted in place or the right-hand cubby hole. I also intended, just for fun, to lit a boost gauge in the hope or gaining a chic to the breathing eflivieney, or. as I suspect, serious lack thereof. hut somehow never got around to it. In spite or tlw German writing here and there, many of the components are American, and the original antecedents of’ the thing are somewhat, obscure. Although the answer is probably to he found in the international financial situation, its production was definitely not subsidised by the German Government, as so many or the lay piddle imagine. General Motors, Ltd., had spent large sums of money on the development of’ the Opel factory before the Nazis raised the ban on the eXpOrt or currency. and it
is probable that the ” Olympia and ” Cadet. ” produced in large quantities at low cost for export, to the rest or Europe represented (me way, if not the only one, of getting a return on capital tied up in Germany. Be all that as it nmy. the thing is a curious mixture of Continental and American design. Even the few instru ments that are fitted seem unable to decide to whom they owe allegiance, for
the fuel gauge is labelled ” gasoline,” while the oil pressure registers itself in kgs/sq. (.1)). It took me some time to get used to the sort SUSpenS1011 and unbelievable amount of up and down movement on the front end (always a feature of the Dubonnet system of I believe), but having done so, I found myself, in spite of my essentially vintage outlook, developing
quite an affection for the thing and even a sneaking regard for the shape. If it is really necessary for a modern car to be encased in sheet metal. this W0111(1 SETHI to be as good a way as any of doing it. I am far from being an expert on aerodyllattlieS, and it is probably not streamlined in the true sense of the Nvord, but the front view is remarkably similar to Lord Brabazon’s Fiat, and the whole exterior offered to the breeze seems fairly clean without being carried to unpractical limits. For example, although the headlamps are completely faired into the body, they are immediately aceessiLle by merely lifting the bonnet. So much easier than jacking up the car, refill/1.111g a wheel, and groping beneath the muddy underside
of a wing, which is such a likeable feature of 8o many moderns. Furthermore, the lamps are clear of the wings, which does lessen the agony in the event of trouble even if’ it. was the other fellow’s fault. ! Of’ eourse, looked at through vintage eyes the lack of accessibility generally is criminal, but apparently not bad as modern cars go, for I have been told by our 111.T, mechanics who have the mis fortune to work on II 10’s and S
12’s, that, by comparison, the Opel is wide open. . . . How long, Lord, how long ? The Opel is an interesting example of bow a car ean be low built and yet retain adequate ground clearance. Due to this latter feature and the somewhat narrow body the car appears to be Innen higher than it really is, but direct eoniparison with any similar modern saloon will show that the Opel’s e.g. is really quite low. It is, of course, an all-welded bodychassis job. This I intensely dislike on principle, and sincerely hope that manufacturers of real motor ears will never become bitten by the bug. ‘rile thing becolnes one vast. resonator which en courages drumming, it would be expen sive and difficult (Cu repair, and encourages inaccessibility. In my opinion the value of the stiffness factor is over-publicised to „over the disadvantages, by mann_ facturers taking the easy way out yet again. If, however, there is any excuse for it., it is probably on a cheap car or this type, for after six years or a hard life it is still very free from those annoying, and in their obscurity almost ineurable, chassis squeaks and rattles. whieh seem inevitable (m cheaper examples of orthodox coachw(yrk as it begins to age. I lowever, I still think that a properly-designed
still’ normal chassis is worth the extra 1110ney. The designer of the interior definitely anticipated ” austerity ” by a margin of years, but at, least. this has resulted in a happy lack of pseudo-walnut, tinny ashtrays, and unreliable clocks, leaving the inside pleasantly honest and easy to keep clean. The cloth upholstery carried out in a sort of ” natty gents.’ suiting ” has worn well except for the corners of the door panels, which are secured to the frame—when they are—by a sort of press-stud arrangement. The typical Continental type of bench front seat with split, forward-folding squab is very com fortable once you have applied the necessary brute force in the right place to give it a reasonable rake. Why do all manufacturers of small saloons imagine that the owner will want to drive in a semi-reclining posture ? Or is it that
owners of small saloons do want to ? If so, it is the manufacturers’ job to teach them better. The whole car has very obviously been designed with minimum production costs in view from start to finish. The front wheel bearings are of a type usually associated with bicycles and yet they seem
satisfactory, and the quality of the metal used must have been good, for when examined at 50,000 miles, they showed not the slightest trace of wear. It is the same throughout. Not a single pfennig has been expended on unnecessary or pseudo luxury but, gener ally speaking, the economy has not been on the important things. Ignition, for example, is by Bosch and has never given a moment’s worry. (Quite incidentally, if anyone ever complains to you that the screen wiper of his Opel is noisy, as I have heard quite often, just explain that a little oil in the right place will reduce the whole device to an uncanny silence.) How the little generator Stands up to its constant 18-20 amp. output is a
secret shared only by God and Mr. Bosch, but it does, and the manager of a large firm specialising in ignition repairs told me that he had never seen an Opel generator or starter motor. It is quite One of the easiest starting cars I have ever owned. You can leave an Opel in the open on a draughty aero drome for four days and nights with the temperature never above zero, and it will start and stay started at the first push on its awkwardly-placed starter button. The burning smell of which you will in 1111C( I t Cly become conscious will be the fan helL slipping round -the pulley of the frozen-up water pump. I
know, for I regret to say that I have done it often. In spite of the foregoing, an absurd feature is the lack of a starting handle or provision for one. Incidentally, while on the subject of ignition, why does one hear so much
about the necessity for 12-volt systems on British cars ? The Americans, who generally provide no arrangements for mechanical starting, hang on to their 0-volt batteries more electrical equipment than we dream of, and yet the whole thing seems to be a huge success. A 12-volt battery is heavier and more costly, and I wonder if the “technical superiority ” is not more “technical ” than real. The engine is a normal 4-cylinder sidevalve unit of 1,074 c.e. and almost square —67.5 by 75 mm.—giving off 29 b.h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m. with the very low maximum piston speed of 1,968.5 f.p.m. It is carburetted by a thirsty-looking Amen
can Carter Automatic. The total weight of the car is only 14.75 cwt.
When first I talked about getting the Opel all my more knowledgeable (ostensibly) friends were very rude. They were also very shaken when I told them that Amherst Villiers was getting one, too.
“But the steering, old boy. And the roadholding. I mean to say, an Opel —really • .”
I fully expected to have to agree with them, but now—and I speak only from experience of my own and Villiers’s cars— I state very definitely that the thing really does steer, and steer well. It is ultra light, very positive, has a good turning circle and is reasonably geared— two turns from lock to lock. Also, there is as yet but the barest trace of free play on the wheel. Probably what gives it a bad name is the complete lack of castor action. According to the book the ” Olympia ” was dignified with a castor angle, but the ” Cadet “had to be content with a “castor effect,” and the effect wears off very rapidly. However, it is so light and accurate that one soon becomes quite unconscious of the lack of self-centring action, and with the largesized wheel it is quite tireless to drive. Nor is there any tendency to wheel flap at ” high ” speed.
Likewise, it also holds the road well, but until one becomes accustomed to the amazingly soft suspension, this takes a lot of believing. However, having found one’s faith, together with the technique which somewhat naturally is rather different from that called for on a stifflysprung vintage car, it can be cornered faster and more accurately than you would think. If fast cornering is indulged in habitually, the wear on the front tyres is astonishing for so small and light a car.
One important point, however. If you wish to motor an Opel as fast as it will go you must—repeat must–stiffen up the rear suspension, otherwise on an undulating surface you are liable to the same feeling as in a badly-executed slow roll— rather in the machine, but not of it. The rear shockers are trivial, inaccessible, and may be ignored. I cord-bound and taped my rear springs and wound fin. cottoncovered rubber cable between the shocker bracket and the centre spring shackle which, archaic though it may sound, works well.
The hydraulic brakes are really magnilicent—quite in a class by themselves for this type of car. When I first drove it they seemed harsh, but this I discovered to be due to the brake pedal cross-shaft sticking up in the phosphor-bronze block through which it runs. According to the theory that this metal requires no lubricating, no means of doing so is provided. However, theory or no theory, you have the choice of dosing it with penetrating oil twice a year, or tying a piece of string to the pedal to get a manual return action. The gearbox is—let’s face it—a horrible mistake. On a short-stroke low-power engine of this type three ratios are definitely insufficient. As is only natural, the thing makes no pretence at giving off any real power at the bottom end of the scale, and with a first low enough to give a decent take-off, and a top sufficiently high to promote a reasonable maximum
velocity, one ratio in between is at least one too low.
Paradoxically, the thing will perform near miracles on top gear, and I suppose one must bear in mind that the type of customer for whom it was designed demanded that, but even so, another gear would have made all the difference. Its all-day cruising rate is considerably higher than that of the average British car of similar type and capacity, but on certain hills one reaches the stage all too soon when, although labouring in top, to change down would mean peak revs. in second, and as far as making a decent climb is concerned you are in that position known these days, I believe, as having ” had it.”
An interesting comparison between long and short-stroke engines is afforded between the Opel and the last Singer Nine roadster to go into production before the war, as they have an identical engine capacity, and the Singer has a bore and stroke of 60 by 93 mm. as opposed to the square layout of the Opel. The Singer is faster than the Opel up to thirty by several seconds, and slower by exactly the same amount up to sixty, proving yet again the need for carefully thought-out indirects on a short-stroke engine.
Technically with the idea of improving the lower-end performance, but really just for the hell of it, we decided to blow mine ; this in spite of Forrest Lycett, who had occasion to ride with me from time to time, remarking gloomily that in his opinion it already had all the power that was safe ! Villiers produced one of his own blowers that might have been made for the job, and everything looked very straightforward. Whilst we were still considering possible snags, however, he had to go to Canada, and with the departure of the maestro I did not feel like tackling the job alone. Pity, because a Villiers-blown Opel ” Cadet ” would have shaken the critics a bit, I feel.
Regarding performance generally, since Villiers played with it, and with over-size tyres, I have averaged all-over 33 m.p.g., and could always wind it up to a genuine seventy on the flat. This puzzled Villiers, as his never went quite so quickly. One of these days I will fit a chromium-plated grab rail and St. Christopher badge and really go to town.
The engine itself is one of the smoothest and most reliable units of its kind that I have ever come across, and a complete case in itself for the, square engine and abolition of our absurd system of taxation. In big cars with large reserves of power one can possibly afford the luxury of the undoubted charm of a long-stroke engine, but it is almost impossible to urge a case for it in small machines working always nearly at their limit. This Opel of mine has now done 56,000 miles. The oil consumption is still negligible and the tickover almost inaudible ; nor is there any noticeable falling off in power. If revved to the absolute limit in first or second a slight trace of little-end wear can be detected, but other than that not a harsh note. Often when driving behind engines of similar capacity but longer stroke, I have been appalled by their comparative roughness. In my hands it has covered 33,000 miles in three years on top of the previous owner’s 23,000. It has received
absolutely no attention during this time and has been consistently and savagely maltreated. It is impossible not to feel some sort of respect for something that has given so much for so little.
At this stage it might be advisable to point out that I am not trying to make a motor car out of an Opel or pretend that it is a sports car.
I am comparing the Opel, as any other similar Continental product must be compared, with the British-built equivalent in price and class, and like many other and wiser men, I am forced to the conclusion that there just. is no comparison, either from a tecli Meal standpoint or by the one yardstick I hat is truly international—value for no II y.
The selling price of the Opel in this country before the war was 1125, and that, of course, included import duty. There is no evidence that the selling price was artificially deflated and, in fact, reasoning would indicate the reverse was true.
Compared with its British counterpart the roadholding of the Opel is at least as good, and its steering ‘and braking infinitely better. It is faster, gives a better ride, and will take much, much more punishment for far less maintenance. In fact, just better value for money, as almost without exception were all the Continentals. The fact that Italian ordinary low
powered saloons are often regarded almost as sports cars is a standing indictment of British manufacturers. And is there one single British saloon which combines as roomy a body with the steering, roadholding and pulling power of the Citroen Twelve at within 2100 of the price ? The oft-repeated arbitrary statement that cheap British cars are better finished than their foreign counterparts I hold to be at best a fallacy and at worst a gigantic confidence trick. If they appear so at casual glance, closer inspection usually proves the quality of the “finish ” to he as artificial as the tinsel crown of a pantomime queen. What does this better finish ” amount to when analysed? Leather cloth instead of fabric ; fancy mouldings in imitation exotic woods. Ashtrays which are seldom used and extremely difficult to empty when they are. A cheap lock—and often no oil-pressure gauge. Pieces of quite useless chromium ornamentation and carpet in place of rubber matting, which is neater, more durable and easier to keep clean. All these frills have to be paid for, and with a strictly limited selling price the equivalent value must be deducted from things which show less but which matter more. Surely the cheaper the car ‘the greater the percentage of the cost that should go into the functional part. The Continental manufacturers, having rea
used this, have no scruples in cutting out the unessentials and devoting the money to fundamentally sound design. They can, therefore, produce better cars at lower selling prices. On the other hand, British manufacturers for about eight years before the war had been grappling with the insoluble problem of how to make an ever silkier-seeming purse out of an ever-deteriorating sow’s car. It is high time they gave it up, examined their export figures for the period, and instead of blithely saying, “Horse-power tax, damn it,” asked themselves how and why, in spite of that and in spite of import duty, more and more low-priced foreign cars appeared on British roads.
However, I intensely dislike small.. cars anyhow, and I believe that in the over £700 big-car class we still build the best in the world, and as long as we do build that sort of car, I shall always drive one —even though it has of necessity to be many times secondhand. But until those normal times do return, and while I have to hack, for comfortable, not-as-slow-asyou-might-think, utterly reliable transport . . . “there’s worse things than Opels.” Since writing the above I have discovered to my intense amazement that the Opel has received not unfavourable mention in these pages before. In 1938 the Editor reported having driven one to Birmingham.