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Opel’s On-Again, Off-Again History

The family firm that gave GM a commanding lead in Europe.

by on Sep.11, 2009

Opel Advertisement: "Looking Under The Hood"

GM re-invested in thoroughly modern and attractive Opel models in the years immediately preceding World War II.

As General Motors moves to sell 55%, and thus majority control, of its principal European division, Opel, to international supplier firm Magna and Russian bank Sberbank, one might observe that Opel is rapidly using up its nine lives.

The German firm started in 1862 as a sewing machine manufacturer. The company subsequently made bicycles, then automobiles; becoming the leading German automaker. Recovering from its defeat in World War I and then runaway inflation in the early 1920s, the German government barred imports of any motor vehicles until 1925. Then it was just one anti-import regulation after another.

General Motors opened a plant in Berlin in this period but found it practical only to build commercial bodies for mounting on Chevrolet truck chassis. So it decided on an end-run around German regulators in Billy Durant fashion by buying into the native industry.

In the spring of 1929, General Motors purchased 80% of Adam Opel AG from the Opel family for just under $26 million (roughly $315 million in today’s dollars, still a bargain). Opel then was market leader in the small German market with an output in 1928 of a mere 43,000 units, tiny by both U. S. and GM standards.

Nevertheless, Opel had a modern manufacturing and assembly facility and provided a window for GM to market not only in Germany, but to German dominated markets in surrounding countries, especially to the East and South. In 1931, GM purchased the balance of Opel stock of an additional $7.4 million.

GM infused Opel with American expertise in mass production, focusing on interchangeable parts. To thwart Germany’s restrictive tariffs, through Opel, GM launched small-bore four- and six-cylinder engines in the early 1930s.

Check Out Our Lightning!

Check Out Our Lightning!

Opel likewise introduced its “Blitz” (Lightning) medium truck line. Opel sales increased from 42,771 in 1928 to 128,370 in 1937 as Germany prospered, ironically, under the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler. Opel’s production of 140,580 in 1938 exceeded that of Oldsmobile and nearly matched that of Buick in the U. S.