In the late 1960s, General Motors was looking for a way to compete with the newly introduced German-based Ford Capri in Europe. The Capri was a good package with a sporty engine, a sporty body, and a sporty 2+2 cabin. GM responded via its’ German Opel subsidiary, with the Manta. The history of Opel has been previously covered (see Opel Kadett), but in the late 1960s they had developed a new platform for their small cars code named project 1450. It was to be the basis for the new Rekord and Kadett. Opel quickly had designer Charles Jordan, fresh off designing the new Rekord, develop a much more sporty package for the 1450 platform. Ironically it became the first version of the new platform to be introduced in September 1970 at the Paris show.
The Manta answered the challenge of the Capri. It was a sporty design, with an attractive silhouette, and 2 door coupe styling. It had sporty wheels, a long nose, and a short rear. It was a more roomy 2+2 than the Capri. If you think it looks a like a 2/3 size muscle car, you are more right than you think. Opel was infused at the time with US management, including general manager, design chief, and sales boss Bob Lutz !! It was also a true sporting coupe. It had handling that was widely praised by the press given the coil springs and sway bar up front. The Manta only weighed 2140 lbs on a 95.75″ wheelbase. It had a 1.9 liter engine (in Europe, there was also a 1.5 and a 1.1), but it was somewhat detuned so outright speed was not it’s forte. It did have a 5 bearing crank, and chain-driven overhead camshaft, so it was reliable and had the potential to be hotted up. The package overall was a good one. As this German commercial from 1970 points out, it was good looking, performed well, and was practical as well.
The Rallye model introduced in 1971 was mostly an appearance package with its’ black hood, wheels, and graphics, but it looked like a miniature muscle car, and matched the “Baby Mustang” image of the Capri. A Luxus version was introduced in 1973 which had options introduced by many German manufacturers such as corduroy upholstery (I have this in my 72 Tii) and faux wood paneling. In 1975, all Mantas gained Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection. Europe also saw the GT/E model which was more of a true high performance variant. Tuning specials and race cars followed of course, with the Ascona sedan version doing well, and second generation of the Manta having great success.
However, the first generation Manta was not very successful in the US. It was the victim of a confusing marketing and distribution scheme for Opel that limited exposure and strangled sales. It was initially sold through Buick dealers and marketed lightly. The Capri only had modest success in the US as well. This seems particularly ironic, as the birth of both of these cars stem from the battle of two US giants in Europe. The Manta did do very well overall though with 498,553 units sold from 1970 to 1975. More importantly, it set the stage for the very successful Manta B to follow.