Thursday, 13 January 2022

Eat this! The Mini powered Opel prototype

Now this is an unusual story! It's about an Opel that was originally planned to be built in Romania under dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu's reign after a 675 million dollar investment in a new factory that would produce 150.000 of these cars a year. That's a weird story on its own. But how about the prototype being powered by a Mini drivetrain..?

My German colleague Frank B. Meyer found out about this fascinating tale, researched it, interviewed some of the people involved and got it published. I read it and simply had to drop Frank a line the other day. He was kind enough to send me the only remaining picture of the prototype and allowed me to quote from his article, especially from the now 84-year old former chief design at Opel George Gallion. Gallion worked in Rüsselsheim under Alexander Cunningham - the big Opel boss at the time and designed several milestone cars such as the original Manta and Monza. And then there was this Mini based prototype, meant to persuade the Romanians in investing hundreds of millions in a new factory. Gallion about building it in the early 1970s: "We bought a scrap Mini for 200 German Marks or something like that. We got rid of all of the body parts and fabricated a new car around the Mini's chassis. It did run and drive, as we drove it around the place." One of his colleagues dared taking it up to the headquarters to the great GM-boss of the time: Bob Lutz. Gallion: "Lutz was kind of impressed, but what we really needed was a go from Detroit. And Cunningham knew that chances were small that they would get that. Gallion: "To impress the GM bosses we had an advertisement agency make some sort of promotional little film about this compact Opel. Cunningham would show it upon his next Detroit visit, together with 1:5 and 1:1 models, saying "The boys in Rüsselsheim have been playing around with this idea". And so it went. Cunningham showed them all to his superiors in Detroit. Gallion: "And, bingo! They loved the idea and gave us the green light!". And so Opel's team was sent to Romania in the winter of 1975 or 1976, met a governmental delegation in one of Ceaușescu's hunting castles, drank lots of slivovitsj brandy and were accompanied by a long-legged 'tour guide' named Natascha who turned out to be a spy. But nothing more was heard from Romania after the trip and the whole Romanian project was eventually canned. Opel didn't give up though and many years later, the car did see production: it had become the original Opel Corsa, built in a new factory in Spain.
A small footnote came from Frank B. Meyer when he sent the image: "Dear Jeroen, the history of the image is a little complicated: it's a screenshot from the film that Opel people produced in order to convince GM to build a small car. George Gallion had the film at home; Lutz Keiss, a journalist, borrowed it, took the screenshots – fortunately, because Keiss told me that the film was later destroyed during a flood in his basement. Stay safe and curious!" Thank you very much Frank!

This is the Mini powered Opel prototype, built for the planned Romanian Opel factory. The picture is a screenshot from original film footage that is lost forever
Archiv George Gallion

Opel man George Gallion with one of his designs: the 1975 Opel Manta GT/E
Picture Opel PR

UPDATE 14 January 2022: One keen reader knows of another picture of this car on the world wide web, which I have copied in below. It's not very clear but does give another good view on the car with the Mini engine visible. The source is a website about the Opel Corsa A-series' history, click here

Another picture of the prototype, found on a website dedicated to the Opel Corsa

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