Bitter’s sweet symphony. It took a private venture to put the Opel CD concept into production. Opel’s stunning CD concept sadly never went into volume production, says Martin Buckley, but it was developed into an exclusive road car by former racer Erich Bitter. Photography James Mann.
One-off show cars are funny things when you really think about it. They are basically corporate PR stunts created to raise profiles and start a conversation around an idea. Some are frivolous, and just a few are real game-changers. All lead glamorous but brief existences akin to the one-hit-wonder pop star or today’s famous-forno-particular-reason ‘celebrities’: a rapid rise to fame followed by decades under dust sheets.
But while you might spot the occasional ’70s novelty crooner shuffling around Lidl, the more memorable concepts of yesteryear have enjoyed a kinder fate than their human counterparts. From a life of silent obscurity, they can suddenly find themselves thrust into the limelight once again, photographed and fawned over beside an Italian lake or on a Californian lawn. In a publicity- driven world constantly looking for seductive hits from the past to connect to the allegedly sexy cars it would like to sell us in the future, such forgotten show queens can ascend from irrelevance to the status of corporate crown jewels.
Take Opel’s dramatic 1969 offering, the CD. One of the stars of that year’s Frankfurt show – amid much conjecture over a production version – this wedge-shaped two-seater disappeared for 35 years only to be disinterred from storage in 2006 by Jens Cooper of the Opel Museum. Sadly, it had sustained a certain amount of damage to its famous door. “The canopy was broken and we had to build a special tool to make a new one,” says the enthusiastic young curator and lifelong Opel fanatic. “It took five attempts before we produced one that fitted.”
During the second half of the 1960s, Opel of Rüsselsheim had determinedly realigned itself in the hierarchy of European manufacturers. By September 1969 – when this amazing CD, or Coupé Diplomat, was wowing visitors to Frankfurt – Adam Opel AG was no longer regarded simply as General Motors’ dullest division. An outpost regurgitating stale Americana for the consumption of West Germany’s least-discerning motorists had reinvented itself as a go-ahead operation producing vehicles with a slick international flavour that could satisfy any palate.
Opel’s ’60s success was based around styling. It was the first European firm to design and build its own ‘concept’ cars, beginning with the prototype of the GT in 1965. Since 1964, it had been running a proper full-sized Detroit-type styling centre within the confines of its vast production facility at Rüsselsheim, near Frankfurt. It was the biggest and most modern outside of Italy. This was a time, don’t forget, when many of the major car-makers went to Turin for styling expertise. Building N10 was modelled on the GM Design Center at Warren, Michigan and would gain a reputation as a schooling ground for some of the industry’s most high-powered future talent.
Just as Opel’s boardroom was mainly American (or Stateside-trained, such as the young Swiss-born sales director Bob Lutz), so styling was also deemed too important to be left entirely to the locals in the early years. From 1967-1970, it was confidently led by the former Cadillac chief designer Charles ‘Chuck’ Jordan. A selfconfessed Europhile – he dressed in razor-sharp, double-breasted suits and drove a Ferrari Lusso to work every day – Jordan was committed to evolving a true Opel ‘look’ that skilfully blended the best of American and European sensibilities.
This state of the art styling studio, only rarely seen by outsiders even today, afforded 42-yearold Jordan the rare luxury of making all of his mistakes privately as he cajoled and guided his elite group of artists and clay modellers. His latest recruit in the summer of 1969 was George Gallion, 32, seconded from GM in Detroit to style the first Manta, but also the main hands-on influence behind the CD. As far as the outside world was concerned, the Coupé Diplomat was Jordan’s baby and, when he left Opel to return to Detroit in 1970, he was presented with a large-scale miniature of the car. “It was only when we saw the model,” recalls Cooper, “that we understood how the pop-up lights worked on the real car.”
The fact that Opel had put its nifty Kadettbased GT into production was an indication that the CD might have a viable future. It would definitely have given the Diplomat a welcome image boost. With the wheelbase shortened by 25cm, the CD would have been based on the latest ‘B’ version using the 5.4-litre Chevy V8 and de Dion rear suspension. In theory, it would have been a fast, fine-handling, near-140mph machine.
In fact, the rationale behind the CD, which in its original guise was only ever a glassfibre mockup, was to build a headline-grabber to take the wind out of the Mercedes C111’s sails. Jordan had heard about the Wankel-engined prototype’s scheduled appearance at Frankfurt early in 1969 and was unwilling to allow Mercedes to have all the glory at what was, basically, Opel’s local event. His team had only about six months to create the CD as a promotional counter-measure.
The late ’60s spawned a bumper crop of wedgeshaped dream cars, most of which were the talk of the Turin Salon. If the Italian show was about styling, the main West German gathering was about engineering and interesting new road cars such as the Porsche 914 and the Audi 100 Coupé S. That said, Opel made sure that the CD would have its moment of glory and it easily matched the impact of the C111. Even Rudolf Uhlenhaut was spotted taking a close interest in how the door canopy functioned. Alongside the silver coupé (the colour was changed to the trendier Candy Apple Red in the early ’70s towards the end of its motor show career) was a matching full-sized skeleton showing the tubular frame and how the various internal systems operated.
On the Opel stand in September 1969, visitors were tended to by PR girls in ‘space age’ kneelength André Courrèges-style dresses and kept fascinated by live clay modelling and sketching by Opel design staff. The CD was a hit with the crowds, not only for its dramatic one-piece canopy door, but also for its lavish and carefully planned interior in which the pedals, steering wheel and instrument binnacle moved in relation to the fixed driver’s seat. You would have selected gears via buttons or made a call on the futuristiclooking phone, all of which was entirely plausible technology in 1969. The fact that it came with a skinny space-saver spare was also very new.
It was much in demand as a modelling prop for German celebrities, but Opel declined all requests to build running reps for customers and the two cars vanished into storage in c1971/1972.
Nobody took much notice of them for the next 25 years and, in some ways, it was perhaps surprising that they survived at all given that they were just giant models rather than ‘real’ cars. It isrumoured that the skeleton Coupé Diplomat was a runner at the time but now, like its fully clothed sister, it has to be pushed everywhere it goes.
That Opel did entertain plans of producing a roadgoing version is confirmed by the fact that Bob Lutz commissioned Frua to build a pair of running prototypes on the Diplomat chassis in 1971. Enthusiasm for the idea rapidly cooled when it became obvious that Pietro Frua could not make a production-ready car in the timescales required. The CD itself – with its conventional doors and bumpers, plus chopped tail – looked as arrogantly aggressive as a Maserati Ghibli. Lutz was very much behind the idea of a production model, but it may have lost further momentum when it was pointed out to Opel that a glassfibrebodied V8 GT might make embarrassing in-house competition for the Corvette.
In the end, it was left to racing driver Erich Bitter – buoyed by much help and encouragement from Opel – to develop the CD concept into a practical road car that he sold, in highly modified form, under his own name between 1973 and 1979 to the tune of 395 examples. Had the fuel crisis not hit just as it was launched, Bitter might even have sold more cars, but it seems doubtful. Public taste for thirsty American-engined Euro GTs was already on the wane.
The Bitter CD used as many off-the-shelf Diplomat parts as possible – even down to mundane items such as switchgear and instruments – in a steel body built and trimmed by Baur. Yet the addition of rear seats seemed to rationalise all the aggression out of what little was left of the shape. And, although the Bitter was still pretty and exotic-looking, it was a lot less exciting in appearance than Opel’s original. It’s a clean, almost bland shape, with the inevitable Fiat 124 Coupé rear lights. Inside, plush cream hide lifts an otherwise slightly unsatisfying interior that is somehow not quite that of an expensive GT, with too many pedestrian Opel bits. It’s not the build quality but the choice of materials that lowers the tone in a car that is otherwise impressive.
The low window sills give the cabin an airy feel and it’s nice to find that the air-con works. Even as an auto, it has just enough power to leave faint black lines on the tarmac and full-throttle upchanges are mainly betrayed by a flick of the rev counter, with intermediate geared to give 90 or so and the urge levelling off somewhere slightly north of 110mph. It’s not slow, yet the Bitter lacks the raw big-block thrust of a Jensen or even one of the later V8 Bristols.
On the other hand, it feels tidier and more of a piece than either of the above, riding with supple effortlessness on its de Dion rear suspension and feeling pleasingly neutral in corners. The Bitter provides a fine insight into how the ‘real’ CD would have behaved if there had been the corporate will to get it into production. It was clearly capable of giving the BMW CSs and Mercedes SLCs of this world something to think about if it had ever been built in sufficient numbers.
Today, amid the hordes of boxy saloons that tell the story of Opel’s mainly utilitarian past, the CD is a vehicle that really grabs your attention as you wander through the firm’s huge historic collection. Somewhere along the line it lost its original wheels (which were probably Italian one-offs), but the alloys it is currently sporting look entirely appropriate. The squat proportions and the slender gap between the edge of the front wheel and the top of the bonnet suggest a then-fashionable mid-engined configuration. Plus, you cannot help thinking that the CD was at least a partial inspiration for that other wellknown German show-stopper, the BMW Turbo.
You would, of course, require a tight-fitting beige nylon zip-up jumpsuit to feel comfortable behind the wheel of this flight of fancy which, if it did run, would not make you many friends at the car park ticket machine. The massive canopy flips forward by means of a complex arrangement of strong, over-centre hinges and you slide across high, deep sills into broad enveloping seats. As the slim mocked-up instrument panel (I counted 11 separate dials) and simple corporate wheel glide into place, you begin to wonder about the capacity of the air-conditioning to cool the enormous glasshouse had the car been a runner.
There were also undoubtedly safety issues around the glass and the conspicuous lack of an A-pillar, which gave the car such a spectacular side profile. The sweeping centre console – housing the phone, radio and all of the assorted non-functioning functions – is beautifully done and all very UFO. Cue the theme tune, giant spools of computer tape and Wanda Ventham in the passenger seat to complete the fantasy.
If the Opel models of the 1950s and early ’60s had been openly sneered at as cars bought by marginal motorists for their utility or brittle mid-Atlantic glamour, those of the late ’60s were genuinely aspirational. They went as well as they looked and were as good as anything in their class. The appearance of the CD concept – a vehicle that nobody had dared dream boring old Opel would have come up with just a few years before – was dramatic confirmation of this new status and an important moment in outsiders’ perceptions of the company.
‘IT LACKS THE BIG-BLOCK THRUST OF A JENSEN OR A BRISTOL, BUT FEELS TIDIER THAN EITHER’
Jordan (third from right) with his team; vents imply that CD was mid-engined, echoed in proposal below; Frankfurt, 1969; evolution into Bitter CD. Bottom: Frua built a pair of GRPbodied runners in 1971.
Well-proportioned Bitter has hints of Maserati Indy rather than Ghibli-like CD concept; V8 sits well back in chassis; 2+2 cabin isn’t quite plush enough for Buckley, with too many Opel proprietary parts.
‘IT LACKS THE BIG-BLOCK THRUST OF A JENSEN OR A BRISTOL, BUT FEELS TIDIER THAN EITHER’
CD’s original canopy door was damaged so the Opel Museum had to make a special tool to fabricate a replacement, which took five attempts before one fitted. Below: space-age cockpit; V8 ran in period.