Why General Motors Lost Billions in Europe

Little known in the U.S., the Vauxhall and Opel brands that GM is selling made some pretty awful cars.

The parent of Peugeot and Citroen - PSA Group - will become the new owners of the Vauxhall and Opel brands following a takeover of General Motors’ European business. GM, which bought control of the marques in the 1920s, has lost some $9 billion since 2009 in Europe, failing to bring crossover vehicles to market – models that ironically are coming to fruition now. The deal, worth roughly $2.3 billion, would be a good one for PSA Group, says David Bailey, professor of industry at Aston University in Birmingham, England. “Peugeot realize they’re getting it at a good time, on the cheap, and that they have a range of models that can turn the company around,” Bailey says. Once a status symbol, the cars over the decades generally evolved into basic transport. Here's the lowlights (and a few highlights) of GM's foray in Europe.

Clockwise from top left: an Opel Kapitän poster from 1938, A Kapitän from 1953, from 1964, and finally the final version
Source: General Motors

The Opel Kapitan was first produced in 1939 and kept rolling off the line until 1970. "The Kapitan was a car which in Germany represented people who had arrived at economic success," said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, professor at the Center for Automotive Research at Universität Duisburg-Essen. So if you had a Kapitan, you've made it.

The Opel GT in action and a poster from the time explaining just what one sounded like
Source: General Motors

Launched in 1968, the Opel GT was an attempt at the sports car market. More than 70% of all the GT’s produced ended up in the U.S. “It was very popular,” said Gil Wesson, president of the North California Opel Motorsport Club. “The styling of the car was so ahead of its time. The people in the U.S. called it the baby Corvette.” 

The Olympia Rekord P1
Source: General Motors

Some 850,000 Olympia Rekord P1s were sold in the three years following its 1957 unveiling at the IAA International Motor Show in Frankfurt. One place it didn’t sell well? The U.S. “They looked like baby 1950s Chevrolets, and back then you could get yourself an Olympia Rekord or a shoebox Chevrolet. People wanted the Chevy because it was bigger and had six cylinders,” said Wesson.

The Chevette
Source: General Motors

In the 1970s GM began to merge Opel and Vauxhall. A supermini model, the Vauxhall Chevette, “was probably the car that helped turn things around for Vauxhall in terms of its image,” said Bailey. “They were previously thought of as rust buckets: this became a genuine competitor in the mini segment.” It bore a passing resemblance to the Opal Kadette.

Opel/Vauxhall Astra
Source: General Motors

In 2010 Opel and Vauxhall produced a new Astra which catapulted them into competition with Volkswagen and Ford. “Vauxhall and Opel have long had a competitor in that city center class, but have never really been seen as that competitive,” said Bailey. “This generation of the Astra is seen as a genuine rival to the Ford Focus.” 

Clockwise from top left, a Kadett A, the Kadett B Coupe Rallye LS and an adbertisement showing the Kadett B station wagon
Source: General Motors

A new model, the Kadett, came off the production lines in the early 1960s. The Kadett B series, which launched in 1965, became Opel’s most successful car to date, selling 2.6 million in eight years. “There are many people still with their Kadett station wagons,” said Wesson. “They just love them.” 

The Frontera
Source: General Motors

Not all cars are hits. 1991’s Vauxhall Frontera was plagued with reliability issues that did it – and its manufacturer – no favors. “It was seen as a bit of a dog,” Bailey said.

The Manta
Source: General Motors

During the 1970s and 1980s the Opel Manta was a sporty coupe that competed with the Ford Capri.

Vauxhall  VX220
Source: General Motors

Some 7,200 Vauxhall VX220 and Opel Speedsters were made in the early 2000's as the company tried to revive a reputation for sportiness.  

The Vauxhall Belmont
Source: General Motors

In the 1980s consumers were looking to buy hatchbacks – which makes the Vauxhall Belmont all the more puzzling. “It was basically an Astra with a boot on. It was a spectacularly ugly car,” said Bailey. 

Opel/Vauxhall Zafira
Source: General Motors

The Zafira, launched simultaneously by Opel and Vauxhall in 1999, was a major step forward for the company. A seven-seater compact, it captured the desire for people movers. “Given at the time that was a big growth market, it was a very important car,” said Bailey. 

Three generations of Cavalier
Source: General Motors

The Vauxhall Cavalier, a restyled version of the Opel Ascona, arrived in 1975 – and would remain for 20 years. “It was seen as competing with the Ford Cortina, and was a popular car that repositioned Vauxhall in the U.K.,” said Bailey. 

An early Corsa
Source: General Motors

The compact Corsa hit the U.K. market in 1993 (at the same time as Opel’s second-generation model) and became “hugely popular and pretty ubiquitous,” said Bailey. “Where Opel is competing with Ford and Volkswagen, the Corsa is right up there in Europe and the U.K.”

Opel/Vauxhall Vectra
Source: General Motors

The Cavalier’s replacement (introduced by Opel in 1988, and Vauxhall in 1995) was a best-seller, but not as loved. Former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson said “it was designed in a coffee break by people who couldn't care less about cars.”

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