MANTA-STIC AT 50

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By Sivan Goren

The Opel Manta was a car that had everything: looks, economy and performance. In fact, the April 1971 issue of CAR magazine South Africa gushed: “…on the basis of this first Test, we have no hesitation in rating the Opel Manta as the greatest GM car we have ever driven, and one of the finest cars available to South African motorists.” Then why is it that this car that seemed destined for great things faded into obscurity and all but disappeared?

The Manta was derived from the Opel GT which had begun life as an experimental model and had later gone into production as a low-cost sports car. Unveiled in 1970, the Manta A was a two-door coupé with a 1584cc overhead-camshaft engine and a four-speed transmission.

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At a time when the world was obsessed with American pony cars and the sexy Ford Capri had already roared onto the scene, the Opel Manta became Europe’s first affordable muscle car. It quickly gained street cred amongst the boy-racer crowd and was very well received by the public too.

When the Manta was launched in South Africa, Opel was already a dominant force in the South African motor industry, with models like the Kadett and Rekord already firmly established. In 1971, the year the Manta 1600 was launched in South Africa, one of these cars would have cost you around R2 627. For your money you would have got 0-100km/h in 14.2 seconds and a maximum speed of 157.4km/h, not to mention terrific fuel economy for a car of its size. In fact, you pretty much would have got bang for your buck in every department; this was a car that was comfortable, offered brilliant handling and performance (but with a smooth and quiet ride), and let’s face it, was definitely not hard on the eyes.  

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Truth be told, it was hard to find fault with this car. CAR summed it up thus: “Its clever styling not only gives it fine aerodynamics, aesthetic appeal and a pretty spacious interior, but makes the car easy-driving because it does not feel as big as it is. This is a warm-hearted car with considerable prestige value, yet within easy financial reach of the average motorist. As long as production is able to keep pace, we expect that the Opel Manta could very easily move straight into a ‘Top Ten’ position among South Africa’s best-selling cars.” High praise indeed!

And even though the Manta was a car clearly aimed at men – you only have to look back at the period advertising with tag lines like: “If you’ve got what it takes – Take a MANTA and live like a MAN should” – even the ladies found things to like about it. In a special ‘Woman’s Comment’ section of the test in CAR, a female member of the test panel reported that the car felt solid and handled beautifully and that she absolutely loved the foot pedals because “even my small feet managed them easily”. So something for everyone, then.

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The Opel Manta 1900 became available in the same year and received reviews as glowing as its predecessor – perhaps even more so. The two models were essentially the same inside: both two-door coupés with a boot big enough for a decent shopping spree, reclining front rally-type seats, full instrumentation and sports-type gearshift on a centre console. The cylinder bore diameter was increased from 85mm in the 1600 to 93mm in the 1900, which resulted in 0-100km/h achieved in only 12.1 seconds and a top speed of 164.3km/h. And even fuel economy, though not quite as good as that of the 1600, was still pretty darn impressive. The 1900 would have set you back R2 766 – with an extra R41 if you opted for the vinyl roof (I totally would have – just saying).

All in all, when you weighed up all criteria, this was a car that was hard to beat. In the August 1971 test of the Manta 1900, CAR magazine said: “The Manta is an engineer’s car, with the accountants taking a back seat. It is obvious that no effort or expense has been spared to give this car directional stability and fault-free roadability… The car itself is so good that it has to be experienced to be believed. Rarely has any car – regardless of price – excited us so much. And the Manta is very much a low-to-middle-price car.”

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In its first year, 742 units of the Manta 1600 were sold in South Africa. In 1972, this number dropped by more than 50% to 339 but then jumped to 648 the following year. But by 1974, the year it was discontinued, only 61 units were sold. The 1900 version did slightly better, selling 1 216 in 1971 but then dropping steadily each year thereafter. By 1976, it too was discontinued.

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Surprising? I think so. Why is it that a car that seemed almost perfect could not maintain sales? Was it that, as CAR magazine had feared, production could not keep up with demand? Could it be that, despite everything it has going for it, the Manta just did not find favour with the South African public as much as other models did? Perhaps the days of the coupé were over and four-door saloons became more popular as practical family cars? Or could it be that maybe the Manta was shoved aside because another model in the GM stable was in direct competition with it? Maybe someone out there knows the answer. But whatever it is, the fact remains that the Manta was a car that got far less glory than it deserved.

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