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Date: June 21, 1999
Publisher: Crain Communications, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 633 words

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The five Opel brothers were industrialists and entrepreneurs rather than true pioneers of the automobile. Nonetheless, they accurately forecast a great future for the automobile.

Like France's Peugeot, the company founded by their father, Adam Opel, in 1862 in Russelsheim, Germany, already had achieved success, producing sewing machines and bicycles.

The most ambitious Opel brothers, Fritz and Wilhelm, went into partnership in late 1899 with Friedrich Lutzmann from Dessau. Under the agreement, Lutzmann sold his patents to Opel, which began production of the 1.5-liter, 3.5-hp Opel Patent-Motorwagen System Lutzmann in Russelsheim. But the conservative Lutzmann-Opel did not meet expected commercial success, and the Opel brothers broke with Lutzmann in 1901 after 65 cars were made.

The Opels signed a contract in 1902 with the French maker Darracq, whose models were of a more advanced design. The completely imported chassis was dressed with Opel coachwork and sold as Opel-Darracqs - this time with more success.

But Fritz and Wilhelm soon discovered they would need vehicles of their own design to meet long-term success. Beginning in 1902, they started to create a full model range that even included motorcycles.


The 1909 1.0-liter Opel 4/8-hp two-seat ``doctor's car'' was one of the first successful small European cars on the market. By 1910, Opel saw its annual output almost double from 845 to 1,615 cars.

A fire destroyed the factory premises in 1911. But rebuilding allowed for fresh investment in the latest series-production equipment.

In 1914, Opel produced 3,335 cars, but with the impact of World War I and other factors, it would take the company 10 years to regain and surpass this production record.

The year 1924 was a milestone in many ways. Fritz and Wilhelm, now ``von Opel'' after being given aristocratic titles for their achievements, invested heavily in mass-production equipment. Opel became the first German company to introduce a moving assembly line.

In 1928, Opel became Germany's largest carmaker with a 37.5 percent market share.

Enter General Motors, which was looking for a foothold on the European continent after having taken over Vauxhall in the United Kingdom in 1925.

In March 1929 GM acquired 80 percent of Opel's shares, for which it paid $26 million. Just over two years later, the von Opel family sold the remaining 20 percent of the shares to GM.

By 1936, Opel had become Europe's largest automaker, with production of just over 120,000 cars and trucks.

Halfway through the 1930s, Opel's lineup consisted of the 1.1-liter Kadett, the 1.5-liter Olympia and the 2.5-liter, six-cylinder Kapitan, plus the addition of a 3.6-liter Admiral.

Opel's prewar record year was tallied in 1938, with 140,580 vehicles produced by 26,944 employees.

A year later, Germany was at war. Opel concentrated on commercial vehicle production for the Nazis, and the Opel Blitz became the German army's most popular medium-sized truck. In total 97,848 were made, in later years by women and prisoners of war.


Heavy bombing destroyed Opel's plants in Russelsheim and Berlin-Brandenburg. As part of the postwar reparation, the Soviet Union was given the production equipment for the prewar Kadett model.

In 1947, Opel managed to put the first postwar Olympia on wheels, and a year later the American army handed management back to GM. From then on, Opel enjoyed success, helped by the German economic revival.

In 1963, Opel launched its first postwar small car, bearing the familiar Kadett name. The car was made in a purpose-built plant in Bochum. When the Zaragoza, Spain, plant began producing the Corsa in 1982, Opel achieved annual volumes of over 1 million units.

Starting in 1979, front-wheel drive was adopted for all models except the large Omega, and the small Corsa filled the lower gap in the range after the Kadett and its Astra successor had grown into larger segments.

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