GT Gem: The Porsche-Beating Opel GT

Story by Johan Dillen • Photography by Dirk De Jager

Unless you’re driving a Porsche, beating a Porsche is the common yardstick in motor racing. In 1971, that’s exactly what the Opel GT did on its first Targa Florio outing thanks to Autotecnica Conrero, a name long associated with Alfa Romeo at the time.

I have to say, originally Conrero was not convinced there was a race car hidden underneath the GT,” remembers Romano Artioli, now of Bugatti EB 110 fame and at the time a leading Opel dealer in Italy. “Opel was a typical family brand.”

That had to change. “We needed to improve that image in order to consolidate the brand,” Artioli continues. “Helmut Mander winning the hillclimbs at Mendola and Bondone and the European championship in the 1.9-liter Kadett was already a big step forward.

But with the GT coming, we really needed to establish it in racing as well. I was convinced it would stand a chance against Porsche in its category under the new Group 4 rules. This would have been the boost we needed for the brand. Trouble was, Conrero wasn’t convinced.”

Teaming Up With a Legend

“I had made contact with Conrero, who was in my mind the man to get for this car in this class,” Artioli continues. Virgilio Conrero had already forged a reputation tuning Alfa Romeos throughout the ’50s and ’60s, claiming “over a thousand victories” along the way.

Conrero made his own 1300 and 2000 models and joined Alejandro de Tomaso for a Formula 1 effort in 1961. But Alfa’s push toward its own Autodelta team left Autotecnica Conrero sidelined in 1969.

Yet when Artioli came knocking, Conrero was not eager to jump ship: He did not trust the Opel’s fully cast-iron engine and thought that there was too much work needed regarding the brakes and suspension.

Never one to take no for an answer, Artioli kept pushing the project. “I went to Rome to take delivery of the very first Opel GT in Italy and drove it back to Bolzano on the roads that formed part of the Mille Miglia course. I discovered a fun-to-drive car and I was convinced it had what was needed to beat Porsche in Group 4 in the 2-liter class.”

The Opel GT, from the hands of Erhard Schnell, was the very first creation to come out of Opel’s own design studio. The idea of developing a Corvette-on-the-cheap for the European market came from Clare MacKichan, Chevrolet chief designer through the 1950s and ’60s.

The Kadett donated its mechanical base, including an optional 1.9-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivered a modest 90 horsepower. It was paired with outlandish styling and pop-up headlights, making the GT an instant stunner.

“It was light, it had great balance and, with the engine positioned behind the front axle, it was very easy to drive,” Artioli says, recalling his first turn behind the wheel. “To me, it was clear the potential was there to beat the reference in its category: the Porsche 914.”

It wasn’t until Opel started homologating race parts for this new Group 4 class that Conrero started to take an interest in the car. By then the Opel GT had already tasted competition: Henri Greder piloted one in rally racing, and then-privateer Alberto Donà drove a nearly stock Opel GT to a close second in class in his first race, the 1969 Bolzano-Mendola hillclimb.

As per the day's rules, Group 4 race cars needed to retain full road equipment. 

First Victory for the GT

For 1970, Conrero started work on two Opel GTs that he received from Artioli–one gold, one red, both designated for Group 4. Artioli’s brother-in-law, Giampaolo Benedini, along with Augusto de Paoli, would debut the Conrero GT at the 1970 Bolzano-Mendola hillclimb in June.

“Conrero was unconvinced on some parts of the car,” Benedini recalls. “The four-speed gearbox was not suited for motor racing. It had short first and second gears, as was typical at the time to give sports cars good acceleration. But for racing you need a long first gear in order to get a good power delivery without ruining the gearbox. Next you need short spread [between] second, third and fourth gear.”

At first, Conrero only did modest engine tuning, adding 70 horsepower. He also riveted on wide wheel arches that were developed through Steinmetz. De Paoli gave the gold GT a fourth-place finish in the 2-liter class on its debut run–despite brake problems and the stock suspension, which he found unstable.

By the time Benedini lined up for the 1970 Gran Premio Mugello–a highly demanding, Targa Florio-style road race–he was greeted by a much-modified red GT. “The race counted for the European championship and was thus the first grand outing of the GT,” the driver explains. “The car received a bit of a power update, up to 170 or 180 horsepower–enough at the time, but not what you would call plenty of power. The suspension was improved, but still not very good. The same goes for the brakes, there was still a lot of work to do.”

Engine damage forced De Paoli to retire the gold GT on its second lap of the 66-kilometer course, but Benedini managed a stunt by finishing first in class, beating 12 Porsches–both 911 and 914-6 models. “The 100-liter tank gave us a big advantage, as I didn’t have to stop for fuel,” he continues. “I won with only a 7-second margin, but it was a very important victory since we beat the Porsche 914, at the time the best competitor in our class. The Porsche had the power, but our torsional stiffness in the GT was better and gave us better handling.

“The Italian press had hardly noticed the Opel GT up until then, so suddenly it went around the headlines as ‘the unexpected Porsche-beater.’ It was just the publicity Artioli needed to convince the other Italian Opel dealers to invest in an Italian Opel dealer team, run by Conrero. He finally received the funding to properly start developing the GT, and also had the big but powerful Commodore.”

Now With More Power

For 1971, Conrero was able to present a much more developed version of the GT. The engine now put out 183 horsepower at 7000 rpm for the Targa Florio; in shorter contests, spinning to 7200 rpm unleashed 190 horsepower.

Artioli and Conrero had three GTs ready for the 1971 Targa Florio, two gold and one silver. The trio formed a small train during practice, a strategy that helped them get their best possible times.

During Opel driver Pino Pica’s Friday run, however, a spinning Lancia forced him to crash into one of three obstacles: a rock wall, a ravine or the Lancia. He chose the latter, damaging the GT’s bodywork and requiring impromptu repairs. The gold car received a white replacement nose and had to run the race with its pop-up headlights open.

Salvatore Calascibetta was the quickest of the Opel drivers in practice, but he still trailed a Porsche 914-6. At the start of the contest, the sub-2-liter class contained 10 cars: the Opel trio, five 911S entries, and a pair of 914-6s.

Victory at the Targa

Porsche was not having the best Targa Florio that year, losing two cars in the 2-liter GT category after just two laps. Opel was struggling, too, with one car retiring on lap three due to mechanical issues. Then came another blow: Benedini had been posting impressive lap times, but “on lap four,” he says, “our car broke.”

Now it was just one Opel against four 911 teams and one 914-6. Opel driver Salvatore Calascibetta completed the second stint of the race, pushing the Porsches as much as he could. All almost came to nothing as Calascibetta was confronted with a puncture on his last lap.

The left-rear tire was slowly losing air. In the left-hand corners he could keep his foot planted; right-handers left him with almost no grip. But in the end, he held a small 11.4-second margin over the Bertoni/Schön Porsche 911S. After six and a half hours of competition, the Opel was first in class and ninth overall.

Conrero was already looking forward, asking his Opel drivers how they’d feel about a five-speed gearbox.

And Trouble at the Targa

For 1972, the Opel GTs were back, now wearing their famous yellow-and-blue livery. A ZF five-speed manual gearbox had been installed, and the engine bay received a new crossflow head. Two cars were equipped with 45mm Weber carburetors, pushing output to 205 horsepower. The other car received Kügelfischer injection, reportedly giving it 214 horsepower.

Preparation was good, but luck was not on Conrero’s side this time. Giorgio Pianta showed the benefits of the Kügelfischer injection, posting fastest time in the 2-liter category, almost 30 seconds quicker than the first of the Porsches.

Unfortunately, Pianta and co-driver Giorgio Schön never saw the start of the race. Due to a suspected oil leak, the decision was made to change the engine. However, the Kügelfischer injection system didn’t cooperate, and the mechanics failed to bring it to life before the green flag fell.

The previous year’s winner was driven by an all-female crew consisting of Marie-Claude Beaumont and Rosadelle Facetti, but they retired with engine problems on lap three. All hopes lay with the Alberto Rosselli and Paolo Monti car.

Rosselli didn’t disappoint. He posted the best lap of the class, bringing the Opel GT up to ninth place overall. On lap four, Monti took over, passing one competitor and assuming seventh overall after Nino Vaccarella’s Alfa Romeo failed. Early in lap five, though, Monti lost control and hit a crowd of spectators, injuring three.

The following year, 1973, marked the last running of the Targa Florio. Conrero’s efforts were focused on the new Momo Conrero, a Group 5 prototype powered by a 2-liter Opel engine. Two Opel GTs were entered as well, with Bonaccorsi and Pantò finishing third in category–behind a 911S and a 914-6.

That year would also be the end of the line for the famed Opel GT effort. “I have nothing but fond memories when I think back to the Opel GT,” Benedini says. “But you should not forget how important it was for Conrero as well. After the divorce from Alfa Romeo, his future was uncertain. Thanks to the Opel GT, he was able to prove that his success was not dependent on one brand alone and that his magic stuck to other brands as well. This led to a very positive vibe within the Conrero team.”

From Scale Model to the Real Deal

But as is so often the case, there was little sympathy to be found for racing cars that had finished their career. At the end of the 1973 season, the Pianta/Schön car–the one equipped with the Kügelfischer injection–donated its heart to another project. Virgilio Conrero saw a better future for the 2-liter engine in the new Group 2 Opel Ascona A.

The Campagnolo wheels were also moved from the GT to the Ascona sedan. Eventually Opel would take the Ascona rallying, with Walter Röhrl driving one to the 1974 championship. Meanwhile, what was left of the Pianta/Schön Opel GT sat outside in a garden.

It was still there when Belgian enthusiast Maurice Van Sevecotte passed by in 1997. “Originally, the car wasn’t even for sale,” he recalls. “I was there to take measurements and photos for a replica project. For me, the passion for the Conrero GT started with a miniature scale model. After that, I started looking for as much information as I could get my hands on.

“Since these were such rare cars–only four exist–I was only ever going to make a replica. And to this end, I went to Conrero, where I knew the car resided in the yard. I wanted to take measurements and pictures so I could make an exact copy.

“What I found in the yard was a wreck, but it still had all the original Conrero elements that make it special: the wheel arches, the axles, the big fuel tank, even the gauges were still there. It just looked a mess. But I could see what really stood in front of me and decided to see if it was for sale eventually.

“Naturally, the moment I started taking an interest, this was suddenly no longer a wreck in the garden but a part of Italian heritage that under no circumstances should leave the country. In the end I decided for myself that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I just decided to pay what was needed.

“In France, I found a correct cross-flow head similar to the one used in the Conrero GT. Together with the five-speed ZF gearbox and the limited-slip differential, it now has either all the parts as originally homologated by Opel or the original parts that were still there on the car. I just abandoned the Kügelfisher injection because it is too complicated to run.”

Assembling information on the car was a gigantic task in itself; reviving the car to its current condition was quite another thing altogether. “I started restoring it in 2006, hoping I would have it ready in 2008 in time for the 40th anniversary of the Opel GT,” Van Sevecotte chuckles.

“It took a long time, but I got help from some of the most important people involved in the Conrero GT project. Giorgio Schön was kind enough to give me access to his Conrero GT so I could see all the details that had been changed later on in the process of developing the car. Thanks to him, I was able to bring back the car he drove in the 1972 Targa Florio to the correct specifications.”

The Opel GT team didn't land a follow-up win at the 1972 Targa Florio, but that's when they adopted their now-iconic blue and yellow livery.

Reliving History

Van Sevecotte’s car is the original gold one that crashed while testing and had to run the 1971 Targa Florio with its headlights open. “It still has traces of the gold paint under the doorsill. You can also still see why this was the damaged car. For instance, the right wing support for the bumper never was replaced. I could have changed it, but for history’s sake I just kept it this way.”

This car also still carries the blue windshield banner assigned to the Pianta/Schön car for 1972. “The three cars used different-colored ribbons so they could be easily identified,” he adds.

“It’s just a shame Conrero was limited to just three cars–sometimes even just a single one–against an army of Porsches,” Van Sevecotte explains as he shows off the car. “Maybe things would have been different if they had more GTs at the start in 1972, but it is clear the Italian budget was a bit more restrained than Porsche’s race budget.”

Although no more than three Opel GT race cars ever entered an event, Conrero built four of them. All are still around: This one lives in Belgium, while the others are stored in Italy.

This GT hasn’t become a quiet footnote in the history books, though. Faced with an open runway for our photo shoot, it can still accelerate impressively. It also makes quite the effort to torture the ears–credit the side exhaust and stripped-out interior.

This car obviously still makes good on the Opel GT’s period advertising slogan: Only flying is more fun.

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Comments
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flat6pilot
flat6pilot
9/17/19 11:34 p.m.

wspohn
wspohn Dork
9/18/19 10:09 a.m.

The Opel GT has always looked better than it ran.  I used to race against one in the 1970s. Inferior handling kept it from being a threat.  The styling is pretty easy on the eyes, though.

Footnote - the modern Opel GT (Kappa GM platform sold in Europe) is an exclusively convertible model.  When did the buying public get so stupid that the manufacturers could apply whatever inapt name they wanted. Apparently the lure of uing the familiarity of 'Opel GT' trumped the fact that GT cars are coupes.

I guess the new Porsche 'Turbo' name applied to their electric car (nothing to turbocharge there) is a continuation of this.  Guess it is all about money, not logic and consistency. 

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