Ralph Hosier remembers the Opel Manta

I’m delighted to welcome Ralph Hosier back to PetrolBlog. Ralph is an engineer, racer and writer, so fits in rather well around these parts. If you haven’t done so already, you really should check out his TechnoBlog.

When Ralph isn’t playing a major role in the development of a new British car or going sideways around a track, he spends some time writing. Here he reminisces about an old favourite of his, the Opel Manta.

Manta, Manta

I used to work for Ford in Cologne and at that time there was a sit-com on television called ‘Manta, Manta’. It was about a bunch of youths who hooned about in badly souped-up Opel Mantas. It was based in the 1980s, so they wore eighties t-shirts, naff moustaches that only youths can create and despite their massive bravado they all lived at home with their mums. It was cringeworthy but funny.

This reflects the aspirational nature of the Manta back in its native Germany. Just like the Ford Capri in the UK, the Opel Manta was a car of dreams. The dreams of spotty youths who didn’t have the imagination to dream of higher things.

I was one of them.

Inspired by the mighty Manta 400 rally cars and the numerous custom cars at shows, the slope fronted Manta became the car of choice for many people looking for a fast cheap car that didn’t have the stigma of the Capri. But in the UK the Manta was not so strongly marketed, sitting uneasily alongside the near identical Vauxhall brands. But to me, this relative rarity made it all the more appealing.

Simplicity

The car itself is a simple design. I should clarify that this article is about the Manta B-series, as opposed to the A-series which was a rather pretty car with a conventional upright grille and headlight style made from 1970 to 1975.

Ralph Hosier on the Opel Manta

The Manta B carried over much of the A-series mechanicals such as the CIH iron block engine that can trace its origins back to the second world war. The suspension was a simple but effective beam axle with a Panhard rod at the back and double wishbones at the front. Its simplicity made it light too, some models coming in at just under a ton.

Much like the MK1 and MK2 Ford Escorts, this winning formula of simple effective suspension and lightweight body made it ideal for motorsport where it dominated the European rally scene for many years.

This spawned homologation specials such as the Manta 400 with a 2.4 CIH block married to a Cosworth alloy 16v twin cam head to produce between 225 and 345 bhp. These had flared arches and a host of suspension and structural modifications and graced a great many posters showing them in full flight.

Cavalier confusion

Back in Blighty the model line-up became muddied by the Vauxhall problem. The MK1 Cavalier used the same floorpan as the Opel Manta, but whereas in Germany they made the family car version (the Ascona) with a conventional vertical grill, in the UK the Cavalier still had the sloping Manta front end. More confusion arose when Vauxhall launched the Cavalier Sports Hatch with exactly the same two door hatch back body as the Manta. In fact the only difference being that the Cavalier nose didn’t have the extra cooling slots in and had slightly softer springs and dampers.

My first car was a 1.9 Cavalier, but I have also had a Sports Hatch and two Mantas. If you buy one with tuning in mind then the base car is largely irrelevant. Add sports springs and dampers plus a few tweaks and you have the same outcome which ever brand you started with.

But whilst the Manta chassis can be stiffened to give superb handling, it is worth saying that the standard car handles very well. The non-assisted steering is responsive and has superb feedback, making it easy to feel the road as you push hard through twisty corners. Rear-wheel drive and modest traction can let the tail wag when accelerating hard out of tight bends, the the breakaway is so progressive that it is a joy rather than chore to control.

Rear view of Opel Manta

A car for the keen driver

Personally I really like these cars, the handling is a delight for a keen driver ‘making good progress’.

The simple cabin is uncluttered and reasonably spacious for a smallish car. Although it is quoted as having space for five people you would struggle to get three adults on the back seat. Rear seat belts were only an option on the last of the models built. The controls fall easily to hand and generally it is a light and pleasant place to be. Later Mantas had Recaro seats and a variety of little improvements to the cabin, all of which could be retro fitted to earlier models if you so wish.

I mentioned that the Manta was introduced with the trusty old CIH iron 4-pot engine, a solid and reliable unit if rather conservative in power output, initially as a 1.9 but later as a 2.0-litre. Later Mantas had the alloy headed OHC engine in 1.8-litre form, the same engine series as seen in the first Astras which meant that it was reasonably straight forward to slot a 2.0 GTE 16v engine in, although the distributor clashed with the bulkhead and needed some modification. The 1.8 is more sprightly than the CIH engine, a bit more economical and a touch lighter. All engines are good in standard form and can take a fair amount of abuse, making them ideal as a first classic.

Early cars had a four speed manual ‘box with a long gear stick that can make gear changes a bit vague if it wears. Later cars had the Getrag 5-speed ‘box with a shorter lever and is a delight to use.

Mechanically strong

As with any car of that era rust is a big problem, sills rot out for a pastime and front foot wells take the brunt of road grit being thrown up from the front wheels and rot on the leading edge. Windscreen and rear window seals trap rust under the rubber, and rotten A-pillars are common.

Rear of White Opel Manta

Mechanically the cars are strong, but usual service items such as bushes and wheel bearings may need replacing. The throttle and clutch cables can fray or snap, personally I would replace them as a precaution.

However, everything is easy to work on, I had one as a student in the late ’80s and changed wheel bearings and the cylinder head at the roadside as I didn’t have a garage at that time.

All in all these were good solid and simple cars, lovely to drive and easy to fix. So now that I have written this I’m off to brows eBay Motors and start reliving my misspent youth.

Follow Ralph on twitter @RalphHosier.

Images used with kind permission of Alan Gold. View his Flickr stream here.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

11 comments

  1. November 30, 2012
    John Rutter

    Ah yes, the Opel Manta. I had a few of these and still consider whether to get another as a basic and fun rwd car. Was the rallying influence that did it. Well, that and tail-happy behaviour! The CIH injected engine in the GT/E I had felt especially gutless, but a 2.2 upgrade made the engine much more torquey and driveable. A ‘red top’ engine of later design would be better still, these days. Just find one without rust problems. And a coupe, not a hatchback. imho

    Did go out as a co-driver on one last year for a local rally, which reminded me how much fun they can be – even from the silly seat 🙂

    Reply
    • December 1, 2012
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Really not that many about these days. Found this one on eBay – low mileage and only one owner, but £3k seems excessive. Mind you, I doubt there are that many good ones about!

      Agree with you re the coupé. Looks a lot better in my opinion.

      Reply
    • December 3, 2012
      Matt

      Some good looking cars there!

      Reply
  2. December 3, 2012
    Matt

    I’ve always quite fancied one of these as a track project, and sounds like it could be a good starting point. Agree on the looks, it would be the coupe for me too… to me it has a certain stock car (NASCAR) look about it.

    As for Manta, Manta… it’s sort of Mad Max meets Fast and the Furious meets Oliva Newton-John.

    Reply
  3. December 13, 2012
    aaron short

    My dream car. one day i will have a i400 in white

    Reply
  4. March 16, 2013
    rutthenut

    Well, folliowing on from my thoughts expressed here, I have now taken the plunge and have bought myself a Manta. Not just any old thing though. This is a tarmac rally Manta, fitted with a Rover V8. I’m sure it will want a bit of work to get brakes and suspension how I’d like them, and some money on a good diff for the car. But my intention is to do single-venue tarmac rallies, in the South of England. Maybe a sprint or hillclimb to add to the mix.
    I’ve done many other motorsport disciplines, including co-driving in national-level rallies, but I need to ‘scratch the itch’ of rally driving from the correct side of the car 😀

    Reply
    • March 17, 2013
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Wow! Congratulations on the purchase. Any chance of a photo or two?!

      Reply
      • March 17, 2013
        rutthenut

        When the car does eventually get delivered to my house (due this week, delayed due to bad weather) than I will indeed take photos and will share them 😀

        Reply
      • April 28, 2013
        John Rutter

        Some initial pics here
        http://www.flickr.com/photos/rutthenut/sets/72157633168218122

        And for those who like the cars, especially 400 replicas, do have a look through the project cars and other info on the forums at http://forums.mantaclub.org/

        Reply
        • May 5, 2013
          Gavin Big-Surname

          Wow – SUPERB Manta, chap! That’s awesome. V8 THOR FTW! 🙂

          And cheers for the link info.

          Reply

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