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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.