Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Vern Rieckmann has a pretty simple explanation for why he’s so smitten with his 1973 Opel Rallye Manta — a fun, flashy little blast from Buick’s past.
“I’m just an old German!” he laughs. “My grandparents came from Germany. I speaka the Deutsch! In 1955 I was in the United States Air Force. I was an aircraft engine mechanic and they sent me to Munich, Germany. I was in Germany for 2-1/2 years and I’ve seen lots of Opels over there and I’ve seen lots of MGs and all that stuff, German Fords and what have you, and I just got interested in ’em.”
Rieckmann, a resident of Neenah, Wis., bought his first Rallye Manta almost new in 1972, and he hasn’t been without one since. For a while, he had a matching pair — his original yellow-and-black ’71, and the blue-and-black ’73 that he still owns. Having his and hers Rallye Mantas in the garage was pure Opel Heaven for Rieckmann until the yellow car became the casualty of a collision. “I just loved that car and we had it until probably 1979, and unfortunately, my son was driving it and a lady went through a stop sign and just about totaled it. It made me sick to my stomach. I still have picture somewhere of the two [cars] sitting together. They were a matched set.”
Rieckmann bought his original yellow ’71 from an airline pilot who needed to sell the car not long after he had bought it new. The blue ’73 found him a few years later, but he had to wait patiently for a couple years to land it. “One of the people I worked with came up from Arizona and he drove the car to work. That’s where I first saw it,” he said. “I said to him, ‘If you ever want to sell this one, I’d like to buy it.’ I think it was about two years later he sold it to me. I paid $1,250, I think.”
His Opel eventually graduated from daily transportation to a hobby car, at one point sitting idle for “probably 12 or 13 years,” according to Rieckmann. “I had a problem. I had two Buicks as collector cars, and somehow I always said I was too busy [to work on the Opel]. Then about four years ago I decided to get it back on the road again, and my son helped me and we took the gas tank out, had it redone, changed all the rubber lines, and all the mission lines and got it going and running real nice again.”
Rieckmann has had the car repainted once and had the black body stripes redone. Beyond that, the flashy little coupe is largely original. “I never did anything with the transmission or the engine. The engine has got 111,000 on it and it runs nice,” he said. “We just tuned it up and I just put a new exhaust system on it. You can’t buy a regular Opel exhaust system anymore, so we went over to Merlin Muffler in Appleton and I said, ‘I want you to cut the old chrome tips off the old one so we can use it on the new [exhaust] and it looks original under there.’ That’s exactly what it looked like originally at the tips. Now it has no holes in the exhaust system and it purrs like a kitten.”
If ever there was an American car that suffered from an identity complex, it was the Rallye Manta — the sportiest version of the Opel Manta A Series offerings, which were built from 1970-’75. The Rallye Mantas were offered from 1971-74, but you couldn’t blame the American buying public for being a bit confused. Were they German imports or American Buicks? Were they sports cars, mini muscle cars or gas misers?
In hindsight, GM’s decision to market its little import as a Buick was perhaps the biggest reason the cars never became more popular. Buick showrooms had always been crowded with full-size sedans and wagons, and the Manta Rallye certainly seemed to be the odd duck of the family. Buick produced nearly a half-million Mantas in the first half of the 1970s, but no exact figures are available for how many were the jazzy Rallye versions. They were clearly less plentiful than the other Manta offerings — a base coupe, two-and four-door sedans and a two-door wagon — that were also part of the Opel 1900 Series, and most have long since left this world.
Of course, the Rallye Mantas were also overshadowed a bit by their own Opel sibling, the Opel GT — the unique mini-Corvette that struck a cord with many enthusiasts.
“I would think it was [overlooked]. Yes I do,” said Rieckmann. “America started building some compact cars and they kind of got overlooked, but I think they measured up as good or better than our American ones.
“There was a Chevy Vega, and the Pintos and Gremlins… but these were really good cars. I always liked them.”
The Rallye Mantas certainly seemed to stack up in both looks and performance to anything else in the compact car world at the time. The Rallye Mantas had a wide, muscular stance, serious-looking front end that included fog lamps and styling cues borrowed from both the Camaro and Mustang, and a smooth, sloping back half with curved rear glass that gave it an appealing profile. The matte-black hoods were accompanied by horizontal black stripes down the body sides — obvious attempts to give the little Opels some performance car styling.
The 1.9-liter inline four-cylinder under the hood was mated to a four-speed manual shifter (an automatic transmission was also available) and kicked out about 92 hp with 115 ft.-lbs. of torque. That wasn’t too bad when dropped in a tight-handling car that weighed only 2,108 lbs.
One of the few modifications Rieckmann has made to his Manta was a carburetor swap. The Opel now carries a Weber model instead of the factory Stromberg unit. “The original carburetors didn’t work good when they got old, so I bought a Weber carburetor that I had sent from California. It’s got a hand choke and I’m getting between 30 and 32 miles per gallon,” he said.
Rieckmann says he isn’t all that surprised he has hung onto his Opel for so many years. He liked the Rallye Manta from the start, and his tastes haven’t changed. “When we got the ’71 in the winter of ’72-’73, I said then, ‘I love this car. I’m going to hang onto this one.’ Then when I found out the co-worker had this one, I wanted that one and we had a mate! We had twins, a yellow one and a blue one.
“It’s a really fun car to drive. It’s a four-speed… And these are scarce. You just don’t see ’em. I love to show it because you hear, ‘Oh, I used to have one of these back when they were popular!’ or, ‘I remember those!’”
Back in 1989, Rieckmann even made it point to tour the Opel assembly plant in Russelsheim, Germany. “Our daughter was in Germany and we flew over to see her and we toured all over Germany. When I was there I said, ‘I wanted to see the Opel Plant in Russelsheim, so we toured the German plant and they took us around. It’s a huge plant, and they took us around in buses. It was great.”
Rieckmann admits that he can’t help keeping an eye out for another Rallye Opel. He’s not beating the bushes looking for one, but he wasn’t actively shopping for his two previous Opels, either.
“If I ever see another, something like this, I’d probably buy it!” he chuckled. “Yes, I probably would!”
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