In under eight years, I've owned more than a dozen cars and trucks. While I know that sounds like an absurd statement to some folks, at the end of the day I can say with an honest smile on my face it was worth whatever amount of money was spent to have owned so many interesting and less-than-interesting vehicles. Somewhere down on that mixed-bag list of purchases, after the wheezing Olds 307-powered Buick Grand National clone and the disco-bumper Chevy Camaro whose interior resided mostly in the trunk, is a blue Saturn Astra hatchback.
Maybe I'm just a bit tipsy from nostalgia, but I don't feel that my Saturn Astra was a car any less interesting than those two malaise-era V8 D-average derelicts. I still think its probably the best looking three-door hatchback to have ever been sold in the United States and it was certainly miles ahead of its "gimme my Skoal and Wranglers, these colors don't run dammit, pass me another Miller" Bowtie-branded cousin, the Chevy Cobalt.
It's also been the rarest production vehicle I've driven on a daily basis — with less than 19,000 Astras sold in North America before the Saturn brand went bust during parent company General Motors' bankruptcy late last decade, you're more likely to see a Porsche Boxster hogging up space during rush hour than this particular compact car. Ford, comparatively, had an easier time selling Merkur XR-whateverthefucks back in the '80s than GM did selling Astras back in the late '00s.
You know, thinking about it, that's exactly what the Astra was; GM's version of the Merkur. Like the Merkur, the Saturn Astra is a car that can be credited to everyone's favorite auto executive and bomber plane enthusiast, Mr. Bob Lutz. Both cars were also captive imports — meaning that you basically play the whole "if you can't beat em, steal their product and quietly change the name" card — sourced from the country that kept David Hasselhoff's career afloat after Pamela Anderson left Baywatch to dominate the amateur porn industry. When you stripped away the pretentious badges, the Merkur was actually a Ford Sierra built by Ford Europe based in Cologne, Germany and the Saturn was a NHTSA compliant version of the Opel Astra built by GM Europe subsidiary Adam Opel AG based in Rüsselsheim, Germany.
But unlike the Merkur, the Astra wasn't the first time GM had attempted to offer its European designs a full-time position Stateside for everything to end in a frustrated hangover.
Back in the 1950s, the unexpected rapid growth of Volkswagen in North America was a cause for concern at General Motors. Worried the tiny air-cooled Beetle and Type 2 Microbus would eat into its marketshare because their only offerings included fifty billion flavors of the big-sized Bel Air and a pickup truck, the Detroit auto giant was quick to move and decided a preemptive strike was in order.
It was out of this bout of paranoia the Chevrolet Corvair and two stillborn Pontiac and Oldsmobile-branded clones were developed. But just a few short years before the Corvair's debut, GM also introduced its successful line of Opel cars from Germany through Buick dealerships in order to effectively combat VW's clattering ass-engined blitzkrieg. And while the Corvair would soon meet its fate at the hands of a greasy lawyer from Connecticut, Opel would prove itself to be a small sales success for the General and a popular brand with import buyers. GM's marketshare was safe, if only for a brief moment of time.
That success, however, would also prove to be short lived. While buyers in the late '60s and early '70s especially were fond of their Opel GTs and its Shrinky-Dinked Corvette styling, and the later Manta that looked like a muscle car if you had cataracts and squinted a lot, they turned on Opel on a dime when prices somehow began escalating. Thanks to an exchange rate between the dollar and the Deutsche Mark that was favorable second only to a lobotomy, by 1975 the price of Opel's bargain-bin Chevelle wannabe had risen above the Chevrolet Nova-based Buick Apollo with which it shared a showroom. Obviously, your typical import buyer wasn't going to be conned into buying a feckless white-walled lie with a Landau top, so they became early adopters of the cheaper Japanese brands that would succeed where Volkswagen failed in taking GM's lunch money a few decades later.
It didn't take long at all for GM itself to turn on Opel, declining to ship any more of them over the Atlantic and instead choosing to stand outside of every Toyota, Datsun, and Honda buyer's window with a cranked boombox playing Peter Gabriel. As a result, in 1976,the General launched what has to be the most confused vehicle ever sold in America — the Buick Opel by Isuzu.
Yes, that was its actual name.
The Buick Opel by Isuzu was a Buick for reasons I'm not entirely sure, an Opel by technicality, and pretty much all Isuzu (since GM owned a major share in the Japanese automaker at that time). What the Buic— the Mutt actually was after you cut away the marketing and PR bullshit was an Isuzu Gemini, which itself was cobbled together in Japan from an Opel bodyshell and a few underpowered Isuzu engines. GM thought the Mutt would be the end-all, be-all import car. They tried capitalizing on its cheaper price, Japanese workmanship and German-sourced name to woo back the import buyers they had lost, and tried pitching Buick's dealer network to fair-weather domestic buyers only for the whole thing to end up flat on its ass. Because the Mutt was a dismal failure, all traces of the Opel name vanished from American soil in 1980.
... Except, GM is a glutton for punishment, so not really. Okay, okay, look, I know you probably want to go back to scanning the unmanned corners of YouTube again, but hang in there just a little bit longer and I promise you'll be able to go back to your epic quest for nipple slips and cat videos in just a moment.
Even though Opel had been deported, the biggest of the Big Three still kept in touch. Starting in the late 90s, GM repeatedly brought over various Opel cars in an effort to fill gaping holes in the corporate portfolio. The first failed experiment conducted in 1997 involved bringing over the Omega flagship sedan and positioning it at the bottom of Cadillac's line-up so that the emaciated luxury brand could throw a weak punch at the knees of the BMW 3-Series with something other than a Cavalier with a bicycle mustache wearing a cheap imitation Armani suit. Three years after the Omega-cum-Cadillac Catera began rolling up at Floridian golf courses and rural bingo halls, GM covered Opel's Vectra family sedan in body panels made from melted down Tupperware and two-liter Coke bottles and rechristened it the Saturn L-Series.
While it wasn't a runaway hit, it's the L-Series that sparked the relationship between Opel and Saturn that would eventually culminate in the German automaker taking the "different kind of car company" over. The 2007 Aura, which was a Pontiac G6 that Opel reconstituted to actually look like a Vectra, was the first under ripe fruit harvested at the new Saturn. After the Aura came the second-generation Vue, which was an Opel Antara with an interior crafted in a cement factory. There was also the Sky roadster, which heralded the revival of the Opel GT in Europe and its "Vette for peasants" spirit.
That all leads us back to the Astra, which followed the introduction of the Sky, and signaled Opel's full return to American shores. And while its US revival was ultimately short-lived yet again, Opel didn't just leave for home this time around. In a fit of irony, the car that was intended to be the next-generation Saturn Aura — the Opel Insignia — wound up in Buick showrooms wearing Regal badges. And if it, the Verano (an Astra sedan), and the Encore (an Opel Mokka) are any indication, Opel will be building more of our Buicks in years to come. Whether or not that means long-term success for both the Buick brand and Opel considering the latter's track record, I can't really say.
For some European automakers, crossing the Atlantic has been an easy process. Some of them have even woven themselves into our own pop culture, as is the case with the car that brought Opel to our shores in the first place — the VW Beetle. But in Opel's case, it has never quite found that level of acceptance and love here, instead being treated like that one kid in high school who was always friendly and tried to invite everyone over to that amazing house party he was going to have while his parents were away, only to wind up hanging out with two of his loser friends and a VHS copy of Hell on Heels, worrying about how to explain to his father how he wound up with a $100 dollar beer tab. That kid deserved a chance. He never tried too hard to fit in, he just wanted a few more friends to hang out with. You know, as long as Opels will be Buicks in the future, maybe we should reconsider showing up to that party this time around.
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