Endurance Racing the Most Unloved German Coupe of All-Time

I wrote this post for an Opel newsletter and figured I’d share it here.

A 1967 Opel Kadett was likely never really anyone’s prize possession. In its day, the Opel Kadett was a throwaway car used to run to church or the grocery store before being passed down to newly licensed teenagers and deadbeat family members. I imagine at one time you could trade one for a washing machine and actually get a pretty good deal in the process (technically still true).

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Bob Lutz celebrating the Opel Kadett’s J-Turn abilities.

Car and Driver put out a hit piece on it in February of 1968 claiming it was “a paragon of Naderian virtue, a standard of ineptitude by which all other inept cars will be measured”. Bob Lutz famously rolled one while performing a J-test in Germany, resulting in an iconic photo of him triumphantly smoking a cigar with one foot resting on its upside-down fender.

To brash Americans, the car represented everything that challenged the boomer world-view and was a sign of changing times.

Fast forward to an era of global warming, high gas prices, and denser cities — the light, nimble coupe looks more at home in 2018 than the muscle cars of the era. The simultaneous appreciation of smaller, lightweight import cars in the collector market would echo this values shift, but while early BMW’s, Datsuns, Mazdas, Alfas, Fiats, and Mini’s continue to rise in price, the world seemingly forgot about Opel Kadetts.

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What was lying underneath the surface though is a solid platform. From the factory, the Kadett B only weighed in around 1700 lbs., and the cast iron block 4 cylinder engine (in any of its various displacements) is relatively bulletproof. Its austerity just means that it’s still dead-simple to work on with the barest of tools. The quirky transverse leaf spring setup in the front was only shared by two cars of the era - its sporty brother the Opel GT (built on the same platform), and the Corvette.

I’ll never convince you that the Opel Kadett was a good car, it’s just got too much against it. What I could do however, was build one, take it racing, and the let the car show how good it could be. Unfortunately, since the car was largely considered disposable, sourcing one in 2015 proved to be a challenge. Eventually Opels Unlimited posted an ad for a 1967 1.1L Kiemencoupé on Craigslist that fit the bill. After a drive out to Riverside, the car was on the tow truck, and on the way to the shop.

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The Opel after spending nearly 20 years in the dry California climate
Photo: Gregory Hubacek

Going through a car that was last registered before “Friends” was on the air reveals much that perhaps you didn’t want to know. The white shag carpeting caked in dirt and sand, the overflowing ashtrays, the collection of beer cans, the T-handled buck knife, the weird polaroids of a beach volleyball party, the Gary Numan cassettes, and the August 1992 edition of Sexy Letters Magazine all painted a vivid portrait of the previous owner.

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A google search of the name on the old registration left in the car revealed that the individual was currently serving a sentence for various counts of lewd behavior in the presence of a minor. First order of business then was to strip the interior down to metal, power wash the entire inside of the car and bleach all thoughts of whatever happened in the poor Opel out of my head (I did keep the copy Sexy Letters magazine however).

Some chosen items left behind in the Kadett’s interior
Photo: Gregory Hubacek
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Two of Everything

Waking it up from its dry storage was pretty basic. I hooked up a new battery, put in some fresh gas, changed the fluids, put in some new plugs and wires, cleaned the carb, and the engine fired up first turn. Not too bad.

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Next order of business was to replace literally every piece of rubber on the car. The desert sun and air had wrecked havoc on all bushings, hoses, rubber lines, and gaskets. I rebuilt the brakes front to back including calipers (yes, this version had front disc brakes), the master cylinder, new steel brake lines, pads and shoes, and wheel cylinders. New wheel bearings were hard to find, but my German friend found a box at a swap meet.

The entire front end got worked over including control arm bushings, shocks, a new lower leaf spring, tie rod ends, steering rack boots, motor mounts, tranny mounts, and well, basically everything. In the process I also realized that the previous owner (in addition to his documented transgressions) had installed the front leaf spring incorrectly resulting in a questionably low front stance and zero suspension travel. After soaking up who knows how many bumps and potholes in that position, the crossmember had given up on life and cracked in several places. A quick trip to the welding shop remedied that issue.

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The rear of the car saw new drive shaft rubber, rear axle bearings, shocks, and lowering blocks for the leaf springs. The transmission was missing second gear and after puling it apart, I realized it was in need of new synchros, seals, an input shaft bearing, clutch replacement, and the the actual second gear was missing two of its teeth. Having never rebuilt a transmission before, this seemed like a good time to learn.

Of course, this wasn’t even scratching the surface of what’s required for racing. A fuel cell, racing seat, roll cage, fire suppression system, new windshield, master cutoff switch, battery relocation, blah blah blah.

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Somewhere in there I fitted 15x7 inch steel wheels, Falken Azeni tires, and some period fender flares. This was (almost) completely cosmetic and required minor adjustments to the wheel wells. As retribution for such boy-racer modifications, the automotive gods punished me the day before the race when the radiator decided to spring a huge leak. This started an all-out panic that night to find the one remaining radiator shop in East L.A. that could fix the leaks, as buying new was not exactly an option. The morning we were supposed to leave for the race, we get the radiator back and install it in the car untested. Good enough.

The night before leaving for the race
Photo: Gregory Hubacek
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Three Ways to Fail

Normally a Lemons team has anything from a beautiful enclosed trailer with a new Silverado to a jalopy mix of borrowed truck and rented trailer. We on the other hand had neither. However, the car was registered and insured, and I have an ample AAA policy, so the option forward was singular. The plan was to drive the car to the race track, race it all weekend long, and drive it back home. The only thing standing in our way was two 135 mile trips over the notorious Grapevine from Los Angeles to Buttonwillow Raceway and back, and the untold miles and stupidity the car would fall victim to over two days of endurance racing. If there was any way to prove the nobility of this disposable crapcan, this was it. It’s also good to to mention at this point that the car had done a grand total of 5 miles between being pulled out of the desert in 2015 and leaving for the race track in 2018.

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In my mind, there were three distinct possibilities. One, we would break down immediately due to breaking a part that can only be found on the rearmost shelf of a garage in Hamburg. Two, we would make it to the track and somehow torch the car in the process of being idiots. Three, we would somehow make it through the race only to break down on the way home late on a Sunday night in the dark on the side of the freeway. Option three was by far my biggest fear.

We left on the 5 North heading out of Los Feliz and began to feel out the car. Overall, pretty solid. The oversized tires rutted hard at even the slightest suggestion of uneven pavement, and there was ample smoke from the tailpipe on overrun. The obvious solution was to keep it straight and nail the throttle to the floor. Normally traffic and speed limits would provide a barrier to this strategy, but this was an Opel Kadett after all. The first major test came at the long incline up the Grapevine which gave me my first taste of a reoccurring technique over the weekend — driving the temperature gauge.

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After the incline, we pulled over in the proper town of Grapevine to assess the current situation. The car was hot but not unhappy, my ears were ringing, it smelled like a slight transmission fluid leak, I was partially sunburnt on the left side of my face. Otherwise fine. We continued on toward the racetrack with a plan to stop at the closest gas station to the track to fill up. It was here where the first issue of the weekend popped up.

In going over the car “head to toe”, my inspection of the generator stopped at “yup, it’s right there”. The problem now was that it was only partially so. The bolts holding the generator on to the block had either backed out or were never present in the first place, being held on only by rust and gunk. In our 100-plus mile trip over the Grapevine, the generator had freed itself from its mounting point and had spun approximately 45 degrees toward the fender, throwing the belt in the process. It was being held in place only by the tensioner bolt. We bolted it back to the mounts with the wrong sized bolts and headed to the track where we would fix it properly before the race.

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The Kadett in the pits after tech inspection
Photo: Gregory Hubacek

Arriving at the track, we felt like we had already won. Option one for failure was now off the table. We spent the next hour fixing the generator mounting and tending to some various other issues that needed fixing before the car went through tech. Aside from a spotty brake light (which was fixed immediately), the car flew through tech and was assigned Class C with zero penalty laps. This was simultaneously the lowest classing possible, and the highest approval from the judges. If there was anywhere that could appreciate the Kadett, it was 24 Hours of LeMons.

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This is where I would like to dive in to how the race was an epic battle with highs and lows, and heroic fixes. That would be far from the truth. In fact, the only thing that really caused an issue all weekend was my own lingering doubts. If you ever want to truly understand how much of a fraud you can feel like, build a race car and send one of your good friends out on track with it. Every lap, I was double checking my work in my head. What terrible errors I might have made that would end in burning my friend alive in the car. However, the noble little Kadett just went round and round all weekend long. Naturally, the track shook out a few issues though.

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First, turns out I’m not terribly good at repairing transmissions. The fluid leak I had smelled on the grapevine persisted throughout the race, and seemed to be caused by a leaking main seal. At the end of the first night, we added maybe a cup of transmission fluid and figured it would be good through the weekend (this would later come back to haunt us).

Second, we never really knew what was happening with the water temperature. We started the weekend assuming that 3/4 of the way towards red was bad and that we should back off the car on track. Towards the end of the weekend, fully in the red but not buried was considered generally okay. To this day there doesn’t seem to be any issue with it running on the hot end, but if I were to continue to race the car, a better radiator, temp gauge and a more robust electrical fan would be high on my list.

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Third, in my lack of racing knowledge I had routed the vent hose for the fuel cell in a less-than-desirable position that allowed the fuel to push through and dump on the track when making hard right turns with a tank that was over 3/4 full. We eventually got flagged for this after refueling and were off the track for approximately 45 minutes fixing the issue. LeMons officially has a zero tolerance policy for fuel leaks, so the fact that they let us fix it at all and keep running over the weekend was a stroke of luck, and a testament to how badly everyone wanted to see the little Opel finish the race.

And finish it did. I had the privilege of taking the last stint in the car, a three-hour tour that revealed just how good this little lump was. Sure, it had nothing for power. Coming out of the final turn on the track to the main straightaway was comical. However, in the depths of the corners, there was hardly a car that could pass us. Lap after lap, the little german budget coupe just kept on ticking. By the time the checkered flag dropped, the only thing that showed any wear was my own rear end.

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Yet we knew that we still had not yet finished our race. Option 3 was still on the table. During the awards ceremony, we were given the Organizer’s Choice which came with a rousing endorsement of the Opel Kadett’s Pedigree as a preferred entry to the sea of Miatas and e30’s. With trophy in hand, we cleaned up our pit space and got ready to hit the road as early as possible to head back over the Grapevine for the second time.

The Organizer’s Choice Award, with the organizer questioning his choice in the background
Photo: Gregory Hubacek
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Driving this car on the interstate can be described as anything from “raw” and “visceral” to “Highway Patrol Bait”. Making our way though the central valley with a car that outwardly questions its own street legality in such a blatant way is akin to asking to get pulled over. The looks you get from passing cars ranges from genuine curiosity to being downright offended that it would dare travel public roads. As we began to make the ascent back up the grapevine, those looks became more the latter as the temp gauge climbed, the transmission fluid smell increased, and our overall speed on the steep hill made it possible for semi-trucks to overtake us. But slow and steady won the race and as we passed Castaic my worries of not making it over the grapevine faded away.

It was only somewhere around Santa Clarita where I realized the real timetable we were dealing with. The slow loss of transmission fluid was producing a lot of heat from the tranny, and it became more and more audibly upset with this issue. As L.A. traffic became an issue, I was forced to change gears through the interstate. With each gear change, third gear became a little more angry. Then second gear. Pretty soon I was using the clutch to modulate my way through traffic staying in either first or fourth. Once we hit the Glendale area, it became a race to see which was going to give up first, me or the gearbox. We were both weary from a weekend of physical punishment, and both more than a bit thirsty.

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Within a few minutes, I caught the tail end of a yellow light on Silver Lake Boulevard and whipped the car through a left turn, into the shop parking lot, yanked the parking brake, and ejected myself from the Opel. It was over. In the moment, it felt like victory. The little shitbox had proven itself through a grueling weekend of 270 combined highway miles over vast elevations, and an additional 430 miles of full-tilt racing. It had beaten almost half of the cars in the field throughout the race despite being in the bottom five percent of cars based on lap times. It showed its faults, but never gave up, and delivered us home without a scratch.

Just one more piece of metal
Photo: Gregory Hubacek
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What Now

This weekend, the car was driven out of my life. It’s going to a good home where much more racing exists in its future. Maybe I’ll get to drive it again one day, but I feel good knowing that during the three years in my life, it is unquestionably better at the current moment than it had been in the last twenty despite having endured an epic beating. Taking a car from the wrecker to the race track was all that I ever wanted to do with it, and taking it from pedophile to pedigree was probably more than the car deserved. It’s time for it to live out its final chapter.

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See you later, Kieme. You’re a real one.

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