Opel Fans, Speak Up!

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Parallel to the ongoing drama in the United States over the survival of two out of the “Big Three” automakers – whether to give GM and Chrysler the new money they have come back to the federal government to ask for, or just to cut off what looks like a never-ending money-drain but thereby administer a severe economic shock to the American Midwest – European auto-makers are also having a difficult time in the current economic climate, and so there has been discussion about various bail-out plans (and implementation of a few) over here as well. Of course, that comes as no particular surprise when the European auto-maker in question is actually a subsidiary of one of those American firms that are seemingly in terminal decline, such as is the case for Saab in Sweden (a GM subsidiary, which has already filed for bankruptcy protection) and Opel in Germany (full name “Adam Opel GmbH,” also belonging to GM, in fact since 1929 except during World War II, when its facilities were bombed instead). With Opel reported ready to run out of cash within a few months, the pressure is on to find some solution to save the firm, particularly given the fact that, as a foreign facility, GM is likely to afford it low priority as it scrambles to save its core operations in the US. Indeed, the current preferred solution is to detach Opel from its parent company entirely, possibly at that point to form a new multinational car company around it and Saab and Vauxhall (another GM brand, based in the UK). But that would be a complicated and contentious operation, given that GM is still the formal owner of not only the physical plant but other essential things like the trademarks and many technology-patents.

Nonetheless, it seems that a popular groundswell of sorts has arisen insisting that some solution be found to save the firm, one that goes beyond the Opel employees and shareholders who would be directly hurt by a shut-down, according to an article by Harald Blum in Der Spiegel (The Hour of the Fans). The lede tells me something that I didn’t really know, and still wonder whether I should believe: “Autos from Opel are for many grey and dull – yet hardly any other German auto-brand has the same loyal followership.” As proof Blum points to the website rettetOPEL.de (rettet Opel itself is German for “save Opel”), where you can find four separate 500-slide slide-shows of sentimental pictures sent in by Opel-owners of their cars and/or Opel-typical tableaus. And you do have to wonder: is anything similar happening in response to the seeming death-throes of General Motors or Chrysler, or at least in honor of any of those firms’ individual brands?

Of course, Blum’s claim about Opel’s “loyal followership” is still hard to credit when you remember that it is German cars that we are talking about here: I daresay that BMW, or Porsche, easily inspire at least a similar fanaticism among their owners, but then neither of those is (yet) in the same financial trouble as Opel. Still, he also uses his article to remind us of that auto-maker’s glory days: of the Rekord, for example, the long-time best-seller nicknamed “the Reliable,” or the GT, a sports car which provided a riding-thrill said to be second only to actually flying, and others. But he is also honest enough to make note of the firm’s disappointing recent performance, starting really right after it pioneered in the introduction of the catalytic converter in the early nineties (but such “green” features have never really been powerful arguments to buy any car), when its model-design lost its previous distinctiveness (its “identity”) and its market share dropped from 20% to around the 7% it enjoys today – “thereby lying under that of its arch-rival Ford, which especially rankles true fans.”

So why act to save it? you could therefore ask. The Ford German subsidiary regularly sells more cars and therefore, like Ford, Inc. itself, has managed (so far) at least to stay out of trouble enough to not have to ask for government money. Well, as Blum explains at the end of his piece, recent Opel models have been earning rave reviews from professional auto-testers and auto-magazines, so things seem to be looking up on the design front. And there are those thousands of Opel fans. But is all that enough?

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