As omnipresent as the original Volkswagen Beetles continue to be some 35+ years after the last one was sold in the United States, one forgets that it wasn’t always the only import popular with American audiences before Civic/Corolla domination. In fact, the quite often second most popular import in America could be found in your Buick dealer, via Germany.
General Motors had from time to time given its American brands something different to sell. Their were the price gap cars that came at the end of the Roaring Twenties. In fact, Pontiac cannibalized parent brand Oakland during that period. When foreign car popularity took off in the Mid 50’s and more buyers craved more sensible cars, General Motors took to importing their overseas offerings. Pontiac offered Vaxhalls from the UK. Buick offered Opels from Germany.
It must have been a hilarious sight, seeing diminutive German economy sedans next to hulking Roadmasters and Electra 225s. The program first went into place for 1958-60, with the Opels disappearing to make room for the new compact Special for 1961. They would return in 1964 when the Special started hormone therapy and grew to intermediate proportions and pricetags. Instead of the larger Rekord that had been imported for 1958-60, the smaller Kadett was pressed into service.
In terms of competition, the Kadett offered a decent alternative to other thrifty options, mainly the Beetle, various Renaults and early Datsuns and Toyotas a smidge larger and more expensive than the Kadett. Nonetheless, with 500 Buick Dealerships able to sell and service the Kadett nationwide, the little foreign GM product surely had a leg up on Japanese brands in particular with market penetration beyond the coasts.
It wasn’t that the Kadett wouldn’t come without its fair share of criticism as a small car however. Despite adopting the upper trim “Olympia” bodies for US bound Kadetts in 1968, and including suspension refinements alongside larger engines, Car & Driver magazine saw plenty to deride the littlest GM car on the market for. Granted the article was one in a string of exploitative escapades for the magazine that might have had little factual relevance.
In terms of the times, however, the Kadett stacked up pretty well in 1968 form to competitors. 0-60 times arrived around 14 seconds with the enlarged 1.5 Liter Inline Four, making it as brisk if not quicker than a number of larger homegrown American Compact Sedans with their base engines. In addition there was large bonuses in economy and in-town maneuverability. Granted, the heavy price to pay, as with all sub-compact cars of the time, was giving up many of the comforts of larger American cars.
It explains why, when thought of cohesively, The Opel Kadett was touted as the ideal second or even *third* car for American Suburban Conspicuous Consumerism. It was the perfect runabout, especially in Wagon form, to get groceries in or gather things for the garden for your new sprawling ranch house. It took pressure off of the huge investment you’d make into the larger offerings in the Buick Showroom. Otherwise, perhaps we can thank the Kadett for a number of well preserved larger Buicks from the years it was offered here in the United States. Considered the ultimate throwaway toy (their survival rates highlight that), perhaps no other foreign car allowed an American brand to rest on their laurels so completely, offering that support from the same showroom. It’s with full irony that most current Buicks trace their heritage back to Opel designs. In 50 years, the strange bedfellow relationship between them has solidified into an interesting bond of Teutonic pragmatism and American stifled exuberance.
Which is oddly most popular in China these days.