It must rank as one of the most successful facelifts. The Opel Manta B, which looked so elegant and suave at its launch in 1975, was looking decidedly dated by the early eighties. A new breed of hot hatchbacks was threatening to render the coupé obsolete, leaving the likes of the Manta and Ford Capri facing a fight for survival. Opel hoped the B2 (also known as the Manta C) would add three years to the Manta’s life expectancy, but it managed to soldier on until 1988. Motor said the “born-again” Manta “blew the coupé market wide open” thanks to its blend of sharp styling and keen pricing. Still want that Capri?
For a car-obsessed kid growing up in the 1980s, there was always something exotic about Opel. It didn’t matter that the Manta B was essentially a Vauxhall Cavalier Coupé or Sportshatch wearing different badges, because the Opel name carried an air of mystique. Like a foreign exchange student coming over here with their different music, fashion, language and haircut. The notable difference about the Manta B2 was that there was no Vauxhall equivalent. It was as though the exotic coupé had been made to make our mouths water. Hey, we’ve managed to get to the end of the second paragraph before making a reference to the confectionary formerly known as Opal Fruits.
The Manta B2 was bursting with star quality. Out went chrome trim, Rostyle wheels and any lingering whiff of the 1970s, and in came colour-coded bumpers and rear spoiler, plus an extra line of vents for the front grille. The ancestry is obvious, but the B2 was to its predecessor what Sade was to Slade and Simply Red was to Showaddywaddy. A smooth operator capable of holding back the years until the arrival of the Calibra, when GM’s European coupé returned wearing Vauxhall and Opel badges.
Exotic wasn’t a word that could be used to describe the Opel Manta in Germany. Over there, the Mantafahrer (‘Manta driver’) is, according to Wikipedia, ‘an aggressive driver, dull, lower class, macho, and infatuated with both his car and his blonde hairdresser girlfriend’. A Mantawitz (‘Manta joke’) pokes fun at Manta owners in the same way that British comedians used Skoda as the butt of bad jokes in the 1970s and ‘80s. Jason Torchinsky listed a few examples on Jalopnik and, to be fair, some of them are pretty good.
The Mantafahrer even inspired a couple of films, most notably Manta, Manta, which is described in one IMDb review as “fabulous crap”. We quote: “Manta, Manta is lame and embarrassing in so many ways. What kind of derelict comes up with the idea of making a film about Manta obsessed German villagers and actually allows the hero to drive around in a pink, blue and yellow car? Manta, Manta is so cringeworthy that it will give you wrinkles. And yet, I simply can’t get enough of this addictively stupid, piece of crap. Even the ridiculous soundtrack is a guilty pleasure.” Not our words, but the words of Mark Kermode, probably.
Things were very different on this side of the Channel, where the Ford Capri, and not the Opel Manta, was suffering from an image crisis. Still adored by the Brits – we kept it alive in its twilight years – the Capri was nevertheless looking its age. Hairy chests, gold chains, cheap aftershave and tasteless modifications were the order of the day. The Manta had a more respectable, Continental persona.
We’d have to wait until 1983 for the GT/E, but the cooking version served as a satisfactory appetiser. The big news was the arrival of a new 1.8-litre Family Two engine, also found in the SRi and CD versions of the Vauxhall Cavalier, albeit in fuel-injected guise. Car magazine wasn’t totally convinced, describing the engine as “decidedly busy” over 5500rpm, then “running out of lung power” before 6000rpm.
Nevertheless, the engine contributed to a nine-fold increase in sales in 1983, although this was more to do with the oh-so-1980s styling than the powerplant. There were two versions: the GT/J with steel wheels and tweed trim, and the Berlinetta with alloys and velour. In common with previous models, buyers could also choose either hatchback or coupé.
The launch of the GT/E (GSi in Germany) shifted the Manta up a gear, but the choice of engine raised a few eyebrows. Why, when the Astra GTE was blessed with a 115bhp fuel-injected version of the 1.8-litre Family Two engine, was the Manta GT/E given a development of the long-serving 2.0-litre pushrod ‘four’? The answer was that the fuel-injected version of the 2.0-litre lump had been powering Mantas on the Continent since 1978, and in carburetted form was still in service in the Carlton. It used the same five-speed gearbox as the 1.8, but with a larger clutch. Tweaks included stiffer springs, Bilstein dampers and stiffer rear anti-roll bar, with the basic layout (wishbones, coils and anti-roll bar at the front, live axle at the rear) remaining unchanged.
Changes to the engine increased the output to 110bhp at 5400rpm, just 10bhp more than the old carb-fed 2.0-litre engine. Small gains on paper, but a significant improvement on the road. Motor found that it accelerated to 60mph in just 8.5 seconds – shaving a second off the factory’s claim. A top speed of 120.4mph was also marginally quicker than the official figure.
“In truth, these figures flatter the Manta. It doesn’t feel that quick in give and take driving on the road. Lacking the crisp-edged quality of some rivals, its throttle responses are clean but not urgent, while tall gearing further dulls the engine’s modest low end pulling,” was Motor’s assessment. The magazine also criticised the “unappealing, though acceptably muted” engine note, but praised the car’s “easy and peaceful motorway cruising gait”.
Fortunately, the ride and handling were well received. “If the GT/E’s handling is sportingly taut, so is its ride. Around town the suspension can feel unyielding to the point of being hard, though it escapes a ‘harsh’ label by virtue of well-suppressed tyre thump. Tightly controlled damping helps, too, and although even at speed the ride remains somewhat lively over bad surfaces there’s no loss of handling composure.”
The mag’s conclusion would have been enough to convince a legion of style-led punters to drop around £7300 (£20,000 in today’s money) on a Manta GT/E. “With sharp styling, strong performance, a flick-switch gearchange, taut handling and fine comfort at the wheel, the Manta GT/E is everything a sports coupé ought to be.” Executive Car magazine (remember Car magazine’s business quarterly?) agreed, placing the GT/E ahead of an array of sporting coupé rivals. Pitting it against the Lancia HPE 2000IE, it said: “It has to be the Opel on purely objective grounds because speed, economy and price advantages weigh too heavily in its favour. The GT/E also has the better driving position, a delightful gearchange, more supportive seats and a quieter engine. Its one major flaw is an uncomfortably jolty ride – an unnecessarily high penalty to pay for taut handling.”
Some cars get flabby, lethargic and outmoded as they get older; the Manta was going out on a high. The 1.8 GT became the base model in 1982, before Exclusive variants of both the 1.8 and GT/E saw the Manta B2 into retirement. The run-out models gave the Manta a new lease of life, with the Opel remaining in production until 1988, long after the last Capri 280 left the Ford factory in Cologne in December 1986.
It helped that the Manta had a little motor sport provenance to fall back on. The Opel name became synonymous with the British Rally Championship in the early eighties, Jimmy McRae driving his Ascona 400 to victory in 1981 and 1982, before winning again in 1984, this time in a Manta 400. A year later, Russell Brookes did the same in the famous Andrews Heat for Hire Manta. To many British car enthusiasts, the livery is one of the most evocative in motor sport, up there with Alitalia, Gulf, John Player Special, Marlboro, Martini and Rothmans. Not bad for a Wolverhampton-based heating company.
The Manta 400, along with the other Irmscher-enhanced creations, i200, i240 and i300, were the halo products a manufacturer needs to tempt punters into a showroom. Rare and exclusive models used to sell cheaper and more attainable versions. The GT/E Exclusive sported twin headlights, anthracite grey alloys, grey Chicago velour and, on the coupé, a rear spoiler derived from the Manta 400 rally car. Win on a Sunday, sell on a Monday, etc.
For years, the Manta B2 was stuck in the twilight zone between bangerdom and the classic car world. Rust, so often the enemy of cars of this era, saw off many, while buyer apathy led to depressed values and an early date with a scrapyard. That said, there are a few for sale on the Car & Classic website, with prices ranging from £5500 for a Berlinetta described as “runs great could do with a tidy inside” to £14,995 for a fully restored GT/E. This is roughly in line with the UK Hagerty Price Guide, which values a 1988 car at £3000, for a tired example, to £19,400 for the best.
The Manta name died in 1988, only to rise again as the GSe ElektroMOD in 2021. An all-new Manta EV is expected to arrive in the UK by 2025, as part of Stellantis’s vow to go all-electric in Europe by 2026. We hope the company sees sense and makes it available with an Andrews Heat for Hire wrap. Mullets and peroxide at the ready, because the Manta, Manta is coming back, baby. Das ist sehr gut.