Opel is 160 years old this year and, from assembling sewing machines to making bicycles and then cars, the company, based in Rüsselsheim, Germany has been a pioneer – from the first bicycle designed for women to assembly line technology and record attempts on the road and track.
“Opel has been moving people for 160 years. Today we are driven by the same spirit as the company founder Adam Opel: technology and innovations for everyone – whether sewing machines, bicycles or cars. All this with a clear view of the future, always ready to face new challenges. Many bestsellers from Opel’s rich history stand for this, as do our current models, most of which are already electrified. From 2028, Opel will be a purely electric brand in Europe. We are therefore well prepared for the next 160 years,” says Opel CEO Uwe Hochschurtz.
The story began at the end of August 1862. Adam Opel assembled his first sewing machine in Rüsselsheim, laying the foundation stone for the young Opel company.
Production figures quickly rose – not least because Opel accommodated individual customer wishes and designed special sewing machines for special requirements.
As early as 1868, Adam Opel and his employees moved into a new factory. The company soon developed into one of the largest sewing machine manufacturers in Germany and exported to the whole of Europe.
After the sewing machines, Opel built up its next successful pillar with the bicycle. In 1886 the first penny-farthing bicycle was built in Rüsselsheim – making Opel one of the first bicycle manufacturers in Germany.
Soon the range of models expanded to include tricycles in 1888 the first factory building was inaugurated, reserved solely for the production of bicycles. Opel was quick to adopt modern technology such as pneumatic tyres, ball bearings and free-wheel hubs for its bicycles. From 1894 onwards, Opel introduced bicycles specially designed for women.
The decisive developmental step in the history of the company – driven forward by the five sons after Adam Opel’s death – was the start of automobile production in 1899. Automobile production in Rüsselsheim started with the Opel “Patent-Motorwagen System Lutzmann”. In 1906 the 1 000th vehicle was built.
The final breakthrough came in 1909 with the legendary 4/8 PS “Doktorwagen”. At 3 950 marks, it cost half as much as luxurious competitors and paved the way for a broader section of the population to own their own car.
Opel was the first German manufacturer to introduce large-scale production using assembly line technology. The first car to roll off the assembly line in Germany in 1924 was the 4/12 PS “Laubfrosch”, always painted green.
In 1935, the new Olympia model became the first German mass-produced vehicle with a unitary all-steel body, which, thanks to its low weight, ensured improved driving performance and low fuel consumption.
For the first time, the new design enabled the so-called ‘marriage’ between the body and the power units. The entire production process was thus faster and more efficient, paving the way for the construction method to enter large-scale production.
The most enduring and traditional model line was the Kadett, the first version of which saw the light of day in 1936. In 1962, the Kadett A became a million-seller: as a compact car, it was the driving force behind the German ‘economic miracle’, and in the 12th generation – since 1991 under the name Astra – it continues to ensure that innovations find their way into the compact class.
Opel remains conscious of its tradition. For example, the side ‘gill’-look in the new Astra hatchback is reminiscent of earlier Kadett generations.
In 1953, the carmaker launched the Olympia Rekord Caravan, a mixture of ‘car and van’, the first large-series station wagon from a German manufacturer.
But Opel was also an early player among the big stuff. The first post-war Opel, a 1.5 tonne Blitz truck, left the factory in 1946.
Today, the light commercial vehicles Combo, Vivaro and Movano, all of which have already been electrified, are practical, have a large load volume and are fully up to date – the latter even comes in two CO2-free versions: the battery-electric Vivaro-e and the hydrogen fuel cell transporter Vivaro-e HYDROGEN.
Opel has also enjoyed great success with smaller models over the decades. First and foremost, the Corsa small car, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
Opel also established a new vehicle class in 1991 – the Frontera, an all-wheel drive recreational vehicle, made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show.
The compact Opel Frontera Sport was the first to demonstrate what is now widely known as an SUV and the five-door Frontera with a long wheelbase became the forerunner of the modern off-road vehicle. Around 30 years ago, it immediately became the market leader and triggered a four-wheel drive boom throughout Europe.
In 2003, Opel was the first vehicle manufacturer to introduce AFL (Adaptive Forward Lighting), dynamic cornering lights and 90-degree cornering lights in the mid-size class; in 2008, the next generation of lights, AFL+, also made its debut with the introduction of the first Insignia.
And, in 2015, the Opel Astra was the first to feature the adaptive Intelli-Lux LED Matrix Light, the latest generation of which, as Pixel Light with a total of 168 LED elements, now provides situation-specific, precise illumination in the Insignia, Grandland and the new Astra without dazzling other road users.
The emotions that extraordinary cars can arouse were recently demonstrated by the Opel Manta GSe ElektroMOD – the electrified homage to the Manta sports coupé that became a cult car in the 1970s and 1980s.
Even back then, the Manta A inspired with its design and characteristic front ‘visor’, which today adorns all new Opel models from the current Mokka to the Grandland as the Opel Vizor.
Almost five decades ago, Walter Röhrl put Opel front and centre in motorsport. In 1974, he and co-driver Jochen Berger became European Rally Champions in an Ascona SR, and in 1982, together with Christian Geistdörfer, he won the Monte Carlo Rally in an Ascona 400 against strong four-wheel drive competition, and at the end of the season claimed the World Rally Championship title.
The Opel Corsa-e Rally is currently proving that top performance and environmental compatibility are not mutually exclusive. With the emission-free small car, Opel is the first manufacturer to develop a battery-electric rally car that has been competing in the ADAC Opel e-Rally Cup, the first electric rally one-make cup worldwide, since 2021 and thus demonstrates the future of rallying.
With the electrified Opel Ampera, Europe’s ‘Car of the Year 2012’, the traditional brand established a new segment in the European automotive market. With its range extender, the coupé-like four-seater was the first electrically driven vehicle suitable for everyday use with a range of around 500 kilometres.
The Opel Ampera-e, a purely battery-electric compact car, followed in 2016. A single charge of the 60-kWh lithium-ion battery provides a driving range of up to 520 kilometres (according to NEDC). And in 2019, Opel launched the Corsa-e, the brand’s first all-electric compact car, affordable e-mobility accessible to many customers across Europe.
The range of electric models – as plug-in hybrids as well as battery-electric – has continued to grow ever since, so that by 2024 all Opel models will also be available in electrified variants.