Dreaming of my 1973 Opel Manta

An Opel Manta much like the model I owned in the early 80s.
An Opel Manta much like the model I owned in the early 80s – same colour too.

It was 1982 and my new car was a million miles away from the one it replaced. Chalk and cheese you might say.

A sports car, metallic blue, two doors, 1.9ltr engine and it stuck to the road like glue at any speed. It accelerated to the urban speed limit in a trice and powered along  motorways without breaking into a sweat. And the sound from the engine? Imagine the roar of a lion blended with the sweet breath of angels on steroids (the good kind).

I  had just ditched a rusting Hillman Hunter estate for a 1973 Opel Manta A series coupe. I was 22, and going places,

Turns out the 4 cylinder engine was an odd one, an Opel Cam-In-Head (CIH). According to Wiki, its name derives from the location of the camshaft which was a compromise between an overhead valve and an overhead cam layout. It was an evolutionary dead-end and not adapted for other engines used by the carmaker.

My friend Andy helped me find the Manta. There was no internet back then of course, so he led me to car yard after car yard across the county of Essex in the UK.

But over a few weeks I didn’t see anything that felt right. The cars were too normal, too rusty, too large, too small, too thirsty, too much to insure, or the wrong colour – even though I had no particular colour in mind. I didn’t want to be seen driving a boring car; it was the 80s, I was a club DJ and choosing life.

A Capri? Nice, but everyone had one. A Pontiac TransAm? They were quite popular, but too pretentious for my style.

Eventually we came across a typical Arthur Daley-style used car dealership. Having been to every other car yard, there were few places left to explore and I think even Andy might have wondered what he had taken on in offering to help me. (No good turn goes unpunished).

Actor George Cole playing dodgy dealer Arthur Daley in 80s TV show Minder

We arrived at ‘Arthur’s’ about 6pm. And there it was. A gleaming Manta. I’d never seen anything like it (I was never a car nut).

This car looked a bit like a shortened Ford Capri, had a pointed nose, aluminum wheels, and round rear lights like those seen on a Ferrari.

The Opel Manta looked pristine, impeccable interior, manual transmission. And unlike my old Hillman Hunter, I was told the Manta’s heater worked. And it had a brand new MoT (safety) certificate.

But there’s no way I could afford this. I mean, look at it! It’s glorious.

Why are you even showing this beautiful car to me?

How much have you got to spend my boy?

I have exactly 1800 pounds.

That’s exactly how much this car is.

Where do I sign?

I felt like the man about town driving home. Then the wheels came off. I kid you not.

I was reversing into a spot outside Andy’s house a few days after driving away in the Manta when the steering suddenly felt funny. I stopped, got out and couldn’t help but notice one of my front wheels was horizontal. Literally 10 minutes earlier I had been gunning down the A127 at 70MPH!

Andy called the dodgy dealer and he sent a recovery truck to collect it. Arthur reckoned I had bumped up the kerb causing something to break, but that wasn’t the case at all. I treated the car like a golden goddess made of porcelain.

After some argy bargy, including me calling the police over a possible dodgy MoT ticket, Arthur agreed to fix it and I got a call to say it was ready.

Oh dear.

The recovery vehicle chap had dented the nose of my pride and joy. But Arthur turned his back as I pointed to the damage that wet and windy winter’s night. But, but, but…

Driving the Manta was a dream though. Sometimes shifting up to fourth was a struggle if I wanted to stay below the 30MPH urban speed limit.

On the motorway it was glorious and seemed to have unlimited power. Road handling was solid, which is why it did so well in rallies at the time.

Working nights as a DJ I’d often drive home at around 3am and regularly had a police car follow me part the way home. I mentioned it to Andy in passing one day and he roared with laughter.

Apparently, just for a grin, he had told some mates with blue uniforms that I was a ‘wheelman’ — a get away driver for criminals. I was now a person of interest. I asked him to put them straight and the police stopped following me, I was never pulled over.

One night I was cruising home along the London Road and there was just one other car some distance behind me. The traffic lights turned amber and I came to a smooth stop as they turned red.

Moments later the other car cruised past me through the red. I sat still, listening to Madonna on pirate station Laser 558, and then out of the shadows crept a police car. What a magic feeling that was. Moments later I swept by the driver to see him blowing into a plastic bag (alcohol breath test).

One embarrassing thing happened though. I arrived late for my show at a radio station one Sunday afternoon. Pulled up, jumped out the car, engine still running, and locked the door as I shut it (by pushing down the lock button in the door and accidentally holding the door handle up as I closed it).

So while I did my show the police were called, broke into my car — without causing any damage like true pros — and switched the engine off.

The Manta also got my wife and I to our honeymoon destination. Neighbours tied tin cans to the bumper and decorated it with ‘just married’ signs. Andy also used it to ferry a friend’s bride to the church.

One day though the engine started playing up. It wouldn’t idle steady, seemed to have a huge flat spot when accelerating and just wasn’t running smooth at all.

I had it serviced, but the issue returned within days. I bought a Webber carburetor but the accelerator linkage on the new carb wasn’t where it should have been, but with a bit of bending, twisting and bodging I got the cable to connect.

I can’t tell you how many lost Sundays were spent fiddling with the engine, and mechanics — the people who should know about these things — were unable to fathom the problem. I was now throwing good money after bad.

No matter; it was drivable, reliable, It just didn’t perform as designed.

My partner and I went everywhere in it across the UK. And despite it not working brilliantly, my Opel Manta always started and never left me high and dry — it always got us home.

A few years later the end came. Reversing into a supermarket car park next to a trolley pen I opened my door to look as I reversed — it was freezing, raining, dark, and I couldn’t see what I was reversing into. My door was bent backwards when it hit a bollard and the panel creased. Bugger it!

A friend bought it off me for £350 and the hunt started for a replacement. I am so embarrassed by what I bought next I can’t mention it here.

But decades on from saying farewell to the car I enjoyed driving the most, I am looking to own one again.

Truth be told, I have been keeping my eye out for an Opel Manta for years without any success. So I may have to import one from Blighty. Got a 1970s Manta for sale?