By Samuel Ee
Tucked away in the sprawling Opel factory in Ruesselsheim, Germany is what seems like an anachronism - a small workshop with grimy windows, dwarfed by the modern buildings. But this is where, half an hour by car from Frankfurt, the entire history of the Opel brand has been lovingly pieced together and put on display.
The Opel museum is actually a working garage and among the collection of mint condition vintage, classic and contemporary cars, mechanics can be seen repairing an assortment of models ranging from a large stately convertible from the 1950s, to a race-winning rally car from the 1980s.
But the automobile wasn't the first machine that founder Adam Opel first started making and selling. In 1862, the well-travelled and technically inclined young man from Ruesselsheim began manufacturing sewing machines, before moving on to bicycle production not long after. Various examples of both can be viewed at the museum.
After making millions of each, it was left to Adam's two sons - Fritz and Wilhelm - to produce the first Opel car in 1899. The Opel Patent Motor Car had a single-cylinder engine and a top speed of 20 kmh but it was based on a collaboration with another manufacturer.
The Opel brothers only began making cars on their own later, and over the years, they introduced several important models. One was the Doctor's Car, so-called because medical practitioners required quick and reliable transport, and they happened to be among the few who could afford an automobile in those days.
The Doctor's Car had a few interesting innovations, one of which was its headlamps. Essentially glass lanterns, they used candles which always maintained the right height even as they burned down, thanks to an ingenious spring-loaded holder. The headlamp could also be removed from the vehicle and used by the doctor to light his way to the patient's house.
But for car lovers, the Opel Museum must surely be fascinating for its wide collection of concept and classic cars. One of them is the timeless Opel GT. This elegant coupe was made from 1968 to 1973 and it was not only its styling that made the headlines. The advertising tagline Only flying is better was used to market it, and this slogan was so popular that it eventually became a figure of speech in German society.
Then there is the ageless Opel Calibra. When this sleek coupe was introduced in 1990, it boasted the world's best drag coefficient of 0.26. It was also one of the first cars to have a catalytic converter when a year earlier, Opel became the first among European car manufacturers to introduce these emission control devices as standard equipment on all models.
Looking around the Opel Museum, the visitor may find that several important models in its history are missing. Until the curator invites you downstairs to the basement, which is not open to the public. Here in this underground hall is a treasure trove of Opel gems. One of them is a pre-production model of the Meriva.
Before producing this mini MPV with its novel rear coach doors, Opel created this specially designed specimen to test consumer reaction by having one back door conventionally hinged to the centre pillar on one side of the car, and a rear-hinged coach door on the other side.
Unsuspecting members of the public were invited into the back seat using the conventional door but asked to exit through the coach door. Needless to say, many of them were tickled by the unusual configuration.
Like this one-off Meriva, a visit to the Opel Museum is also a rare treat.
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