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Opel’s South African future: Doom or boom?


Sighs of relief from current owners and fans were no doubt expressed when Opel announced some three months ago that it had partnered up with long time backer, Williams Hunt, to distribute its products from January 2018.

Although the brand’s future in South Africa seemingly appears to be in good hands after years of uncertainty, what remains unknown is how much input new parent company PSA will have following its purchase of Opel and UK sister brand Vauxhall from General Motors (GM) in March for an estimated R30.3-billion.

Questionable track record

The acquisition of GM’s European marques, which sees PSA becoming the second largest automaker in Europe after Volkswagen, has however re-ignited fears from some that it could be heading down the some road it did some 40 years ago, triggered by the buying of Citroen in 1976.

Criticised by Citroen loyalists at the time for not giving the brand the recognition it deserved, and doing away with some the essential quirks that made its products popular, PSA, two years later, took over the remains of Chrysler’s loss making European division, rebranding most of its cars under the Talbot name, while still keeping control of Peugeot.

At a time when it was not only strapped for cash but also fielding a number of outdated models, often against each other in the same segment with varying degrees of success, and rebadging existing models under different names - the Peugeot 104 became the Talbot Samba and Citroen LN/LNA - PSA’s future looked anything but secure with drastic changes needed if it wanted to remain stable.

Keeping Peugeot as its core brand, PSA pulled the plug on Talbot completely in 1994, while introducing a new range of “conventionally” styled, often Peugeot-based Citroens such as the BX and later ZX, and the XM that replaced the popular but terminally dated CX. It was a move, although again highly unpopular with mainly Citroen enthusiasts, that slowly began to bear fruit as PSA was able to return to financial stability, where it has remained till today under the leadership of former Renault Senior Executive, Carlos Tavares.

A GM-less future

Bought by GM in the 1929 and 1925 respectively after it had taken command of Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC, Buick and Oakland Cars, the latter later renamed to Pontiac, the impending sale of Opel and Vauxhall had been long rumoured, especially as neither brand had managed to turn a profit since 2000.

The impending sale of Opel and Vauxhall has been long rumoured, especially as neither brand had managed to turn a profit since 2000. GM’s somewhat reluctance to keep both after the failed sale to Canadian parts supplier Magna and Russia’s Sberbank in 2009 shortly after declaring bankruptcy didn’t improve matters much, with the biggest casualty, from a product standpoint, being South Africa.

From Delta to GM

A brand that become a byword for success on the track and indeed affordable performance motoring under the auspices of the then Delta Motor Corporation, the return of GM in 2004 signalled a radical change in approach, with the Detroit giant instead opting to place a greater focus on its mainly Daewoo-derived Chevrolet models.

Aside from the Australian sourced Holden Commodore renamed to Chevrolet Lumina, less and less attention was being given to Opel, to the point where the brand was not even being considered for a possible return to South Africa as the deal between GM, Magna and Sberbankwas reaching its reported final stages.

With only the Astra, Corsa and Brazilian-sourced-but- assembled-in-South Africa Corsa Utility keeping the brand afloat, Opel fans were denied models such as the Vectra and Vectra OPC, Meriva OPC, Antara SUV and the Vectra’s eventual replacement, the Insignia.

What had become apparent was arguably similar to that of what Oldsmobile had experienced shortly before its demise in 2004, in that it had gone from being one of GM’s star sales performers in the 1970s, to a niche range of models mainly used to display unique technologies and styling. In Opel’s case, it had gone from a much loved and respected brand to a minor and often overlooked player, with the Astra in particular falling far behind its chief rivals.

Return to the glory days?

While it is too early to speculate what impact PSA’s ownership on Opel in South Africa will have despite the two marques being seemingly separately managed, the real decider will come with the introduction of the Crossland X and Grandland X, both using the same underpinnings as the Peugeot 3008 and 5008, which are also SA bound.

It will also be interesting to see whether Williams Hunt deem it fit to bring the new Insignia Grand Sport to market, as well as the Insignia GSI, and the Karl city car as a replacement for the Chevrolet Spark.


Its commitment to a market where it has experienced huge success has been assured, yet the big test will come next year as Opel commences its new path without GM for the first time. If its past partnership with Williams Hunt is anything to go by though, we could very well see the Blitz bolting back stronger than ever.

Article written by Charl Bosch
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