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Classic Profile: 1984 Opel Senator CD 3.0E

Jay Ramey November 19, 2012 Cars You Should Know 33 Comments

opel 1

The late 70s and early 80s gave us a huge helping of German sedans that we’re still drooling over. Mercedes-Benz unveiled its W126 S-class in 1979, BMW came out with the E28 5-series in 1981, and Audi brought out a freshened 100 sedan in 1982, of which a grand total of 8 survive to this day. If you were on the other side of the pond, Ford of Europe also offered the Cologne-built Mk II Granada, a large sedan that came with a 2.8 liter engine in its top spec. You’d be forgiven for not remembering the offerings from Opel, as GM stopped selling Opels in the US in 1975. But the German company had a full lineup of cars that were sold in Europe and elsewhere in the world, with the Opel Senator saloon being its top offering.

Sold from 1978 till 1986, the first-generation Opel Senator premiered with a range of four and six-cylinder engines, and was arguably the marque’s first serious attempt at carving out a chunk of the executive saloon market (not to be confused with the fullsize land barge market on this side of the Atlantic). Whereas some of the other Opel models were typically present in some diluted, rebadged form in North America, the Senator was a sedan entirely of Opel’s creation, one whose platform and engineering didn’t cross over to the General’s US offerings. And as you’ve probably guessed by now, the Senator we’re going to take a ride in today is the sole example in America.

opel 2

Owned by Gary Farias, this 1984 Opel Senator CD 3.0E was brought into the US back in the 1980s.  “I actually bought it from a guy in California, he had a house in Germany and one in LA, so he was able to import it in eighty-four and he spent all kinds of money converting it over to California specs, you know, with the emissions. They put Toyota sidemarker lights on it, they pulled the bumpers off and welded channel iron in it for the 5 mile an hour bumpers” Gary says.
“And what’s the mileage on this car?” I ask.
“Its got a hundred and thirty one thousand kilometers.”
“So that’s the one part they didn’t convert?”
“Yeah, and the computer is all in German too!” Gary chuckles.

opel 3

The Senator essentially sits on a lengthened Rekord platform, which was used for the Monza, Rekord, and Commodore, Opel’s midsize models from the 1970s that can be sort of hard to tell apart in photos (and people complained that all BMWs looked alike). In the UK the Senator was marketed for a time as the Vauxhall Royale, while in South Africa it was sold as the Chevrolet Senator, curiously enough. Our example has the top of the line 3.0 liter straight-6 mated to a 3-speed Borg Warner automatic transmission good for 178bhp, but the 2.0, 2.5 and 2.8 models were more common. Sixty mph in the 3.0 liter version came in a reasonable 10.2 seconds, and had a top speed of 127mph, all respectable stats. The Senator was updated in 1982, with the facelifted version referred to as the Senator A2, which is the car we’re driving today.

opel 4

“This was pretty much one of the largest sedans that Opel made since the end of the war, cause besides the Diplomat they really didn’t venture into this territory till then?” I ask Gary.
“Yeah, and they had the Kapitan which was the large four door, and then the Rekord was kind of a midsize” Gary nods.
“So this is almost the same length as a BMW 5-series, like an E12 or E28?”
“Yeah, that’s what it was made to compete with; the top of the line Mercedes and BMWs.”

And indeed, the length and weight of the Senator are right between an E28 5-series and E32 7-series BMWs, with the Senator being just 7 centimeters shorter than a short-wheelbase E23. It’s a little heavier than a 5-series, but that’s not unexpected given the car’s luxury features and chunky build. Just glancing at the exterior design, it’s clear that this was meant to be a h cruiser that competed more with Mercedes-Benz and Audi sedans rather than with the sportier midsize sedans like a BMW 5-series.

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As we go for a drive around town, the Senator feels very composed, with minimal body roll in the corners and a firm yet forgiving suspension. Just riding in it, it’s immediately clear that this car was not the product of Detroit’s line of thinking in the late 1970s. The Senator turns much sharper than the Buicks or Oldsmobiles of the era, with no unwanted side effects, and stops and launches without dipping back and forth. In many ways, the feel of the suspension is closer to that of the W124 E-class or the Peugeot 505 than anything that GM was making at the time.

opel 6

The interior is also an example of German restraint, with a substantial and somewhat Volvo-like dash and a chunky steering wheel. The front seats are quite supportive, and generally don’t allow you so slide around in the corners. The rear seats are also very German, as you can’t quite drown in them unlike those of American cars of the era, though they’re not by any means the church pews that Audi started installing some years ago. The overall aesthetic of the interior definitely leans towards European cars of the time (as it should), and the feel and positioning of various items in the interior reminds me of the Volvo 760GLE more than anything else.

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Speaking of the exterior, the shape of the greenhouse and the whole car overall has more than a whiff of the fourth-generation Ford LTD, if anything. The front fascia of the Senator is a bit more blunt, but the overall shape is there, I have to admit. The Senator masquerades nicely in modern US traffic, as driving around town for more than 45 minutes we didn’t catch anyone gawking at us with their mouth open.

“Do you get a lot of questions about this car in traffic, do people go “What is that???
“Only the car nuts it seems” Gary says slowly.  “I see people do a double take cause it kind of looks like a mid-eighties Buick, until you look at it closely.”
“What do people confuse it with the most?” I ask.
“Probably the Buick” Gary reckons.
“It’s a bit boxier than a Buick, but I can kinda see how people might think that its an American car…”
“…But unless you really know cars – that’s why I got the plate “Opel”” Gary laughs.

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Speaking of similar-looking cars, in one sense there are actually dozens of cars derived from the Opel Senator in the US right now… and some of you already know where I’m going with this. That’s right, the Bitter SC was essentially a Senator underneath, with the letters SC standing for Senator Coupe. The company started by racer Erich Bitter used the chassis and powertrain of the 3.0 liter version of the Senator as the basis for its sleek coupe, later modifying the engine up to 3.9 liters. Just under 500 cars were built from 1979 till 1989, with the majority of them being coupes. The Bitter SC was sold mostly through Buick dealerships. Having seen all three variants of the SC, the sedan, coupe, and convertible, I can honestly report that they look even better in person than in the photos. The Bitter SC 4dr sedan, in particular, shows just how good the Aston Martin Lagonda could have looked with a little more work.

So what niche did the Senator occupy in the European market? In many ways the Senator and its predecessor, the Diplomat, were the affordable large sedans of West Germany before Audi really got their act together. The Senator was never really a volume seller, and Opel gave up on the whole concept of a sedan larger than an E-class by the early 90s, letting the Omega B dominate the model range. But in its heyday, the Senator was a kind of bread and butter sedan, being used for police and ambulance/EMT duty in a number of countries. The Senator’s pop-cultural impact was also sort of predictable, with various Senators appearing in the pulp police TV dramas, like the German series Tatort. Think NYPD Blue or CSI in 1980s Germany, with all the accompanying awesomeness like mustaches that deserved (and received) their own billing in the credits, and cars that regularly drove through walls of stacked cardboard boxes.

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Gary owns a total of seven Opels at the moment, with four of them on the road, and frequently takes them to shows around the northeast. Talking to him, I get the impression that he enjoys the Carlisle Import Nationals the most, which typically has the nation’s biggest Opel turnout each year. In fact, it’s been the venue for the Opel club’s national meet at least a few times. Having a “majority stake” in Opels in Massachusetts also means that Gary is known around town for his cars, even leading to a recent request for the Senator to appear in a Hollywood film.

“Last summer I got  call for a casting agency in Boston, they were filming a movie and they were looking for cars from the eighties, and I sent them a picture of this. And I was up at the movie set like three or four times with it, the movie’s called Labor Day, with Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet.”
“Did that come out already or is it still in production?” I ask.
“It’s in post-production now.”
“So did this car make it in?”
“I dunno, we’ll find out” Gary shrugs. “It was in the parking lot at Benny’s in Mansfield Mass, and they had it parked out there on New Hampshire plates on it” Gary replies.

So when Labor Day comes out in 2013, you all have to go and see it just so that you can point out the Opel Senator to your friends… or perhaps bet them $20 beforehand that there’s going to be a silver Opel sedan in a film set in eastern Massachusetts of the 1980s. Gary says film companies rarely like bright colored cars in the backgrounds of movies, so the Senator definitely makes sense along those lines, but you do wonder if the production company knew that this is the only one in the country. Not quite as random as a Volga, but still. Coming soon to a theater near you!

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Before someone utters the groan-worthy “But whereya gonna get parts for it?” the answer is quite simple, as always with common but rare-over-here cars. With the interwebs and club forums based in Opel’s home country, Gary has all the parts he needs and more, including a spare engine from the next-gen Senator B which replaced the first-gen Senator in 1987. By the way, ever notice how that question is rarely directed at classic and not-so-classic Ferraris at concours events? Now those owners should definitely be worried about getting parts. And speaking of the Senator B and newer Opel models, I asked Gary whether he has any inclination to bring in an even later model Opel as the 25 year mark keeps moving up.
“Nah, I’ve got enough projects now” he chuckles.

So would you rather have a 60s muscle car that everyone and their dog has, lined up in a row with 20 identical examples at the local car show, or would you rather have a car that is the only one in the country and is visible mostly to car people? Since you’re reading this site, I think I have an idea what most hoons would rather have.

  • Tuffycat

    There is one of these in and around Vancouver Canada…dark blue, haven't seen it in a while now. I also know of a Bitter SC in North Vancouver, immaculate condition. I remember seeing Bitters for sale new at Carter Pontiac Buick in Burnaby years ago.

  • "…or would you rather have a car that is the only one in the country and is visible mostly to car people?"

    I don't require that level of exclusivity. I'm okay with one or perhaps two others existing somewhere in the US.

  • Seems like a real nice car, but I'd prefer the Diplomat, with the 327.
    <img src=";

    • Or Admiral, my ride in the late eighties
      <img src="; width="600">

  • smalleyxb122

    You end on a tough question. Obscurity alone doesn’t dictate my desires. I do like to look for something away from the norm, but it has to be a car that I otherwise desire, as well. Since you mentioned the Bitter SC, I’d take that over just about any classic muscle except for a ’66 (or '67) Tempest Sprint, but there are a handful of muscle cars that I’d prefer to the Senator, even if it is the only one in the US.

    • Szilard Toth

      Tempest or any other muscle and american touring car should be more exciting in Europe than the Senator. You know…the neighbour's garden is always greener…and it works in the opposite direction too 🙂

  • TurboBrick

    Opel Senator was one of the more famous vehicles that Finnish schlager-singer Tapani Kansa used back in the day to rack up his impressive resume of speeding tickets, license suspensions and probation sentences. So I suppose one of the target markets was regionally popular artists who needed rapid transit between gigs.

  • Ed Kim

    WOW. Back in the 90s, I actually saw a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times for what must have been this car, based on the writeup indicating this is the only one in the US. From time to time, I wondered what the story behind that car was. Amazing how Redusernab will also eventually provide an answer to such obscure musings.

    • Jay

      Yup, Gary mentioned that at one point this car was for sale on the internet in the late 90s out of Cali, but before that the first owner was trying to sell it or a few years. So that was indeed this car.

  • peter_ayers

    <img src="; width="600">

    Am I wrong in making this connection?

    • peter_ayers

      The Holden VK Commodore

      • I'm pretty sure they share the same platform. It looks like there are some very subtle differences in the sheetmetal stamping, though.

    • Jay

      Very good point, though the Holden was a bit more distant than a mere rebadge, I think I recall reading that they had their own Holden-developed engines.

      Even more distant was the (get this) Saehan Royale, which was built by Daewoo, or the company that later became/was absorbed by Daewoo. That was really a Rekord with the Senator front fascia though, so not a Senator per se.

      • Rover1

        The Commodores were based on the (Opel) Commodores,same as the Senator but with a live rear axle instead of IRS ( that didn't come to the model range until the widebody VN ) The door pressings are the same but the underbody was strengthened up considerably after one of the early Opel prototypes broke in half while testing. The Recirculating Ball steering was replaced with a Rack and Pinion setup (a change that could have been better resolved, I always found it a bit rollsteery ).And of course Holdens own 4s,6s and V8s were installed. The Opel in the article above is the series 2 with the revised frontal styling for improved aerodynamics,the Australians didn't follow suit.At least one V8 Monza Coupe was made and of course the Senator name lived on as a model by HSV.

        • Szilard Toth

          Precisely described. Thanks.

  • Number_Six

    This must have been an usually well screwed together example. When I test drove a couple of brand-new Opels in the mid-eighties (wanting a Manta in particular), the entire inner door skin fell off one when I gently pulled the door shut, the knob fell off the shifter on another, and all of them rattled as though someone from the 1970s UAW had welded a can full of bolts into the fender.

    • Jay

      This one was indeed pretty solid, though Gary mentioned that since cats were installed when the car was first imported and federalized, that caused a lot of cooling issues which the first owned had to deal with for quite some time before they were all resolved.

  • Love these, but I always fancied an Opel Monza.

    Trouble is, here's a photo of the last UK Monza that wasn't stored in a garage:

    <img src=";

    Pro tip: I believe that the engine mounts here should be compatible with the 377hp Lotus Omega unit.

    • Szilard Toth

      The rust illustration could be valid also for Opel Kadett-D/Vauxhall Astra Mk1 and E/Mk2 series too 🙂 And also for the Daewoo Racer and Nexia marketed in Eastern-Europe…

  • CJinSD

    <img src="; width="600">

    There was a coupe version too. This one is a 1978 Opel Monza 3.0 e. GM probably could have served Cadillac better by using Opel's know-how thirty years ago, but they did not. Opel didn't have enough volume in the big car segment to justify continued development, so the Senator and the inline-6 died. Twenty years too late, they did bring over the Opel Omega as the Cadillac Catera, but Opel had lost the plot by then and Cadillac had lost the opportunity to remain an aspirational car for younger buyers.

    • NothingHappens

      On your Cadillac comment, ateupwithmotor.com (Huzzah!), has a section on the Opel Diplomat as a contender for the boob that turned out to be the bustle-back Seville …

      • CJinSD

        Great article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

        • NothingHappens

          Its how our Redusernab HiveMind grows in strength, and automotive obscureanta.

  • Van_Sarockin

    These were legendary cars, back in the day. Capable handlers with good performance, comfort and style. I suppose that all of the GM divisions were worried about sales cannibalization, or it might just have been that Cadillac hadn't thought of 'Catera' yet.

    • Szilard Toth

      Just take a look at the Opel Monza or Vauxhall Royale 2+1 door coupés. As GM Opel discontinued the A series of Senators and Monzas in the late '80's and continued with the B series 4 door only Senator Sedan till 1993 and then had replaced it with the 1993 Omega as the flagship of Opel/Vauxhall, the mid '2000's latest Pontiac GTO/Holden-Vauxhall Monaro has resurrected the Monza spirit. Sadly the Monaro was only available in the UK but not on the European continent. Anyway, I'm agreeing with you, the Senators and Monzas were and are legendary performance cars in Europe.

  • Slow_Joe_Crow

    I've always like 80's Opels, but the really cool Senator to have would be an actual BRIXMIS tour car with a 4×4 conversion and Nato Green IRR paint like this :
    <img src=";
    They were used for sneaking around the DDR keeping tabs on the Warsaw Pact, and the curtains in the back are t hide the guy with the camera.

  • wisc47

    Someday…

    <img src=";

  • smokyburnout

    If you're wondering what the third item on the trip computer is, it's short for Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung, which is apparently German for speed limit. I wonder if the idea for the Autobahn came from people being tired of writing that out.

    Also, that Labor Day movie is a book adaption, not the latest sequel to Valentine's Day/New Year's Eve/Martin Luther King Day

  • mallthus

    I actually had high school fantasies about importing one of these…my thought being that it'd be a far sight cooler to have a one of one German sedan than one of the same ones all my friends' parents had.

    Of course, I also remember the Bitter dealer on Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills, so I'm not exactly normal.

    Oh, and to add to my abnormality, I got to drive a Holden Commodore in Australia in 1985, a Ford Falcon LTD in Australia in 1986 and then another Commodore again in New Zealand in 1989. Oh yeah, I also got to drive an Opel Kadett in Germany in 1988…getting my first speeding ticket ever.

    • Szilard Toth

      Haha…it's funny that people with same ideas are living on both sides of the Atlantic. As you mentioned the Australian Holden Commodore and the European Opel Kadett…as I'm partially an Opel/Vauxhall fan, the aussie Commodores are much more cooler cars than the Senators. More because the Commodores and its siblings like the Acclaim, Statesman and Caprice are equiped with V6's and V8's. If you like this lineup than check also the Daewoo: Royale, Royale Duke, Royale Salon, Super Salon, Brougham. Royale Prince, Prince, Imperial, etc. As you mentioned the Opel Kadett…the 1988-1992-1993 Pontiac Le Mans had been originated from it. Manufactured by the Daewoo Motor. Fortunately I owned a 1990 Pontiac Le Mans Sedan automatic and it was more exciting driving experience than the Opel Kadett. Basicly the same car BUT with some added luxury and safety features not available in Europe. Daewoo Racer Mk 1 and Mk 2, Daewoo LeMans, Pointer, Fantasy, Cielo and the Nexia is also in this club. The Passport Optima, Asüna and Pontiac Le Mans is the mistery for the europeans.

      • mallthus

        Funny you should mention the LeMans. Of course, in Southern California in the early '90s, they were very common. Most people had no idea that they were driving rebadged Opels built by Daewoo.

        I was very surprised to see, in that same time frame, a five door LeMans parked in Aukland, NZ with RHD. I had assumed, wrongly, as it seems, that the LeMans was for North America only (or at least only in LHD).

        Of course, the very first Daewoo I ever saw was a Royale. I was at Narita airport in Japan in 1985 and saw one with diplomatic plates dropping off passengers.

  • Szilard Toth

    The Opel Senator-A in the '80's and the B till 1993 had been rated as an affordable luxury car more or less throughout the whole European continent. By european terms the Senator was a so called "big car" at that time. So it can not be took in direct comparison with U.S. made cars. The top of the score engine was a gasoline 3.0 Litre IL6 but because of the european gas prices (4 times higher than in the U.S.) the markets then are needed smaller and more economic engines like 2.8, 2.5 Litre IL6, 2.4 Litre IL4, 2.2, 2.0 Litre IL4 and a DIESEL 2.3 Litre IL4 with or without turbo charger, etc. The fuel injection has been added later for the gas engines. That was also an option for some time. The automatic transmission was an option for the buyers with wider wallets. Manual transmission was the standard. The airconditioner was also available for some money, etc. In the former Yugoslavia it had been marketed as the Opel KIKINDA named by the town where GM established its factory named as IDA. By the way…the IDA factory general manager's car when the factory had been erected was a mid '70's Chevy Malibu…as some lad told me this when I'd been on a barn find car tour in the early '2000's and discovered that rusty Malibu in a backyard of a farm only 20-30 kilometres far from the GM's former IDA factory. Anyway…the all time Opel Senator-A and B was very popular more or less a dreamcar for lots of folks. Indeed thanks for posting the Californian Opel Senator story.

  • Alex Richards

    our90 opel rekord 380 gsi looked the same. same light with spots, 3800 v6 with t5 box and irs.could email you a photo.

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