Great brands are always great characters as well. Just as you might have a distant uncle in the family who made it big time and then sadly crashed and burned, you can see this in many great automotive brands.
Currently, Opel – once again – is the victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, in a drama that can leave no one unmoved. Despite undeserved blows of fate, first a collapse in exports due to the Russian crisis, then losses from the announcement of Brexit, Opel has managed a great recovery and almost turned things around.
But, as fate would have it, the wicked stepmother GM used the core work of the management team headed by Karl-Thomas Neumann and the marketing genius of Tina Müller solely for the purpose of prettying up Opel as a bride for sale.
After 90 years of dependence on GM, Opel is now fated to become an appendage of the French PSA group. The successful transformation of the mindset just completed at Opel to make it an independent and serious player in the automotive world has become an uncertain relocation to France.
Opel has long been the stepchild and drama queen of the German automotive industry. Since the Eighties, the brand has had a chequered history veering from collapse to upswing. Given that brand psychology always reflects a personal psychology, the question is, what intrinsic psychological pattern determines the brand personality and its blows of fate?
The Opel logo is a flash of lightning. On the one hand, this stands for the tremendous potential of the brand, which experimented with rocket cars in the 20s and repeatedly surprised people with German engineering skill. On the other hand, fate seems to strike like lightning from a clear sky, when Opel is hit yet again by an existential crisis. Most recently, this was the case after the 2008 financial crisis, when the parent company GM was on the brink of failure in the USA, and almost took the German subsidiary Opel down with it.
Opel-GM is a first-class family drama. On one side, there is the American parent which has seen cars more as a commodity for decades, showing the mind-set of a banker. On the other side there are the courageous Opelians inspired by the German engineering mentality, who would prefer to be up with the values of German competitor brands ( “Freude am Fahren” – driving pleasure, “Fortschritt durch Technik” – progress through technology, “Das Beste oder Nichts” – the best, or nothing, “Das Auto” – VW: the car).
Given this, cultural differences and frictions are inevitable. Its dependence on the parent company GM meant that Opel was never allowed to develop its own corporate strategy. Whole continents like South America and Asia were declared out of bounds by GM as export markets. If things were going well for a couple of years, development budgets were slashed again. Was it a stepmother’s jealousy, as in Snow White? Was it vanity-driven elbowing aside of a beautiful daughter, as in Cinderella?
In fact, the engineers in the Technical Development Centre (TDC) in Rüsselsheim led a Cinderella existence for many years. They had to design global models for GM and fix design blunders by Chevrolet or Buick – but Detroit never allowed them to create anything greater than the Omega or Insignia in their home market. Then Chevrolet was set above them as low-price competition – like Cinderella’s ugly sister.
Things seemed to have changed after 2013 with Karl-Thomas Neumann. The new CEO had purposefully obtained a promise of a position of influence in GM management. A new design spirit seemed to have taken root in Rüsselsheim. The “Umparken im Kopf” (U-turn in your head) campaign marked a small change in the image, recently the talk was all about a decisive breakthrough into the future of e-mobility.
But now Opel is threatened with losing its chance to soar. Overnight, the bankers in Detroit have pulled the plug and – as they see it – written off the source of losses in Europe.
It will be exciting to see what the new dependence on the French will mean for Opel. Will the eternal drama of the historic German brand continue, with its archetypically German characteristic of bourgeois mastery?
Or, after 90 years of cultural misunderstandings with GM, will we once again see a productive European integration of the automotive cultures? Perhaps, somewhere in the heritage of the PSA group family the genes of Citroën, wizard of innovation, are still slumbering. We still remember the divine DS, which decades ago was the embodiment of the magic of automotive progress. Peugeot’s bourgeois virtues, Citroën’s divinity, Opel’s lightning – this could be a trio to shape the future.