Opel Ascona 400 & Manta 400 History by James Jones

The Ascona 400 was conceived on the 6th March 1978 but the Ascona first went rallying in Groups 1 and 2. Opel were cautious about there approach with the Ascona after previously diving into a major rallying program with the Kadett GT/E with disasterous results.

A hotted-up Group 2 Ascona i2000 (i for Irmscher) with twin carbs,ZF 5 speed box,dual circuit brakes,revised suspension and strenghened steering linkage was driven by Jochi Kleint in 1979 to clinch the European Championship.

The 400 Asconas required to homologate the car into Group 4 were completed in 1979 at the Russelheim factory, the Ascona 400 officially being homologated on the 1st November 1979.

Working with an Opel Rekord diesel block, Keith Duckworth of Cosworth fame, designed a 95.2mm x 85mm,2.4 litre,16 valve cross-flow engine working under the design brief that the engine must be competitive over the next couple of years, easily serviceable away from base and  “detunable” for road cars. The road cars and competition vehicles both shared Cosworth pistons and steel rods and also a counter-balanced steel crankshaft. A single plate Fichel and Sachs clutch transmitted the 240bhp/200lb ft torque produced to a strenghened Getrag 5 speed box. The engine could rev to 7500rpm and ran on 48 DCOE Weber carburettors. The 1982 team cars ran in either phase 2 or phase 3 trim depending on the event, approximately 255bhp and 270bhp respectively.

The Ascona 400 differed in appearance to a standard Ascona. A large front air-dam and rubber air splitters running along the bonnet lines helped reduce front end lift by 50%. The fibreglass bonnet incorporated triangular cooling vents (common to the Manta too). A large “duck tail ” type boot spoiler reduced rear end lift by almost 100%!. These aerodynamic aids were developed through wind tunnel testing and they appeared on road and competition cars alike. Where they differed was around the wheel arches, the competition cars having large extensions linked by a sill, where as the road car had standard arches and a smaller sill connecting them.

The Ascona proved to be a successfull rally car, it’s first win being the 1980 Swedish in the hands of Anders Kullang. 1982 was arguebly Opel’s best year with the Ascona 400, Rohrl winning the Monte Carlo and Ivory Coast Rallies and finishing second or third on no less than seven other events that year. Rohrl won the drivers World Rally Championship and Opel were runners-up in the manufacturers title.

Ascona  400  –  Works Specification

Engine – Dry sumped, 16 valve, twin chain driven camshafts, 4 cylinder in line. 2420 cc with bore 95.2mm and stroke 85mm. Compression ratio 11.5:1. Max power 255bhp at 7200rpm. Max torque 28Kg/m at 5000rpm. Induction by twin 48DCOE carburettors. Brakes – Vented discs 289mm front, 277mm rear. Suspension – Wishbone and coil front, live rear axle and coil rear. Steering – Rack and pinion. Body – 4320mm length x 1664mm width x 1360mm height. Wheelbase 2518mm, Track 1384mm front, 1379mm rear. Weight 1050Kg.


Ascona 400 The Road Cars
As already mentioned the road going version looked identical to the works cars, bar the wheel arches. The Ascona 400 was sold with the 2.4 16 valve engine rated at 144bhp at 5200rpm giving a whopping 1551b/ft torque at a lowly 3800rpm. As per the works car the 5-bearing crankshaft with 8 balance weights was installed but unlike the competition version the road cars ran with electronic fuel injection. The suspension was familiar with gas filled shocks and the 5-link axle. An interesting options list included a choice of 3.18:1 or 3.45:1 axle ratios and a heavy duty, close ratio version of the 5 speed gearbox fitted. Light alloy 5 spoke 6J x 15 wheels shod with 205/50 VR15 tyres covered the four brake discs, vented at the front. A 0-60 time of 7.6 seconds proved it’s performance capabilities and over 125mph was attainable dependant on axle ratios. The cost in 1981 was £11,801 list!

Trying to buy one will be a challenge! It would appear that approximately 8 right hand drive versions were brought into the country through a dealer in Accrington, Lancashire. All these cars shared similar registration numbers beginning with the letters TVS. Another clue to spotting a genuine car is the front Recaro seats which were covered in a black vinyl material on the boulsters and a special black and silver Opel logo cloth in the centres, known as Opel Blitz. Ascona 400 road cars came in white with colour coded bumpers and Ascona 400 logos and Dealer Team Opel grey and yellow stripes.

The Opel Manta 400 was homologated into Group B, on 1st March 1983 (No. B-237) and by all accounts the authorities needed some convincing that Opel had completed the requisit 200 vehicles needed, prolonging it’s competition debut to the 1983 Tour de Corse, where it retired with engine failure.

The Manta was essentially an updated Ascona using the same engine (in phase 3 trim with approximately 275bhp) mounted 6cm further back to improve weight distribution. It also used the same axle, which in the Ascona, had proved very reliable but mounted in the Manta was prone to failure. This was possibly due to the increase in power over the Ascona and the reduction in the Manta’s weight. The Manta was fitted with Kevlar bonnet,spoilers,wings,doors,bootlid and the four lamp pod.

The Manta was quicker than the Ascona but on the loose it was outclassed by the new breed of four wheel drive machines, in particular the Quattro. On tarmac it proved very quick but again new mid-engined tarmac specials like the Renault 5 Turbo and Lancia 037 were proving to be more competitive. Ari Vatanen and the late Henri Toivonen battled on in 1983 to give Opel third place in the Manufacturers World Rally Championship, after using the Ascona early in the season (Vatanen winning the Safari Rally) then the Manta.

In the same year, at a press gathering held in Sweden before the International Rally, Ari Vatanen displayed a Ferguson developed four wheel drive Manta. It was apparently very driveable but the project was abandoned.

In European and National Championships like the British Open it  remained successful up to the end of Group B in 1986. Who can forget the 1985 season with Jimmy McRae in his AC Delco sponsored car and Russell Brookes in the Andrews Heat For Hire lightweight car going flat out on the twisty lanes of Ireland and the Isle Of Man? Or Bertie Fisher’s Shell Gold Card car which seemed to be constantly held together with tank tape? Even in 1987 on the National Breakdown Rally in Yorkshire, Pentti Arrikala showed how quickly he could go in his British Telecom Mobile Phones sponsored car by winning the event. Russell Brookes, Andrew Wood and Pete Slights finishing 2nd, 4th and 5th in their Manta’s respectively. In that year in the British Championship a driver could compete in a Group B car provided it was limited to 300bhp or less but could not score points towards the manufacturers title. With the Vauxhall Astra still being rapidly developed, Manta’s were entered on the Welsh and Ulster events. Brookes, Arrikala and Wood managed a 1,2,3, in Wales and in Ireland local lads Fisher and Mc Hale upheld honours with 2nd and 3rd places. Arrikala and Wood finished 4th and 5th. The Manta was then pushed into retirement, the Astra GTE carrying Vauxhall’s Rallying hopes.


Manta 400 &  Manta 200 The Road Cars
As I’ve tried to demonstrate, the Manta wasn’t hugely different from an Ascona. The road going Manta 400 was sold in white or silver, with or without the grey and yellow DTO stripes and the 400 logo.Also optional were those much loved arches, the double headlamps,the three-piece boot spoiler and the direct top heavy duty gearbox. The interior followed the Ascona’s, black dash, black vinyl and opel logo cloth on the seats and grey carpet. Again only built in left hand drive it is believed that there are less than five cars in the country, at least one in right hand drive trim (converted by Taurus Performance in the eighties). A total of 245 road cars were built between 1981 and 1984 at the Antwerp factory in slim or wide body trim.

The engine was the same 2.4 litre, 16 valve, chain driven twin camgivingup towards 150bhp. Again the road car was fitted with fuel injection whilst the works cars ran 50DCOE carbs. The wheels fitted were the familiar five spoke, five stud alloys, again painted white but if fitted with the arch kit, wider than the Ascona, 8J x 15, fitted with 225/50 section tyres. With regards to buying one and values it will be a case of what you are prepared to pay in relation to originality and condition.If you can find one!

On 1st August 1983 Opel homologated their Manta i200 into Group B (No. B-250), i standing for Irmscher, the Opel tuning specialist. It was envisaged as a budget rally car for those who couldn’t afford a fully blown Manta 400. Fitted with a dry sumped 2 litre single cam engineand twin 48 DCOE carbs, the rally car was capable of 0-60 in 6.5seconds and a top speed of 220kmh.

It was sold into the European markets with 125bhp from its 2 litre single cam engine. It was fitted with a standard five speed box, Opel Blitz interior, four spoke sport steering wheel, Rothmans decal kit, three piece boot spoiler and different camshaft and valves. They were available through Irmscher dealerships worldwide, the idea being that a customer could then order from his nearest dealer the necessary  gearbox, axle, 5 stud 7J x 15 Ronal alloy wheels, dry sump, cylinder head, competition camshaft and valves to make their car into a Group B i200 Rally car. These parts were basically from the Manta 400 running gear.

Steve Thomson Cars in Walsall incorporated Irmscher UK up to 1991. Irmscher UK imported 30 of the 200 i200 Mantas between 1983 and 1985. They were all converted right hand drive cars. Of the 30, 6 were converted to i240 models (an Irmscher modification that did not comply to Group B) whilst the remainder were built to the European specification except for twin headlamps (an option on the Euro model). Tinted glass and the uprated cam were installed.Also a different distributor, valve springs and solid lifters pushed UK spec. cars to 134bhp. Irmscher fitted a competition exhaust and offered customers a gas flowed head to up power by a further 6bhp. Other options included a LSD, Silver paint, Bilstein suspension, different wheels and tyres and the four spoke sport steering wheel. 0-60 was quoted at 8 seconds and top speed 122mph plus. The price was £7995.


Author: James Jones

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