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From Manta to Mokka: Opel designers George Gallion and Friedhelm Engler talk about their celebrated stars.

An autumn day at the Jägerhof in Rüsselsheim. A place that breathes Opel history. Designers have been meeting here for decades. In 1968 Erhard Schnell drew the first sketch of the Opel GT on a napkin in the restaurant. Today, a small circle of enthusiasts has gathered in the garden to pay tribute to another Opel legend: the Manta is 50. The father of the iconic sports coupé, George Gallion, is there.

Together with the former modeller, some of the Classic Workshop team, as well as members of the Manta fan clubs in Stuttgart and the Odenwald. With so much expertise, the new Mokka is also a topic of conversation, after all its world premiere is right around the corner. Opel Director Design Execution Friedhelm Engler has sketches and photos of the new SUV with him. Lots of interested and curious looks. George Gallion takes one of the photos, studies it. And smiles.  

GEORGE GALLION: There’s Manta in there! It’s Manta DNA transferred into a new front. What do you call it – Vizor? The Mokka has the same expression on its face as the Manta did back then: simple but proud.  

FRIEDHELM ENGLER: Bold and Pure – that is how we describe the new Opel design language…

GALLION: … I didn’t know that. But I can see it! Perfect proportions, clear lines and the powerful rear – you guys did a great job. And there (Gallion points to the roofline) – ADAM sends its regards.

Mr. Engler, George Gallion’s verdict is clear: The Manta was the godfather of the new Mokka. How did that come about?
ENGLER: In the concept phase for the GT X Experimental, we started an intensive process of fundamentally reflecting on our own company and values. In the process, we redesigned the Opel face. We already had a clear idea, a vision. We had pulled together the Opel Blitz, grille and headlights to a striking design element. During an inspirational visit in the Classic Workshop, one of our young designers said: ‚Look – the Manta. That’s the DNA of our design.‘ The Manta front grille, framed by a slim chrome bar, the double headlights with a black background. And there was the affirmation of our design: this clean front – this is Opel!

Was it already clear at that time that this could become the Mokka?
ENGLER: No, with the GT X Experimental we developed a concept study that embodies the Opel values and shows where our journey will take us in the future. Bold proportions, reduced to the essentials. It was Michael Lohscheller himself who approached us after a presentation of the GT X Experimental and asked: ‚Couldn’t the next Mokka look like this?’ Of course we were immediately hooked on the idea. And I’m happy when people recognise the Manta genes in the Mokka. But Opel has never been retro. We don’t do retro design. That’s an absolute no-go.

GALLION: Absolutely. When designers dream of their work, we dream of the future. The past only gives hints and clues. That was already our philosophy back in the 1960s.

Mr. Gallion, you designed the Manta in the summer of 1969. The summer when the first man walked on the moon, hundreds of thousands of people celebrated the “Summer of Love” at Woodstock…
GALLION: (laughs) And I had a “Summer of Work”. My boss at the time, Chuck Jordan, had given me the job of developing a competitor to the Ford Capri. Chuck went on vacation with the words: ‘When I come back, it has to be finished.’ We had six weeks. But of course the spirit of the times influenced our work. It was a progressive time – we were looking for new shapes. During that summer, we left dated car design approaches by the wayside.

ENGLER: Only six weeks – that’s a pretty ambitious timeline.

GALLION: Yes, it was. We started every morning at 8 o’clock sharp. But it was also magical. At Opel we had the first design department in Europe at that time. The best people were gathered there. The design of the rear was largely in place, we were able to concentrate on the front. We didn’t have time to develop our own turn signal units or headlights. So we looked around and took the headlights from the Olympia, which had just been phased out. And we managed to do it: offer a desirable car for such a modest price that many people could afford it.

ENGLER: This is a constant that defines Opel: we have always had the ambition to make great cars available for everyone.

“During that summer, we left dated car design
approaches by the wayside.”

Mr. Gallion, the summer nevertheless brought you a nice change of scenery – a trip to Paris. 
GALLION: Oh, yes. We wanted to call the new car Manta and use the shape of the ray as our emblem. But nobody could tell us what the manta ray even looked like. Except Jacques Cousteau, the legendary oceanographer. So I flew to Paris to see him and look through his underwater photographs. In the French capital, the Opel Manta finally found its identity and got a chrome emblem mounted on the front fenders. But honestly: until then it was the most exhausting summer of my life.

ENGLER: (winking) Oh George, come, on, you know – we designers, we only make a few sketches…
GALLION: (grinning) Yeah, right, the good old cliché. The designer sits in a café all his life and makes doodles with pen and paper. You’re the only person I’ll tell this: when I wanted to make a drawing for the Manta Meeting at Timmendorfer Strand a few days ago, I first had to buy new pens – my old ones had dried up.

Mr. Engler, Mr. Gallion, in addition to the Manta and Mokka you have been responsible for many groundbreaking vehicle designs. At some point during the process, do you realize: This is going to be a special car? 
GALLION: I, for one, find that difficult. After all, the Rolling Stones aren’t in the studio and just decide: This is a hit now! The people outside decide that. That the Manta, for example, became so successful has a lot to do with coincidence: it was the right car at the right time.

“We felt a lightness as we were working at the Mokka, everything just came together perfectly.”

ENGLER: George, the Manta a coincidence? But that’s how I know you, always so modest. You’re right about one thing: it’s not about designing a beautiful car. You have to create a desirable car that fits the times. The weeks and months we worked on the new Mokka were special. We transferred the concept study into a production vehicle. We felt a lightness as we were working, everything just came together perfectly. It felt right.

GALLION: I can understand that – the Mokka is my favorite model anyway. I’m driving my third one right now. The new Mokka will be number 4, and I have decided it will be my first electric car. The time is ripe. Since I drove the Opel Ampera a few years ago, I’ve wanted to experience this acceleration again – unbelievable. I still call it my “Star Wars” moment.

ENGLER: Let me know when you get your Mokka-e. I don’t want to miss that drive.

GALLION: Deal – but I’m driving!    

Mr Gallion, Mr Engler, thank you very much for the interview!

 

George Gallion (b. 1937) US-American, began working for GM in Detroit after studying industrial design in Atlanta/Georgia (USA). In 1969 he moved to Opel and became deputy design director. From Manta A and Monza to his last projects Signum and Movano, many Opel cars bear his signature. With the Corsa, for example, he shaped the company’s entry into the small car segment. He retired in 2002. He lives with his wife in the Taunus Mountains. 

Friedhelm Engler (b. 1963) is the Director Design Execution where he is in charge of planning the interiors and exteriors of all Opel vehicles. After completing his degree in design at the University of Pforzheim, he moved to Tokyo for three years to work as a product designer. In 1992, he began as a transport designer at Opel and was later head designer on the Meriva A and the Astra H. “From” 2007 to 2010, he managed the PATAC design department responsible for all GM brands in Shanghai. He returned to Rüsselsheim in 2010. Today, he oversees all mass-market vehicles up to their production launch. 

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