He’s Owned, Restored, And Modified This Opel Manta Since He Was Just 13 Years Old
Photography by Robb Pritchard
The poorly maintained street of Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, are not exactly known for being optimal real estate for classic car spotters, so this bright orange Manta A would be a real head-turner even if it wore a more sedate shade of paint.
The petrolhead bug bit Matej Gracin at a formative age, who at just 13 years old had managed to race in local hillclimbs, years before he got his legal driving license. It wasn’t just the act of driving that he was smitten with though, and in the evenings, when he should have been doing his school homework perhaps, Matej would instead visit the pile of his dad’s forgotten Opel Manta parts in the garage and work on the task of turning the pile into a car. The first incarnation of this Manta only took him a year to complete.
Back then, it was absolutely standard, factory-spec. With a 1.2L engine and typical skinny tires to boot, it was remade to the original specifications and it stayed that way for a few years until Matej’s mechanical skills developed to the point where he knew he could make something a little more special out of his Opel. What was rolled into the garage to be stripped down (again) came back out a couple of years later a very different beast, as you can see.
Improving power was the first order of business, as the old 1.2L was a pretty gutless motor—the kind to make one notice even the slightest of hills. Simply transplanting another engine would have been far too easy, though, and too expensive. So Matej got to work and took on the role of Dr. Frankenstein to build the tidy unit that sits in the bay now. The cylinder head is a skimmed-down piece from an old 2.2L Opel Record. The pistons and camshaft come from a 2.4L Frontera… although the shaft is a few kilos lighter thanks to having the extra metal machined down. The same for the flywheel. Everything came from locally-scrapped donor vehicles.
A set of Weber 48 carbs feed the motor its diet of air and fuel, and the 150bhp it puts out is turned into motion through a Getrag five-speed gearbox sourced from a later Manta B. The rear differential and shafts are from an Ascona rally car… now welded, which Matej says makes the car good for drifting. Stopping power comes from a beefy looking set of ventilated discs from another Opel Record, while the beautiful polished wheels are 15” Schmidt TH Lines, 10” wide at the rear and 9” at the front. A set of Toyo tires are tucked snugly up into the orange arches. . The springs and shocks are a very stiff set from Koni, and they need to be given how low the car sits to the ground at rest. The ride is made even nicer (well, more fun, not comfier) thanks to polyurethane bushings.
There seems to be as much attention to detail on the inside too. The interior is full leather for one. It’s on the dash and roof. The seats are Recaros, and the steering wheel is a very small-diameter Volanti Luisi piece. The gear knob is a golf ball—why not?
After checking out the car a little bit more, Matej then turned the key and started it up. Although on paper the engine is a hodgepodge of mechanical bits coaxed into working with one another, it sounds gorgeously proper, and definitively old-school thanks to the velocity stacks bolted to the carbs and the big-bore exhaust that Matej fabricated for the other end.
We drove through the leafy outskirts of Zagreb, up the mountain until there were many more trees than houses, to the foot of the Sljeme mountain. A one-way road winds up through the forest in a series of wide hairpins. I’ve taken my Porsches up here many times, and it’s a perfect road for demonstrating how well this Manta handles.
Matej has owned this car in some form or another since he was 13, has turned and tightened every bolt multiple times over, and has played with it on these roads for years, which explains how he has an amazing feel for drifting through the forest, speeding up around blind kinks and getting it sideways before I can even see we’re at a hairpin—one way-roads have their advantages. The engine noise evokes the glorious days of high-strung naturally-aspirated touring car racing, and with the welded diff it’s a very easy car to control in a slide.
We stop at a castle half way up, and as I wander around with the camera I am quite surprised when Matej tells me no one has ever done a photoshoot of it before me. It’s a such gorgeous machine, and it’s been with him for so many years, it only seems right.
Someone not as keen on the car as me is the castle gate keeper, who in a bit of a huff informed us that we need special permission and to pay a fee to be able to use the forest to take photos. “I’m going to call my boss,” he said, heading back. Neither Matej or I felt too inclined to follow him to the office while he took down our details. “He’ll have to catch us first!” Matej smiled. A short photoshoot brought to an abrupt end, the trees again echo with the sound of the exhaust and the squeal of the protesting rubber.
Back down in the workshop yard for a coffee after our drive, we pull up next to a lovely Audi 100 with the bodywork peeled open down one side like a tin of peaches after an accident with a truck spilling its contents on the road. This car turned the Manta into a daily driver. A Mercedes 380 SL is in one garage bay, and a ’72 Porsche 911 is in the other… all those years of missed school homework don’t seem to matter at all now, because when I met him Matej was working for Intermoto, Zagreb, a classic car importing and restoration company that is starting to make quite a reputation for itself with clients coming to have work done on their pride and joys from all over Europe these days. Matej knows it’s a dream job, and he doesn’t have a bad commute either.