Featured: Recreating A Racing Rarity: This Is Opel's Badass "Black Widow"

Recreating A Racing Rarity: This Is Opel’s Badass “Black Widow”

Máté Boér By Máté Boér
February 5, 2018
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Photography by Máté Boér

The black and yellow Opel Rekord C was Opel’s first factory race car since the conclusion of WWII, a fact that on its own earns this car a significant place in the company’s history. Menacingly and appropriately nicknamed the “Black Widow,” it was almost completely forgotten until Opel Classic’s Jens Cooper decided to recreate it a few of years ago. The news of the Rekord’s rebirth of sorts spread fast among Opel enthusiasts—it’s the kind of lesser-known machine with a relative lack of information that lends it additional intrigue, as at this point there are basically just a handful of agreed-upon rumors about the birth and career of this ephemeral race car.

The Rekord C’s racing development project was the idea of designer Anatole Lapine, who led Opel’s research center from 1965 to 1969. The Riga-born car designer decided—on his own, without a request from the people in the boardroom “above”—to build a touring car from the big two-door family limousine that was sitting in Opel showrooms. In the company’s nomenclature, a two-door limousine is not equal to a coupé, and is a descriptive separate type of transportation. So, when Lapine worked on the Rekord C with his colleagues, they redesigned the somewhat soft and basic suspension of the street car, especially the rear unit to gain more inclination and adjustability compared to the production Panhard setup.  Further, the 1.9-liter CIH-engine (camshaft-in-head) was upgraded and tuned to make around 200 horsepower, with the two duo of Weber carbs being fed by an early version of airbox—the same solution as on period NASCAR machines, the air pressure is higher at the steep windshield than at the front grille, so that higher-pressure air is brought into the manifold more effectively through a pipe located at the windshield.

Back to the rumors. Some say that in all, four Black Widows left the Rüsselsheim factory, but there are no official documents in the archives to prove this happened. Period photographs show Black Widows with various numbers painted on their doors and some small details are not matching on these cars—for example, the  number of windshield wipers—which led to a conclusion that it’s probably that more than just one example existed.

The Rekord, wearing the number 201, took part in its first race at Zolder with Erich Bitter behind the wheel. The people at Opel Classic decided to paint the same number on their recreation car to honor Bitter and the original. The German engineer founded Erich Bitter Automobil GmbH, and in cooperation with the brand he built some interesting cars based on Opel models in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the most famous of the lot being the Opel Diplomat Coupé (sometimes referred to as the Frua Coupé), officially called the Bitter CD. Just 395 units were built between 1973 and 1979.

There was someone much more famous among the Black Widow’s drivers though, and that is the three-time F1 World Champion Niki Lauda. A nineteen-year-old Lauda tried to tame the Opel at Tulln-Langenlebarn, in Austria, in 1969. The Germans didn’t advertise this occurrence, for as the story goes—remember, this was a Lapine’s private-type project—as soon as the management heard about the car’s existence, they banned it from going racing under the Opel factory name, and they gave one to the Austrian Kurt Bergmann, who hired Niki Lauda. The young Niki didn’t like the Opel at all though. By that point he’d often raced with a Mini Cooper S 1300 (a much smaller and nimbler steed), and had also started with Formula V cars that year, meaning the Rekord was totally different being the rather large car that it is, and as such it didn’t meet his taste.

Anatole Lapine went on shortly afterwards to become the chief designer at Porsche in 1969, and he stayed in the position until 1988. During those years his team developed a gamut of front-engined cars like the 924, 944, 928, as well as the G-series and other accordion-bumper 911s. The last traces of the Black Widows were lost in 1970, when the Austrian example was stolen from Bergmann’s house. Jens Cooper contacted Lapine when building the replica, and asked for his advice during the process. Sadly, he never saw the result though as he passed away in 2012.

The black car’s colorful story caught the imagination of a Hungarian fanatic, who decided to build his own Rekord C race car, a replica of Lauda’s car with the number 41. Being an experienced classic Opel owner and restorer, Gábor collected all available information that existed online and by word of mouth. It amounted mainly to pictures of Black Widows, but he also received a lot of help from Cooper. When Cooper heard about Gábor’s plans he was happy to help, and he even gave him a ride in the museum’s car.

During the restoration more information was unearthed which proved the donor car’s period racing history. There were mounting points for a roll cage in the chassis, a circuit breaker switch in the firewall, a bigger rev counter on the dash, and no upholstery remained inside, not even the soundproofing bitumen sheets.  The donor’s suspension was also modified. After a meticulous restoration this car is as close to the original as possible in every detail. The paint job, the attention to the detail, both in and outside amazed me in person, and all stickers and painted decorations were recreated in a much higher quality than a usual racecar. That said, Gábor didn’t hesitate to get on the throttle, and heading to the photoshoot I barely could keep up with his pace. The Widow’s short side exhaust is very loud as one might imagine, and it practically shouts right into the passenger’s ears. Speaking inside is only possible via the speakers. The Black Widow would be eligible for racing given that it’s equipped to meet all FIA safety regulations, but I would guess some tracks would be flagging the decibel reading from underneath the passenger door!

The Black Widow represents an era of touring car racing, when gentleman racers fought against professionals, when the cars headed out of the corners on three wheels, and powersliding was a legitimate means of driving quickly. In 1970, two years after the Widow’s first attempts, the well-known Steinmetz Opel Commodores were born to teach their rivals a few lessons.

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Rubens FlorentinoAlexandre GoncalvesMartin Philippo Recent comment authors
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Rubens Florentino

Awesome article and pics.
In Brazil the Rekord C was sold as Chevy Impala between 1969 to 1992. Brazilian Chevy decided to spice up things from day one, the only two engine options were the 2.5 liter 4 cylinder and the 4.1 liter in line 6, both from USA.
The 6 cylinder version was a factory Hot Rod and with 160 horses and lots of torque it was a blast to drive.
The car became a legend on race tracks around the country.

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Rubens Florentino

I meant Chevy Opala.

Alexandre Goncalves
Alexandre Goncalves

Nice article!

68 Commodore A Coupe owner here!

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Martin Philippo
Martin Philippo

I look forward to seeing this beast in action . Spa? Zandvoort? Zolder? Please please!