Park Drive in Port Elizabeth was normally a quiet place – an oval drive which runs around St Georges Park, the well-known Crusaders Cricket ground, swimming pool and tennis complex. The Hill School, the place of learning (two years in one) for my final year of torture was not far from the gates of the stadium and more importantly, about 150m from the bus stop, which on this particular day in 1967 happened to be designated as the finish line for a most unlikely contest.
Most senior scholars play the well-known sports …rugby, cricket, tennis, swimming etc etc. I however had no such leanings and whilst a participant, was far happier either working out the next engine ‘mod’ in an ever-present notebook, or behind the wheel of my Mom’s Vauxhall Victor with the right foot buried in the corner.
This particular contest had started simply enough… schoolyard banter about cars and how fast they are.
In every school there is also bound to be the kid who drives to school in his own car. In this case it was George and his Volvo 122S Coupe’, a good guy who unfortunately took umbridge to being told by my fellow car fanatic Larry (RIP my Friend), that whilst he may think his car was quick, it would probably not survive a traffic light GP against a 993cc Opel Kadett. Larry was pretty good at this stuff, he had a wonderfully laid-back attitude and would simply mention this sort of thing as if it were a scientific fact, not at all confrontational – it did however have exactly the right effect. George was incredulous, one word said it all – Bullsh…!! he came through the grounds to find me and present the challenge, “BRING IT”….and as things were to turn out… I did.
But before we get to the contest… a brief tale of how we got to this point.
For those reading this and firm supporters of any of the classic ‘quick’ cars of the era … it begs the question – How could a nondescript Opel even be considered in the same breath as these 60’s performance icons?, particularly when you review the history books and find very little to show that an Opel Kadett even existed in any form of competition???. The answer is straightforward – it had simply been ignored.
My involvement started in the school hols in mid 1966 at a hillclimb in PE, having talked my mom into taking me to the event in her shiny new Kadett (which had recently replaced the Victor). As a schoolboy spectator I was intrigued to see the range of modded cars, from saloons to specials even to a V8 engined Anglia. The normal group of hot Minis and Fords were on hand and all disappeared up the hill with their characteristic sounds. Minis always sounded “flat” to me, no matter how hard they were being revved and Fords suffered their dreaded Dagenham Gap between 2nd and 3rd gears, some entertaining with horrendous axle tramp off the start …. None sounded that impressive until a bright red, black topped, ’65 Kadett drew up to the start line – very neatly presented with the obligatory widened steel wheels of the era and, unusually for a road car in a club event, sporting an open pipe..
Entered in the 1000cc class by one Richard Kask this little car sounded the part. The flag dropped and it smoked the tyres off the line without a trace of nasty rear axle cha cha and quite literally, screamed up the hill. This is 1966…… and the Kadett turned heads at its first run quite simply because the engine was spinning to heady rpm and sounded absolutely fantastic. It set the fastest 1000cc road car time and came in 3rd to full house 998 racing Mini Coopers. To say I was impressed was an understatement, and right there, decided to have chat with the owner.
Richard, a quiet unassuming man, very soon explained the rather simple mods done to the engine (the standard of the era ‘Head mod, Cam, Weber carb and ‘Branch’) and how easily it spun to over 7500 !!!. I remember going home that evening in our Kadett thinking, “if its so simple why are there not more of these out there?”…So…
Time to get some mods done to the ‘old girls’ car then and see what happens…
My hands-on experience with engines at that point was limited to helping my friend Dave’s dad rebuild the engine on my 1959 Fiat 500 which I had bought as scrap for R50 the previous year. This was done whilst most of my peers interested in things mechanical were hell-bent on spending their savings on mopeds. I had however read every conceivable book or magazine I could find on modding engines and had tweaked the 500 just a little. The exercise had been completed the previous year but not doing well in year-end exams, was banned from driving or tinkering with the Fiat pending my 1967 Matric results… The Incident with the Kadett had rung a bell …and with the Fiat not able to be used, I needed to get my hands on anything… so the family Kadett seemed like the perfect target experiment in which to test this ‘knowledge’….
I would have to arrange time to do the work on the Opel to coincide with the folks being out of town.
Firstly, modifying your Mom’s car as a schoolboy comes with difficulties…and these pressures taught me a lesson I was never to forget… how to get the best out of a situation with very limited opportunity… and essentially make every piece of work count. In this case I also had the challenge of keeping the engine looking stock, this was critical to the exercise. My stepfather was most definitely not a supporter of my tinkering and had he known what was happening would probably have burst a blood vessel or two.
Porting the cylinder head and increasing the compression ratio at first opportunity was the start and had a surprising initial effect. This was done on a ‘Monkey see Monkey do’ principle by adopting that which was shown in the literally hundreds of articles read in SA, British and American ‘go faster’ books/magazines. I was always pretty fascinated by the sharp edges everywhere…on valves, valve throats and general machining. Common sense at this point simply said that if we are flowing air…this can’t be right. Being a techno geek I also knew the spec sheets of most GM products off by heart and realized that the 1700 Opel Rekord ‘L’ ran the same carburetor type as the little Kadett but had a much larger choke tube (22mm vs 27mm…an increase in Choke tube area of 50%) A visit to Heine and Strydom scrapyard sorted that out (Damn… but scrap yards had reasonable pricing in those days I seem to remember buying the carb for a Rand and my budget was shot anyway) and the carb bolted to an inlet manifold opened up to within a mm of its being. (So little did I know about some of the basics, that the jetting on the carb was not changed either.!?…We had no clue about that stuff in the beginning). Valve springs from the sister Vauxhall Viva engine were some 35% stiffer and called to do duty, lifting the max rpm point on the engine to well over 7000rpm.. Heine & Strydom helped there again.
The end result was amazing…I recall the 0-60 mph time initially coming down from 18 seconds to around 14. A “dual outlet” exhaust manifold casting for the German Kadett engine found in the scrap bins at GM was bought by friends helping the project. A free flow exhaust system was fitted to the car by contacts at the local exhaust shop at the same time the font pipes were modified…. (This brought about by a strange early failure on the original silencer). My Mom then had a very standard looking Opel Kadett able to do the 0-60mph dash in around 12.5 seconds… faster than a stock Cortina GT …although she did comment that the exhaust was a bit ‘sporty’. This was a special lady and I have no doubt she had a good idea of what was going on. Other than the mods noted here, the rest of the engine was absolutely stock including the camshaft. All this work had been done over about four months.
Oh!, and the other critical ‘mod which made a significant improvement in the acceleration department was the fitting of the Fiat 500’s tyres… 135/12’s as opposed to the 155/12’s for the Opel. Just how cool was that for a green behind the ears geek. This was not about racing round a track so I figured the reduced tyre diameter was equivalent to a final drive change from the 3,89:1, to a more ‘normal’ for a 1000cc road car, of 4.1:1. Yes believe it or not I had learnt all that stuff from reading countless pieces of literature and if there was one basic mechanical spec on the car that needed to change it was the very ‘tall’ gearing.
The car went for regular services/repairs at the local Williams Hunt dealership and the mechanics there were always keen to drive the machine because “this car just flies”…and never ‘twigged’ as to what had been done… ??