Opel Manufacturer Profile & Rally History

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Opel Home Country: Germany Germany

Opel is a big industrialist family that, given the famous name, had a rather short involvement in the car industry. The company was founded by Adam Opel and was a sewing machines manufacturer at first. But Adam never got to know about Opel's biggest days. He died in 1895, the company was taken over by his 5 sons Carl, Wilhelm, Heinrich, Fritz & Ludwig and it was them who only 3 years later, in 1898, started the production of cars. It is hard to trace who of these 5 had the initial idea to turn from sewing machines to cars. It really has to be seen as a big family affair because there was a Fritz Opel who was Opel test engineer as well as a famous racing driver and in the 1920s he even played with rocket powered race cars! Confusingly Fritz Opel the race driver is not Adam's son but his grandson, son to Wilhelm. Yet this all should be interesting. Just to show how big in industries the Opel family was, Fritz Opel race driver had a cousin called Irmgard, Heinrich's daughter, and she with her sons founded one of the biggest crisps brands in Germany. Many people may know the snacks and crisps brand CHIO, but did you know that the "O" in CHIO stands for Opel? Precisely it means Carlo, Heinz & Irmgard Opel!

Despite all this, already in 1931 Opel was sold to GM. Not that Opel was doing badly, GM desperately wanted them. See the Vauxhall chapter why it came to this. Opel is a company that seems to have surprisingly little interest in motorsports in general and rallying in particular. And that despite Fritz Opel being a famous race (not rally) driver in the 1920s, until GM took over. It seems exactly this GM take over is why Opel has a motorsport policy of doing little in house. It is comparable to Simca & Hillman, although they did everything motorsport in house with a huge tradition already then, in their short spell at Chrysler they experienced US car makers are strictly against rallying. Even to the day Opel has a few rather suitable cars in their range but ask as a rally driver at Opel head quarters and you will find no parts, no support, they will give you a list of independent tuners instead – and that is a route that too often ends in costly adventures (independent tuners are profit orientated, manufacturer departments are marketing orientated). OK, Japanese manufacturers may operate the same way, but for a central European company this seems a strange policy. Why tell you all this? It makes Opel’s attitude in the following context easier to understand.

Drop in note: Maybe I go a little too deep into proper in-house works teams are the best. I actually do like Opel and Vauxhall. I very nearly bought an E Kadett GSI 16v instead of my 205 GTI rally car, it was only Opel Rüsselsheim referring me to independent tuners when Peugeot promised parts, data, support through their very own in-house sport department. And that independent tuner route already cost me dearly in my Subaru days (and later I experienced the same customer rip off methods when working for an official Volkswagen Motorsport satellite team)....
Though, while I personally was not prepared to take the risk, I must say I do identify myself very much with the very unusual species of human beings that Opel fans are. Quite clearly there is a difference between Opel and Subaru and many others. I.e. in 2013 Germans wonder why Volkswagen in a big new WRC program does not do anything like a one makes championship on their home market, as if they are not interested in anything beyond some advertising campaign. Opel comes to the rescue with the new Opel Adam Cup, though I am scratching my head that these cars are again prepared through Holzer Motorsport rather than Opel themselves. BUT: throughout history Opel has always somehow cared for the amateurs, always had some form of smaller group1 or groupN car homologated, found cars like Manta i200 or Kadett D GT/E or Vauxhall Nova to give programs to young, promising talents that already had an Opel connection, if that was in fact Ronald Holzer himself, or Charly Beck, or Erwin Weber, or over in UK Andrew Wood, Chris Birkbeck, or the late, fantastic Dave Metcalfe.
The result is that Opel, at least in Germany, seems to stand out from all other makes. Hard to explain, but Opel is a manufacturer for whom F1 or Le Mans Ufo racing would never work because for their fans this is way too remote from real Opel cars they can buy and show off to their mates. Instead you find Opel fans going to events with normal cars from oldtimers to modern and they will cheer on any driver in any form of Opel car they find, never mind if it is a modern Adam, a historic C-Coupé or an unlikely gN Omega. I.e. check at the Nürburgring 24hrs race how many Opel flags you find and how many Opel logos are painted onto the track - Never mind if there is only some private, even complete no-name drivers in Opels trying only for lower class wins, the Opel fans are there to support them! Most motorsport fans are fans of certain drivers, but Opel fans are fans of their cars. Turn up as a complete novice driver and you find flags, t-shirts and bras waved at you just because you drive a road related Opel. Opel managed to create a very unusual and loyal fan base for themselves, and that is absolutely brilliant!

Still the very strong GM/USA and independent tuner policy hint in the 2nd chapter above is important, otherwise it just is hard to understand many of the hick ups in Opel's story:

Opel's only full works project in international rallying ever was the Ascona 400 and Manta 400 project. This might be surprising as they had good, famous rally cars long before that. The Opel Olympia was rallied and so was the Kadett B (B like Mk2). But all these were in private hands. The sport reached a bigger profile first with the Ascona A in the early 1970s. While indeed the Ascona A became a successful rally car, it was all the effort of a Swedish Opel dealer team and the German tuner Irmscher in two independent projects. The cars showed Opel colours, but support was mainly just financial and even that not big scale. It is interesting though that these were two independent projects as the lead driver for Sweden was Anders Kulläng and for Irmscher Walter Röhrl, both drivers that could profile themselves in a big way as team leaders despite driving the same make and model of car at the same time.

Things didn’t change with the Kadett C either, which may be why this car had a surprisingly bad reliability record. But there is a different, interesting aspect about the Kadett C as this is where the stories of Opel and Vauxhall join together. Vauxhall as well being a GM daughter, with the Chevette they basically had the same car as the Kadett C was. Vauxhall as well was not a proper works effort, as in "in-house". What for Opel was Swedish dealers and Günther Irmscher, for Vauxhall that was Bill Blydenstein - which now makes 3 independent projects out of one and the same car! However this shows as well how independently these projects were run: The Vauxhall Chevette was rallied as a hatchback, while the the Opel Kadett C rally cars were coupés. Indeed the hatchback version was even a Vauxhall invention with even the road Kadett C-City design and body panels coming from Vauxhall. But as well under the skin there were differences, as the Kadett used the old, trusted 1.9 engine in a version bored up to 2.0 (which however seemed to make this unit suddenly unreliable rather than more powerful), while the Chevette already had a 2.3 engine which was later regarded as the spiritual father of the 2.4 litre 4-cylinder used in the 400 models. However the Vauxhall Chevette project was overshadowed by an irregularity leading to the withdrawal of its homologation – as if you couldn’t guess the result of a communication problem between the car manufacturer and the independent tuner - or indeed lack of interest by the manufacturer.

However 1976 became an interesting year. Already in 1974, despite the layout explained above, ever more Ascona A with GG-works registrations appeared. This was probably because a young Walter Röhrl was on course to win the ERC title 1974, and in a big surprise he followed this up with a WRC event victory in Acropolis 1975. In late 1975 the Kadett C Coupé and in 1976 the Chevette Hatchback debuted. Strangely 1976 was the one year Vauxhall had to do without Pentti Airikkala. And it wasn’t until early 1978 that the homologation drama of the Chevette boiled up, so Vauxhall would have better done more with those early years. However at Opel the Kadett C team of 1976 consisted on the Swedish side of Anders Kulläng and Bror Danielsson, on the German side of Walter Röhrl, Rauno Aaltonen and a number of guest starts of Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Hannu Mikkola and Edgar Herrmann, all of those, even Kulläng, mostly on GG-plates – a very impressive line up! Sadly there seemed no cure to the engine problems, culminating in a 1977 mid-season departure of German star Walter Röhrl to Fiat.

By late 1978 a new Opel Ascona model was launched for rallying, the Ascona B. At first still in a group 2 version, called the Ascona 2000, even though bigger and heavier than the Kadett C and still using that same engine, this modern car showed promise by winning the ERC 1979 with Jochi Kleint. Now Opel started thinking big – and so they should because this car really was a good product. The first thing that many people say when the name Ascona 400 is mentioned is that it came too late, otherwise it would have been far more successful. This is absolutely the point and is the result again of Opel relying on the work of tuners (Irmscher, note: Opel’s own star engineer Karl-Heinz Goldstein did not arrive until 1982!), even though by now they did have their own motorsports department. This is not meant to be a complaint against independent tuners, but to develop a new rally car from scratch, it is not the most efficient way to go shopping for parts, see what everybody can come up with and then try to put this all together to a package that gels. In the case of the Ascona 400 the end result was actually very good indeed, but it was a 2.4 litre front engined RWD car that didn’t turn a wheel until 1980 and they didn’t put together a good program for it until 1982, which was a time all other conventional cars like this (with the exception of some Japanese) had left the scene for being potentially outdated! Still, the Ascona 400 won its 2nd WRC event ever and the first time it did a complete WRC season, 1982, Walter Röhrl won the drivers title with it and Opel came 2nd in the makes, only very narrowly beaten by the 4x4 turbo Audi Quattro. This only shows how good the car could have been had Opel had a full program ready for it 3 years earlier – indeed the Ascona B road car was already launched in 1976, the Ascona 400 debuts Monte 1980, wins round2 1980, why did it take until 1982 for a full WRC program? The same story was the Manta 400 which debuted over a year later than originally scheduled and although it was a worthwhile evolution to the Ascona, it never could win a WRC event simply because it was past its time.

And this same story kept repeating itself. Opel was working on a group B/group S car, the Kadett 4S based on the Kadett E/Astra Mk2 shell. For a start again the project was delayed, the car actually debuted in the hands of Andrew Wood on the Audi Sport Rally 1986 (between Telford, Shrewsbury and Welsh border land) which was held just 2 months before the group B ban was enforced. And again Opel went shopping at independent tuners and tried to put the pieces together. This ended in quite some PR embarrassment as Opel proudly announced they had this superb 500BHP engine, only for the press to realise – and of course taking profit of this farce – that what Opel praised in highest respects was in its basics a (Zakspeed sourced) Ford engine! Read more about the Kadett 4S in the Manta 400 and gA Kadett E chapter.

What happened next just fits perfectly into this frame. With the start of group A Opel had one of the best FWD 2.0 litre non-turbo cars, the Kadett (E) GSI (soon to be 16v), there is absolutely no doubt about this. This car may have been a bad understeerer, but its engine was class and the results speak for themselves, especially if you consider none of these was a true works effort. Already on the road the Kadett (E) GSI was a car that made even the all so famous VW Golf GTI look very pale indeed. But yet again even apparent works programs were developed and run through a number of tuners, such as Enem (Sweden), Irmscher, Steinmetz, MSD, Harry Hockly, Ray Mellock and many others. So again the mess started. In the early 1990s Opel – or more like MSD – indeed worked again on a full blown project, a Calibra 4x4 Turbo, they had some brave ideas but couldn’t get them to work and the first car ever to use active differentials in rallying disappeared after only one single event!

These projects may at least have had works support, but when the next generation Astra (now as well called Astra at Opel) came, Opel & Vauxhall announced to withdraw from rallying because they said officially they didn’t like rallying. For not liking rallying, why did they come back again with another works supported F2 Astra project (through Ray Mellock) for BRC and German events in the late 1990s – and withdraw again after 2 years because they preferred touring cars, only to be back again with an S1600 Corsa project…. I could maybe write this in a more positive style but in those days Opel stated several times that they didn't like rallying, which simply is not what the rally fan wants to hear. Especially when Astra F2 and Corsa S1600 were in fact very good cars so why, apparently, don't you even try to run them properly?

At the bottom line, not only the Ascona 400 and Manta 400 projects, although late, have shown that Opel and Vauxhall are capable of great things, just please stop this mess, do it properly or not at all!

Add on: We even had another example like that by now. MSD made an S2000 version of the Corsa with blessing but not much further help of Opel. The car was occasionally driven by Alex Bengué, Toni Gardemeister and Andreas Mikkelsen and showed very promising stage times, yet that was it, only two cars were ever built. I regard Opel & Vauxhall as a very respectable manufacturer, so why does this mess repeat? Ascona 400, Manta 400, Kadett 4S were all delayed, Astra F2, Corsa S1600, Corsa S2000 were all stopped prematurely, even though they did show promise. Now, 2013, Opel is doing something with the Opel Adam R2, an Astra GTC (gN circuit) project may follow, and they are even in-house projects. (Are they? The Adam R2 is built at former Opel and Lancia driver Ronald Holzer, but at least the project is officially initiated by Opel itself.) I really wish this turns a success, because Opel is currently struggling big time for none of their fault. In the Saab chapter you find a case of GM and strange modern world politics. Here is another case. GM is pushing their Chevrolet badged, Korean made Daewoo cars in Asia, South America & Australia like crazy, which cancelled out Opel/Vauxhall’s access to these markets. And I can’t see how a make like Opel can survive against Ford, VW, etc., when they are not selling cars in these markets. Asia and South America are the biggest and fastest growing markets and therefore immensely important (see why did Citroen with Loeb turn to the WTCC – several races in Asia with a Citroen model specially made for the Chinese market, not even available in Europe?). Meanwhile Australia serves the perfect example what is going on. The Holden Barina was near always a rebadged Opel Corsa, today the Barina is a rebadged Chevrolet/Daewoo Aveo. And when the Holden Astra was replaced by the Holden Cruze, you already see on the model name what was done. Similar happened in South America.... It sounds strange, as one would think having a huge mother company like GM makes you financially secure, but in this case Opel/Vauxhall would better get out of GM, but GM does not want to let them go. Maybe I am a little harsh on GM here, apologies. Because GM just announced at the end of 2013 that Chevrolet (not proper big-block Chevrolet but that Korean plastic stuff) will be taken off most European markets again in favour of Opel. Still, Opel has no access to markets as China and Korea, yet the modern world is a global world and I just don't want to see Opel & Vauxhall doing badly!

COLOURS & TYRES:

Opel always was identified with yellow. The Ascona A and Kadett C were black & yellow (Ascona A sometimes in Irmscher’s own colours green & yellow), from Ascona B they were usually white & yellow, which looked surprisingly distinct. The Vauxhall Chevette HSR however came with varying sponsorship, often on silver. In 1982 Rothmans sponsorship switched from David Sutton’s Ford team to the Opel Ascona 400 & Manta 400 in similar layout (minus gold). At the same time Opel did really good marketing too with many print adverts and special edition road cars with hints of Rothmans colours, so no wonder despite this only being 2 years the Rothmans colours are about the most remembered colours for works Opels. By 1984 the team and sponsor Rothmans saw little point in continuing the WRC program with RWD. But the Manta 400 was still one of the newest RWD cars and far less expensive than the 4x4 group B cars, which led to one of the most interesting non-WRC programs ever: Rauno Aaltonen for Safari, Guy Fréquelin for France and Erwin Weber for Germany all ran in Opel colours now having silver added to white & yellow. But curiously in the BRC the official Vauxhall team entered a pair of Opel Manta 400 with strong drivers and their personal sponsors, leading to distinctive colours: Russell Brookes' Manta 400 in all yellow for Andrews teamed up with Jimmy McRae in a red & white Manta 400 for AC Delco. Like the late Manta 400 works colours, early group A Kadett/Astra had a theme of running white, silver & yellow on Opels, with the yellow replaced for red but otherwise same layout on Vauxhalls. This was kept from then with minor alterations.

For tyres with the exception of Ascona A and Kadett C (Pirelli) and very early Chevette (Dunlop) both makes used Michelin throughout.

REGISTRATIONS:

For details on the German and UK reg systems, look at our general registration guide. Opel as said started off through dealer teams in Sweden and Germany. Therefore some of the cars carry Swedish plates. The German dealer team was run through tuner Günther Irmscher and some of the cars are registered in his name. With Irmscher based in Waiblingen, these car regs would display a WN before the dash. Later in the Ascona 400 & Manta 400 days we also occasionally find cars with a VB before the dash, which is Vogelsberg in Hessen and identifies cars prepared by ex-works driver Reinhard Hainbach. Opel themselves are based in Rüsselsheim near Groß Gerau and therefore the bulk of the works cars shows GG plates. Slightly more complicated even is Vauxhall. The big Chevette program was run through Bill Blydenstein. But more important in all following projects: Vauxhall is based in Luton, Bedfordshire, such the combinations of 2nd & 3rd letter in the 3-letter-block to identify works Vauxhalls should be these 12: BH, BM, GS, KX, MJ, MK, NM, PP, RO, TM, UR & VS. But somehow Scottish and Irish plates kept finding their way onto works Vauxhalls. I cannot explain at all the Scottish plates on many works Chevettes, but note that at some point some areas needed additional codes and therefore GS & VS are actually Luton rather than Scotland, despite the Scottish S-rule (in the same way the OO made it to Essex, who had to replace the single F, usually starting O identifies Birmingham). Responsible for the Chevettes was Billy Blydenstein from Peterborough. But after the Chevette Blydenstein turned his attention to the Nissan 240RS. Not only did we never see Peterborough reg plates after the Chevette, for some reason in the Blydenstein days often Scottish S plates were used. Therefore, to save confusion, I only name some of the Peterborough codes, those that are most often found on Blydenstein Chevettes: EB, EG, ER, FL, VA & VE. For the Irish registrations BRC Manta 400s were between events often kept at Sydney Meeke, Kris Meeke’s dad, who built the engines for the BRC Mantas. In the early 1990s Opel's efforts were a mix between GM Belgium, who won the F2 title with normal Belgian reg plates, and the UK firm MSD with private plates also displaying "MSD". In the most recent projects British firm Ray Mellock Ltd have their hands on the program with private plates showing a 3-letter-block "VML", the meaning of which however seems to be a bit of a mystery (most likely Vauxhall Motors Ltd – indeed in contrast to most other UK car companies, see Ford Motor Co and FMC reg plates, Vauxhall is registered as a Ltd.).

Add on Ascona 400 & Manta 400 chassis numbers: These were the busiest and most remembered days of Opel as a works rally team. As typical for the German reg system, Opel sometimes re-used older reg plates. In turn the chassis numbers of this period seem very straight forward, but also have their hick ups. They start RA = Rallye Ascona or RM = Rallye Manta. And there are 50 RA and 38 RM numbers on record, compared to 20 reg-plate identities for works Asconas and 19 for works Mantas. That said many of the works chassis were given straight to other teams without any works history, such as RA18 & RA23 to Bastos/Colsoul, and with the time the tuner business making their own cars grew, which all narrows the discrepancies between chassis numbers and works reg-plate identities/re-used plates a bit further. However some Opel sources claim the Ascona identities only started from RA15 – beyond the question why would they do that, this would leave us with only 36 works Asconas which seems odd. The Ascona story was first and lasted longer than the Manta one and therefore the relation of 50 works Asconas vs 38 works Mantas seems just about right. Sadly I don’t have all chassis numbers – if Opel themselves is not even sure if it started from RA15 or not, you see how tricky this research is. However I believe they started at RA01. At least I found an early amendment to the homologation of the Ascona 400 with the document stating this change was effective from chassis RA01, hence a chassis RA01 must have existed. One reason could be, that Rx00-99 numbers are typical Matter numbers. Matter is a big company in seam welding, roll cages and rallye safety equipment and in the 1980s was often asked by German works teams as Opel, Audi, Porsche to help with the conversion of the road chassis. In fact Matter built virtually all works Opel rally chassis of that decade. However the first Opel Ascona 400 chassis actually were built by Safety Devices in England! Even though the RA chassis numbers are typical for Matter, RA meaning Rallye Ascona could well be Opel’s own idea. My very strong suspicion from all that is that RA01-RA14 were actually Safety Devices built cars with RA15 being the first Matter shell. What doesn’t help making matters easier is that other tuners as Irmscher and Hainbach again made their own chassis conversions, which therefore do not have RA/RM numbers. Then again the two Bastos Asconas of Guy Colsoul are works supplied shells and have RA numbers, while the Bastos Mantas came from Hainbach and therefore don’t have RM numbers. Vice versa the case of the Italian Conrero team they built their many Asconas themselves, but at least two of the Conrero Manta 400s were works team supplied shells with RM numbers…. A lot of an add on, but again the Ascona/Manta 400 time will be the most important story for most Opel rally fans and I hope despite the confusion with re-used reg plates we managed to have the most complete history on these cars.
Plus it is quite unusual these cars have these build numbers. At least the Ascona 400 started life as a group4 car and in fact only the very last one, RA50, was built after the Ascona 400 was transferred into groupB. Normally in group4 as well as groupA (and this includes previous group4 and later groupA Opels too, hence no mention of them in this chassis number chapter) we talk of converted road car shells with road car chassis numbers and therefore most manufacturers did not see a point for adding build numbers as well, which in turn is why a chassis number add on is unique to Opel in this database. (Well, I changed this again to more chassis stories when the Peugeot 208 T16 came with a similar trick to the Opel Ascona 400 chassis numbers.)

Opel Rally Cars

Model Class
Opel Opel Adam (A)  Class R2
Opel Opel Ascona (A)  Group 2
Opel Opel Ascona (B)  Group 2
Opel Opel Ascona (B)  Group 4
Opel Opel Ascona (B)  Group B
Opel Opel Astra (F)  Group A
Opel Opel Astra (G)  Formula 2
Opel Opel Calibra (A)  Group A
Opel Opel Commodore (B)  Group 1
Opel Opel Corsa (A)  Group A
Opel Opel Corsa (C)  Super 1600
Opel Opel Corsa (D)  Super 2000 / WRC 1.6T
Opel Opel Corsa (F)  Class R5
Opel Opel Kadett (C) Coupé  Group 4
Opel Opel Kadett (D)  Group A
Opel Opel Kadett (E)  Group A
Opel Opel Manta (B)  Group B
Opel Opel Manta (B)  Group A

Rally Honour Roll

Year Class Place Manufacturer Events
2017 IRC Class R5 6th. Opel (35pts) 8

Season Summary | Season Points | Events Calendar

2016 IRC Class R5 7th. Opel (27pts) 10

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2015 IRC Super 2000 / WRC 1.6T 7th. Opel (22pts) 10

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1994 WRC Group A 10th. Opel (1pts) 10

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1993 WRC Group A 8th. Opel (20pts) 13

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1992 WRC Group A 9th. Opel (2pts) 14

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1989 WRC Group A 10th. Opel (9pts) 13

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1988 WRC Group A 12th. Opel (13pts) 13

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1987 WRC Group A 9th. Opel (16pts) 13

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1986 WRC Group B 12th. Opel (5pts) 13

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1985 WRC Group B 8th. Opel (25pts) 12

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1984 WRC Group B 6th. Opel (50pts) 12

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1983 WRC Open 3rd. Opel (87pts) 12

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1982 WRC Open 2nd. Opel (104pts) 12

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1980 WRC Open 66th. Opel (25pts) 12

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1979 WRC Open 4th. Opel (66pts) 12

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1978 WRC Open 3rd. Opel (100pts) 11

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1977 WRC Open 4th. Opel (65pts) 11

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1976 WRC Open 2nd. Opel (57pts) 10

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1975 WRC Open 4th. Opel (58pts) 10

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1974 WRC Open 8th. Opel (27pts) 8

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1973 WRC Open 11th. Opel (25pts) 13

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