The 1979 Opel Bitter Story
Design of the Opel Bitter CD at Opel Design in Russelsheim, Germany
By Dick Ruzzin
Opel Design in November of 1971.
To understand the importance of Opel Design in the early seventies, it should be known that Opel produced more cars per year than Chrysler did in the United States. All of the design came out of one small building that employed about sixty people, including exterior design, interior design, design engineering, a special projects shop, and the fabrication shop.
In retrospect, for those designers who worked in big companies, this design assignment was an amazing one-in-a-million opportunity for everyone involved; it would never happen again in their entire career.
The design theme was created in literally five weeks; the studio worked directly with Erik Bitter who was mentored by Dave Holls, our boss. It was a little bit like the fox in the henhouse. Erik had a vision, and we helped him achieve it.
Special recognition has to be given to Dave Holls who led the design effort, and who knew when we had arrived at the proper design solution. The design was very much inspired by the then current Italian superstar cars, at that time still very much in focus, the Maserati Ghibli and the DeTomaso Mangusta which were both designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro.
Dave convinced Eric Bitter that he needed a car that had Italian character but still unique and distinctive enough to call his own. Erik brought in some small sketches from time to time to explain his point of view and clearly Dave was open to his suggestions. Dave very skillfully managed the design direction and the creative effort that resulted in a very high quality and classic design, the Bitter CD.
The car is clearly very ‘Italianesque’ of the time, some people have said it may have been designed at Ghia or Bertone, but not so. It was completely a product of Opel Design under the direction of Dave Holls with the strong support, influence, and plain old hard work of Erik Bitter who agreed to combine German engineering with Italian design character.
Dick Ruzzin’s memories of designing the Bitter CD and the others who worked on its creation in November, 1971
In the spring of 1971 I was working at GM Design Staff and had received an assignment by Bill Mitchell to work at Opel Design for six months. After working there for four months, Dave Holls, the Opel Design Director, assigned me to the Opel Design Interior Studio saying that I might not have another chance in my career to work on interiors. With five weeks to go, my six months stay was coming to an end, I was again moved, this time to Herb Kilmers Diplomat Studio to work with Hideo Kodama, a designer from Japan, and another German designer, Brinkmann.
A few weeks before I left to return to the States, the Diplomat Studio received the assignment to do a special coupe design for Eric Bitter to be built on the Diplomat sedan platform. This was an exciting design opportunity, as Erich Bitter had a reputation as a terrific driver, and had made a strong connection with Bob Lutz, who was then Opel Sales Manager for Germany. The Diplomat platform had a fairly low cowl, independent rear suspension, vented disc brakes all around, and something new for Europe, a 225 HP Chevrolet small block. All of that would be carried over to the new two door coupe that would ultimately be called the Bitter CD. For Opel, having the Diplomat platform underpinning in an exotic Italian looking coupe would boost sales interest, they hoped, in the Diplomat sedan.
I already had a sketch up in the studio that Dave liked, a design of an Oldsmobile version of the Vega with a beltline that rose into the rear quarter. We had modeled the Oldsmobile full-size in the Overseas Studio back in the States before I had left for Opel Design, but the project was eventually cancelled.
We immediately started a scale model, and one day when I was working on the body-side, Dave came by and said, “Why don’t you do it like the Mangusta? (Mid body break line, exaggerated wheel flares, and rising line in the rear quarter). I hesitated to do that as I had purchased a Mangusta about a year earlier from GM Design and felt a little strange about using it as an influence on what I was doing. At that time the European design culture was still enamored with two cars designed in the late sixties by Georgetto Giugiaro, the Maserati Ghibli and the DeTomaso Mangusta, which I was very familiar with.
At that point in time I was laying out the shoulder on the body side to eventually make it look like the sketch. We would start with a controlled hard line in the clay and then we would gradually roll the hard line off resulting in a soft coning shoulder that started hard at the front, and become increasingly softer toward the rear of the car. Dave saw the hard line before it was rolled off. That triggered his question. We then did not have to roll it off—it stayed as a sharp break and that led to the Mangusta-like wheel flares that were less exaggerated.
I took Dave’s suggestion and we continued developing the scale model of the car that would become the Opel Bitter CD. Actually the CD was strongly influenced by the profile of the Ghibli and the body side theme and surfaces of the Mangusta, even though it had four passenger seating. The quarter window rising at the belt was original but in harmony with the Mangusta’s rising belt line quarter extension, only in glass. The Ghibli influence was known as it was also a factor in the Astra CD, the earlier Frankfort show car. However, no one has known of the Mangustas influence until this account.
The scale model had a long door and a special side window blow-out mechanism to prevent the large side-glass from tipping out at high speeds when there is high air pressure in the cabin. The studio engineer, Herr Plotnikov, worked directly with the studio designers, Opel Advanced Engineering, and Erik Bitter. The Mangusta interpretation was working quite well, and one day when I was drawing cut lines on the scale model, Dave Holls came in and suggested the large glass rear hatch with no exterior framework. This was very unique for the time. George Gallion, Dave’s assistant also participated in the cars design development.
I was to leave Opel Design at the end of November of 1971 to return to my home and work in the United States, but Dave asked me to stay a week longer to finalize the design. My wife was not happy about that. The scale model theme was established and the design was finished except for details on the front bumper and tailamps. George Gallion had originally suggested rounds from the Opel GT which worked very well, but Eric was afraid that they would tag the car as too low in price. Hideo Kodama had also been working on the design and he continued the development, I assume, and completed the project.
Dick Ruzzin’s Opel Bitter
Erich Bitter has built a number of special high performance vehicles in Germany. The design for this car was done at Opel Design in the late fall of 1971. The Baur body is built on an Opel Diplomat platform with Chevrolet engine, automatic transmission, independent rear suspension, and power vented disc brakes all around. Standard equipment included power steering, air conditioning, and power windows. The original Chevrolet small block engine has recently been replaced with a Corvette 350/355hp unit with aluminum heads and roller cam. New exhaust headers and exhaust system also replaced the original, and there are 74,000 kilometers on the car.
Built in Germany at Baur in 1979, the car is #364 of 395 made. There are six of these cars in the USA. It has special paint that is a dark amethyst pearl with a dark blue leather interior. The car spent a short time in Germany and Florida, then was shipped to California and purchased in May of 2013, and driven here to Michigan by my wife and I.
There are accounts that the design was an extension of a previous Opel show car that previewed at Frankfurt a couple of years earlier It was called the CD also and there was a running version or two built by Frua of Turin. That is not the case. Dave Holls saw no future in pursuing the show car design any further and made a critical decision to move to a totally new design direction. One day while reviewing the early scale models he convinced Erik that a new direction was needed, one that blended Italian Style with Opels known engineering value. The large glass hatch without exterior framing on the earlier concept Astra CD is however a carryover of that first CD design.
At home I forgot about the Bitter CD scale model design as I was very busy with new assignments. About two years later someone came into my studio and told me about a great looking Opel in the Design Executive Garage. When I got there I walked around the wash bay and there it was in full side view. I was shocked, it was the scale model…as a full-size running car!
Later I had a chance to drive the car. It was about the size of a Camaro, and felt big to me as I was a long time fan of small cars. It did look very good as the interpretation to full-size was very well done by Hideo and Herb. Of course I am sure that Dave and George were involved as well.
I think that in retrospect it is the best looking of the Bitter cars, designed by very talented and skillful people. Since it is powered by the Chevrolet small block engine makes it very special to me.
I would really like to get one. (And I have)!
Who was Dave Holls?
Dave was hired into the GM Styling Staff after graduating from Michigan State University in the mid fifties. He had only worked a short time in Cadillac Studio, participating in creating the huge fins on the 1959 model, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany to aid in the U.S. post war effort to restore Europe. He bought a used VW Beetle and spent as much time as possible touring Europe going from one U.S. base to the other for gas at American prices.
Dave was an American hot rodder at heart, a closet people person before it became the thing to do, and a genuine and highly respected classic car authority. He also was a very good designer, and became the youngest studio head when he was promoted to head Buick. Dave had an excellent feel for classic elegance as well as sportiness in automobile design. He moved up rapidly at Design. From Buick, he was promoted to be the Super Chief of the three Chevrolet Studios. He was then assigned to be the Director of Opel Design in Germany, following Chuck Jordan who returned to the States. It was at Opel that he met Eric Bitter who wanted to build a special coupe off of the Chevrolet powered Diplomat chassis. Bob Lutz, who was Marketing Director for Germany, helped push the project forward, mentored the Bitter CD, and was enthusiastic about the design.
Dave returned to the States after three years and participated in the design of many outstanding vehicles such as the 1966 Buick Riviera. A collector of iconic classic cars, he wrote one of the only auto design history books of the time with Michael Lamm, A Century Of American Style. This wonderful book is a benchmark for automobile design history. Dave also was writing a book about automotive aerodynamics, but it was never completed.
Who were Herb Kilmer, Hideo Kodama, and George Gallion?
Herb Kilmer was a German designer hired by Clair Macichan shortly after he arrived in Germany from GM Styling to create a styling staff for Opel. Herb was a sensitive person and very German with elegant good taste. He embodied everything necessary to design cars that truly required German character and harmony. The Bitter CD was done in his studio under his responsibility.
Hideo Kodama was a designer from Japan, the first hired by a European car company. Hideo exerted a very creative, artistic, and harmonic influence at Opel Design through his beautiful sketches and his personal presence. He also was a very large design contributor throughout the years, ascending to a position beyond Studio Chief. He fathered the Opel Corsa and all of it’s variations for many years. Hideo became a design super star in Japan through his work at Opel and magazine articles about design and illustration.
George Gallion was an American designer from Georgia. He had been assigned to Opel Design as Assistant to the Director in the late ’60s for Chuck Jordan, and stayed for the rest of his career contributing very much to the success of Opel for many years. A bright and very creative person, he was the heart of Opel Design for many years and made many significant contributions to Opel’s success. Before going to Opel Design, his creativity was well known. Working for Dave Holls, he participated in the design of the 1966 Buick Riviera and the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, two GM Design icons.
It was my pleasure and great good fortune to work with these great designers, all were great car enthusiasts, very skillful and highly motivated, most importantly they were all very nice people. They also became my friends.
Who was Erik Bitter?
Eric Bitter was a German engineer who had started his career as a bike racer and then a very successful race driver. At one time he had worked with Ferdinand Piesche, later to become chairman at VW. Eric started an aftermarket auto accessory company after retiring from racing as a driver and this led to other opportunities. He quickly decided he wanted to build cars.
He approached Opel through Bob Lutz with the idea to build a special coupe off of the Opel Diplomat sedan which was powered by a 327ci Chevrolet small block V8 engine. During early testing for the Diplomat, Opel had to fit these engines with special marine heads to allow more coolant flow as sustained high speeds on the Autobahn caused overheating. Bitters proposal resulted in the Opel Bitter CD; Herb Kilmer later told me that the name CD was a reference to “low aerodynamic drag,” although the Coupe-Diplomat name is also a logical German interpretation. Bitter, through his enthusiasm and vision, went on to develop a number of special cars throughout the years. The Bitter CD of which 395 were built exists because of Erik’s enthusiasm, dedication and hard work. He is very much admired by all who know him.
Many thanks to Dick Ruzzin for permission to publish these accounts.