HOME-GROWN HERO | We drive a 1992 Opel Kadett Superboss

14 October 2020 - 16:06
The Opel Superboss. Still attracting attention after all of these years.
The Opel Superboss. Still attracting attention after all of these years.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

What you're looking at here is a proper South African legend: a rare homologation special built specifically to take on the mighty and all-conquering BMW 325is that dominated the country's popular production car racing series back in the late 1980s.

As such, only 500 examples of the Opel Kadett GSI 16v “Superboss” were ever produced by the then Delta Motor Corporation, and this particular example, licked in a rare shade of “Imola Red” paint and lovingly restored by local Opel aficionado Werner Meyer, belongs to the team over at SentiMETAL - the classic car appreciation wing of cars.co.za

A full nut and bolt restoration that took an inordinate amount of patience, money and man hours to get right, you would rightly expect SentiMETAL to keep this car under lock and key: hidden under a silken sheet and driven only once in a blue moon. On the contrary, they actually take it out as often as they can. They also let motoring hacks such as myself behind the wheel so that we can a) live out our nostalgic fantasies and b) tell all you good readers out there what it's really like to pilot a steely piece of home-grown SA history. 

The modified C20XE engine delivers 125kW and 228Nm worth of torque.
The modified C20XE engine delivers 125kW and 228Nm worth of torque.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

What's under the hood then - something old and underwhelming?

Not at all. Pop the bonnet and your eyes will be met by the striking red and silver tappet cover of a C20XE engine. In the lesser and more common “Big Boss” models this gutsy 2.0-litre DOHC 16v motor muscled out a fairly respectable (for the time) 115kW.

However in let's-go-racing “Superboss” specification this venerable four-cylinder lump was treated to a host of performance tweaks to help extract an extra wodge of power.

Aggressive 276-degree Schrick camshafts, forged pistons, a raised compression ratio (10.5:1) and Promotec ECU chip are some of the modifications you won't easily be able to spot. Items more visible to the casual observer include a four-into-one freeflow exhaust system and a factory-fitted K&N air filter that now feeds a slightly larger intake. 

Topped off with a Cosworth-designed cylinder head, the “Superboss” swaggered onto the hot hatchback scene with a very respectable 125kW. Perhaps even more impressive was that torque swelled to 228Nm - just 39Nm less than what you got in a 1983 Porsche 911 SC with a 3.0-litre flat-six. Here's another interesting fact: the “Superboss” actually held the world record for the most torque per litre (114Nm/litre) in a naturally aspirated engine right up until the Ferrari 458 launched in 2009 with 117Nm/litre. Crazy.

Even in 2020 the Superboss feels impressively quick for its age.
Even in 2020 the Superboss feels impressively quick for its age.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

I see. So it must be pretty quick then, right?

Even in 2020 the “Superboss” feels surprisingly sprightly. About town and at low revs the race-tuned engine can feel a little lumpy - especially when it's cold. But once it's warmed up and you start making the most of that smooth, albeit long-throw, five-speed manual gearbox, you'll discover that the C20XE ferrets this 971kg hatch along at a rate of knots.

For some context I'd say it feels as brisk in a straight line as the old Renault Clio RS 197 did. Similarly it also thrives on high revs and you really need to tickle that 7,000rpm redline to extract maximum performance. While this act might seem foreign and somewhat counter intuitive in a world chock full of turbocharged hot-hatches, here it becomes an intrinsic part of the “Superboss” driving experience and, man, is it ever fun. It's loud too, with that bespoke exhaust system blasting out a hard-edged metallic snarl that has motorists and pedestrians rubbernecking in unison as I rocket past in a metallic burgundy blur. 

Though no slouch in the robot-to-robot dash, this Opel feels most impressive across the high-speed sweepers that litter the Magaliesberg. Free from the syrupy constraints of city traffic and now able carry all of those revs through all of the gears, forward momentum is impressive and the 200km/h mark is easily attainable. Let's make no bones about it - this Kadett is a deceptively quick car that, with the right driver and driven in the correct manner, still has the potential to catch considerably more modern machinery unawares. 

Braking performance is similarly top drawer for a car from the early '90s with ventilated disc brakes making a welcome appearance on all four corners. Shod with performance-orientated pads, this system has no issues with slowing the Kadett down from high speeds - even after numerous hard stops. Also unique to the “Superboss” are special front brake ducts that take the place of the fog lights standard on its more plush “Big Boss” sibling. 

My dad said these things didn't handle very well. Is that true?

Objectively speaking the “Superboss” isn't all that great if I'm honest. And the problem lies with its steering, that has to be the heaviest system I have ever sampled in a mainstream production car. I'm not joking, it feels like you're behind the wheel of some old American barge from the 1950s. It's slow too react too, which means that you have to amplify your usual steering inputs twofold to get the same desired effect as you would in one of its rivals, say, a Golf II GTI. It's also completely void of feel, which is odd for a car of this vintage, and has a noticeable amount of play in and around the 12 o'clock position. As such I at first hurtled into corners with an immense sense of trepidation because I never really felt confident in what the front end was doing and how much grip I had in reserve.

Fortunately, after a few hours at the helm you learn that this Opel actually sticks to the asphalt with relative vivacity. Adhesion comes courtesy a set of lightweight and wide-for-the-time 15x7 five-spoke Aluett wheels clad with modern 195/50 Continental ContiPremium Contact tyres. While excessive body roll is quelled by firmer and lower Irmscher springs, the real ace up this Kadett's dynamic sleeve is its mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD). A big deal back in the day, this bespoke unit increases both traction and control - especially through tighter bends and under aggressive throttle inputs. 

It's a feature that you really need to use to your advantage. When in doubt, just floor the accelerator pedal and let its aggressive 80% lock help drag you through the corner. Still, even when you master this technique the “Superboss” isn't a particularly satisfying companion through the curvy bits. I once owned a Volkswagen Golf 2 GTI 16v and I've got to say that it's a much more dynamically adept car. Not as fast but way more nimble. 

Tell me about the cabin. What is it like in there?

OK, so the first thing that really struck me about driving the “Superboss” is how good the seating position is. Even with my lanky 1.88m frame I was able to get comfortable behind that small leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel. The pedals are perfectly positioned for fast heel-and-toe work while the sports seats, covered in a mix of leather and striking black and white fabric, offer a fine blend of comfort and lateral support. The gear lever fits easily to hand and all the most important instruments are immediately  visible - even at speed. From an ergonomic point of view Opel really got things right here.

Unfortunately they kind of dropped the ball a bit on build quality. From the choice of brittle plastics to the cheap and finnicky feeling switchgear, this Opel lags behind its VW rival in terms of fit and finish. Though, having said this, everything still worked and the dashboard was impressively free from cracks normally brought about by the harsh SA sun.

Overall refinement is also on the rough side. To be fair though, this mainly stems from Delta Motor Corporation ripping out a large chunk of the car's standard sound deadening material in the pursuit of lightness. You feel and hear a lot of road noise. In a further attempt to cheat gravity the “Superboss” hit the road without air conditioning, power steering, electric windows or a radio. Yep, it's a proper hard-core lightweight. 

15x7 five-spoke Aluett wheels are shod with modern 195/50 Continental ContiPremium Contact tyres.
15x7 five-spoke Aluett wheels are shod with modern 195/50 Continental ContiPremium Contact tyres.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Say I wanted one - are they easy to find?

Not quite. Going on estimates, less than 100 of these special Opel Kadetts are still on the road. You should also we wary of fakes - standard GSI models dressed up to look like the real deal. This is why if you're thinking of buying one you should employ the services of Werner Meyer, or at the very least the Opel Owners Club of SA (find them on Facebook).

Also, if you do find one, make sure that all the special bits such as the LSD, Cosworth head and Schrick cams are present and accounted for - often they've been picked out and sold. In terms of pricing you're looking at anything from R300,000 to R500,000, depending on mileage and condition. Prices are apparently on the rise so strike sooner rather than later. 

Finally, you mentioned that this Opel was built to beat BMW on the track. Did it?

It sure did. With Mike Briggs behind the wheel, the “Superboss” won the Group N production car championship no less than three times in a row (1990 to 1992). Push play on the video above to see it in action around the old Kyalami circuit.