The owner: Kevin Rowland
The classic: Opel Manta
‘Each time I go out in it, I still get the same feeling that I did when I first drove it home. People are looking at it more now that it’s nice and shiny. It was quite a journey trying to get here, but now that I’m here, it’s been well worth it.’
Kevin’s Opel Manta has been with him for 34 years, even before he and his partner Jan had their three children. ‘It happened by chance,’ Kevin recalls. ‘My van broke down one day and while I was at the garage a red Opel Manta pulled up. I thought it was someone bringing their car in for a service, but it turned out that it was being exchanged. Bob, the mechanic, told me that I could take it for a spin and drop the keys back through the letterbox when I was done, just to get a feel for it. It was March 1988, so it was quite dark as I drove it home. I remember driving it and thinking ‘this goes well!’
‘When it was time to take back to the garage, I didn’t want to let the keys go through the letterbox. I wanted the car so much that I just couldn’t let go of them; I kept thinking ‘if I let these keys go and somebody buys the Opel before me, I’ve lost it’. I eventually dropped them, and at 8 o’clock the next morning I was straight on the phone to Bob to let him know I’d have it.’
From then on, the Opel Manta became a treasured family car. ‘In 1989, I went to pick up my daughter for the first time from the hospital. She was my firstborn,’ Kevin says.
‘On Christmas day one year later, my son James was born, so I went to the hospital and picked him up in the Opel Manta, too. And finally, I picked up my youngest son Ben, who was born in 1993. From then on, there was me, Jan and our three kids in the Opel; it became a proper family car.’
The Opel certainly served Kevin’s family well in the early years, taking them to regular holidays in Cornwall and trips to visit family. ‘We had a caravan too, which we used to tow on the back,’ Kevin recalls. ‘Believe it or not, we’ve still got that! I’m a strong believer in the saying ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ It’s the same for the Opel, why keep chopping and changing cars? That was my car, and I still love it as much as the day I bought it.’
There was a moment of uncertainty in the family car for Kevin’s family during a trip to Longleat, however. ‘It was only around 8 miles away from home, and we had the caravan on the back,’ he explains. ‘Perhaps she didn’t want to be behind the caravan, but the young woman driving behind us tried to overtake us on a bend. As she rounded the corner, however, she crashed into a queue of stationary vehicles. It was awful, and a lot of people were injured, including children. Thankfully, we weren’t involved, but it did shake us, especially as Jan couldn’t get out of the car. The Opel is just a three-door,’ Kevin explains, ‘and there was a baby seat in the front, so Jan couldn’t get out of the back without help. It made us think that we needed to get a different vehicle, just to be on the safe side.’
After the crash, Kevin decided to purchase a new set of wheels, this time a 5-door Rover. ‘It was a nice car with a nice Honda V6 engine in, which suited me down to the ground,’ he says. ‘The most important thing was that there was plenty of room in the back and the front for the kids and Jan. I did try selling the Opel, but when I told Jan how much I could sell it for, she said ‘if that’s what you can get for it, you’d do just as well to keep it.’ I thought ‘well, that’s not a bad idea!’
The Opel was kept in the garage on and off for about 18 years and was relocated to Kevin’s neighbour’s garage once he needed more space. ‘It was around 2010 when I brought it out of hiding,’ Kevin says. ‘I took it to my local garage and they got it back on the road; they checked the brakes, put new brake pipes on and did an MOT. Since then, I’ve taken it to a few car shows, like the Heddington and Stockley Steam Rally, the Southwick Village car show and the White Horse Classic & Vintage Vehicle Show.
‘Time went on and that was all I used to do it with it. Three years ago, however, my son Ben got married,’ Kevin recalls. ‘I drove down to Wincanton to pick up my other son James, but as we were travelling along the A303, the Opel started misfiring. We pulled over just before we came off the slip road and tried to push it off, but the traffic was too dangerous. We jumped in again and just prayed that it would start. Somehow, it did, so we drove it about a mile up the road to Ben’s house. When I got there, I lifted the bonnet and started checking the plugs. It turned out that the gap in the third plug had closed, so I changed it out for another one and it didn’t seem to have a problem.’
After taking his Opel to a garage, Kevin decided the best course of action was for them to rebuild the top of the engine. ‘It took about 4 weeks,’ he tells us. ‘I had to send the head off to be skinned, put a new head gasket on and rebrand the valve. But when it went back for an MOT, the engine was failed on a misfire again.’
With his car not working properly, Kevin decided to bite the bullet and finally do an entire rebuild – something which had been on his mind for a while. ‘I’d been saving for years to do it,’ he says, ‘but with children, it’s hard to find the time and money for something like that. I got to the point where I thought ‘no, this time I’m going to do it.’ The engine was sent off to Briken Motors in Trowbridge for a rebuild, and the car was then delivered to Reef Paint Shop in Southwick.’ In all, Kevin’s Opel was soda blasted, resprayed, the chassis welded and a new closed roof to replace the sunroof. ‘I just wanted to do whatever had to be done,’ Kevin says. ‘There have been so many great memories in it with my family that I had to get it back on its legs.’
Unfortunately, the effect of multiple lockdowns meant the Opel was finished far later than Kevin expected. ‘The delays sort of dimmed my excitement about the car being finished,’ Kevin tells us. ‘I hadn’t really been excited about it until I visited my son Ben in Wiltshire. He asked me whether he could drive it down the road and I said he could. He took it up the road and I walked down to the bottom of his driveway. He drove past me and that was the first time I really smiled and got excited, seeing it being driven up the road, coming towards me and going away from me. I was seeing it from a completely different angle other than getting in it and driving it. It blew me away. I realised at that point that I’ve got something on the road that not many people have.
The restoration of Kevin’s Opel is also tied in with another family member: his uncle. ‘My father passed away over 20 years ago,’ Kevin says. ‘We found out in 2016 that his estranged brother – who none of us knew about – had sadly died. I never got to meet him, but his money was left to me and my brother and I used it on the restoration. It was was my way of making this uncle a part of our family, even though I never got the chance to meet him. I want people to know that whatever I got from him, I haven’t wasted it. Instead, it’s been put into something special. He would’ve been a member of the family and he’ll still be a member of the family because the money has gone to this car.’
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