“It was the beginning of a new era”

Mr. Kodama, you experienced the beginnings of the Opel design in the 1960s. What brought you to Germany in 1966?
Hidemo Kodama: I wanted to become a designer. Even as a boy, I drew and painted, mostly cars. This is what I went on to study in Japan, at the Tama Fine Arts University in Tokyo. But in those days car design was not very sophisticated in my homeland. So after graduation, I wanted to go to Italy or America, and because GM was the design mecca of the car world in those days, I sent off a few sketches and an application to Detroit.

…but you went to Rüsselsheim right away.
Yes, Clare MacKichan wanted to establish a separate, large design department at Opel, and being Japanese and supposedly a small-car specialist, I was in demand. And so they sent me straight to Rüsselsheim. That was fine with me, since I had seen photos of the new Design Center. It was bright, airy and modern, built just like the GM Studio in Warren. Opel had always been a popular brand in Japan.

At first you didn’t design small cars…
I first worked on the Manta in Erhard Schnell’s studio. Erhard also developed the first generation of the Corsa, and shortly afterwards I was put in charge of the Corsa Spider concept car. Then I worked on the second and third Corsa generations. And from the Corsa, we later derived the Tigra. Between the first two Corsa generations there was a huge shift in design.

Why did your Corsa look so different from Erhard Schnell’s?
Well, the first generation was supposed to look powerful and dynamic. By the time of the second generation, we had focused on women as the target group. So rounder, less masculine forms were needed. In the early 1990s, there was this trend towards soft and round forms, which also recalled the Opel Junior concept car of the 1983 IAA. At the time, we had already given a preview of future design, with large window surfaces and slender roof pillars.

Now back again to the beginnings of the new design work at Opel in Rüsselsheim. Was there a feeling of making a new start within this department, which was gigantic for those days and only responsible for making sure the cars looked good?
Our job was not just to make sure the cars looked good. We were always on the lookout for tomorrow’s trends and customer needs and preferences. We were supposed to shape the future of Opel. And, yes, it was the beginning of a new era. Everyone was proud to work in such an organization. At the same time, you could always sense the competition. For a new car, several proposals were usually made, and the tension was always tremendous when it came to a decision between two designs.

Can you give us an example of this decision process?
The competition between the two proposed successors to the Rekord C was quite intense. At the time, the more powerful Commodore looked very similar to the Rekord. The difference between these two models was supposed to become more pronounced in the new car. Alex Cunningham developed a concept for the Commodore that made it look much bigger, with a different front grille and different headlights and taillights. That was a totally different car, and therefore too expensive.

How did that other sporty classic, the Manta, emerge at Opel?
The Manta was our answer to the Ford Capri. It was originally planned as the Kadett Coupé or Ascona Coupé and was also to be used in motorsports. The emblem of a Manta was also to be specially designed. So George Gallion, deputy chief of the studio, went to Paris to visit the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau. He told George a great deal about the manta ray.

Unlike most cars before, the Manta managed to become a movie star, even if there was a somewhat mocking undertone. Did that bother you?
Not at all. The foxtail on the antenna was in fact obligatory for many owners in those days. And the Manta was successful not only in the movies, but also on the racetrack. Just like the Ascona: unfortunately, it’s often forgotten that Walter Röhrl became rally world champion not in a car from the Bavarian brand with the rings, but in an Opel.

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Hideo Kodama, born in 1944, looks like a man in his mid-fifties. After all, the Japanese do live healthy lives, and don’t really seem to age. Kodama made history – as a designer at Opel, he was also responsible for the second and third generations of the Corsa, which had sales in the millions.

He designed the smart two-seat Tigra and helped tailor the look of the legendary Opel Manta. Although now retired, he hasn’t slowed down at all. At home in Mainz, he’s still drawing and sketching in his studio, spurred on by his interest in design and shapes. He likes the city and when he retired, he didn’t hesitate to stayin Germany instead of returning to his homeland.

“I go to Japan three to four times a year to visit friends and relatives,” he says. If there comes a time when he’s no longer able to fly there – well, he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.