The Ace in the Hand
of the World Champion

Walter Röhrl really builds up momentum by the time he gets to the “craziness of the West African bush” when he talks about his former Opel head mechanic. October 1982: the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire is the second to last world championship race, and it’s still rather early in the race. Röhrl (Ascona 400) and his opponent Michèle Mouton (Audi Quattro) have begun a fierce duel for victory on the track and in the standings. “Then I broke my rear axle in the middle of the wilderness,” reports Röhrl.

A disaster beyond expectations. Reporters mob him from the media train and ask how it feels to have just lost the World Championship title. “I remember I tried to seem cool on the outside, but I was actually a total wreck.” Röhrl’s only hope was “that Herbert would come soon and straighten out the matter.”

His prayers were answered when Herbert himself appeared, and the rest is history: Under the most adverse conditions, the service team of Herbert Fabian was successful in fitting the Ascona 400 with a new rear axle. Röhrl and co-driver Christian Geistdörfer still won the race, and then the world championship, for Opel.


1971, Herbert Fabian, Opel head mechanic for motorsports.



1973, Opel driver Walter Röhrl.


“Herbert was No. 1. Nothing, not even the trickiest of technical breakdowns, could ruffle him,” said Röhrl. “He was the problem solver everyone else relied on. And that’s exactly what you need if you want to compete among the best.”

Herbert Fabian (81) brushes off this compliment with a wave of the hand. “Back then Walter was at the height of his driving skills, and I just did my job as usual.” Quite an understatement for someone who, up until his retirement in 1992, kept motor sports running at Opel for a quarter of a century.

71026_Rallye Weltmeisterschaft 1982 Die Bandama an der Elfenbeinküste bringt die Entscheidung und Opel die Weltmeisterschaft 1982. Walter Röhrl und Christian Geistdörfer auf Opel Ascona B

1982, the Rally World Championship is decided on the Ivory Coast: Walter Röhrl and his co-driver Christian Geistdörfer in the Ascona B are heading out fast after Herbert Fabian’s repair work.


Videocast @KT_Neumann #36

↑  Opel CEO Dr. Karl-Thomas Neumann meets a real Opel motorsports legend: Walter Röhrl, the Rallye World Champion from 1982. Find out, why the Opel GT won over Walter Röhrls heart and get some insights on the Ascona A, the undefeatable car that Walter Röhrl won the European Rallye Championship with in 1974.


Fabian joined the company in 1963, first as a test driver and then as a mechanic. Shortly afterward he fully immersed himself in the world of Opel racecars. In 1967 he looked after the driving duo of Hans Beck and Herbert Heuser, who started in a Kadett B 1.1 at the Rally dei Fiori. Fabian’s responsibility: fueling up, changing tires, and rapid diagnoses and repairs when something jammed or crashed.

Time off was frequently restricted to little naps on the side of the road or in the paddock. That’s because Fabian worked well into the night, servicing the engine and changing the shock absorbers, cables, and hoses, “and then I played cleaning lady until the car shone.”

70907_ Rallye dei Fiori, Italien, 1967 siegen Hans Beck & Herbert Heuser, beide Mitarbeiter der Opel-Versuchsabteilung auf Opel Kadett B Coupe in ihrer Klasse vor Dieter Lambart & Vogt

1967, Rally dei Fiori, Italy: Hans Beck and Herbert Heuser (left to right), both employees of the Opel test department, triumph in a Kadett B Coupé.


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Early 1970s, Rüsselsheim: Mechanics and designers from Opel’s vehicle and engine development assemble around two liter transverse engines. Herbert Fabian is on the left.

70942_Rallye Saison 1974 Bei der Rallye d`Ypres macht die Vorderachse Probleme. Einer der wenigen Defekte, die sich der Ascona A in diesem Jahr leistet 2

1974, Rallye d’Ypres, Belgium: The front axle causes problems. One of the few defects the Ascona A suffers this year. The service team working with Herbert Fabian (in foreground with tire) is on the scene.



Unfall bei der Akrolpolis 1975

1975, Acropolis Rally, Greece: That was close – what Fabian’s car looked like after the accident.


And so it went from then on. Herbert Fabian spent half of the year on tour with Opel, for years upon years. He enjoyed the circus and its adventures. Like at the Rallye Tour d’Europe, a total of 15,000 kilometers in twelve days, over the Balkans, Kuwait, North Africa, Western Europe, and finally to Travemünde, the destination. Danger was part of everyday life – like at the Acropolis Rally in the mid-1970s, when Fabian’s service car collided with a cement truck. He threw himself from the driver to the passenger side at the last second, saving his life.

Opel Classic_149_

Even the jack has to be fixed: Fabian, sporting Chucks and a tracksuit, tending to his equipment during a rally.


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Early nineteen seventies, Opel motor sports veterans: Herbert Fabian (right), Jochen Berger (middle), and Friedel Meuer.




Opel motor sport workers even fine-tuned their comic skills under Fabian. During inspection of some rally cabling he blew the smoke from his cigarette, unnoticed, into an air nozzle in the dashboard. “No electrician has ever shot out of an Opel that fast to disconnect the battery, before or since.”

All of this was possible because Herbert Fabian’s family is proud of him and lets him do what he wants. “We’re all Opel workers, at heart and in everyday life,” he says. His father, Wilhelm, even worked in Rüsselsheim back in 1924. Currently, his son Thomas (powertrain) and grandson Lars (automotive mechatronics engineer) are also part of the company.

203964_Motorsport Rallye 70er JahrenOpel Admiral mit Heck eines D-Rekord Caravan, 1974nv.l.n.r. Bernhard Zech & Herbert Fabian

1974, Bernhard Zech and Herbert Fabian (left to right) working on their service car, an Admiral with the rear of a Rekord D caravan.



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The Opel team working for rally driver Jeanne-Pierre Nicolas (middle), Herbert Fabian standing on the right. The photo with handwritten names comes from the private archive of Opel Classic colleague Jens Cooper.


After the victory at the 1974 European Rally Championship. The Opel team with Walter Röhrl, Jochen Berger (second from right), and Herbert Fabian (third from right) standing next to the Ascona A.


258477_Zum zweiten mal gewinnen Walter Röhrl und Christian Geistdörfer auf Opel Ascona B 400 Rothmans die Rallye Monte Carlo und werden auch Weltmeister. (1982)

1982, Monte Carlo: Walter Röhrl and Christian Geistdörfer win the Monte Carlo Rally for the second time in a Rothmans Ascona B 400, and also become world champions.



Fabian considers his “most exciting and most successful phase” to be his collaboration with Walter Röhrl. The Southern Hessian began supporting the Upper Palatinate in his journey to the world champion title on the Ascona A in 1974. “The years leading up to seizing the world championship in 1982 were intense,” says Fabian. “Hard work, losses, doubt, but likewise many conversations, mutual trust, and fun, everything that binds people together.” The two are still friends today. When Röhrl recently acquired a GT restored by Fabian, they relocated the event to the Opel Classic shop.

There, the past rally master says, “Opel is once again capable of building competitive vehicles, for the road and off-road. And with employees who exemplify the spirit of the brand, the glory days will return.” This time, his head mechanic doesn’t brush off the praise. Herbert Fabian smiles and nods.

Last update June 2016


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Text: Andreas Wollny, Photos: Florian Heurich, Opel archives