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Bitter CD Restoration: The Revival of a Stylish and Rare Coupe

“After some negotiation, I purchased this very rough CD and shipped it back to New Jersey. I was now the proud owner of CD #305 of 395 produced.  Little did I realize what was ahead of me.  I spent the next five years sourcing original parts and selecting a reputable shop that I believed would bring the CD back to its original condition.” —Jay Harman

The best aspect of the collector car hobby has nothing to do with cars at all—its the colorful, engaging, and passionate people you meet through car shows, auctions, and gatherings. Often buying or selling a classic car can generate a life-long friend. A few years ago, I met Jay Harman though some fellow collectors. It somehow became immediately evident that we would be friends. Often the case when meeting new faces in the car world, shared interests outside of cars quickly reveal themselves. Jay and I both share a passion for German vehicles, and our discussion promptly led to topics like business, investing, entrepreneurship, Marvin windows, and finally, Puch mopeds. Jay is a leading expert and dealer of high-end windows and doors and successfully operates Harman Fensterbau out of Asbury Park, New Jersey. Jay is also an expert in Puch Mopeds, having worked at a dealership at a young age. Many years after we met, Jay helped me restore my 1979 Puch Maxi. He also arranged for the most amazing bi-fold door that was installed at Turtle Garage:

The Harman-installed bi-fold window at Turtle Garage

After installation: Jay’s suggestion of this door was a game changer for the Turtle Garage upstairs Atelier—the door opened the upstairs to the meadows of Coker Farm.

The post that follows is a quintessential example of collector car passion. The choice to save a meaningful car transcends all logic or financial rationale. It is the hunt to find the subject car and then the process of scouring the globe for esoteric parts that drive people to pursue restoration projects. Finding the right people to help and executing the restoration is a labor of love—and at times, pain.

Jay’s early interest in Opel evolved from childhood memories of his family’s own Opel GT—which he still owns to this day. Jay’s interest in German GM cars boiled over when his eyes first met the Opel-based Bitter CD that graced the pages of the August 1975 issue of Road & Track magazine. Jay dreamed of owning a CD for years until finally acquiring one of his own in 2011. The rest is history—the ensuing restoration, awards, and his burgeoning friendship with Erich Bitter himself is chronicled in detail in the post below.

A special thank you to Jay for sharing his story with TG readers. The post that follows consumed hours of his time and is the product of years of research, passion, and a long, complex restoration of a rare and special Bitter CD.

A Bitter find yields sweet returns

by Jay Harman

Photo courtesy of Dean Laumbach

This is a story about the saving of an unloved Bitter CD.  What is a Bitter CD you ask? Bitter cars are relatively unknown to most here in the States. But in der Vaterland, Bitter is a respected niche brand within automotive circles. Bitter was the creation of former German race car driver, Erich Bitter.  Erich Bitter wanted to create a unique car for the most discriminate clientele who wanted something distinctively different than the mainstream luxury/performance offerings of the time. Herr Bitter would marry proven GM engineering, mechanics and surround it with hand-built Italian inspired coachwork and sumptuously appointed interiors, a hybrid of the 1970’s.

Erich Bitter; racer, businessman, builder

Erich Bitter successfully raced Porsche 906’s, Ferraris, Mercedes 300 SL’s and Abarths.  Erich also had a successful race apparel business specializing in fire-proof safety wear for the automotive sport.  He was also the German importer for Intermeccanica.  In 1968, Opel was ready to introduce their first race car since WWII.  This was apparently kept secret from GM Headquarters in Detroit. It was the work of Anatole “Tony” Lapine (later fame at Porsche) who arranged in the fall of 1968 to debut an Opel racecar at Hockenheim.   An unknown representative for Opel called Erich Bitter to race a “mystery” car and after some negotiation, Erich agreed and was commissioned as an independent driver for an upcoming race at Hockenheim.

Video link to reconstructed Opel Black Widow:

The Schwarze Witwe-Porsche killer 1968

Erich Bitter Tony Lapine 1968

I had the pleasure of first meeting Erich Bitter at the 2016 Bitter Annual Treffen. Erich recalled the story to me, that in the late 1960’s he was greeted at the track by a tall distinguished man in a white lab coat with a name tag  “Herr Schmidt” (Mr. Smith) who was rumored to be Bob Lutz. An unmarked trailer rolled out a non-descript black Opel Rekord, originally nicknamed “The Taxi”.  After several shakedown runs and some fine tuning on a Thursday, Erich and the Rekord Taxi were prepared for the upcoming weekend race. The “Taxi” set a record at Hockenheim for its class and beat Porsche’s team. After achieving success at Hockenheim and Zolder, the Rekord was renamed “Schwarze Witwe” or Black Widow. During the season, young Nicki Lauda also raced Opel’s with Bitter.  This win for Opel and shot to Porsche’s pride initiated a raid of Opel’s Russelsheim design and engineering talent pool including Tony Lapine, who finished out a successful career at Porsche.

Opel Concept; CD

In early 1969, Opel had also just released the GT which was pivotal in improving Opel’s stodgy image.

Opel Promotional 1968

Opel CD 1969

Opel CD 1969

Later in 1969, Opel debuted a stunning Coupe Diplomat or CD concept car at the Frankfurt IAA based on their flagship Diplomat platform.  The CD was a true showstopper, and Opel was on a roll.  Then Directorof GM European Sales, Bob Lutz and Dave Holls, Director of GM Design forged ahead with the development of the CD. Holls assigned the project development to in-house Opel designers, George Gallion and Hideo Kodama, who are largely credited for bringing the concept to reality utilizing Opel’s existing platform and technology. Dick Ruzzin, retired GM designer while on assignment at Opel deign said they relied on styling clues from the Maserati Ghibli and Mangusta as well as input from Erich Bitter. Later Dick Ruzzin acquired and currently owns a CD and the only GM powered DeTomaso Mangusta, which was built for Bill Mitchell. By 1971 the CD was nearly ready for production but GM decided that the market was too limited, and the CD would be too expensive wearing the Opel badge.

Erich Bitter, frustrated with Intermeccanica, expressed interest to Opel about taking the CD to market.  With most of the heavy lifting completed by Opel, Erich leveraged his relationship with Opel and formed his own company in his hometown of Schwelm, Germany. He was at one point unsure of naming the company after his namesake but was convinced by Porsche family members to be proud of his given name and his earned reputation.

He commissioned Baur of Stuttgart to hand produce the CD with expectations of selling 250 CD’s per year.  In 1973, the production ready Bitter CD debuted at the IAA Frankfurt, which Erich Bitter took 176 orders for his first car.  Shortly thereafter, the worldwide Oil Crisis hit, and several orders were canceled.  Despite rising fuel costs, Erich Bitter did market and sell 395 CD’s from 1973-1978 in Europe only. The exclusive CD was priced and aimed toward the ultra-wealthy at 54,000 DM or roughly $25,000. The CD was powered by a 230 HP GM327, 3 speed automatic, 2+2 leather wrapped interior and was capable of 130 MPH which appealed to a sophisticated customer who desired a luxury GT.  The car was very well received by the press for its build quality, style, performance, and reliability.

Author’s initial interest

At a very young age, I was always interested in cars, mostly German marques.  Growing up in northeast Ohio, seeing a German car was a rarity.  In 1972 I was nine years old and went car shopping with my dad.  My father needed to replace his failing 1969 Opel Kadett LS. I remember visiting the local Chrysler dealer where he was interested in a Plymouth Gold Duster, I pleaded with my dad to go to the Opel dealership to check out the swoopy GT.  My dad was looking for a sensible car for the growing family, and the roomier Duster seemed to make sense over the pricier and much smaller Opel GT. That summer after losing in the final little league game I was putting away my baseball gear when I was shocked what was pulling up in our private drive; a brand-new Opel GT in Rallye Gold.  Confused at first until I saw my mother driving and my little brother riding shotgun.  My disappointment in losing the baseball game was quickly forgotten.

That night my dad took me out to the Dairy Queen, and we took the GT to one of the lumberyards he managed and I learned how to properly wax a car. The next year we moved to the Jersey Shore and my dad got a company provided car, and the GT sat for seven years. He tried to sell it but the ‘70’s were tough times—my dad sacrificed and ended up saving the car until I was legally able to drive. The GT served me well through my reckless high school and college years as a fun and reliable car.  In 1996, I had Lee’s Garage in West Long Branch, New Jersey restore the GT to better than new condition. I am proud to say that I still own the family GT and it continues to be a head-turner.

Author Jay Harman 1985 Blue Ridge Parkway, Roanoke, VA

In the summer of 1975, I received the August issue of Road & Track.  The top front cover read “Opel Bitter CD-First of new $25,000 GT”. The article was very favorable about this new exclusive GT for the European market.  Talk about a halo car when Opel/GM’s US offering were $3,500 economy cars.  I imagined having one for a while, but at the age of twelve one could only dream. Full Road & Track review at the bottom of the post. 

 

A rare find, one of five known in North America

In 2011, a Bitter CD was nearly erased from my memory until I noticed a CD mentioned on Bring-a-Trailer and was listed in Hemmings. I was very curious and within a few days I called the seller.  The neglected car what been parked in Los Angeles since 1985.  I had a wedding to attend in Los Angeles and made arrangements to view this rare car. Once I arrived at the seller’s hideaway in the hills of LA, I approached the CD—it was nothing like what the Road & Track article described nearly 35 years earlier.  The paint was severely sun damaged and the leather was also completely shot.  The retired seller was relocating to Asia and was motivated to sell the unloved CD. Pre-restoration photographs:

After some negotiation, I purchased this very rough CD and shipped it back to New Jersey. I was now the proud owner of CD #305 of 395 produced.  Little did I realize what was ahead of me.  I spent the next five years sourcing original parts and selecting a reputable shop that I believed would bring the CD back to its original condition. I ended up choosing Lee’s Garage, the same family owned business who restored my GT twenty years prior.  I trusted them in restoring this very rare and unique car.  My goal was to bring the CD back to original specifications and to Concours level. This became a very challenging task since I had never been involved in restoring a car to such high and exacting levels. I found myself spending hours researching and sourcing parts worldwide.

Once the car was stripped down, forty years of shortcuts were revealed.  My mission was to source original parts and to figure out the right solutions to save the CD, but I quickly realized this was not going to be an easy project for anyone. It began to feel like a puzzle. However, each week felt more rewarding throughout the process. Over the next couple of years, the team at Lee’s performed meticulous repairs and realignment of body panels. The CD was given a stunning paint job matching the original Dr. Kurt Herberts formula called Dunkelgrün metallic.

Most of the parts and technical support were sourced through the Bitter Club International, TW Opel and Bitter Parts-USA.  A few notable suppliers deserve credit for their contribution; The original walnut dash was refurbished by Madeira Concepts, all the VDO gauges were refaced and recalibrated by North Hollywood Speedometer.  The eight hides of German leather were supplied by East Coast Leather, and the interior was retrimmed and fitted by Asbury Auto Tops.  Bilstein USA refurbished the original gas filled shocks, original Michelin XWX 215/70VR14 sourced through Coker, and countless other components through eBay. I was also able to find a period correct Blaupunkt Heidelberg Euro band cassette player from Chrome London and period correct Coco Mats from Cocomats.com for a finishing touch.

Bitter CD 305 debut

Photo courtesy of Dean Laumbach

Photo courtesy of Dean Laumbach

The restoration was completed in May 2018.  With the advice and help from Dean Laumbach of Tinton Falls, NJ the CD was ready to debut at the 2018 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance. CD 305 held its own amongst dozens of world class automobiles.  At the end of the day the judges awarded the CD “The Founder’s Award” as the founder of the show and late Bruce Wennerstrom was a Bitter enthusiast owning two later model Bitter SC’s.

Link to 2018 Greenwich-Bitter CD video by Dean Laumbach:

2018 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance; Turtle Garage’s Philip Richter and Leif Wennerstrom

2018 author with Greenwich Founder’s Award

2018 author Jay Harman and family photo at Greenwich

Later, in the season, the CD was invited to participate in the Radnor Hunt and Concours d’Elegance. A very rainy event, but the CD shined as it earned “People’s Choice” and “Artist’s Award”.  Again, I was very humbled and yet very proud that this obscure car had gained some recognition amongst so many high caliber and significant marques.

2018 Radnor Hunt and Concours d’Elegance

2018 Radnor with SCM publisher Keith Martin

For me sourcing parts and finding solutions was very rewarding but most of the enjoyment originated from the amount of genuine support from the Bitter and automotive community.  I have had the privilege of meeting some wonderful people through the Bitter International Club as well as getting to know Erich Bitter himself.  How many automotive enthusiasts have the opportunity to meet and get to know the creator of their cars? This for me is special, especially Erich as he is very approachable and humble.

Today, I enjoy the CD and do drive it to a few local car shows.  It is very comfortable and has plenty of power to cruise at high speeds. It also gets its share of attention with very few knowing what is a Bitter. I look forward to enjoying my CD for many years to come.

Author with Erich Bitter at 2016 Annual Bitter Treffen in Kirchbrombach, Germany

The Bitter CD at the 2019 Turtle Invitational

Author with Erich Bitter and Werner Meynaerts 2018 Annual Bitter Treffen in Schwelm, Germany

Bitter; post CD

Bitter did import about 250 SC models in the mid 1980’s.  This model was based again off Opel’s then flagship Monza/Senator platform. Again, Bitter’s target market was the ultra-high end. Bitter had moderate market success in Beverly Hills, Palm Beach and Greenwich, however at $50,000 in the mid ‘80’s, the SC was a 15-20% premium over an S-Klasse.  The SC was sold and serviced mainly through GM/Buick dealerships which made regular maintainence an uphill battle.

In all, Bitter produced 395 CD’s and nearly 500 SC models.  Currently Erich Bitter and his nephew Markus continue to keep the marque alive offering distinctive trim and performance packages for select Opel models primarily in Germany.

Link to 2019 Erich Bitter video:

Erich Bitter 2019

Road & Track August 1975 review:

Helpful Bitter Resources: 

https://www.bittercars.com/

http://www.bitter-club.com/Eingang.htm

https://www.bitter-parts.com/

hhttps://www.leesgarage.com/

http://www.maderaconcepts.com/

https://www.nhspeedometer.com/

https://www.bilstein.com/us/en/

http://www.coast2coastleather.com/

https://www.chromelondon.com/

https://www.cocomats.com/

http://www.deanlaumbach.com/

 

Join the conversation!

One Response to Bitter CD Restoration: The Revival of a Stylish and Rare Coupe

  1. DICK RUZZIN May 10, 2020 at 9:06 am #

    It was great to see this article and I remember the numerous calls and discussions that Jay and I had about the design of the Bitter CD, the sources and pictures. He did a great job. The story about the design of the Bitter CD and the people at Opel Design involved is fully presented on deansgarage.com.

    I think the key event was Dave Holls convincing Eric that the car should “look Italian”, with “German engineering”..

    I have one also, from LA and Jay came out to see it during a trip to Detroit.
    Conratulations Jay on a job well done !!!

    DICK RUZZIN