Opel designed the first COE van
In August 2022, specialists at Opel Classic found at an auction eight photographs of a little-known, pre-World War II prototype delivery van.
The historic photos show that by the mid-1930s Opel had developed a modern-looking delivery vehicle – years before the post-War cab-over-engine (COE) van concept became the standard.
Morris Commercial J-Van – Morris Commercial Club UK
The first post-War COE van in the Australian market was the 1949 Morris Commercial J-Van.
Some COE history
Mercedes-Benz is credited with creating the first motorised delivery van, back in 1896. This vehicle had an underfloor engine, typical of cars of the period.
As car designs developed prior to World War I, engines moved from underfloor to out front, providing better servicing access and better cooling airflow for increasing engine power levels.
Bonneted trucks and vans dominated the commercial vehicle scene until the 1940s, but there were some COE trucks in the USA, Germany and France, where there were incentives to increase payload space, within restricted overall-length laws.
GM FuturLiner 1936-40 Wikipedia – Binelli2011
The German COE vehicles, from the early 1930s, had basic box-shaped cabins and were powered by two-stroke, two-cylinder engines. Neither was very successful. The earliest US COEs were 1936 Streamliners and FuturLiners from General Motors.
The pioneering Opel van
Following Opel’s auction purchase of the historic photographs, Leif Rohwedder, Opel Classic manager said:
“No such pictures existed in the Opel historic archive and knowledge of this unique prototype had disappeared for decades.
“As far as we know, no publication had ever reported on this vehicle,” he concluded.
The photos show the pioneering design of a compact Blitz van that was apparently fully developed and driveable.
The project name was written in pencil on the back of the pictures: 1.5-23 COE. The numbers refer to the engine displacement of 1488cc and the approximate wheelbase of 2400mm. (Incidentally, cab over engine is Frontlenker in German).
The Opel van concept was advanced for the 1930s. Compared with vehicles that had conventional forward engines under projecting bonnets, the design allowed compact exterior dimensions while retaining a large cargo volume.
The engine was located either underneath, or slightly in front of, the bench seat.
The Opel Blitz van was progressive, but it had Opel signatures, including the black wheel arches were like those of contemporary Opel trucks. The Blitz van’s art décor trim was a characteristic feature of all Opel passenger cars in the 1930s.
Ornamentation also emphasised the van’s horizontal lines and gave the vehicle a friendly face that was unusual for delivery vans in those days.
Opel at that time was the German market leader in commercial vehicles and produced a wide range of vehicles. The company used some components from other models to build the van, including the Olympia’s 1.5-litre engine and axles from the contemporary Blitz bonneted truck.
The Blitz van’s structure was advanced for the time, using steel for all bodywork, apart from the bulkhead, the cargo area floor and the centre section of the roof.
The technical details of the Blitz 1.5-23 COE program are sketchy, but a brochure in English for model year 1937 was eventually discovered in the Opel archive. The document suggests that, in addition to the one-tonner, a 1.5-ton variant with six-cylinder engine and dual rear wheels was also planned. Drawings in the archive show a platform truck and a 15-seat mini-bus version of the Blitz 1.5-23 COE.
The Opel Blitz delivery van never went into production, as war clouds gathered over Europe. Germany’s preparations didn’t include 4×2 light commercial vehicles and Opel production was directed to militarised Blitz bonneted trucks in 4×2 and 4×4 configurations, of which the company produced more than 130,000, before the cessation of hostilities.
Post-War, General Motors, which already owned 80 percent of Opel pre-War, resumed control, but the Blitz 1.5-23 COE remained a prototype. GM retained control of Opel until 2017, when it was purchased by PSA, now part of the giant Stellantis group.