General Motors wasted no time developing the Opel Speedster. The first sketches were done in summer 1998 and serious discussions about producing the car began in November.
A Speedster concept was shown at the Geneva auto show in March 1999.
'We had really positive responses from the show car in Geneva, so the program was approved two months later,' says Program Manager Doris Bernhardt.
Moving that fast is easier done with small-volume, niche cars.
Bernhardt says developing the Speedster (the two-seat sports car is known as the Vauxhall VX220 in the UK) required a different approach from most GM cars.
Bernhardt worked closely with Mark Vinnels, senior project engineer at Lotus. The car is being built by Lotus at its factory in Hethel, Norfolk, in east England. Over the past two years Bernhardt has alternated her time between Hethel and GM's European technical development center in Russelsheim, Germany.
Bernhardt, who has a doctorate in materials science, worked on various projects within GM Europe's program management organization before taking charge of the Speedster.
Testing of the Speedster's components and production techniques started in November 1998, and changes were made almost up to the start of production.
'Because of the low volume and handmade processes, a lot of things were changed during development that would have involved major tooling alterations in a mass production car,' says Bernhardt.
Compared with the Geneva concept model, she says the outer skin of the production car is significantly different.
'You have many more lines and edges,' she says. 'Our first intentions have been continuously improved.'
The Speedster's design was frozen in summer 1999. Production began in September.
'You cannot do a normal car that fast,' says Bernhardt. 'There would be no way.'
Although up to 100 people worked on the Speedster at any one time, the makeup of the program team constantly changed.
The Speedster is related to the Lotus Elise, and Bernhardt was able to utilize Lotus' small-volume expertise. At the same time, she was able to call on top specialists at Opel.
'We had much less administration than on a normal project, and that helped speed the decision-making process,' she says.
Since the program team did not have to worry about the mass appeal of the product, key development decisions were in the hands of a few experienced Lotus and Opel engineers.
'It was a new experience for everyone,' says Bernhardt.
The development made use of GM's deep parts bin. The complete powertrain is carried over from other GM models, and the car has the same 2.2-liter, 145hp engine found in the Astra Coupe.
The Speedster uses the Vectra's disc brakes but with unique calipers. The steering column was carried over from the Corsa, but without power steering components.
Lotus also helped in the component area. The Speedster's body uses the same aluminum technology as the Elise. The aluminum profiles that support the reinforced fiberglass panels were developed with Hydro Aluminium, and are glued together.
The Speedster's seats are taken from the Elise, with modifications. They are trimmed by Lotus at the Hethel facility.
Tire maker Bridgestone worked closely with the Speedster team. The car is fitted with unique 175/55 R17 tires on the front wheels, and 225/45 R17 tires on the rear wheels. The tires were developed specifically for the Speedster to reflect the chassis behavior and the slight understeer that the program team wanted to achieve.
The 320mm-wide steering wheel, supplied by Momo, is unique to the Speedster, and incorporates one of the world's smallest full-size airbags.
The Speedster's limited volumes do not justify the use of many externally assembled modules beyond the GM powertrain, says Bernhardt.
Full production ramp-up is not expected to be completed before the spring because of the training required to assemble the handcrafted models.
Capacity is 3,000 a year but would rise to 3,200 if a Saturday shift is added at Hethel.