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Opel -- which began selling sewing machines in 1863 near Wiesbaden, Germany -- didn't start making cars until 1899. Fifteen years later, the company became the highest selling automobile manufacturer in Germany.

Over the course of two World Wars, Opel saw its production facilities devastated, sold to GM, nationalized by Nazis, devastated again, resold to GM, then rebuilt slowly, until -- by 1972 -- it reclaimed its position as Germany's leading car manufacturer. The secret to Opel's longevity seems to lie in reliability and affordability rather than comfort or design.

Opel has many makes -- Astra, Vectra, Manta, Corsa, Cyprus, Tigra, and so on -- but only the Opel GT has come close to stardom: It played the car belonging to bumbling spy Maxwell Smart in Get Smart -- a role it only got in the series' fifth and final season in 1970. The company has become a point of contention lately; just days before GM filed for bankruptcy, a deal was all but completed to sell the company to a consortium led by 76-year-old Frank Stronach, a native Austrian who made his money supplying auto parts to U.S. carmakers. Currently, GM is seeking to retain the company, which may not be able to survive without help from a German government that has expressed strong displeasure at GM's recent flip-flop.

NEXT: Volvo

Last updated September 04 2009: 10:30 AM ET
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