When Cars Tell a Story

Cars are his whole world. Opel Brand Ambassador Joachim ‘Jockel’ Winkelhock reveals his very personal list of favorite cars to Opel Post on a tour around the 18th vintage car convention at the Opelvillen in Rüsselsheim. The racing legend, who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours Nürburgring, Total 24 Hours of Spa, and thrashed the DTM in a 470-HP Astra V8 Coupé for Opel, is in top form today a sure sign that the tour that followed was going to be a breeze.

30.000 visitors descend upon the Opelvillen in Rüsselsheim.

Spot the classics: Veterans of all brands were showcased along the Main.

Car no. 1 The Opel GT was a great love for the race car driver, the one that got away.


Car no. 2 Even those who make it big start out small: Jockel Winkelhock learnt how to drive in a Fiat 600 just like this one.

“Let’s take a look,” says the man of the hour, wearing a pink shirt, and brandishing a mischievous grin. Winkelhock has been brand ambassador for Opel since 2004, and an instructor for OPC driver training. Is he excited? I guess he must be! There’s enough of a selection for him to choose from – 3,400 rare gems await us at the 18th edition of the biggest vintage car day event.


Why it always has to be yellow


We quickly reach our first station. Winkelhock single-mindedly veers towards a lemon yellow Opel GT. “It’s my favorite color,” the Opel Brand Ambassador confesses. “My helmet, my bike, everything I own always has to be yellow. It drives my wife crazy sometimes.” The Opel GT is like a great love for the Le Mans champion, the one that got away. He’s never driven a race in the cult car – and the coupé hasn’t made it into the Winkelhock garage at home yet either. “Sadly, I’ve never had the privilege of driving one, like Walter Röhrl, who was given the opportunity two years ago to drive a GT that was beautifully restored by his former chief mechanic, Herbert Fabian,” sighs the motorsports champion. “I’ve been envious of Walter ever since I read about it in the Opel Post.” Instead, he reveals that the young Jockel eagerly tinkered around with Opel GT models while doing an apprenticeship as a chassis maker in the 1970s. He did so in the garage that belonged to his father, the crane and towing expert Manfred Winkelhock, in the southwest German town of Berglen-Steinbach.

We’ve hardly set foot in the shady park on this sunny Sunday afternoon when the racer catches sight of a Fiat 600, and all his youthful memories come flooding back. “That car has to be older than I am,” the 57-year old muses. “My father taught me how to drive in this type of car, in a field behind our garage.”“

Car no. 3 As a 16-year old, Jockel Winkelhock was a grease monkey for his brother, who drove this type of NSU vehicle.

The Opel GT’s 50th birthday wouldn’t have been complete without a visit from Erhard Schnell, Opel GT’s designer, to the vintage car convention.

Learning how to operate the clutch, change gears, accelerate – I’ll never forget it. I had just turned 12.” This meant he found his calling very early on. From that point onwards, cars would define his path in life.

Always admired,
but never driven

As a 16-year old, Winkelhock worked as a ‘grease monkey’ for his brother, who was called Manfred after their father, and was doing mountain and circuit races, as well as autocross at the time. And what did he drive? “A 1971 NSU,” he replies. It doesn’t take long for him to point out the exact model among the vintage cars on the lawn. It belongs to Andreas Maxion from Wiesbaden, who is visibly moved as Winkelhock tells him how this model was the apple of his eye, and that he never got the chance to drive it: “My brother would never let anyone else behind the wheel.” Maxion wants to hand him the keys on the spot, but Jockel declines. “Thanks, but not today.” We still have a lot of cars to see – and memories to revisit.

What is it that makes this the biggest and best one-day vintage car event in Germany? This picture speaks a thousand words.

Classic models of all makes showcased along the Main.

Erich Bitter arrives in an Opel Bitter Insignia that befits his rank.

A few meters further down, Michael and Tamara Belz rush to greet the racing legend. Winkelhock takes a liking to the pair straightaway, as well as the Opel Manta GT/E they’re presenting in full rally livery. “I drove my first race for Opel in a Manta 400 – it looked almost exactly the same as this one,” Winkelhock reminisces. “That was 32 years ago. It was the 24 Hours Nürburgring, with Norbert Haug and Karl Mauer. We came in second, which was a huge victory for us. Many had tried their best, and we had won.”

Ein Mann mit vielen Namen.
Einer davon: „Smokin’ Joe“.

Car no. 4 pops up unexpectedly on our path towards the River Main. This BMW M3 from 1987 is parked beside the embankment. Jockel takes a deep breath. “I competed in my first Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters in one of these.” He participated in this race from 1990 onwards. He won the DTM three times, while he claimed a victory at the 24 Hours Nürburgring twice. From 1993 on he also drove for BMW in the British Touring Car Championship. Here is where he gained many nicknames, including ‘Smokin’ Joe,’ for the donuts he drove after wins, and his championship victory at the British Touring Car Championship, not to mention the cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth as soon as he had his helmet off. However, he’s managed to kick the habit since those days.

Car no. 4 Tamara Belz and Jockel Winkelhock talk shop beside the Opel Manta GT/E.

Car no. 5 “I competed in my first Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters in one of these.”

Good weather, about 30,000 visitors plus 3,400 classic cars equal a great atmosphere.

Memories overwhelm the racer for the final time on this tour as we approach a meadow by the River Main. He spots a bright red Porsche Turbo. “I won the Porsche Cup in 1996 in one of these. It was an incredibly exciting race – we were all driving the same car. Hans-Joachim Stuck and Jochen Maas competed too.” Jockel considers this victory an important stepping stone for his future career, as he went from success to success from here. He was propelled into the world of Formula Three and Formula One racing. But these memories carry a lot of pain with them. “A year before my career kicked off with the Porsche Cup victory, my brother was killed in a car crash.”

Forty-five minutes have passed since we began our tour. Now, duty calls, and Winkelhock has to rush off to another interview. He’s a much sought-after conversational partner, after all. An Opel GT, Fiat 600, NSU, Opel Manta GT/E, BMW M3, and a Porsche – he’s managed to tick off six cars on his list. Each of these cars represents an important stage in this racing legend’s private and professional life.

Thanks, Mr. Winkelhock, for giving us such an engaging tour.

Car no. 6 Winkelhock won the Porsche Cup in 1986 in a Porsche like this one. This victory propelled him to Formula Three, and later, to Formula One racing.

June 2018

Text: Eric Scherer, Photos: Alex Heimann