We never really had Muscle Cars in the UK. Sure, a few of the more popular V8 projectiles of the US Big Three were sold over here through specialist channels, and a great many more have been privately imported since then. But home grown, indigenous muscle? Not really.
Our speciality seemed to be hotted-up versions of humdrum family cars. In the mainstream, it probably started with the Mini Cooper, albeit Ford Populars and Baby Austins have been being pepped up since the first breath of God. If you ignore specialist machinery like the Lotus Cortina, the greatest affection probably lies with the category of warmed-over family saloon, in which there was the Holbay-tuned Sunbeam Rapier HS120 (a sort of mini-Barracuda), the Hillman Avenger Tiger (think Plymouth Cricket with attitude) and various iterations of speedy Ford Escort. These culminated with the RS2000, nice examples of which currently exchange for sums of money usually associated with an average Western GDP.
One, though, a perennial underdog, forgotten by all but the disturbingly gasoline-oriented; stands out to me as being more interesting than the others. The Vauxhall Firenza. Droopsnoot to its friends.
And that’s as much of a preamble as I’m going to give it. The last two driving stories to erupt from this keyboard have spent forever setting the scene, building up the mystique. This time around, things are much simpler, as the Firenza is at heart a very simple device indeed. The Firenza moniker initially denoted the coupé version of the HC Vauxhall Viva; the last GM car to be wholly English in conception and manufacture. As a coupé it was regarded as a natural rival to the Ford Capri, although it was never marketed quite as forcefully.
Over time the Firenza name was put on reserve, with the smaller engined coupés reverting the Viva identity, and the more powerful machines adopting the name Magnum. It was in 1973 that a proper, High Performance Viva would turn up, with the Firenza name once again proudly branded on its posterior.
If ever a car was subjected to a full-body makeover, this was it. The basic Viva coupé structure is there as normal, but the plastic surgery visited to its face made for a miraculous image transformation for the whole car. That sloping nose (from which the name Droopsnoot derived) was striking, aerodynamically efficient and visually appropriate for the dynamic image that stylist Wayne Cherry wanted the Firenza to inspire. For me, the sight of those small halogen headlamps burning behind those toughened glass covers leave a lasting impression.
This car actually predates the Escort RS2000 MKII by a few years, yet, in my opinion, manages to make that car look crude and poorly resolved. The coupé-ness of the car, from the side at least, is more purposeful and sporty than the Ford, the Firenza enjoying a very American silhouette. Corvair, perhaps? Simple measures like the blackening of chrome made a great difference to the way the whole thing hangs together; and the alloy Avon Safety Wheels were a distinctive and functional addition.
Mechanically, things were given a thorough going-over, too. The engine was as per the 2300cc Magnum, but with some Blydenstein-inspired tuning additions lifting power to 132hp, delivered in a very torquey manner. This output was pumped to the rear axle through a five speed gearbox by ZF, with a dogleg first which must have confused the hell out of the British public. The extra grunt was accommodated by suitable revision to the brakes and suspension, and all in all the Firenza more than stood up as more than an invigorated Viva. It may have been a Vauxhall, but it was actually something of a Triumph.
I found myself surprised to be reminded of an Impreza STi when I sat behind the wheel. Like that traditional Hoons favourite, the dashboard belongs in something far more prosaic than its athletic capabilities deserve, but it’s entirely functional and displays a wealth of information. Also like the Subaru, at idle you can feel the engine throbbing and pulsating through the cars body and, in turn, through your own.
The car was my own for a while, and I had actually wanted to drive it since having a bike with stabilizers. The fact that my first drive was to be on the legendary Millbrook test track was as improbable as being struck by lightning and then winning the lottery. I would make the most of this or get killed trying.
First thing I learned is that there’s a firm hand required. At parking speeds the steering is heavy and you have to pay full attention to everything you do. The accelerator linkage feels like there’s a bit of slack in the throttle linkage and leads to a slight delay before the engine understands your intentions. It can lead to embarrassing scenes of being sent kangarooing down the road.
That said, once up to speed (and you get there somewhat quickly) the pedal balance suddenly feels wonderful. It’s a hot day and I have the windows a few inches ajar,
There’s more volume from the engine than from exhaust, road or wind noise, and that volume is made up of thrashing, grinding and roaring. It’s the sound of a primitive engine that has been extended to its limits and has nothing more to give. I love it. It’s the sound of things working literally as hard as it can, the sound Britain must have made during the Industrial Revolution.
It’s not sonorous like an Italian four or vee six; boisterous like an American Eight or cultured like a German six. It’s a workmanlike, gruff bark that shouts of willingness and honesty, and so, in fact, does everything about the rest of the car.
You have to put a concerted effort into all you do as a wheelman, but everything is in balance. There’s a bit of roll, but that serves to tell you how close to the limit you’re treading, and if you do let go it’ll likely be in a progressive slide until traction is regained. There isn’t the power for rampant tail-out buffoonery, you’d have to use a bit of mid-corner lift-off or abject aggression to provoke it. Unless you suddenly unload and then load the rear end, after a the trough of a steep hill, for example, where sudden weight change at the rear end can make crazy things happen. It’s good, honest, family fun.
The undeniable hero is the gearbox, which serves you the right ratio at the right time on demand and does so with unstinting efficiency and speed. The dogleg first means you can lock that ratio out and forget about it and concentrate on the remaining four. Second and third can be literally switched between, with only a moment more required to access fourth. With the gearknob jauntily angled from the stick, the action is sharp and short like some kind of powerful artillery piece; you pull back to go fast, push forward to slow down. You quickly learn to use this to your advantage; being able to select gears so rapidly works to augment the front discs by providing pronounced engine braking on the overrun, and with an old-school braking setup this is doubly necessary.
I only troubled fifth once for the dawdle back to the paddock, and then only briefly as it’s too high for anything but sustained high-speed cruising, but the gears I did sample were all delicious, as, in fact, was the entire car. It reminded me very strongly of a much less polished version of four-cylinder BMW, maybe a late 2002 or, dare I say it, (an admittedly much worse version of) an E30 M3.
That sounds ridiculously fanciful, but it’s difficult to explain what constitutes the meat in this particularly tasty General Motors pie. Fortunately, Youtube provides, and I thank somebody / something called Rudisheisse for this brilliant piece of vintage footage, showing an entire Thruxton full of Firenzas being driven hard for promotional purposes way back in 1974.
This car has been prepared and is owned by Vauxhall themselves, and they should be very proud of it. I have to wonder, though, whether they occasionally look at it and ask how on earth it managed to become such a blind alley? How come the Droopsnoot managed to influence so many cars (including the plastic-nosed Escort RS2000) yet was studiously ignored by its parents and never went on to be replaced?
Sure, there have been fast Vauxhalls since then, some of them stupendously so. But none have been so single-mindedly driver-focussed as the Droopsnoot, and all of them say Opel on them if you look in certain places. Alas, while it would be nice to see a latter-day Firenza with the driver involvement dialled up to eleven, I solemnly admit that this will never happen. Todays drivers want entertainment, but want it on a plate, instantly, and that kind of instant, shallow (but effective) gratification is served up in spades by the Vauxhall VXRs and the Ford STs. To some, though, including myself, It’s much more rewarding to have to work for your fun. And for that reason the Firenza rocks.
[Images: Copyright 2013 Redusernab/Chris Haining]