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Thursday 28th June 2012


PH HEROES: VAUXHALL FIRENZA HP 'DROOPSNOOT'

Fast Fords are lauded but their Vauxhall equivalents languish - unfairly going by the Firenza HP


Imagine, if you will, a world in which the 1973 oil crisis never happened. There would have been no three-day week, fuel might not be as painfully expensive, and the US might have been spared the emasculation of its muscle cars.

Firenza is a lively handler
Firenza is a lively handler
Vauxhall might also have sold a few more examples of this, the Firenza HP, or Droopsnoot as it is affectionately known. As it happened, however, the oil crisis did intervene and Vauxhall shifted only 204 examples, despite, perhaps over-optimistically, originally hoping to sell 1,000 a year.

Then again, we perhaps can't blame the oil crisis entirely - OPEC's decision to get cheeky with its prices didn't kill the Essex V6-engined version of the Capri, after all.

Only the good die young?
What I do know is that the Droopsnoot's ill-starred fortunes could not have been anything to do with the way it drives. I have never driven a Capri but am reliably assured, both from reading contemporary reviews and chatting to friends and colleagues who have, that its Cortina underpinnings mean comparisons of both the porcine and canine variety are entirely justified. And yet Ford sold them by the bucketload and continued to do so right through to the tail end of the 80s.

Just 204 examples were made
Just 204 examples were made
At first glance you might think the Firenza would be the same. It has that same narrow-tracked, tip-toe appearance that all but the most exotic cars used to share, while a live rear axle, rear drum brakes and an iron cylinder head and block, although entirely par for the 1970s course, don't exactly scream epic driver's car.

Hints of greatness
Look at the spec sheet more closely, however, and there are a few hints that it could be just that. The 2,279cc slant four, for example, was breathed on by Bill Blydenstein (creator of the awesome V8-Powered Baby Bertha racer), with hand-finished combustion chambers, inlet tracts and valve throats bringing an extra 21hp over the standard engine. The ZF gearbox, meanwhile, was the first five-speeder to be fitted to a Vauxhall and helped the sleek-nosed HP duck under the 10-second barrier in the sprint to 60mph - another Vauxhall first.

Interior is very 1970s
Interior is very 1970s
Plonk your backside onto the rather upright and unsupportive seats and you're back to wondering just whether it'll be any good at all. Sure, the deep-dished steering wheel looks and feels lovely, and there's a sort of Europeanised muscle car feel to the cabin that is curiously beguiling. But the gearlever sprouts from the transmission tunnel at an odd angle and that weird seating position is initially a little unsettling.

Driving away any doubt
Any doubts about its abilities melt after a few minutes of driving. You realise that the gearshift is angled that way so that it's in the right place for your hand. That dogleg ZF 'box is a thing of joy, too. It moves around the gate with a well-oiled sweetness and a gentle resistance that many more modern gearboxes would do well to emulate. Its ratios, meanwhile, are spaced to make absolutely the most of the grunty slant-four, which despite only providing 145lb ft of torque, feels a lot stronger than that in the mid-range.

Big rump is lively through the twisties
Big rump is lively through the twisties
The steering is as lovely as the pretty three-spoke wheel leads you to believe it might be, too. It feels direct, accurate and faithful to your inputs. And even though the flat seats mean you have to brace yourself against it a little if you plan to take a corner enthusiastically it really doesn't matter, because it feels fully sturdy enough to do so.

Allied to the steering feel is a crisp turn-in that actually has overtones of a mid- or rear-engined handling. You feel a sense of mass at the rear helping to swing the back around as you turn in, presumably a mixture of the live rear axle and the fact that there's simply quite a lot of boot hanging out behind it. It's never scary - it doesn't feel like it's going to go all the way around the way a contemporary 911 might. If you time it well and catch the throttle at the right moment you can use the throttle to adjust the car's attitude post-apex, taking advantage of the movement already started by the swinging rear. It's a very satisfying way to go through corners.

ZF gearbox is first Vauxhall five-speeder
ZF gearbox is first Vauxhall five-speeder
Encouraging over-exuberance?
The pedal positioning feels just so, too, and soon you find yourself attacking bends with gusto and suffering delusional Gerry Marshall daydreams. Curiously it's not grip that inspires confidence in the Firenza, it's the exact opposite. It has relatively low dynamic limits, but it telegraphs so clearly at what point these start to apply - and the transitional phase is so gradual - that even a ham-fisted and footed fellow like myself starts to feel just a little bit of a hand.

In fact it was probably a rather good thing that our time with the Firenza was brief-ish, as the road on which we found ourselves (the gloriously mountainous and empty D900C on the edge of the Alpes de Haute Provence, if you were wondering) was goading us into driving ever more enthusiastically. And this Firenza, which has undergone a ground-up restoration by the good folks at the Vauxhall heritage centre, has had so much time and care lavished on it that any damage done to it would probably have caused heartfelt weeping in Luton.

Alpine test route uncommonly amusing
Alpine test route uncommonly amusing
In many ways it's a shame that the whims of OPEC so severely constricted sales of the Droopsnoot, but if Firenza HPs had sold in their thousands perhaps it wouldn't have become the collectable classic it is today, and perhaps we wouldn't be venerating it as a PH Hero. Then again, it is such a pleasure to barrel down a twisty road in that I suspect its place in history would have been assured, whether Vauxhall had sold 200 or 200,000 of them.

 



VAUXHALL FIRENZA HP
Engine:
2,279cc four-cylinder
Transmission:5-speed manual
Power (hp):133@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft):145@3,500rpm
0-60mph:9.4sec
Top speed:120mph
Weight: 1,040kg
On sale: 1973-1975
Price now: £5,000 for a good one



 

Author: Riggers