PH HEROES: VAUXHALL FIRENZA HP 'DROOPSNOOT'
Fast Fords are lauded but their Vauxhall equivalents languish - unfairly going by the Firenza HP
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
VAUXHALL FIRENZA HP
Torque (lb ft):145@3,500rpm
On sale: 1973-1975
Price now: £5,000 for a good one