Picture the scene. It’s the early 1970s, and Vauxhall is doing decent business, but its image is fusty and its new models, worthy though they are, can’t match the sex appeal of those of its arch-rival, Ford of Great Britain. The dowdy Viva HC competes against the curvaceous Mk1 Escort, while the slab-sided FE-Series looks dull next to the glamorous Cortina and Granada.
What’s needed is a new approach – a halo model with sporting appeal that’ll give Vauxhall a racier image, appeal to younger buyers, and show how good Vauxhalls of the future will be. Happily, in 1973, that car arrives in the form of the Firenza HP – better known by its nickname ‘droop snoot’, a reference to the aerodynamic nose grafted on by Vauxhall’s chief designer, Wayne Cherry.
Only 204 examples of the HP would be produced in the end – Vauxhall historians blame the oil crisis, although a strong rival in the shape of the Ford Capri played its part, too. But that low production number belies just how important the Firenza was in charting a course for Vauxhall’s future.
Not only did its sloping nose become the template for almost every new Vauxhall right through to the early 1990s, but the reason for the HP’s best-known feature – its aerodynamic purity – became part of Vauxhall’s mindset going forward. The result was a series of cleanly-styled, efficient cars – Chevettes, Astras, Cavaliers and Carltons – that felt forward-thinking and cutting edge, and which culminated with the Calibra of 1989 – nothing if not a spiritual successor to the Firenza HP with its remarkably low drag coefficient and swooping coupé shape.
Having said that, the Calibra in its standard form never quite had the overt sportiness of the Firenza HP. Just look at the 2.3-litre slant-four engine, for example, its cylinder head lovingly crafted by famous racing tuner Bill Blydenstein and each example finished by hand; there was lower, stiffer suspension than the standard Firenza’s, too, as well as a heavy-duty rear axle and a ZF five-speed gearbox – the first ever fitted to a production Vauxhall.
The result was a 131bhp coupé that was as sharp and to drive as it was radical and pretty to look at. Climb aboard the droop-snoot today and it still feels special, its suedette-clad seats feeling upmarket and strangely modern, and the three-dial crackle-black dashboard unmistakably sporting, if not quite the last word in fit and finish.
The long gear lever is a bizarre thing to use, its long throw feeling something akin to smashing pebbles together in a bag. In fact, the gearbox is the Firenza HP’s biggest issue, as it creates an almighty racket once you’re on the move, shrieking almost as though it had straight-cut cogs, to a deafening extent once you hit the higher revs.
Which is rather a shame, as it drowns out the rorty, snorty noise of that big-chested four-cylinder engine doing its thing. This isn’t a car that thrives on revs; instead, the HP serves up everything it’s got low down, then peters out the minute you get above about 4,000rpm, almost like a modern diesel.
But what performance there is is delivered all at once, in a big, delicious slab of torque that has you grabbing for the next gear each time just to keep the engine in its sweet spot and keep surfing along on the crest of its wave of torque.
At first, the Firenza gives you the impression it’s going to be a bit wobbly in the corners. The lack of a Panhard rod on the rear induces a disconcerting shimmy over bumps while you’re travelling in a straight line, in much the same way as it does in other quick Vauxhalls of the time. And while the ride isn’t firm by modern standards, the HP does like to crash through bumps; the rather rattly interior fittings mean that there’s quite a bit of noise each time it does so, too.
Happily, though, this proves not to be a portent of bad things to come; in corners, the droop snoot is a joy. Tip the small, dished steering wheel in and it’s meaty, but not overly heavy, the turn-in deliberate and progressive rather than sharp and flighty. There’s as much body roll as you’d expect from a car of this age, but once you’ve picked a line and settled the Firenza it proves predictable and grippy, allowing you to lean on the outer tyres and use all that glorious torque to power out of the corner.
Interestingly, the ride smoothes out when driven thus; it seems that the minute you get a bit of weight over one side of the HP or the other, it doesn’t crash so harshly into bumps, and nor is it upset mid-corner by unexpected ruts.
It doesn’t have the easy deftness and agility of its biggest rival, the Mk1 Escort, but the fast Firenza is fun in a different way. This is a car that’s at its best when you grab it by the scruff of the neck; when you do, it rewards you with reassuring grip and the joy of a truly brawny engine. It’s tempting to think of it as a miniaturised muscle car, therefore, but that wouldn’t do justice to the predictability of the chassis and the confidence it instils.
It is a shame the Firenza HP didn’t last longer or find more buyers. But it remains an important part of the Vauxhall story. Along with cars like the Chevette HS, which followed in its footsteps, it proved the value of a truly sporty range-topper in giving the brand a youthful image. But more than that, it laid down a template for aero-inspired design that influenced so many successive – and successful – Vauxhalls.
In that regard, one can’t but feel that modern Vauxhall could do with a car like the Firenza – a car so radical, unusual and attention-grabbing that it proves the company isn’t going to play it staid and safe any more.
The rumours are that it has exactly such a car lined up. Hopefully it’ll meet with more success this time around.
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