In the late 1960's the concensus was very much that the sheet metal rolling of the production line at Vauxhall's Luton manufacturing plant was pretty ordinary, and performance enthusiasts usually shopped elsewhere.
Things changed for the better with the release of the 2.0 and 2.3 liter Firenza's, which finally offered performance wrapped in a rather good looking skin. Vauxhall were on the way up, after a period of regression, and when they showed the excitingly-shaped "droop-snoot" Firenza at the 1973 London Motor Show, expectations were high.
Based on the Magnum Coupe, the performance Firenza featured a controversial low-drag fibre-glass snout, a considerably souped up engine and a ZF five-speed gearbox. To cope with the much enhanced performance the suspension was modified, including the deletion of the rear anti-roll bar, the introduction of a thinner front anti-roll bar, and reduced rear roll stiffness, with increased front spring-rate. In addition 185170 Michellin XVS tires were specified with 6" Avon 6J Safety rims.
The braking was similarly revised, Vauxhall's tandem master-eylinders, dual-circuit system with all-round automatic adjustment employing Ventora
front discs and calipers. The engine modifications included larger valves, the c.r. increasing from the 8.5 to 1 of the Magnum engine to 9.2 to 1, hand-smoothing of combustion chambers, valve throats and ports, a high-lift camshaft, lightened flywheel, and fabricated exhaust manifold. These changes were undoubtedly influenced by the splendid "Big Valve" engines evolved by Bill Blydenstein's Dealer Team Vauxhall tuning operations.
The Firenza had 131 DIN bhp from the basic 2,279 c.c., single-ohc, canted-over four-cylinder engine to propel it, against the Magnum's 110 b.h.p. The specification embraced a valve timing of 39 deg. b.t.d.c., ic 77 deg. a.b.d,c., ex.o 77 deg. b.b.d.c. and ex.c 39 deg. a.t.d.c., and two Zenith-Stromberg CDI75 carburetters fed from an AC mechanical pump. The engine gave maximum power at 5,500 r.p.m. and top torque (142 Ib./ft. DIN) at 3,600 r.p.m.
Test drivers at the time commented that the performance Firenza
would pull from absurdly low speeds, provided you could stand the vibrations the transmission passed on to the body. Forward visibility was good, although the thick screen pillars somewhat restricted peripheral vision.
On paper at least, the Firenza had the goods and, like it or love it, the go-quick looks.
But there was some criticism, particularly of the ZF gearbox. At the best of times this box was notchy and heavy, and it seemed that when installed in the Firenza things got worse. First gear was obtained via a gate that sat left and backwards, opposite reverse but beside the normal H-pattern gate, while holding out the rather heavy clutch. Thankfully around town you could comfortably set off in second gear, however this would hardly extract the best performance from the car, and after all with the dropsnoot fiberglass kit attached it was only reasonable to expect a resemblance of performance.
The best that could be said of the ZF gearbox was that it was an acquired taste, and with some practice it was possible to use it effectively and without distress. The gears could be engaged quickly and smoothly provided the clutch was fully depressed and the gear lever movements correctly judged. Otherwise, the synchro-mesh was very baulky and what might be a quick change when properly mastered was also slowed by the time needed to move the lever, with its oversized knob, from first to second and from second to third. The difficult gear change and oddly-arranged gear shift ruined the pleasure of driving the Firenza for the casual driver, only an owner who spent time behind the wheel being able to master the ZF.
Matching The RS1600 Nemesis
And it seemed that it was the owners who indeed came to the defence of the
Firenza, learning to master things, more or less, and thereafter to almost like the car. After all, the engine offered excellent low-speed torque, which could otherwise be frequently exploited in the higher ratios when the Firenza was at its best. More importantly, the Firenza was no ordinary motor-car. It had a top speed of 119 m.p.h. and was able to reach 60 m.p.h. in 8.6 sec. (still fast by todays standards), the magic 100 m.p.h. registering on the speedo in a mere 26.5 seconds. Vauxhall's nemesis, the Escort RS1600
, finally met its match, the Firenza beating it in nearly every regard except for top gear pick-up and fuel economy.
Gearbox aside, in almost every other handling respect the Firenza was good. The fade-free water-proof disc/drum brakes were light but spongy, and there was a tendency to lock the front wheels. Steering was direct (3 turns, lock-to-lock), although it was very heavy at low speeds, and it transmitted rough-road kick-back to the very small 13"-dia. three-spoke steering wheel, this racing size wheel blending well with the sporting character of the Firenza but somewhat obscurings the instruments. Nevertheless, the speedometer was fully visible and the tachometer needle could be seen from 2,000 r.p.m. onwards, not ideal but adequate. There was a mild understeering tendency when corrnering which could be changed to oversteer under power. The ride was choppy but the suspension stiffness made the Firenza a very fast car, and roll-free over twisty roads.
The instruments were grouped in a binnacle before the driver and comprised a big clock with seconds hand, oil, heat, battery and fuel gauges, a central speedometer and a tachometer on the right. The red-line started at 6,200 rpm and the 120 m.p.h. speedometer was calibrated in k.p.h. as well as in m.p.h. Tiered warning lights in the centre of the fascia panel included high-beam, turn-indicators, ignition on, oil pressure and hand-brake, with a warning if the brake fluid level was low in one master cylinder and heated rear window in use. The headlights were selected by a knob on the right of the driver, rotating this knob also adjusted the instrument lighting.
The heater was controlled by two vertical levers below the warning-lights cluster. There were excellent adjustable "eyeball" style fresh-air vents at the corners of the dash, although these were not fan-assisted. There were electric screen-washers, two-speed wipers (with intermittent), and more importantly the pedals were better placed than was the case with the Vauxhall Magnum. Surprisingly the rear-view mirror had no anti-dazzle setting, nor was there a rear-seat
rest. A shallow boot provided only just acceptable room for luggage, and the "droop snoot" nose meant that the Cibie HQ headlamps were housed beneath sloping transparent panels.
Generally speaking, road reviewers of the time found the fit and finish to be just acceptable, although this seems to have varied between reviews - no doubt the quality control improving with each car that rolled off the production line. If you could cope with a somewhat tricky gearbox, a rather heavy but smooth clutch, much noise, including a thumping on the bonnet when the engine was idling, and some indifferent items of finish and fit, you could enjoy the accurate steering, good road grip and the very commendable performance of the Firenza.