The Vauxhall Firenza
AFTER a bad spell with models which did not quite come off and cars with which both keen drivers and ordinary users found fault, Vauxhall Motors pulled up their design socks and some much improved machinery rolled from the Luton production lines. Earlier this year a colleague who had considerable experience of the more recent Vauxhalls expressed the view that in the range of 2-litre and 2.3-litre Vivas and Firenzas Vauxhall had some “excellent-performing, beautifully-styled, value-for-money cars”, with some reservations, and he concluded the MOTOR SPORT road-test report on the Annum 2300 Estate with the remark that this car “is remarkably well-appointed and while the smoothness of its power unit is more agricultural ban limousine it adds solidarity to a very rugged ind attractive dual-purpose car of sporting performance and handling.”
So it could be taken that Vauxhall were on the way up, after a period of regression, and when they showed the excitingly-shaped “droop-snoot” Firenza of great performance potential at the 1973 London Motor Show, expectations took a great bound. Alas, it was over a year before the new coupe with the older type-name was offered for test, apart from a few laps of the Vauxhall test-track in a prototype. By then my Vauxhall-orientated assistant had lost his driving licence, so I found myself embarking on an assessment of the much-discussed new sporting Firenza, a technical hors-d’oeuvre on which appeared in our issue of November 1973, pp. 1272/3.
The occasion of my road-test of this long-awaited new Vauxhall was much enhanced because Michael Marr, who has done so much excellent work for the Company for so long, as their Public Relations Manager, took me to lunch, to break the news of his retirement at the and of November last, at the age of 6o, and, I suspect, to put me in a good frame of mind for driving away in the Firenza, which was in some ways a disappointing, and initially a daunting, experience.
The new car is based on the Magnum coupe but has the controversial low-drag fibre-glass snout and a considerably souped-up engine, attached to a ZF five-speed gearbox. To cope with the much enhanced performance the suspension has been changed by 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, 185/70 tyres, the excellently “grippy” new Michelin XVS on the test car, are used, on 6″ Avon 6J Safety rims.
The braking has similarly been revised, Vauxhall’s tandem master-cylinders, dual-circuit system with all-round automatic adjustment employing Ventora front discs and calipers. The engine modifications include larger valves, the c.r. increased from the 8.5 to 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 have undoubtedly been influenced by the splendid “Big Valve” engines evolved by Bill Blydenstein’s Dealer Team Vauxhall tuning operations; it is a fact of modern manufacturing that the big engineering concerns so often learn from the smaller establishments! Anyway, the results speak eloquently on the test-bed. The Firenza has 131 DIN bhp from the basic 2,279 c.c., single-ohc, canted-over four-cylinder engine to propel it, against the Magnum’s t to b.h.p. The specification embraces a valve timing of io 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 C0175 carburetters fed from an AC mechanical pump. The engine gives maximum power at 5,5oo r.p.m. and top torque (142 lb./ft. DIN) at 3,600 r.p.m. It will pull from absurdly low speeds if you can stand the vibrations the transmission passes on to the body. The close-coupled two-door four-seater coupe has a wheelbase of 8 ft. 1½ in. and weighs just under 20½ cwt. unladen. Forward visibility is good, although the thick screen pillars are noticed at junctions.
All this adds up to such an impressive degree of urge that the question arises, is this unusual-looking Vauxhall Firenza to be regarded purely as a car for the enthusiast, or is it complementary to the Lutonian range of family cars? If you accept that it belongs to the former category some of the disillusionment felt when driving it is diminished; if you place it in the latter class it could be written off by many as an impossibly horrid car. The chief shortcoming is that in desiring five closely-spaced forward gears the Vauxhall engineers have adopted the ZF box. This is notchy and heavy at the best of times and there is an added suspicion in this case: that something has happened to this ZF installation that makes matters worse. At all events, as I struggled to engage bottom gear on the queer gate that sets it left and backwards, opposite reverse but beside the normal H-pattern gate, while holding out the rather heavy clutch, then missed altogether the terribly notchy “round-the-corner change to second, Mr. Marr suggested that second and third would suffice in London traffic, that the ZF box was an acquired taste, and that he felt the Firenza to be akin to the older kind of sports-car. Well, yes! Although he also corrected any suggestion that it should be regarded as a “boy’s racer”. The fact is that the gearbox needs knowing to use it effectively and without distress. The gears can be engaged quickly and smoothly, if the clutch is fully depressed and the gear lever movements correctly Judged. Otherwise, the synchro-mesh is very baulky and what might be a quick change when properly mastered is also slowed by the time needed to move the lever, with its outsize knob, from first to second and from second to third. The higher gears are easier to engage; bottom is frequently almost impossible to get and reverse not much easier. This very difficult gear change and oddly-arranged gear shift ruin at first the pleasure of driving this Firenza, although an experienced driver soon learns to master things, more or less, and thereafter to almost like the car. But the family car driver will be, I think, greatly embarrassed, especially as the most alarming rattles and clonks emanate from the badly-fitting bonnet and nose if an attempt is made to accelerate in too high a gear. These untoward noises spoil the engine’s excellent low-speed torque, which could otherwise be frequently exploited in the higher ratios, for saving fuel and enjoying the pleasure of effortless progression.
The foregoing would be serious criticism of a normal car. But the new Firenza, of which I was told that about too had been built so far and the output of which is seen as around 1,000 a year, is not an ordinary motor-car. By no means! With a top speed of i t 9 m.p.h. (which if it does not live up to the 127-130 m.p.h. claims for the prototypes is very fast for a production 2.3-litre four-seater) and accelerative capabilities of the order of standstill to 6o m.p.h. in 8.6 sec., maintained as speed goes up (good aerodynamics!), so that too m.p.h. can be attained from rest in a mere 26.5 sec., 90 having been reached in under 19½ sec., with a s.s. ¼-mile possible in 16.6 sec., this Firenza coupe must be acclaimed as rapid indeed. Having said that, one can reflect that Ford make more refined fast cars, even in twin-cam RS1600 Escort guise (but not with five-speed gearboxes). To which I suppose Vauxhall’s Engineering Department would retort that the Firenza can out-perform even an RS1600 Escort, except in respect of top gear pick-up and maybe economy of fuel.
The major criticisms of the fast new Firenza, then, are its difficult gear change, and noise. However, as I drove it further I became proficient in mastering the gearbox, until the changes could be described as smooth and precise if care were taken. The secret seems to be to fully depress the clutch, never just dip it, when, apart from the exceedingly baulky bottom gear, there is little difficulty. Not a nice box, but acceptable to those prepared to take pains to drive the car properly. This is, perhaps, no excuse, because in 1974 there is absolutely no reason why high-performance cars should be difficult to drive, fun as it may be to discover this characteristic in a vintage car. Like that of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, the gear lever on the Firenza is spring-loaded to the centre of the gate, heavily away from 1st and reverse, less so from 4th and 5th to the 2nd and 3rd plane, which is a mistake. The lever is quite well placed, although a snap change, overcoming the stiffness from 2nd into bottom, may cause the hand to slip painfully onto the end of the handbrake.
In almost every other handling respect the Firenza is good. The brakes are light but spongy, and there is a tendency to lock the front wheels, of which Sir Harry Royce would not have approved. These fade-free water-proof disc/drum brakes are otherwise satisfactory; the hand brake less so. Steering is direct (3¼-turns, lock-to-lock), very heavy at low speeds, and it transmits rough-road kick-back to the very small 13″-dia., three-spoke steering wheel from its rack-and-pinion. There is adequate castor-return. The wheel has a thick, gaitered rim. This racing size wheel blends well with the sporting character of the Firenza but somewhat obscures the instruments. Nevertheless, the speedometer is fully visible and the tachometer needle can be seen from 2,000 r.p.m. or so onwards, which is adequate, especially as the body emits many shudders and rattles if the speed of the engine rotation falls any lower. There is a mild understeering tendency when cornering which can be changed to oversteer under power, but rather more rear-wheel adhesion would be appreciated. The ride is choppy but shock-free over the rougher going, but the suspension stiffness makes this a very fast car, roll-free over twisty roads. The instruments are grouped in a binnacle before the driver and comprise a big clock with seconds hand, oil (40lb./sq.in), heat, battery and fuel gauges, a central speedometer and a tachometer on the right. The last-named reads to 7,000 rpm, with the over-rev. warning at 6,2oo r.p.m. and the 120 m.p.h. speedometer is calibrated in k.p.h. as well as in m.p.h. Tiered warning lights in the centre of the fascia panel cover high-beam, turn-indicators, ignition on, low oil pressure, hand-brake applied, with a warning if the brake fluid level is low in one master-cylinder and heated rear window in use (the first named too bright). The lamps are selected by a pull-knob on the right of the driver, turning this controlling rheostatic instrument lighting, which wasn’t sufficiently bright for easy inspection of the readings. Incidentally, to enable the more important rev, readings to be seen past the obstructive steering wheel the tachometer dial has been turned around, so that the needles of the speedometer and tachometer no longer move in the same plane. The driver’s left hand fairly easily finds the under-fascia rather stiff manual choke knob, and the lighter knob. Two hands are needed to remove the ignition key, as a safety knob on the steering column has first to be depressed. The generous Magnum front seats are modestly comfortable. They have cloth upholstery and a lever each side, one for forward inclination of the squab to give back-seat access, the other to recline the squab rearwards to suit the occupant or to make a bed.
The heater, controlled by two vertical slide-levers below the warning-lights’ cluster, surprisingly has no volume control. While it produced enough heat, this was difficult to control. Below the controls are neat switches for the two-speed blower and rear-window heater. Excellent adjustable eyeball fresh-air vents are placed at the fascia extremities but are not fan boosted. A right hand stalk control looks after horn and turn indicators and also dips the four-headlamp set to the outer pair of lamps only, and when required flashes the lights; the left hand stalk operates the electric screen-washers and the two-speed wipers, the latter also having an intermittent action, but only for a single wipe. The pedals are better placed than formerly on a Viva or Magnum Vauxhall, on which the brake pedal used to be absurdly, even dangerously, higher than the accelerator. The revised mounting allows much quicker transference of the right foot from the brake pedal to the treadle accelerator. Not much oddment stowage is provided within the body. There is a small shelf before the driver and a longer, too shallow one on the passenger’s side of the fascia. This rather oddly-styled fascia carried just a moulded grip and a huge ash-tray in front of the passenger. In a car of this price it is surprising that the rear-view mirror has no anti-dazzle setting and that there is no rear-seat arm-rest, in this essentially four-seater. Sill interior door-locks, neat inside door handles, press-button outside handles and child-proof locks are fitted. The rather shallow but very commodious boot needs a slam to shut the lid and a key to open it. The makers claim a 22 cu. ft. capacity, but 10½ cub, ft. of luggage accommodation is actually provided. The bonnet release is on the “wrong” side of this r.h.d. car and the heavy, rear-hinged bonnet has to be manually propped and unpropped. The prop is clumsy in action. The “droop snoot” nose means that the Cibie HQ headlamps are beneath sloping transparent panels and doubtless the rally-boys will tell us what happens when these become caked with mud or snow . . .
Although this £2,625.48 Firenza is said to be aimed at the fairly ordinary customer, the foregoing account may suggest that it is actually an enthusiast’s model and less of a refined one than, for instance, Ford provide in their Mexico range. The tiny steering wheel and anti-drag nose seem pointers to this. If you can cope with a somewhat tricky gearbox, a rather heavy but smooth clutch, much noise, including a thumping on the bonnet when the engine is idling, and some indifferent items of finish and fit, and do not mind a rather sombre interior decor, you will enjoy the accurate, steering, good road grip and the very commendable performance of the Firenza coupe, as you wind it up to its limit of 6,200 r.p.m. which will ‘ give you a genuine 38, 65, 87 and 113 m.p.h. in the four lower forward gears. Or you may well be captivated with the ability of the 97.6 It 76.2 mm. big-bore cast-iron engine to laze over at under 3,400 r.p.m. at a genuine 7o m.p.h. along radar-prone British Motorways, although it is still very noisy. In general motoring the fuel thirst came out at 23.7 m.p.g. of 4-star. The 12-gallon tank has a flush-fitting unsecured bayonet-type cap on the near side of the tail. Oil consumption was approx. t85 m.p.p. In investigating this I found that the dip-stick was clearly marked but badly obstructed by various cables, but that the distributor and small Lucas ‘Pacemaker” battery were very accessible, the fuse-box with its four 35 m.m.-fuses reasonably so. There is a laminated windscreen, the doors possess hard arm-rests useful for pulling them shut, the name “Firenza” is inscribed across the back panel, the Vauxhall Wyvern survives on the front of the car and the steering wheel, and the front spoiler carries the number plate. The test car had a Vauxhall radio. The spare wheel is stowed at an angle in the offside of the boot.
Starting from cold was satisfactory, given choke, but the starter turned the engine over alarmingly slowly. A good point is that even with the car lights out the luggage boot is illuminated automatically as the lid rises under sensible spring-loaded persuasion, when so often, all is darkness.
The new Firenza, then, is an interesting but perhaps not fully-developed car. It should appeal to those wanting a very high performance four-seater, although it costs more than the perhaps more refined twin-cam sixteen-valve Ford RS1600. Whether it will be acceptable to a larger market, or whether in this field it will set Vauxhall back in public esteem, is open to conjecture. W.B.
Performance Figures-Vauxhall Firenze Coupe Acceleration:-
o-3o m.p.h. 3.2 sec.
0-40 M.p.h. 4.7 sec.
0-50 m.p.h. 6.6 sec.
o-6o m.p.h. 8.6 sec.
0-70 m.p.h. 11.7 sec.
o-8o m.p.h. 14.6 sec.
o-90 m.p.h. 19.4 sec.
0-100 m.p.h. 26.5 sec.
Maximum: 119.0 m.p.h. In gears,
1S1. 38 m.p.h.
2nd. 65 m.p.h.
3rd. 87 m.p.h.
4th. 113 m.p.h.
30-50 m.p.h. in top gear 10.9 sec.
40-60 m.p.h. in top gear 9.8 sec.
50-70 m.p.h. in top gear 9.4 sec
60-8o m.p.h. in top gear 10.0 SCC.
70-90 m.p.h. in top gear 12.4 sec.
8o-too m.p.h. in top gear 14.0
s.s. ¼-mile 16.6 sec.