If the Firenza was Vauxhall’s answer to the Capri, one has to wonder what the question was.
Coupés are fundamentally irrational vehicles. They typically offer less space and practicality than the saloons upon which they are based but are more expensive, ergo they must offer an element of style, performance and sex-appeal to justify their premium prices. Ford hit this nail squarely on the head on both sides of the Atlantic with the Mustang and Capri. Opel would do likewise with the Manta, and Vauxhall was keen to gain a piece of the action.
Encouraged by the success of personal coupés in the US, Vauxhall decided that the HC Viva, scheduled for launch in 1970, would have a coupé derivative in addition to the two and four-door saloon and three-door estate bodystyles.
Early design sketches for what would become the Firenza showed a stylish (if somewhat transatlantic looking) design for a close-coupled pillarless coupé with frameless door windows. It would share no external body panels with the Viva. The front featured quad round headlamps, the rear a full-width slim light bar. Inside, the dashboard featured a seven-dial round instrument cluster and an unusually slim centre console with a vertically mounted radio. The console continued through to the rear of the interior, making it a strict four-seater.
As the design work progressed, doubts began to emerge as to the potential market for the coupé and, consequently, opportunities were sought for cost savings. The most significant of these was the adoption of the doors from the HC Viva two-door saloon with its framed windows. This killed off the concept of a pillarless coupé, and conventional framed rear-quarter windows were instead specified.
The coupé was still intended to have a distinctive front end with a deep grille bisected by the front bumper (as would later be used on the FE Victor model). Unfortunately, this became another casualty of the drive to save costs and the standard Viva front end was adopted.
Canada was a major export market for Vauxhall and the HC range would be sold there under a new name, Firenza, by Pontiac dealers*. In order to distance it from the Viva saloon and estate, Vauxhall decided to adopt this name for its new coupé in Europe.
Opel launched the Manta A, its coupé version of the mid-sized Ascona saloon in September 1970 (actually, two months ahead of the Ascona) and the market reaction was highly enthusiastic. The new Manta was a smooth, modern and handsome sporting coupé that was easily a match for the Capri, in appearance at least. There was a 1.2 litre base specification model available in Europe, but the focus was very much on the high-line 1.6 and 1.9 litre models with fashionable rostyle wheels and other sporting addenda.
The Firenza launch in May 1971 was a disaster for Vauxhall. Press photos featured cars in dreary colours with the basic Viva’s chrome hubcaps on standard steel wheels, expanses of painted steel visible inside and even a strip speedometer! At least one launch car had the Viva’s single rectangular headlamps and aluminium grille. Vauxhall had utterly misread the market for coupés and had, apparently, learnt nothing from the successful earlier launches of the Capri and Manta.
Unlike those two, which shared nothing visible with their saloon equivalents, the Firenza was far too similar in appearance to the Viva and this was unnecessarily exacerbated by the dowdy trim that drew comparisons instead with the frumpy Marina Coupé. Who cared that it could be had with a 2.0 litre engine, with good performance and handling, when it looked so plain?
The Firenza, in base trim, scored some fleet sales on account of its large boot, which was bigger than the Viva’s at 22 rather than 20 cu.ft. This was a consequence of retaining the saloon’s wheelbase and overall length while pushing the rear seat forwards, but was hardly a compelling selling point for a coupé!
Vauxhall tried to recover from this debacle by quickly upgrading the specification of the Firenza. Two or seven-dial instrumentation was introduced, as was better interior trim, quad headlamps in a black (rather than grey) grille, rostyle wheels and a wider range of rather more vibrant paint colours. Engines were upgraded to 1,256cc, 1,798cc and 2,279cc, the latter pair being the OHC ‘slant-four’** units from the Victor range.
Despite these improvements, the Firenza only survived in its original form for two years. Vauxhall split the Viva range in two in 1973, marketing the 1.8 and 2.3 litre higher specification models, including the coupé, under the Magnum name.
The Firenza name would live on, however. Inspired by the car’s success in saloon car racing, the High Performance (HP) 2.3 litre model was introduced in 1973. This was distinguished by a GRP moulded nosecone containing twin rectangular headlamps behind glass covers, a smooth centre section with an offset griffin decal, and air intake located below the front bumper. The HP Firenza was nicknamed the ‘Droopsnoot’ and was supplied only in metallic silver with a mainly black interior.
The HP Firenza was an image boosting model for Vauxhall but not a sales success and only 204 were built. It was, in part, hobbled by the 1974 fuel crisis and only remained on the market for two years. Vauxhall then cobbled together a mutant using a Viva/Magnum estate body with surplus droopsnoot front end, and called it the Sportshatch. Just 195 examples were built and supplied to dealers, then sold on as ex-demonstration models. The Sportshatch name would subsequently be used again for the three-door version of the Mk1 Cavalier Coupé, launched in 1978.
The final ignominy for the luckless Firenza was that surplus bodies were used for the poverty-spec Viva E coupé, launched in 1975 to compete with the Escort Popular. This was a very long way removed from the designers’ original concept for the Firenza.
* The HC Firenza range suffered catastrophic reliability and corrosion problems in the Canadian market and was withdrawn after just two years. No Vauxhall model would ever again be sold in Canada.
** The ‘slant’ was a reference to the fact that the engines were not installed vertically but were canted over at approximately 45° to reduce the height of the bonnet. The overhead camshaft was one of the first in a mass-production engine to be belt-driven.