Fire Sale

If the Firenza was Vauxhall’s answer to the Capri, one has to wonder what the question was.

(c) classics.honestjohn

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 Firenza in launch specification. (c) vauxpedia

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.

(c) avengers-in-time

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.

(c) car revs daily

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

35 thoughts on “Fire Sale”

  1. Comparing different manufacturers‘ approach to building coupés is very interesting.
    You get designs that are mere fastback versions of otherwise unchanged two door cars like the Taunus TC coupé which clearly looks like what it is.

    You get siblings like Manta/Ascona which look different but are so closely related that it is possible to bolt Manta wings to an Ascona body or vice versa

    You get cars that look closely related but are completely different like BMW’s E36 two and four door versions that don’t share a single body panel or Mercedes’ W123/C123 where the coupé even has a shorter wheelbase.

    And you get cars that look and are completely different like many Italian coupés like Alfa Giulia saloon vs. Giulia sprint GT ‘Bertone’, Fiat 124 saloon vs. 124 sport coupé and many more.

    1. Good morning, Dave. The meticulous BMW and Mercedes-Benz approach was typical of both manufacturers at the time. Each wanted to maintain the strong visual link to the saloon but weren’t willing to compromise the design of the coupé. The frameless windows of the E36 coupé instead of the overlapping ‘clamshell’ doors of the saloon necessitated a different A-pillar treatment, hence the front wings needed also to be unique to each model.

      I love the ‘Manta Shooting-Brake’ above! What was going on with the Taunus? Was it a failed ram-raid?

    2. The E36’s a-posts notbonly were different, they were ten centimetres farther back resulting in a completely different body,

  2. Thanks Daniel. A good summary of the life of an unfortunate car that was a very poor response to the rival Capri. These odd tail-heavy proportions featured widely across GM’s late ’60s to early ’70s catalogue, but didn’t really work on something as small as the HC Viva. The high stance and under-filled wheelarches did it no favours either.

    I like that Manta wagon. A missed opportunity, but Opel probably wanted to maintain as much separation as possible between the Manta and Ascona.

  3. The fist picture in red, with Rostyles, sill and DLO brightwork and coachlines looks every bit as “sporty” as a Capri XL, Firenza was very low-rent though as you say. I can’t remember looking at the cockpit as a car mad boy and thinking “wow!” Not enough dials, lights and switches see.
    The other thing which always confused me was that variety of names applied to the body styles that must have confused the customer with its intended position in the range and market. Again, as a boy, it was my job to know the relative position, trim and equipment fitted on every mainstream range on the road by way of personal observation backed up with generous reference to the appropriate brochure. I never worked out Firenzavivamagnum and Vauxhall themselves seemed to change their mind year by year.
    For all of their lives Capri was Capri and Manta was Manta with a range of trims through the range, simple.
    Both the early Manta A Luxus and the base/L Capris came with hubcaps and some pretty stingy trim though. I guess they didn’t share a body and therefore suffer comparison with an equivalent Ascona or Cortina like Firena had to with its dowdy Viva sibling.

  4. The Viva E, it says, was a “complete car at a popular price”. One would hope every car sold was complete. Or did Vauxhall sometimes sell ones with parts missing? And popularity is a matter of description not prescription. Maybe it was a pun (but not a good one). Poor old Vauxhall. The title photos shows a pleasant car too. They could have sold these more succesfully. Management, as ever in the UK, strangled the product with compromise. Pragmatism can be very destructive.

    1. The red car in the title photo is an early Firenza, identifiable by its grey, rather than black, front grille. If all the launch cars, publicity and advertising had featured high-specification cars like that, it might have stood a better chance.

    2. Hi Richard, thinking a bit more about the “complete car at a popular price” tag-line for the Viva E, was the mention of “popular” simply a dig at Ford’s less well specified Escort Popular?

    3. Daniel: yes, it´s certainly a joke at Ford´s expense. It would have been much more obvious at the time. The implication is the Ford is not complete. Jokes are about context sometimes and not logic.

  5. Dave’s photo of the Taunus above got me thinking about coupés that are closely based on a saloon. The Taunus TC above was successfully facelifted to align it with the Cortina Mk4 and identical Taunus saloon. The result is, I think, not bad at all:

    In fairness, that’s probably it’s best angle. From the front, it’s standard Mk4 Cortina.

    1. I like the way the axles are at the same height as the sill. The stance is good – I might not have seen one of these cars, ever. There are not many around and they are not cheap. A ’74 costs 10K euros (Holland), a ’72 costs 6K euros (Romania) and for 23K euros there is one in Renko, Finland.

    2. In case anyone thinks they’re hallucinating, the couple originally featured in the photo above were fined for not observing social-distancing rules and sent home.

    3. That Taunus Coupé is freaking me out! It’s really strange seeing a new (to me) variant of something that was once such a ubiquitous part of British life as the Mk4 Ford Cortina. It’s like when you go on holiday and encounter versions of popular cars that aren’t sold in your domestic market.

    4. The Taunus Mk4 coupé came from Ford Argentina. Ford Cologne didn’t make coupés with the facelift.

    5. Fun fact of the day: the reason for the truncated tail-lights is that the ‘Mk4’ coupé is still based on the Mk3 body so, like the Mk3 Taunus saloon, has a bootlid that opens to bumper level.

      When the Mk4 Cortina / Taunus was launched, I remember reading some old marketing guff about customers wanting a return to the Mk2’s high-level boot sill, so they could more easily judge when the boot was loaded to capacity!

    6. It the risk of hijacking my own piece on the Firenza*, I’m sufficiently fascinated by the Taunus TC (Argentinian edition) to find some more photos of it:

      Intriguingly, they facelifted it again so they could use the larger tail lights from the standard Mk4 Cortina/Taunus, albeit at the cost of a much higher loading lip and narrower boot opening:

      * I normally confine myself to hijacking my esteemed colleagues’ pieces.

    7. Looks like it’s ready for a rock climb perched up in the air like that. Like a girl on her first set of high heels, wobbly. Must be well over a foot from the ground to the rear bumper. Great breakaway angle, though for romping through thickets on rough ground. It looks clueless, if one considers a sporty coupe should be low-slung to have some reasonably flat cornering capability. In fact only Jeeps tower that high these days, and “rugged” SUVs hug the ground like those hatchback Porsche Macans.

  6. Smart-ass-modus ON:
    The first mass-production engine with a belt-driven overhead camshaft came from Hans Glas GmbH for the “Glas 1004” in 1962 . (afaik)
    Smart-ass-modus OFF

    1. Snippy-reply modus ON:

      The footnote clearly states “…one of the first…”

      Snippy-reply modus OFF:

      Good morning, Fred!

    2. BMC were experimenting with V4 and V6 engines and an in line four, with belt driven overhead camshafts in the late ’50s. Given Glas’s less than happy experience as the earliest adopter for mass production, perhaps it’s as well that Greek Al had enough sway at Longbridge to veto belt drive.

      Fiat just beat Vauxhall with the belt driven DOHC engine in the 125, which was launched in spring 1967. The FD Victor arrived in October of that year. It’s strange to think of these two as rivals, and shows the diversity of the industry at the time.

      A curious fact which links the Fiat and Vauxhall- the belts for both were made at Uniroyal’s factory at Newbridge, west of Edinburgh.

    3. Pontiac had the second OHC belt drive on the market for their 6 cylinder Tempest Sprint for 1966. Came out in autumn 1965. Being GM, one presumes the technology developed in Detroit was passed on to Vauxhall for the Victor.

      I have the article on the engines’s development in the General Motors Engineering Journal Volume 13. It also had hydraulic valve lifters on the head end of the pivoting fingers to obviate the need for adjusting valve clearance, a standard US feature by then. No clacking valve train to listen to. But Opel went on to create the mechanical din of the cam-in-head engine, and I never understood why.

      GM cam drive belt development started with steel cord belts back in the ’50s, but they found them to fail at 50,000 miles and rust was a problem. Neoprene worked best for the outer covering. Then they got into fibreglass cord, and investigated cord twists, and angular direction and so on. Uniroyal or Gates involvement isn’t mentioned but obviously Uniroyal was there. (that scanned article mentions Vauxhall starting in 1962) When they finally worked out what worked best and the design profiles of the cast iron pulleys (they had found grit caused least damage to cast iron of all materials tried even in uncovered desert testing) that worked with the belt to keep it centred at all times. Lab and field durability testing to -30C and +120C went on for three and a half years! So the basic idea was approved for investment back in 1960 or ’61. That’s serious development. Don’t think Vauxhall by itself could have managed that completeness by themselves or even Fiat for that matter. GM working with Uniroyal gave a complete product to the world at large which the rubber company promoted worldwide, back when GM had so much money they ruled the automotive arena near enough. Goodness knows what Glas could have afforded – nothing, strikes me as about right, probably suck it and see and hope for the best.

      I know DTW essentially regards US innovations as if they never occurred, and that brilliant brains in Europe came up with all the good stuff, but back in those days, cubic money won out and the US was way ahead on engineering development when they put their mind to it. Of course, they often didn’t care enough to bother beyond designing ever better automatic transmissions while looking askance at disc brakes with Not Invented Here sydrome – they had their blind spots as well, thinking they were omnipotent. But the 1966 Olds Toronado also showed that GM’s mechanical engineering prowess made the European stuff looked like it was knocked up in a shed. I think here of BMC FWD, and the production quality of Citroens. Fit ‘n finish of the non-oily bits was where the Americans really didn’t care enough to do a good job. But compared to income, cars were dead cheap and quite durable beyond the inevitable rust.

      I was a mechanical engineering student at the time, and beyond amazing Danish measurement electronics, nobody paid much attention to European stuff, because it was so behind. The amazing stuff Hewlett Packard produced in those days also comes to mind. I could write an essay on the sad state of affairs Imperial College’s mechanical engineering department lab equipment in 1969 was, compared to the small university in Canada I’d just left. Or that the MSc courses were but a repeat of my senior year back home, a bit better here, behind there. Quite depressing for me professionally. Things changed but it was twenty more years before parity was achieved. Production facilities in Blighty circa 1970 were also from the dark ages from what I saw on my sponsored trips to various companies; CIL was a dungeon that stood out for complete awfulness.

    4. ‘I know DTW essentially regards US innovations as if they never occurred’

      Bill, it’s your job to rectify this, and you’re doing it very well indeed. In fact, I’ve set up an offshore account in your name, to which I add a certain sum on a monthly basis (on the basis of a fee for your educational services and reparations for having been forced to read so much ill-informed gibberish over the years).

    5. Dear Bill. Firstly, let me say that as DTW’s editor, I value your below the line contributions, which for the most part are informative and constructive. When we initiated the idea of DTW in 2013, (which does feel like a terribly long time ago), in the Scarsdale pub off Kensington High Street, we had the idea of creating something different, but above all, something with depth and meaning. Silly us.

      We recognised that none of us were necessarily in possession of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the motor business, nor of automotive history – especially when it came to the US market and industry. But then, we never laid claim to doing so. I’m sorry that you feel that DTW has a blind spot when it comes to this subject, but I do feel that your take on how we view our friends across the Atlantic lacks much of a meaningful basis.

      You cite for instance the Oldsmobile Toronado by way of example of our blindsided prejudice, yet we have covered this car, not once but twice, each time in highly complimentary terms. At no time was it ever compared unfavourably with anything from the old continent – well perhaps in braking terms, but I think we can agree that this aspect is probably fair game. Who doesn’t want adequate braking capability?

      The story behind how GM developed the toothed belt camshaft drive may well turn out to be a real bodice ripper, but I would respectfully suggest that it requires the right author, with access to the relevant background information to do the story justice. Maybe that’s you – but perhaps you would rather not expose yourself to a similar level of scrutiny?

      The US industry is covered quite often here, and while one might discern the occasional inaccuracy, you will not find the level of ill-considered prejudice that peppers most Euro-centric writing on the subject. Yet you offer throwaway comments that we only champion European innovations – that is simply not true – that we know nothing about the subject – okay, that may well be the case. But which is it Bill? We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. It’s possible that you’re simply being mischievous – it’s difficult to tell since you never elaborate – but this rankles – perhaps because we try so hard to be both fair and open-minded.

      I won’t deny that DTW (and I include myself here) have their hobby-horses, but who doesn’t? Perhaps yours is simply to find fault with us. Anyway, thanks as ever for stopping by. It’s always pleasant to hear from you – although I’m forced to admit that sometimes it’s more pleasant than others.

  7. Interesting little snippet that the Manta A came out ahead of the Ascona A it was based on. A similar thing was done with Rootes’s ‘Audax’ Sunbeam Rapier, launched in late 1955, the Hillman Minx saloon following in early 1956, about 6 months later.
    I agree that the Firenza looks slightly awkward, particularly lanky in profile and too much like the Viva. It would have helped if they had only used the four headlight front on it; the saloons didn’t get that until the Magnum came along so it would have distanced it a bit better. There were ‘poverty’ spec Capri’s too (standard hub caps and the fake side grilles missing) but the unique bodyshell kept even those a bit special. The comparison with the Marina coupe sadly rings true.

  8. Is there a broader socio-cultural reason for this sad-in-car-terms story? My working hypothesis is that there is a tendency in anglo-saxon commerce to offer the least you can get away with. And on the continent it is often more like to offer as much as possible and still make a profit. Exalted brands like Rolls-Royce have a different proposition, which is how much money can we get out of people by being excellent. And Jaguar is an exception where they did often try to offer outstanding performance and quality but did so through other compromises. Even if not cheap, Jaguars were often fabulous value for money, the Series 3 being a prime example but also even up to the present time with most of their models. The whole BMC enterprise was predicated on selling cheap stuff at a higher price. Rover? It had phases of excellence and phases of corner cutting. Fiat? Renault? Saab? Volvo?

    1. I suspect that British companies got themselves in to a vicious circle of bad management-poor products-no money to invest in good, new products-compromised products-poor sales , etc. Hence the similarity between this and the Marina – they were cautious about spending money and therefore developed a mediocre product, which meant that they had less revenue than they needed, landing themselves further in trouble.

      In a wider sense, I further suspect that two factors had a profound effect on what the British produced: colonial markets and the pre-user-chooser fleet sector. Both imply the need (or give an excuse) to build simple, rugged products that can be fixed easily and cheaply. Pre-Issigonis cars typified this approach, as did the Marina, etc, latterly.

      What is telling is that companies such as Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz managed to offer relatively sophisticated engineering that was sufficiently well designed and assembled to cope with tough conditions, which points to wider management and societal problems in Britain at the time. I think this is a large subject.

    2. In fairness, the general relationship of the society to the industry can be seen in France, Italy and Japan. Might I ask if our impression of the societies comes via our understanding of the car industry? For many people their experience of Germany is more or less mediated by cars. The same goes for Japan. France and the UK have wider channels to diffuse their culture.
      I think I see a correlation between the UK and its automotive culture but to a large measure my understanding of is made up of knowledge about their industry. When I look at the rest of society I look for confirmation of my prejudices.

    3. Hello Richard,

      I think the auto industry used to be the bellwether / exemplar (when GM sneezes, etc), but as the share of GDP accounted for by manufacturing has declined, in some countries, at least, I’m no longer sure.

      Also, manufacturing practices and products are now much more standard across countries, where before there was much more differentiation.

      But once, yes.

  9. Thanks to Daniel O’Callaghan, I´m awake now and can go to topic.

    I can remember the Ford Taunus coupé once was a dreamcar of mine. At that time, however, there were only scrap cars on the market. Some well-preserved cars were not really for sale, according the requested prices.
    (It later became an OSI-Ford 20 M TS, but the-best-wife-of-all didn´t liked it that much – the car had no seat belts, can you imagine? – and I sold it after a very short time.)

    To me the Vauxhall is nice done. I can imagine that well-preserved vehicles are sold at fairly high prices these days – if at all.

    1. The funny thing about these cars is that there trajectory has been from viewed as bit ordinary (“it´s just a Ford”) to being a bit rubbish (“It´s just an Opel with sporting pretensions”) to highly desirable (“that´s so cool”). That´s no use to Ford et al. who need to make money on their cars the day they sell them. Yes, isn´t there a way to reverse associate the cars now with the cars from then? If you look at the Vignale edition Fords and imagine them in twenty five years, they will be be rather lovely things and the same goes for Opel´s top-spec cars in jolly specifications. The bean counters will hate this suggestion: they should always makes a rarer variant of a mainstream car, even if it´s just a few panels that differ. People love this stuff.

  10. (Nervously clears throat…)

    The Droopsnoot: In Firenza terms, surely the “Holy ‘Grale” of the model line? It even has the racing heritage – okay, Gerry Marshall might not be as much of a household name as Miki Biasion, but fair’s fair…

    (Leaves his metaphorical pint half finished, grabs coat and departs hurriedly…)

  11. Thanks for the article Daniel.

    The full fat Droopsnoot is indeed highly prized these days. It came to market with some nice touches like a 5spd dogleg Getrag gearbox and the quite lovely Avon alloys. The nose – for me – helps balance the back end a little better.

    Hardly an unbiased comment – grew up with perhaps the lowliest entry point to this strain of Vauxhall, an HB Viva with the 1600 OHC version of the slant four.

    The HB remains a pretty car. Like most Vauxhalls it remains largely overlooked in the classic car scene but rarity maintains value – tho’ not close to the those of the better marketed – then and now – of the contemporaneous Fords.

    1. You’re welcome, Rick. Glad you enjoyed it. Good point about the ‘droopsnoot’ balancing up the tail-heavy look of the standard coupé body.

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