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It was a reader comment some time ago which made me consider which cars best exhibit the combination of vulgarity and sophistication. It is not an attribute reserved for the Americans either. And I came to think of the famous “Droop snoot” Firenza as one of the more successful combinations.

I must admit right away that combining the vulgar with the refined often strikes something deep within me – I am perhaps a little split in my car taste. And maybe that’s exactly why: If you can’t decide on restrained discretion or loud male roaring, then a combination is the obvious choice. The thing is, it rarely works very well. And while a car like the ’66 Ford Magic Cruiser received a lot of appreciative words along the way for the idea itself, there just weren’t many people who were actually convinced that having such a machine in their garage was a good thing.

The ordinary Viva in its third generation, dubbed the HC after its predecessors HA and HB, logically enough. Hardly thrilling…

There might well be several people who feel the same way about the Vauxhall Firenza HP?

Though I personally already have a soft spot for the standard version of the Firenza, which was a rather elegant coupé variation of the relatively dull Viva saloon in its third incarnation from 1970. Very stylish – the roofline was almost exotically curved and the narrow taillights combined with the thin chrome bumpers made it very pleasant indeed to look at. And I remember this quite clearly from way back when they weren’t even considered a classic car yet, as one such example resided in the small provincial town which I grew up in.

But the coupé version was called Firenza, and with it came more playfull lines. Elegant, I think.

While elegant, I looked neither vulgar nor refined. But that came in 1973, when Vauxhall found that their model program had become too boring anyway. The solution was a facelift to the Firenza – and not least a healthy dose of vitamins under the bonnet. Where the ordinary Firenza could be powered by as little as a 1.2-litre somewhat asthmatic engine, the new one received almost twice that size with a 2.3-litre machine pumping out over 130 horsepower. Maybe best of all; it was aptly named HP for High Performance.

And in 1973 this Firenza HP came to join the model program. The front was the biggest visible change, but there were many others hidden under the skin as well.

In reality however, the motorisation probably meant less to the model’s distinctiveness than its design, which was something as unusual for 1973 as aerodynamic. The biggest change was to the front, which received a brand new fibreglass cover which complemented the ordinary Firenza design with a truly sporty aura. The streamlined front gave rise to the nickname “droop snoot”. And with it, Vauxhall had created something “vulgar and refined in one”. In the thoroughly cool way that is…

The HP model was introduced with a special one-off race at Thruxton.

On its narrow wheels, with more chrome and its upright radiator grill, the ordinary Firenza is quite a stylish and well-proportioned sports coupé with good old-fashioned and traditional roots. But the HP is something entirely different: the radical change of the front design and a few other tricks such as using matt black rather than chrome, a sexy set of Avon Safety alloy wheels and not least of course the powerhouse of a Blydenstein developed 2.3-litre machine gives it just a touch of vulgarity – without going entirely overboard. Yes, I in fact find it quite refined that Vauxhall managed to change the Firenza so much with such small means. And out on the road, it’s even said to live up to everything its looks promises…

The rear wasn’t changed much, but if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. All HPs were silver metallic.

Not that any of that helped particularly when it came to selling the Firenza HP: In 1973, the oil crisis suddenly hit the western world hard and fuel prices soared. The market changed and subsequently the sporty HP became a resounding sales failure with a mere 204 examples sold. Of course, as is so often the case, this has helped it as a coveted classic car today – albeit like all other Opel / Vauxhalls, the Firenza struggles with the somewhat staid image which seems to stick relentlessly to the European GM brand. But there’s no denying that the Firenza HP benefits from both rarity, design, performance and motorsport history – yet, it’s still not an expensive car. Instead, it’s a very obvious and much overlooked competitor to the Ford Escort RS2000, Opel Kadett GT/E and BMW 2002tii. That is, if you can find one…

Only, there’s a twist: My whole point with this piece was that the Americans don’t posses the sole rights to the discipline of “vulgar and refined”. This Firenza HP was intended to demonstrate that. However, that point gets slightly eroded as I started examining who had actually been responsible for the update on the original Firenza? None other than Wayne Cherry, an American designer who initiated his GM career by helping design the original Chevrolet Camaro and Oldsmobile Toronado. That was before he became GM President of Design!

Hmm, are we still to conclude that Americans are on homeground when it comes to “vulgar and refined”?

With its torque-heavy engine, five gears, low weight and good aerodynamics, the HP was fast for its time.

 

5 Responses

  1. Andrew

    Claus, you have opened the flood-gates with the subject “vulgar and refined” as quite a few manufacturers have qualifying models and it is difficult to know where to begin.

    Here are some obvious European candidates (“refined” tends to exclude the “generalist” manufacturers until say 1980 as this was just the way things were done):

    BMW e63/e64
    Bristol 412
    Jensen Interceptor
    Porsche Cayenne / Panamera
    Lamborghini (most of the post 1973 production)
    Lexus 430
    Mercedes SL (R129, R230, R231…) and most AMGs…
    MG ZT 260 V8 SE (& related Pheonix models)
    Renault Avantime / Velsatis

    The Firenza was a brave attempt by Vauxhall to produce an interesting car from humble origins. Anorak fact: the headlamps come from an Alpine A310!

    Reply
  2. yrhmblhst

    Whilst I object to the term ‘vulgar’ , I would note that there is an even more powerful and cool version of this car available ; the same basic car was fitted with a 302 Chevrolet by Chevy in south africa to homologate it for racing. Now THATS one of these I could really get behind!

    Reply
  3. Anders Bilidt

    Mmmmmm… always did have a weak spot for a Firenza HP. Like you Claus, I too rather like the design of the stock Firenza too, but with that HP nose cone, it just elevates the car to a different level. Considering their rarity, it’s surprising just how often I see one or two attending a summer show. I always end up spending way too long gawking…

    @yrhmblhst, while I’m of course aware of the many homologation specials which were created in South Africa up through the seventies and eighties, I must confess that I had never heard of the Firenza V8. Learn something new every day… :-)
    Did a bit of googling – sad they didn’t have the HP nose cone. Still, I’m sure they must have been frighteningly hilarious to drive!

    Reply
  4. Claus Ebberfeld

    @andrew, amazing how you wiped out most of what Lamborghini is about these days in one single line – “most of the post 1973 production”! I’d say that the Countach is vulgar in a way I can very much relate to, though.

    The Vel Satis vulgar? Well that proves that one man’s “vulgar” is another man’s “sumptuous”. I quite like it – in a sort of “wouldn’t actually acquire one, though”-way.

    Reply
  5. Andrew

    @Claus…I’d be very happy with any of the pre-73 “Lambos” (finances permitting) but the others are not my idea of interesting cars.

    Perhaps this is a new anorak subject “interesting cars” and I suppose I should reflect all night on this !

    What fascinates me is how cars come together by evolution and how often major steps forward are taken for granted by customers.

    The Lamborghini case is a good one: nothing major has happened since the Miura !

    Andrew

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