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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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”?