Picture the scene. It’s the early 1970s, and Vauxhall is doing decent business, but its image is fusty and its new models, worthy though they are, can’t match the sex appeal of those of its arch-rival, Ford of Great Britain. The dowdy Viva HC competes against the curvaceous Mk1 Escort, while the slab-sided FE-Series looks dull next to the glamorous Cortina and Granada.
What’s needed is a new approach – a halo model with sporting appeal that’ll give Vauxhall a racier image, appeal to younger buyers, and show how good Vauxhalls of the future will be. Happily, in 1973, that car arrives in the form of the Firenza HP – better known by its nickname ‘droop snoot’, a reference to the aerodynamic nose grafted on by Vauxhall’s chief designer, Wayne Cherry.
Only 204 examples of the HP would be produced in the end – Vauxhall historians blame the oil crisis, although a strong rival in the shape of the Ford Capri played its part, too. But that low production number belies just how important the Firenza was in charting a course for Vauxhall’s future.
Not only did its sloping nose become the template for almost every new Vauxhall right through to the early 1990s, but the reason for the HP’s best-known feature – its aerodynamic purity – became part of Vauxhall’s mindset going forward. The result was a series of cleanly-styled, efficient cars – Chevettes, Astras, Cavaliers and Carltons – that felt forward-thinking and cutting edge, and which culminated with the Calibra of 1989 – nothing if not a spiritual successor to the Firenza HP with its remarkably low drag coefficient and swooping coupé shape.
Having said that, the Calibra in its standard form never quite had the overt sportiness of the Firenza HP. Just look at the 2.3-litre slant-four engine, for example, its cylinder head lovingly crafted by famous racing tuner Bill Blydenstein and each example finished by hand; there was lower, stiffer suspension than the standard Firenza’s, too, as well as a heavy-duty rear axle and a ZF five-speed gearbox – the first ever fitted to a production Vauxhall.