THE CHEVROLET FIRENZA CAN AM | Part One | 15 Minute Read

Firenza Can Am

1. Can Am Decal

THE CHEVROLET FIRENZA CAN AM

WAKING FROM A DEEP SLEEP

Part One

This series of posts can best be read in conjunction with other blog articles on this site:

           ‘NO OPTION BUT TO OPTION’….And… ‘FORDOMINATION PART 3

These stories give a picture of the macro GM status at the time. In the article “no option but to option” we can also see some of the surprising parallels that exist between the Z28 Camaro development programme by Chevrolet Engineering in the USA in 1966/67 and the GMSA Engineering development of the Can Am in SA in 1972/73 which will be covered in these posts.

Both programmes were undertaken by operations breaking the General’s Corporate rules. Both, despite a ‘No Motorsport’ policy, were projects designed to go racing and to boost the brand (the Camaro to establish a ‘butch persona’ for the car against the very successful Mustang)…and of course clobber Ford in the process. Both used the Chevy 302 Small Block V8.  Both progressed and enlisted the best race management available to do the job on track and finally, after successful once-off racing programmes, both projects ended without further involvement by GM in the racing game….read on.

2. Can Am Pic
3. Can Am Clubhouse
4. Chevrolet_Camaro_Z28_1968 3
5. Sunoco Camaro

KINDRED SPIRITS – 302 GM Racers

FIRENZA CAN AM & CAMARO  Z28

 

Instinct can be a very helpful tool if tuned into the right wavelength… so when my boss Gary called and handed me a set of Firenza keys with the request to go and collect a car parked in the company reception parking lot, the radar was working. Given only the registration number his rather dismissive answer to my query on the detail of the car… “it’s a brown coupe”… was surprising, I detected a wry smile, so something was up. I strolled over to Fred our vehicle fleet controller and had an entry pass made out to allow the car entry to Product Engineering.

The GMSA Company reception area was a long way from engineering so I had to get a lift from someone collecting parts in the plant and was dropped off at the security office adjacent to the car park…. the instinct was working. Parked facing Kempston road, rear end facing towards me, was the metallic brown Firenza Coupe… looking like…well…a metallic brown Firenza Coupe…with two tail pipes. The talk on the engineering grapevine had been buzzing for weeks about something going on with Basil van Rooyen, nothing specific… but we had put the numbers together… and we knew something special was in the air.

6. two tailpipes

Two Tailpipes

 

The best part of being the first GM bloke to drive Basil’s V8 Firenza creation was that I was able to do so without interference and, being parked outside of the security area, I had a choice…play by the rules and take the car through security back to engineering…or down Kempston road to the freeway just a few hundred yards from the car park and head up the hill to Cotswold and back. Without looking under the bonnet, I hit the ignition….guess which direction?.

Despite being a young and relatively inexperienced engineer, I had been around the block sufficiently well to know just how rough and ready some car conversions could be…so I expected some of that. This was not rough at all. In fact as the engine fired up and apart from the subdued V8 exhaust growl, the general N&V refinement was better than the stock 2.5 four.  OK I thought, ‘let’s see what the driveline is like’… again expecting the worst, also clean. Gearshift and clutch were equally acceptable, along with moderately heavy though tolerable steering effort.  So, all I had to do was drive the car and see what this conversion was about.  Low engine speed response was heroic and it certainly felt good through to medium engine speeds but very ‘soft’ above 4000rpm… Please appreciate that at that point I had no idea which of the Chevy small block engines had been fitted… It most certainly was not a 302, of that I was instantly aware but it could have been a 307, 327 or a 350. I gave it the full beans on the run up the freeway and whilst not overly impressed with high rpm power, was amazed at the lack of a nose heavy feel to the car…it ‘pointed’ rather well.

Arriving at engineering with a car ticking from heat exhaustion would not look good, so took it easy on the way back and peeked under the bonnet before passing the keys back to Gary, now with a big grin on his face.. All I said was “it’s surprisingly good, no reason why this can’t be done”

The car had been fitted with an absolutely stock 307 two barrel small block V8 (From the C10 Pick up), with just 150 Bhp and a Saginaw (Holden Monaro) 4 speed gearbox. Rear axle was a stock Firenza 3.08:1. The build had been professionally done and that fact would go a long way to convincing the establishment that this was a viable mission. .

That was April 1972.

One month later the project to homologate a road going “Firenza V8” (as it was known in engineering) was in place. Incredibly… exactly six months later, the first 302 race car appeared at Kyalami for the 1972 Nine hour.

7. Can Am Kyalami 1972

JOB ONE PRODUCTION CAR OFFLINE IN SEPTEMBER OF 1972 – BECAME THE RACER IN THE NINE HOUR. THE CAR WAS BUILT IN RECORD TIME FROM A CLEAN SLATE, ENTERED AS A PROTOTYPE

For a number of reasons this was spectacular

Firstly, to get the job done in that time, given the workings of any large motor company was amazing…but for this to be done by GMSA, a company not only having very little experience in motor sport or quick cars in general… and from an organisation with a very aggressive international “No Motor Racing” policy…

…Extraordinary would be an apt response.

Even more exceptional is the fact that I do not know of any manufacturer, let alone a complete ‘newby’ in the business of racing, brave enough to launch their new homologation special straight into an international endurance race series. This was big balls stuff and that’s why we need to look at the key role players who not only achieved the nine hour timeline but completed the engineering for both the road and race cars… homologated and built the road cars… built the race cars… and put together that entertaining spectacle on tracks in 1973.

So the first order of business… how did we get to that point in April of 1972?

For those interested in the Can Am project from a tech and racing point of view, Part One does not have much to do with the cars themselves…but please bear with me because in order to understand the true degree of difficulty in getting the project off the ground, I must cover a brief background. There are two parts to the immediate history, the first has briefly to do with what was happening with GM product on the local race/rally scene prior to 1972 and the second, the arrival of Bob Price as the MD of GMSA. We will start with the VIVA GT.

VIVA GT

VAUXHALL VIVA GT 

 

The Viva GT arrived in SA just a few months after its launch in the UK in 1968. This was the second performance sedan from Vauxhall after the VX 4/90 of 1962 and the Mark One version was a hard core attempt by VM to build a decent performance car. That it was…and apart from some weird styling cues like multiple dummy exhaust tailpipes and look-alike alloy wheel covers, the car was the real deal. The slant four  overhead cam 2 Litre engine was the product of a very advanced OHC V8 engine programme conducted by Vauxhall in the mid 60’s in which the Four cylinder unit was essentially the ‘left’ bank of the proposed 4 Litre V8. VM got a few things spot on in the mark one. Running a super close ratio gearbox (2.54:1 first gear) and short final drive gearing, coupled with a really good suspension and brake package, this was a driver’s car and perfect for a shot at going racing.

It was no surprise therefore that sometime in 1970  the call came through from Tony Viana. At that time I was the Service Engineer responsible for Viva/Firenza and he wanted to race a “GT” and had been passed on to me looking for motorsport contacts within GM. The truth was there was no racing activity of any sort… none. The call came to me because out of the nearly 4000 people in the company, I was the only one to be directly involved in motorsport of any kind. The call was disturbing because here was a serious competitor looking for help in order to race one of our products. The concern was that he was getting nowhere in his attempts to find somebody who could assist. This was not the first time I had been contacted by folk wanting to get involved and, as I had done before, passed the call on to a reliable contact in Engineering who promised to do what he could.

The point, however, was that seven years after Ford and the rest of the world had woken up to the arrival of performance saloon cars in 1963, which seriously ramped up proceedings on track, GMSA were still not active. Apart from some work being carried out by Engineering in the prep of random GM products for rallying… nothing on racetracks. The arrival of the Viva GT in SA in late 1968 had however woken the dealer body from slumber and with Tony Viana in the Freestate, Ray Emond and Chris Rowe Wilson in Natal, Bob Thomas in the Jo’burg area and a few others, all rattling cages at Dealer level wanting to race the ‘GT’.

9. Viva GT Kyalami

THOMAS VIVA GT    TRANSVAAL MOTORS    LEEUWKOP KYALAMI

All the Viva GT runners were reasonably successful in the late’69 –‘71 period and would have been considerably more so if GM had been fully involved. The cars also unfortunately arrived on the scene just at the time of regulation changes in saloon car racing, increasing the degree of difficulty in getting to grips with a somewhat stubborn new engine design. All the efforts were initially private attempts with the assistance of Dealers…but no support from GM.

By 1972 the Firenza had arrived on the scene fitted with the Chevy 2.5 Engine. With the new car being basically a reskinned Viva, most of those hardy racers running the Viva GT switched to the Firenza. The interesting point being that the 2.5 Chevy pushrod mill in race trim was both lighter and more powerful than the original GT 2 litre and it made for a more competitive race car. At this point, mainly because GM were involved in the Can Am programme, the contact at engineering level began to improve along with special component availability. I recall a batch of EN23 2.5 Chevy con rods being specially manufactured for the racing folk during that time (Stock rod EN18)…but still no direct involvement.

10. Tony Viana Scribante

TONY VIANA FIRENZA 2.5     FC&H  FREESTATE DEALER      THE ESSES SCRIBANTE

I mention this because in the next few paragraphs we will cover the story of Bob Price, the GMSA MD who, during 1971 was confronted with market pressure to liven up the company’s image. Those dealers directly involved with the Viva and Firenza racers had now had a taste of motorsport.

BOB PRICE  

11. Bob Price

Champion Troubleshooter in the 70’s

This was a giant of a man, not only in physical presence but in his demeanour, capability and ability to interact with people at any level of the social spectrum. At the age of 45 his tenure at GMSA as the MD of the operation started in late 1970 and was unique in that this was a special GMOO (General Motors Overseas Operations) appointment as a troubleshooter, having been given the specific task of fixing the ailing local GM operation. This was not the conventional replacement of an American MD arriving/leaving as a step in climbing the GM Corporate ladder (which happened every 4 years or so) … Bob arrived with serious intent and hit the ground running.

I must firstly just touch on another quaint GM cultural oddity…”the GM salute” or  in more recent times as it has become known as the “GM Nod”…. For any real detail on this there are any number of excellent articles on this aspect of GM management culture and to which I can attest as having been prevalent in the SA  operation. One aspect of this was how upper management groups could close ranks in an organisation when a new leader appeared. For GM it was something more focused and the need to maintain the status quo amongst the top group whilst ‘defending the realm’ for the next four years, was something that really happened.  The team did not anticipate what Price was about though and he cut through the defence lines like a knife through butter. For those that do not believe that this kind of behaviour exists in large corporates, here is a taste of what happened in the few months after he arrived:

Firstly, while respecting his senior staff, the man virtually sidelined management in the quest to find the real pulse of the SA operation. His first task was to understand the environment, so there followed meetings with government officials, dealers and the dealer council (notice how I separated those two) and GM staff*. He instituted his renowned ‘confetti’ system of information gathering and the blisteringly accurate follow up. There was no place to hide…and he topped this off by having someone of substantial integrity as his PA.

* Within weeks of his arrival, Price had sussed out that there was a serious amount of discord in the ranks and he did something which in those days was startlingly unique and surprisingly, in all my years in business, not seen since.

Rod Ironside the Senior HR man was tasked with putting together a collection of the most vocal critics of the company, taken from rank and file employees. Whilst the group had a formal name which I cannot recall, we called it the ‘shit stirrers’ group… This was in no way intended to ‘muzzle’ those involved but was actively chaired by Price himself, meetings were held regularly and where Ironside was required to handle each complaint/issue with feedback at the following meeting.

It worked wonders on many fronts…problems were resolved, silly inputs were put in their place and negative behaviour capped. 

Amongst all this I was roped into the team establishing product quality “grass parades” where the service engineers were given opportunity “to tell it like it was”…the first glimpse of what the man was about were becoming abundantly clear.

Whilst this activity was implemented with deference to all concerned, within weeks the very first major decision rocked the establishment to its core. The pending Firenza dealer and retail new car launch was stopped in its tracks and production of the new cars halted. For us car company guys we know that this is just not done in the motor industry…a new vehicle launch plan is sacrosanct, it is the lifeblood of all that is sacred and the team will metaphorically spill a little of that blood to keep things on track… and in the 70’s, project timing was maintained, sometimes turning a blind eye allowing issues to slip through the net.

After all, in those times there was a bit of poetic licence tolerating the fact that new vehicle ‘teething problems’ could affect early customers… and that was OK…or so it was thought…but not by Bob. His Dealer visits and “frankly speaking” discussions with staff members critical of many issues had laid bare the threads of what needed doing. I regale the incident that broke the camel’s back. This event sent a clear message that he was in charge and that there was a new, very different path being established on how problems were to be solved.

Having arrived a few months before the scheduled launch of the new Chevrolet Firenza (aka Vauxhall Viva), Price decided on a clandestine road trip to key dealers around the country, taking with him two early production versions of the proposed new ‘Chevy’ Firenza…a 1159cc sedan and a 2.5 Litre Coupe. The cars were generally very well accepted by the dealer groups …until a final stop in Bloemfontein…and here the story as it was passed on to me directly by our Service division GM at the time. As I understand it, the  cars were displayed after hours in these selected operations in order for the sales and service teams to have a good look and test drive the cars as discreetly as possible. All was going fine until the dealer principal of the operation opened the bonnet of the 2.5 …with Price standing fairly close by and after taking a look at the engine…he simply dropped the bonnet from its open height and angrily muttered words to this effect in Afrikaans… “Hierdie ding gaan nie op my perseel verkoop word nie”.  (This thing is not going to be sold on my premises.)

To say that the incident put the cat amongst the pigeons is the understatement of the century. All hell broke loose, not with the dealer, who had explained his disquiet to Bob at the time, but back at HQ the next day. GM engineering and service engineering were hauled into a meeting to explain. The saga of the ongoing battle between the two operations regarding the poor serviceability of the Carter YF carburettor (also fitted to the 2.5 Chevy engine in previous applications), along with masses of customer complaints, was laid bare.

The point being made is that this incident identified the “salute” to be alive and well. GM managers were prone to avoiding ‘fixing’ things because somebody would have to fall on his sword to do so…so finger pointing was a part of daily life. In this instance it was the classic stand-off between two silos in the organisation. Service lived with the problem of constant poor driveabilty complaints …and engineering constantly advised the service division that the problem was because dealers did not know how to set the carbs up properly…after all they, engineering, ‘could fix any vehicle’. The real problem which was the fact that the carbs should not go out of tune in the first place, was being conveniently ignored by engineering and worse, something I never understood, service engineers were sucked into this logic.. crazy but true. I think that Price must have looked at this lot and realised he was dealing with exactly what he had been sent there to fix, so this is the point at which the launch and production was halted. There was no short term solution to fix the YF (the jury is probably still out as to the exact reason for the carb problem)… thankfully there was a better answer.

12. Carter YF

The Offending Device.  A Crate of which is thought to be at the bottom of Algoa Bay

13. 36DCD Weber

The Solution….The Italians met the short Lead Time in Style

To cut a long story short, within six weeks, all 2.5 Firenzas were retrofitted with twin choke Weber Carburettors on locally cast inlet manifolds and unique accelerator control mechanisms. That was not all…as a result of this, Price took the view that if one issue was being ‘swept under the carpet’, there must be more. There were 26 issues in all. In a nutshell I was the engineer handed the responsibility for managing the Firenza ‘Fix To Sell’ programme which contained those upgrades on all cars built to that point… prior to delivery to dealers… one of which was the carburettor rework. Start up production incorporated the updates.

The Firenza build and launch went ahead… sales and market acceptance were better than expected….

You may now be asking yourself what in the world has this got to do with the Can Am project?… In short…Everything… A big portion of the task at hand was for Price to champion ‘Chevrolet’ as the primary branding for GMSA.** Price and the Firenza were joined at the hip from day one and this was the second in the range of locally badge-engineered Chevrolet vehicles to come from the company, the first during the Price tenure.

**In the blog “finding new roads” the story mentions the scattered branding within the local GM operation, accounting for some 15 different brands under the greater corporate umbrella. When compared to Australia with Holden as a single brand, the UK with Vauxhall and Germany (essentially Europe) with Opel it was felt that Countries like South Africa, Argentina and Brazil should adopt a single Chevrolet branding for locally produced product. That commenced in SA during 1969:

Holden Kingswood, badged as Chevrolet Kommando

14. Kingswood

Kingswood

15. kommando

Kommando

Vauxhall Firenza, badged as Chevrolet Firenza

17. Vauxhall

Vauxhall

18. Chev Firenza

Chevrolet

Opel  Commodore, badged as Chevrolet 38/4100  (1972)

19. 4100 Chev

CHEVROLET 4100 DUAL HEADLIGHT AND RAISED BONNET LINE  4.1 L6 CHEVY ENGINE

20. commodore

OPEL COMMODORE L6 2.8 OPEL CIH ENGINE

We have just illustrated the point that problems can exist in an organisation and go unchecked for eons…and unless the right person turns up to apply a new standard…nothing changes. In his dealer contacts during the remainder of 1971, Price was also confronted with the fact that GM was not fairing too well in capturing sales to the growing baby boomer generation. The Dealers were getting scratchy, the traditional market was being polluted by moneyed younger buyers who increasingly wanted ‘fast exciting and loud’ as opposed to the traditional ‘solid, average and chrome’, the main serving by GM at the time, thus not allowing them access. It was not about whether GM had a few performance cars like the Viva GT available for sale, it was about going out and creating excitement and building some streetcred. Price understood that and realised dealers would lose a growing portion of the market if something was not done.

Basil’s contact with Price in which he put forward his idea of a V8 engined Firenza and a possible racing programme came at exactly the right time in early 1972, this was fertile ground and after direct contact, Price agreed to the build of a prototype…which in real terms for us was a proof of concept…

The Chance to put the Chevrolet brand into the winners circle locally would be a major step in the new branding exercise.

NEXT:   

FIRENZA CAN AM PART TWO – UNDERCOVER ENGINEERING.

Set against the background of the successful V8 Ford Capri Perana programme by Basil Green a few years before, the  prevailing general mindset concerning the Can Am project, seems to be that it followed the same level of independence from head-office in the design and build phases, as did the Ford. This did not happen at all. The V8 Capri happened as an ‘off site’ project because of the strong relationship built over a number of years between the Ford and Green operations in the business of modified saloons and engine conversions.

For the GM/Van Rooyen task, things had to happen differently. I remind you, GM were not in racing and for those that did get involved the chances of ending a budding career in the company were very real.

By |2018-06-23T08:22:19+00:00June 19th, 2018|Categories: A Different Corner, GM, Performance Saloon Car History|Tags: , , , , |11 Comments

About the Author:

I have been in the motor industry all my life and despite spending 20 odd years with Datsun/Nissan, remain a GM man at heart.

11 Comments

  1. Capt. Tony Wicksteed June 21, 2018 at 5:20 am - Reply

    A gentleman in the UK has built up a replica of the Can-Am rallied by the late Jan Hettema. It carries all the correct advertising stickers of the period and, although it is driven on the roads with a UK registration number, is displayed at motor sport shows with Jan’s TSN 2333 registration plates fitted.

    I did a bit of rallying in Natal and won the 1976 Alpine rally in the Williams Hunt and Co. 2.7 litre four door Firenza navigated by Mike Hooper.

    Enjoyed reading your article.

    Regards.

    Tony (Noddy!) Wicksteed.

    • lino June 26, 2018 at 8:28 pm - Reply

      Capt., that UK replica is so well done by the owner/builder Mick Strafford & driven as well as it’s built. Unlike the track replica’s here that mostly run larger engines that rally replica has a similar spec 302ci motor as per original’s.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2Zu_dw5Kic

  2. Marius Crouse June 21, 2018 at 9:09 pm - Reply

    Paul Clark….related to Roy Clark? Brings back memories. Rod Ironside and Bob Price….names often mentioned by my dad Morris Crouse and his 2 brothers Jo and Gallie (George) as they all worked af GM. My dad’s initials were GM too! And the horrible Carter carb!! All the screws were forever working themselves loose! And those infamous flatspots prevent speedy pullaways!

    • Paul Clark June 23, 2018 at 7:51 am - Reply

      Hi Marius, nice to hear form you and your comments on the Carter Carb are absolutely spot on! Not related to Roy Clark but I remember him well. GM was a special place at that time.

  3. Leo Pauw June 22, 2018 at 8:23 am - Reply

    This takes me back some years. The first car Basil put a V8 into was the Vauxhall Viva. Had the privelage to go to Pretoria with him to sort out some books at the Superformance branch. Went like hell on the Ben Schoeman highway. With 4 people in the car he had some fun with an Ferrari Dino. Dropped him like a bomb.

  4. Eugene June 23, 2018 at 6:53 am - Reply

    Where do I find Part 2 of the Can Am story?

    • Paul Clark June 23, 2018 at 7:49 am - Reply

      Hi Eugene, it’s a 3 part series and part 2 will come out early next month!

  5. CraigJ June 23, 2018 at 11:44 am - Reply

    As always, a fascinating insight behind the scenes. I really enjoy reading your recollections.

  6. Keith June 25, 2018 at 6:53 am - Reply

    Hi Paul,

    What do you value a beautiful original Canam at?

    Keith

  7. lino June 25, 2018 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    If anyone to write this story, among others that there may still be around from that time – yourself & Rupert. Looking forward to the next part……though lots still to ask about the cars, times & all those that made this one of the most significant bit of local saloon car history which in it’s time frame hardly more than a year and a half. So significant it was from that first 9 Hour to the following year Cape 3 Hour the three Dealer Team cars had an absolute presence. Sadly began falling (the two that went to Natal- post-Hesketh days) apart from around 1975 until canabolised for the two Manufacturers Challenge Chevair’s. Ford-folk could argue the Can Am/Chev Dealer Team as the greatest effort be it the Ford’s ran for the hills. What a Team too, rally & race. Never happened since, unlikely to ever happen again. Your a very honoured man Paul together with the other folk involved those still with us equally those since departed.

  8. Paul Horwell June 26, 2018 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed the article, back in the 70 a friends dad was manger of a GM dealer he came home in a brand new CanAm took us for a spin that made a lasting impression I had never felt anything so fast

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