‘WHIZZO’ AND THE FIRENZA

In his fi­nal in­verview, his­torics leg­end ‘Whizzo’ Wil­liams re­calls a race in which he beat the best

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS ROSS ALKUREISHI PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JONATHAN JA­COB

Much-missed his­torics ace Bar­rie Wil­liams in his race-win­ning Vaux­hall

Stand­ing on the gravel drive­way of re­tired racer Bar­rie ‘Whizzo’ Wil­liams’ Northamp­ton­shire home, the hot late-sum­mer air is thick with an­tic­i­pa­tion. Due any se­cond is Vaux­hall High Per­for­mance Firenza reg­is­tra­tion UHO 288M, per­haps bet­ter known by its sil­ver paint­work and ‘EJ Baker Mo­tors Ltd’ de­cals. A rasp­ing ex­haust note in the dis­tance catches our at­ten­tion, and 30 sec­onds later that fa­mous ‘Droop Snoot’ vis­age sweeps around, be­fore owner Ken Smyth brings the car slowly to a stop be­side us. “The last time I saw it was on the day of the race it­self in 1974,” smiles Wil­liams.

That’s no sur­prise re­ally, be­cause the car lay in stor­age, ac­ci­dent dam­aged, from the early 1980s un­til its re­cent restora­tion. “I can re­mem­ber when the Droop Snoot Group found it,” says Whizzo, “it was rusty as hell.” To­day it looks fac­tory fresh and good enough, per­haps, even to race. Which was this par­tic­u­lar car’s rai­son d’être. To pro­mote the re­lease of its new coupé, Vaux­hall ar­ranged a Whit bank hol­i­day race at Thrux­ton. Run over eight laps, The Vaux­hall Spring Cup fea­tured 20 stan­dard – save a half roll-cage, an alu­minium fire­wall and a bat­tery cut-off – fac­tory road cars, each sup­plied and run by a Dealer Team Vaux­hall Sportspart out­let.

That meant a road-tuned, sin­gle-over­head­camshaft 2279cc slant-four, run­ning twin Zenith-stromberg C0175 car­bu­ret­tors and good for 131bhp; a rally-de­rived five-speed ZF gear­box; and, most im­por­tant, stan­dard road sus­pen­sion, with dou­ble wish­bones at the front, a live rear axle and trail­ing arms at the back, and coil springs all round. All of which was en­com­passed in aero­dy­nam­ics spe­cial­ist Wayne Cherry’s new and dra­matic body styling.

Each DTV out­let nom­i­nated a par­tic­u­lar rac­ing driver, and that re­sulted in a wealth of top F5000 and Tour­ing Car aces be­ing brought in to pilot them. As well as Wil­liams, that in­cluded Vern Schup­pan, Tony Lan­franchi, Tim Stock, John El­liott, jour­nal­ist/racer Roger Bell and ‘Mr Vaux­hall’ him­self, Gerry Mar­shall.

“We all loved and hated Gerry,” smiles Wil­liams, “be­cause of the ‘Gerry’ per­son­al­ity. We were good bud­dies, but he hated los­ing and, be­cause we were rac­ing Vaux­halls, he was ex­pected to win. How­ever, I’d al­ready won a lot of races in the GN of Croy­don non-droop Snoot Firenza. With ev­ery car equal, it was a good, level play­ing field.” One fac­tor work­ing against Wil­liams, though, was his right foot, still in plas­ter af­ter an ear­lier shunt at Snet­ter­ton: “It didn’t ham­per me at all. I just kept it planted on the throt­tle, left-foot brak­ing.”

Bell earned pole po­si­tion but, once they were let loose all to­gether, the driv­ers’ dis­po­si­tions en­sured a ri­otous race. Watch the high­lights reel on Youtube and there’s an el­e­ment of Wacky Races com­bined with ‘jumpers for goal­posts’ grass­roots com­pe­ti­tion as all 20 cars bar­rel into the first cor­ner, jostling for po­si­tion three and some­times four abreast, en­gines scream­ing, rub­ber tor­tured, and bod­ies rolling like sil­ver blanc­manges in a Force 10. All of that, though, is but a pre­lude to the kerb-cut­ting and grassshred­ding shenani­gans of later laps, some­thing Mar­shall ad­mits in his ac­com­pa­ny­ing com­men­tary was some­what un­pro­fes­sional.

With Bell in the lead, his United Ser­vices Garage of Portsmouth-sup­plied car OTP 553M took a nudge, al­low­ing six HPFS to roar past. “Tony Lan­franchi went over the chi­cane and ripped his ex­haust off,” re­calls Wil­liams. “Then on the last lap, I did to Gerry what he had been do­ing to other peo­ple: I got a bet­ter run out of Church cor­ner and got along­side him. I took the chi­cane prop­erly, not let­ting him back in, so he de­cided to come over the top. He was so an­gry when I crossed the line first.”

Just 0.2 secs was the win­ning mar­gin from Mar­shall, with Roger Bell re­cov­er­ing to fin­ish third and Vern Schup­pan fourth. Lan­franchi took the fastest-lap hon­ours with 1 min 45.2 secs – pre­sum­ably thanks to some de­cid­edly sus­pect cor­ner­ing meth­ods. Wil­liams fin­ished with smashed head­lights, but in­cred­i­bly – save the odd dent and un­der­side re­arrange­ment – all cars sur­vived to tell the tale. Bell, writ­ing in Mo­tor on 5 June 1974, put that down to the Firenza’s ‘re­mark­ably for­giv­ing han­dling’.

That same day, 1974 DTV pub­li­ca­tion The Sport­ing Di­gest re­ported on: ‘Some amaz­ingly ex­cit­ing rac­ing, with all sorts of short cuts and out­brak­ing tech­niques in­ves­ti­gated and some mild con­tact.’ And, thanks to a se­cond in class for his Mazda in the Cas­trol Pro­duc­tion Sa­loon Race, the be-crutched Wil­liams also took the Man of the Meet­ing award.

The high­lights re­veal the re­laxed and con­vivial spirit in which the Droop Snoot race was run, but Wil­liams says that shouldn’t fool you: “Gerry said he ran out of petrol on the last lap, but the car drove round on the vic­tory lap okay. He was a lovely lad, but a ter­ri­ble loser. Beat­ing him made me the most pop­u­lar per­son among the other driv­ers. Ralph Broad went up to him af­ter­wards and said, ‘Just imag­ine how quick Bar­rie would have been with two good legs.’”

Our dis­cus­sion of the race while kick­ing the Firenza’s tyres has al­lowed owner Smyth to un­fold him­self af­ter his long jour­ney, hav­ing left North­ern Ire­land dur­ing the wee small hours of

the morn­ing. Time for him to re-adopt a seated po­si­tion, this time on the pas­sen­ger side of the Vaux­hall as Wil­liams takes us for a spin.

Once in­side, Whizzo grabs the meaty wheel and takes in the once-fa­mil­iar sur­round­ings. “It was al­ways quite a roomy car – ah, I re­mem­ber that,” he says, point­ing to the rev counter. “Keep­ing it in fourth at 5500rpm.”

He turns the key and fires up the en­gine, be­fore slot­ting home the ZF gear­box with a firm hand: “You had to – and still have to – press the clutch right the way down. The five-speed ’box came with EP30 as stan­dard, but EP90 made it much qui­eter. The car felt right, back then. And, for a road car on track, very good in­deed.”

Our progress to­day is some­what more re­laxed than Wil­liams’ high-oc­tane eight laps back in ’74, but it’s clear that he’s happy to have been re­united with the car. Based on the Mag­num coupé, the Firenza’s en­gine was tuned by Bill Bly­den­stein with a 9.2:1 com­pres­sion ra­tio, hand-fin­ished com­bus­tion cham­bers, valve throats and ports, high-lift camshaft, light­ened fly­wheel and fab­ri­cated ex­haust man­i­fold.

The re­sult is a po­tent pow­er­plant that ea­gerly re­sponds to Wil­liams’ prompt­ing, pulling strongly (although we’re well shy of that 5500 max­i­mum power mark to­day) and emit­ting a de­light­ful bark. The Mag­num’s rear anti-roll bar was deleted for the HPF, a thin­ner one was fit­ted at the front, with in­creased front spring rates and re­duced rear roll stiff­ness. Through cor­ners it feels re­mark­ably planted – per­haps helped by the jour­nal­is­tic bal­last in the rear – the rack-and­pin­ion steer­ing fol­low­ing our driver’s in­puts faith­fully, and with rel­a­tively lit­tle roll.

That’s some­thing Mo­tor Sport com­mented on in its Jan­uary 1975 road test: ‘The ride is choppy but shock-free over rougher go­ing, but the sus­pen­sion stiff­ness makes this a very fast car, roll-free over twisty roads.’ With re­gard to the lat­ter, per­haps jour­nal­ist Bill Boddy hadn’t been present at – or seen video ev­i­dence of – the Thrux­ton race, but then his test­ing regime was no doubt some­what less fierce than those 20 rac­ers’ chal­lenges to the laws of physics. Of his suc­cinct ver­dict there’s no doubt: ‘This Firenza coupé must be ac­claimed as rapid in­deed.’

“Bar­rie ac­tu­ally drove the sis­ter car to this one, UHO 287M, at the club’s 25th-an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of the race at Thrux­ton,” says Smyth. “But I’ve al­ways wanted to let him have a go in this.” Hav­ing owned two Droop Snoots, and fully re­stored one of those, Smyth even­tu­ally man­aged to per­suade the two com­mit­tee mem­bers of the DSG who owned the win­ning car to sell it to him: “I paid £3000 in 2009, which was strong money. It was in a dis­man­tled state, but re­quired a full restora­tion. Af­ter I started work, I kind of re­gret­ted it.”

That, how­ever, has now passed: “Be­cause I did so much work my­self, it didn’t cost a lot. I paid for the del­i­cate rear whee­larch and sill re­pairs, but the rest of the weld­ing I car­ried out my­self. De­spite the race his­tory, the orig­i­nal en­gine was in de­cent con­di­tion, but be­cause of the longterm stor­age many in­ter­nal com­po­nents were heav­ily pit­ted with rust, so it was re­built.”

The en­gine, gear­box and sus­pen­sion are orig­i­nal to the car, says Smyth, and de­spite nu­mer­ous miss­ing small parts – in­clud­ing the sump plug – he was able to use his con­tacts within the club to source them. “We’re a group of friends who swap bits,” he ex­plains. “I was very lucky to get a com­plete set of the orig­i­nal, cor­rect seats to re­place mine, which were miss­ing, as well as a set of re­place­ment head­lights.”

He cites his big­gest chal­lenge as re­pair­ing the dam­aged glass­fi­bre nose cone and blend­ing it into the front wings: “Sand­ing the pan­els to an ac­cept­able stan­dard was also a very te­dious chore, and I have to thank my good friend Sammy Reid for his help and ad­vice in this process. He also fin­ished the fi­nal sil­ver coat for me, and of course it had to be in race liv­ery.”

In all, the re­build took eight years to com­plete, with the car mak­ing its de­but at last year’s Vaux­hall Bed­ford Opel As­so­ci­a­tion Na­tional Rally. “There’s been a pos­i­tive re­sponse,” says Smyth. “Peo­ple are glad to see it out.” In­cred­i­bly, of the orig­i­nal 20 cars, the DSG has records in­di­cat­ing that 17 or 18 sur­vive to­day, with two rac­ing and a fur­ther seven on the road: “Some­one pointed out that the rear num­ber­plate is wrong, so I’ll adapt that at some point, and of course it didn’t have mud­flaps but our roads aren’t the best.”

Af­ter our spin, Wil­liams in­vites us in for a cup of tea and a chance to pore over the race re­ports and pho­tos that Smyth has brought with him. It also gives me the op­por­tu­nity to re­lay my con­ver­sa­tion with Si­mon Huck­nall, Head of Prod­uct PR & Her­itage at Vaux­hall. “The in­ter­est­ing thing dur­ing the 1960s and ’70s was that GM did not sup­port mo­tor­sport in Europe, so we came up with the idea of DTV,” says Huck­nall. “A con­tri­bu­tion – a tiny per­cent­age – made by all deal­ers on ev­ery part sold went to­wards the mo­tor­sport pro­gramme that was re­spon­si­ble for Big Bertha, Baby Bertha, the Chevette HS, plus Mag­nums and Firen­zas.”

The Thrux­ton race was a public­ity de­vice that fol­lowed the pre­vi­ous year’s ‘Sell­ing Plate’ race for the ear­lier Firenza: “It’s a horse-rac­ing term, and af­ter the post-race cer­e­mony the cars were cor­ralled into the pad­dock and put up for auc­tion – how much this ‘in­stant’ prove­nance ac­tu­ally re­sulted in help­ing them sell is un­known.”

The fol­low­ing year, the win­ning EJ Baker car was ad­ver­tised for sale, with the Alder­shot-based dealer care­ful to en­sure that it stated the in­clu­sion of a ‘full man­u­fac­turer’s war­ranty’. Wil­liams con­firms that he had no in­volve­ment with the sup­ply­ing dealer un­til the day of the race it­self, but by canny co­in­ci­dence it also sup­plied Frank Gard­ner’s win­ning car the year be­fore.

“Of the race it­self, the board­room prob­a­bly didn’t ap­prove,” says Huck­nall. “If we’re hon­est, it looked a bit like a bunch of hooli­gans hooning around. Some 1000 cars were planned, but only a quar­ter of that were built. For us, like many, the fuel cri­sis put paid to sports-car de­vel­op­ment.”

Although just 204 coupés and 197 Mag­num Sports Hatch es­tates were made, the Droop Snoot oc­cu­pies a lofty place in Vaux­hall lore. Some of that is down to its aes­thet­ics, which be­came a de rigueur styling cue on Vaux­halls through to the ’80s; mostly, though, it’s largely down to the ex­ploits of Mar­shall.

How­ever, sit­ting here rem­i­nisc­ing about the ut­terly daft launch race, there’s no doubt that, on that par­tic­u­lar day at Thrux­ton back in 1974, the brag­ging rights be­longed to Whizzo. And as he gazes at the Firenza through the open win­dow, it’s clear he’s rather proud of that.

Thanks to Bar­rie’s part­ner, Kathryn, for al­low­ing us to run this story. The C&SC team sends our deep­est sym­pa­thies to his fam­ily

“The board­room prob­a­bly didn’t ap­prove of the race – if we’re hon­est, it looked like a bunch of hooli­gans hooning around”

Although it’s softly sprung for a race­track, on the road the High Per­for­mance Firenza feels taut and lively. Evoca­tive liv­ery has been re­in­stated in re­build

Clock­wise from far left: stylish Avon Safety wheels were stan­dard fit­ment; torquey slant-four; ‘Whizzo’ slides back into his racewin­ning seat, 44 years on; smooth glass­fi­bre front end gave the HP Firenza a fu­tur­is­tic look

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