‘WHIZZO’ AND THE FIRENZA Much-missed historics ace Barrie Williams in his race-winning Vauxhall
‘WHIZZO’ WILLIAMS: FAREWELL TO A HERO “MY BROKEN FOOT DIDN’T HAMPER ME – I JUST KEPT IT PLANTED ON THE THROTTLE”
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-overhead-camshaft 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 ’1974, 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-and-pinion 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 long-term 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”
Clockwise from far left: stylish Avon Safety wheels were standard fitment; torquey slant-four; ‘Whizzo’ slides back into his race-winning seat, 44 years on; smooth glassfibre front end gave the HP Firenza a futuristic look.
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 main: distinctive Droop Snoot restored after taking a battering in the race; ‘Whizzo’ holds off Roger Bell at Thruxton; ‘race’ cars were in fact largely standard; Williams recalls the tight finish, when he just pipped Marshall; neat rear is stock Firenza.