Hillman Avenger Tiger vs. Vauxhall HP Firenza and Ford Escort RS2000 Mk2

Tony Baker and Drive-My

When sports saloons ruled the world. ’ 70s sporting saloons RS2000, Tiger & Firenza. Hot ’70s favourites Escort RS2000, Avenger Tiger and droop-snoot Firenza go head to head. The front-drive new kids on the block didn’t have it all their own way in the mid-’70s, says Simon Charlesworth as he samples three brilliant sporting icons from Ford, Hillman and Vauxhall. Photography Tony Baker.

 


These snazzy classics stand out like bri-nylon sore thumbs. Not so much British takes on berline sportivo, these go-faster models are closer in spirit to their distant American cousins – miniaturised muscle cars that owe more than just developmental dollars to Uncle Sam thanks to their gum-chewing bravado. Just don’t pop the bonnet and start counting the cylinders, though.


Hillman Avenger Tiger vs. Vauxhall HP Firenza and Ford Escort RS2000 Mk2

Hillman Avenger Tiger vs. Vauxhall HP Firenza and Ford Escort RS2000 Mk2 road test


Hillman Avenger Tiger, Vauxhall HP Firenza and Ford Escort RS2000 Mk2. These are names that resonate with enthusiasts. Pinned to affordable performance machines, they are a few of many that beat the hot hatch to its lauded blend of practicality, desirability and performance.

By the dusk of the 1960s, European sporting saloons were not new but that didn’t stop Britain’s aftermarket tuning industry booming. The flames were fanned by the rise of motorsports where spectators could own the models that raced and rallied, and magazines such as Cars & Car Conversions – or ‘Triple C’, as it was known.

Come the ’70s, manufacturers that didn’t already offer such a model needed to – and PDQ. These cars hit the showrooms throughout the decade and, yes, period market accuracy has been sacrificed so that we can indulge in the most extrovert of this cosmic species.

Reputedly the world’s first CAD-engineered world car, the all-new Hillman Avenger was a ‘Coke bottle’ Rootes Group model that would not have happened without Chrysler funds – because the company was mortally wounded by warring management and union militants.

The Tiger was sired by Des O’Dell, head of the legendary Chrysler Competitions Department. It was based on a works chase vehicle that impressed Chrysler UK’s head, Don Lander, to such a degree that he sanctioned the production of 150 cars based on Supers. The model’s role was to act as showroom bait, luring in more customers with a range of parts and accessories that could be fitted to lesser-striped Avengers and thus fund further motorsport activities.

Most Series 1 Tigers were registered as dealer demonstrators and subsequently used for rallying, building on the successes of the GT. Sadly, today, this means that few genuine S1s survived their ordeal by yumping, although Chrysler UK assembled a further 400 productionised Series 2 Tigers and it is rumoured that the company made an additional 50 S1s for retail.

Robert Nutter’s car has a mere 22,503 miles on the clock. He caught the Tiger bug when, as an 18-year old working for Charter’s of Aldershot – a Rootes dealer – he got to drive the demo model. “I have heard that LPJ 147K is still around, tucked away somewhere,” says Nutter. “This car was off the road from late 1975 until 2003. It went into storage when the offside front wing was damaged, this was repaired by apprentices before returning to the garage.”

He adds: “The dealer – Poplar Garages of Billingshurst – actually owned this one until 2003 when it closed and everything was sold. Ken Ellis of the Avenger Sunbeam Owners’ Club then purchased it and recommissioned it and I bought it in 2006. It is a very genuine car and by far the lowest mileage one known to the club.” If Vauxhall was the first to bring Coke-bottle styling to Britain with the HB Viva, then it was also among the earliest to abandon it when the HB was rebodied as the HC in 1970.

Available in a number of body styles, it was the Firenza coupé – Luton’s answer to the Ford Capri and Opel Manta – that was chosen to take up the mantle vacated by the 2-litre HB Viva GT. In 1973, the Firenza was overhauled to make the model more distinctive and desirable. The High Performance Firenza came with fettled suspension, a Blydenstein Racing 2.3-litre overhead-cam slant-four (high-lift camshaft, modified head, twin Strombergs and tubular exhaust), a ZF five-speed gearbox and heavy-duty live axle. But it was the stunning facelift that drew headlines. A low-drag ‘droop snoot’ glassfibre nosecone with four covered Cibié lamps and integral spoiler, Avon Safety Wheels, colour-coded bumpers, blackened chrome and Silver Starfire paint totally transformed the Firenza.

Although unveiled in 1973 for £1995, it would not go on sale until ’74 at £2234.92. Frustrating a promising number of orders, production was held up by the fuel crisis, the three-day week, plus manufacturing and supplier problems at Ellesmere Port. By mid-1975, the HPF had quietly disappeared from Vauxhall’s catalogue. Just 204 out of a planned run of 1000 were completed.

Dave Murrell bought his 10-month-old, ex-demo HPF in July 1975 from Oxford’s City Motors and is proud of being the Droop Snoot Group’s member No 4: “I remember glimpsing just a part of an HPF headlight in Vauxhall Motorist when I worked at Barnes of Wokingham, a Vauxhall dealer, and thinking: ‘Wow! That’s so futuristic.’ I had to have one.

“The day after going to Silverstone to watch Gerry Marshall racing, I stopped off at Oxford. They had two, one brand new, the other their demonstrator. I spoke to them the next day and went over that weekend for a test drive. At the end of July 1975, I became the proud owner of GUD 8N, not thinking that I would still own it 42 years later. And I still love driving it.”

By the dawn of the ’70s, Ford produced some of the most desirable affordable performance cars in Britain. The Mk2 Escort RS2000 is the only sequel here. It was built to replace the Mk1 that had filled the gap in cost, performance and complexity between the RS Mexico and the mighty RS1600. Aside from appearances, the big difference between the Mk1 and Mk2 of ’74 was that, unlike the original Ford of Britain Mk1, the crisper Mk2 was jointly developed with Ford of Germany. Curiously, it was both heavier and less aerodynamic than its predecessor.

Unlike the Mk1, the 1976 Mk2 RS2000 was built in Germany following the closure of the Advanced Vehicle Operations plant in Aveley.

The AVO team, though, still developed the model. It drew much of its trim level from the RS1800 Custom, while it’s easy to see from where inspiration came for its polyurethane nosecone, boot-lip spoiler and black trim… “I picked up Classic Ford when I was looking for magazines to take on holiday in 2000,” recalls Andrew Parker. “I’d not had anything to do with Fords for about 15 years. My first car was a Mk2 Escort and I thought ‘Cor! I never had an RS2000’. At the time they were sensible money and this was the first one that I went to look at. “I bought the RS on a whim when it had done 107,000 miles. I’d had it a couple of years and couldn’t sell the car. It was then that I decided to do something with it, so I had it restored. It has 32,305 miles on the clock – second time round! I’m the Escort’s fourth owner; a bloke called Alan Hobbs had owned the Ford since 1984. It was stored in his garage and his wife told him that he had to get rid of it.”

Despite the great differences in their evolutions, ages, appearances and mechanical specifications, these three are all great to drive. The Tiger’s bright dash is a mixture of ’60s and ’70s morsels tossed together with a few features that were ahead of their time. There’s a strip style speedo, a pod-mounted tacho (red-lined at 6000rpm), deep Restall bucket seats, drilled three-spoke wheel and robust column controls. Outside, there is a rear spoiler (a European first), magnesium Minilites, bullet mirrors, competition spotlights, adjustable dampers, Sundance Yellow paint, decals and a macho power bulge.

The 107bhp 1498cc overhead-valve unit has a competition camshaft, big-valve cylinder head and twin Weber 40DCOE carburettors. Torque is linear from low revs, so, unlike many period go-faster machines, there isn’t a noticeable point beyond 3000rpm when things start to get frisky.

The Tiger’s fluid responses are quick, light and nimble – particularly the steering, turn-in and the slick four-speed gearbox – no doubt assisted by the all-iron engine’s comparative lack of mass. Yet it never feels as if it would be left behind in the wake of the droop snoots. Indeed, the Tiger didn’t just maul the Mexico in a sprint, it could match the 110bhp RS2000’s acceleration too. Despite its competition roots, it also rides as well as the Firenza, rolls less and feels more responsive and enthusiastic than the Ford.

You drop down into the ’79 RS2000 Custom’s ‘fishnet’ Recaros and ahead, through the chunky RS three-spoke wheel, is a five-clock binnacle with a 140mph speedo and a 7000rpm tacho.

Aesthetically, there isn’t much to take in – aside from a ‘Custom’ badge in the middle of the dashboard. The Escort places function ahead of flamboyance with special RS features being limited to an oil-pressure gauge and clock. The RS2000 counters the Tiger with quicker, heavier steering and one of the great gearchanges of motordom – just a short jab and it chops across the H-gate. If the motorsport-bred RS1800 yells and snarls like Yosemite Sam, the RS2000 is far more cultured – an amicable Val Doonican, comfy in its roadgoing jumper of easy-listening refinement. Yet, if you ask it to get sweaty beyond familiar parameters then it does sound a bit strained and short of breath. This RS2000 has been tweaked with the optional Ford Group One kit (twin Weber 44IDFs with big valve head), wider RS alloys, lowered suspension and a Capri 2.8i five-speed ’box, but this Signal Orange specimen remains true to its brief.

Drive an HP Firenza and you can’t help but wonder whether if Vauxhall had persisted with these cars – and followed in their wheeltracks – perhaps the Griffin would have regained more of its pre-General Motors lustre. The redline is a whisker over 6000rpm and, until enthusiastically encouraged by Murrell, 4000rpm sounds like its natural limit – although the eager 2.3-litre slant four will easily thrum to 5500rpm.

Behind a racy dished wheel, the 131bhp Firenza’s seven-clock dash with inverted tacho may be as black as the RS2000’s, but with its grabhandle, contrasting two-tone seats and binnacle peppered with counter-sunk dials, it is more distinctive. As with the others, the driving position is comfortable and straightforward. Unlike the others, the Firenza has an organ throttle pedal and an original-fitment dogleg five-speed ZF transmission. On top of which has to be the largest gearknob I’ve ever encountered. It looks as if it could hold a year’s worth of Marmite. The ZF is the slowest, longest and most weighty gearchange of the three – but that isn’t a criticism, it’s just the HPF’s misfortune. The ratios really suit the muscular overhead-cam unit. The HPF leans further and there is greater bow weight in relation to the RS2000, but this really is the utmost pedantry. The gearing of its manual steering, too, is well judged – its feedback sincere and full of substance.

Unlike a unisex hot hatch, these motors are as gloriously blokey as Barry Sheene pulling a bird or belching after a fry-up. Tintops elevated from the commuter grind to the height of Brutsplashed sophistication by transformations that continue to meander in and out of fashion. Each is rich in torque and free from temperament. Admittedly none of these engines’ vocals is especially emotive, but it is the car with the busy little pushrod unit that tugs particularly hard at the heart-strings. The underdog – or should that be ‘undercat’ – without the Gerry Marshall DTV wins or the mighty pull of Rallye Sport to draw upon, that should be more widely revered.

It is the Avenger Tiger that feels the happiest when being zinged toward its redline. Belted into the low bucket seat with your bum in the carpet, it is the car that relishes the twists and turns. It is a saloon that refuses to compromise or dilute its stage-bred immediacy.

Given that it is the oldest offering with the smallest engine from Britain’s forgotten motoring giant, this is impressive. In fact, this product of the 1970s cannot resist saying – it’s neat, real neat, I really love this Tiger’s feat.


Thanks to the owners, the Droop Snoot Group, Avenger Sunbeam Owners’ Club, and the Rallye Sport Escorts forum


 

‘UNLIKE A UNISEX HOT HATCH, THIS LOT ARE AS BLOKEY AS BARRY SHEENE PULLING BIRDS’

‘IF IT HAD PERSISTED WITH THIS FIRENZA, THE GRIFFIN WOULD HAVE REGAINED ITS LUSTRE’

‘COME THE ’70s, FIRMS THAT DIDN’T OFFER A SPORTS SALOON NEEDED TO – AND PDQ’


Hillman Avenger Tiger

Funky Avenger Tiger set the template for the early- ’70s sports saloon, with magnesium Minilites and go-faster stripes plus spoiler, while reviving a famous Rootes name. Only plain speedo lets it down.


Hillman Avenger Tiger vs. Vauxhall HP Firenza and Ford Escort RS2000 Mk2

Supportive seats? Check. Chunky sports wheel? Check. Lots of gauges? Check. Note the dash-top rev-counter in the Tiger. Pedals set for heel-and-toe merchants? Of course!


Vauxhall HP Firenza

Droop snoot’ HPF leans most but grips keenly; Avon Safety Wheels look cool in black; colour-coded bumpers and spoiler give it the freshest appearance; full set of recessed dials includes oil pressure.


Hillman Avenger Tiger vs. Vauxhall HP Firenza and Ford Escort RS2000 Mk2

From top: no clever alloy heads here, just proper snorty carbs (twin-choke Weber only on Ford); vivid Signal Orange, Sundance Yellow and Silver Starmist.


Ford Escort RS2000 Mk2

Ford was a past master at making hot rods for the masses: Escort sports matt-black detailing, plus signature RS four-spoke rims, neat logo on wheel boss and a supremely clear set of instruments.


FORD ESCORT RS 2000 CUSTOM

Sold/number built 1976-’1980/c10,000

Engine all-iron, single-overhead-cam 1993cc ‘four’, single Weber twin-choke carburettor

Max power 110bhp @ 5500rpm

Max torque 119lb ft @ 4000rpm

Transmission four-speed manual, RWD

Suspension: front independent MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo

Length 13ft ½ in (3975mm)

Width 5ft 1 ¾ in (1568mm)

Height 4ft 6 ¾ in (1391mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 10 ½ in (2400mm)

Weight 2015lb (914kg)

0-60mph 8.5 secs

Top speed 108mph

Mpg 25

Price new £4515.73

Price now £25,000+


HILLMAN AVENGER TIGER

Sold/number built 1972/c200

Engine all-iron, overhead-valve 1498cc ‘four’, with twin Weber carburettors

Max power 107bhp @ 6100rpm

Max torque 87lb ft @ 4500rpm

Transmission four-speed manual, RWD

Suspension: front independent MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, coil springs, twin radius arms, telescopics

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo

Length 13ft 5 ½ in (4102mm)

Width 5ft 2 ½ in (1588mm)

Height 4ft 7in (1397mm)

Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2489mm)

Weight 1947lb (883kg)

0-60mph 8.4 secs

Top speed 110mph

Mpg c27

Price new £1500

Price now £15-20,000


VAUXHALL HP FIRENZA

Sold/number built 1973-’1975/204

Engine all-iron, single-overhead-cam 2279cc slant-four, with twin Stromberg carburettors

Max power 131bhp @ 5500rpm

Max torque 142lb ft @ 3600rpm

Transmission five-speed manual, RWD

Suspension: front independent, double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear four-link live axle; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo

Length 14ft 1 ½ in (4305mm)

Width 5ft 4 ¾ in (1645mm)

Height 4ft 3 ¾ in (1314mm)

Wheelbase 8ft 1in (2464mm)

Weight 2238lb (1015kg)

0-60mph 7.5 secs

Top speed 120mph

Mpg 25

Price new £2234.92

Price now £15-20,000


 

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