When it comes to “worst cars ever” lists, certain names are pretty much guaranteed to show up: Gremlin, Pinto, Edsel, and, of course, Corvair. But those lists are also almost guaranteed to omit this name: Firenza.
If you’ve never heard of it, the Firenza was a British-built Canadian-market car paradoxically described by some owners as the worst thing on four wheels, and by others as par for the course for ’70s British imports.
Putting opinions aside, we can tell you this for a fact: two years after the Firenza hit Canadian GM showrooms, one in 20 buyers had joined the national Dissatisfied Firenza Owners Association; that GM got caught covering up problems some Firenzas had; and that it made GM the target of Canada’s first-ever class-action lawsuit.
So at the very least, it’s that bad. Whether or not the Firenza is one of the worst cars ever made, it’s fair to call the fiasco it set off Canada’s equivalent to the Nader-Corvair affair. Here’s why.
The “tough little fun car” debuts
In the late 1960s, General Motors was trying desperately to figure out how to take back some of the new car market from the growing European import segment. In the U.S., its Volkswagen-aping Chevrolet Corvair had been done in by its poorly engineered rear suspension and the devastating public education campaign that consumer advocate Ralph Nader launched against it.
North of the border GM tried something else: straight-up importing to Canada GM-Vauxhall cars from Britain, the country’s commonwealth cousin. It worked.
Before long, their British-built Vauxhall Vivas and Envoy Epics became the second-best-selling imports in the Canadian market, after the Beetle. But around 1970, new, compact competitors from Renault, Datsun and Volvo showed up and quickly eclipsed Viva sales.
In early 1971, at the Montreal auto show, GM debuted a next-gen Vauxhall compact known as Firenza, a “sporty-looking performer that is comfortable, economical and fun to drive, at a price that will surprise you.” (Around $2,600 then, or $16,000 in today’s dollars—surprised?)
GM played up the “tough little fun car” angle, and didn’t mention the car’s British roots or ties to the old Viva and Epic, which, in spite of their popularity, were starting to get a bad reputation.
I bought a car from GMC
An Envoy ’69
The biggest pile of mobile junk
That e’er came off the line
That’s how Ottawa’s Elizabeth Cook opened a 25-stanza poem about her Envoy Epic and the epic repair bill it stuck her with. Cook’s car started suffering from a dangerously leaky exhaust system two months after she bought it new, plus faulty electrics, a busted heater, and a sticking accelerator pedal. She wasn’t the only Envoy owner with these sorts of troubles, and some Firenza owners were in for the same.
The start of a beautiful Firenza-ship?
The compact, affordable and efficient Firenza was just what many Canadians wanted, and in 1971 over 5,500 of them visited Chevrolet, Buick and (mostly) Pontiac dealers to “start a beautiful Firenza-ship,” as GM put it.
Unfortunately for hundreds of buyers, that Firenza-ship didn’t turn out so beautiful. Owners complained to GM about a variety of problems—from failing electrical systems to faulty heaters to leaking exhausts to parts just falling off.
(Ironically, one Edmonton woman said her car’s hazard lights button broke off the first time she used it. Damn.)
But some defects were more than annoying—they were downright dangerous. Sticking accelerator pedals weren’t uncommon, and the Firenza apparently inherited the brake failure issues that plagued older Vauxhalls. Its 77-horsepower 2.0-litre slant-four engine was prone to catching fire, and several owners complained of a sudden loss of steering control.
While the Firenza’s $2,600 price tag made it affordable, many owners found their car needed frequent trips to the mechanic just to stay running. One such owner spent $5,000 on repairs, nearly twice his car’s purchase price, in only a year-and-a-half.
When it worked, the Firenza could be economical on fuel, but that wasn’t guaranteed. One Ottawa owner said his V8-powered sedan was better on gas than his four-cylinder Firenza, and while some owners saw as good as 20 miles per gallon, figures closer to 12 weren’t unheard of.
The complaints kept coming in, and owners got upset when they realized they’d unsuspectingly bought an import not built for Canadian winters.
But GM kept downplaying the Firenza’s origins, removing any Vauxhall badging from the car for 1972 and promising “sustained reliability, rugged durability and all-around GM engineering.” They sold another 6,800 that year.
When GM hands you lemons, you seek lemon-aid
1972 also saw the start of a coordinated effort by dissatisfied Firenza owners to get General Motors, or the Canadian government, or anyone to do something about their cars.
Many sought help at the Montreal offices of the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a Canadian non-profit consumer advocacy group founded in 1968 by Phil Edmonston with help from his colleague Ralph Nader.
Edmonston was an American-Canadian former U.S. army medic who’d picked up his organizational skills while a member of the civil rights movement in college in Washington, D.C. Through 1970, his APA had been helping owners file (and win) settlement claims against Ford over premature rust, but the Firenza would be their first campaign targeting a specific model.
“We sharpened our skills with the Fords, and we were using the Firenza to learn how to get compensation for consumers,” says Edmonston, who, while he no longer runs the APA, still puts out annual Lemon-Aid used car buying guides for Canadians.
A 1971 Vauxhall Firenza 2300 SL, the U.K.-market contemporary to Canada’s Firenza. (image from VX Motorist Magazine)
“There are four steps to running a successful campaign against an auto manufacturer’s product, and the first one is information. We had to go out and inform people.”
Edmonston and APA volunteers sent out press releases, held conferences, and crashed – and got kicked out of – auto shows like Montreal’s in spring 1972. They built up a base of fed-up Firenza owners big enough for them to move to step two: organization.
“At first we called it the Firenza Lemon Owners Group—‘FLOG’!” chuckles Edmonston. By February 1973, when they were incorporated as the Dissatisfied Firenza Owners Association, the group’s founding chapter in Ottawa counted 130 members in its ranks, and between their Montreal and Toronto chapters numbered some 500 owners total—one for roughly every 20 Firenzas sold.
The APA took a more hands-off approach after that, giving the owners legal advice and protest tips, but little else. “Once you show them how to write a press release a few times, they write their own,” says Edmonston. The anti-Firenza crusade was beginning to reach a groundswell, and GM realized they had a problem.
Any Firenza of yours—is yours
By the end of 1972, the Firenza had earned enough of a bad reputation that GM went into damage control mode. Marketing doubled down on the Firenza’s reliability, and ads promised “any Firenza of yours is a Firenza of ours!” says Edmonston.
Or not. A few GM dealers had actually begun turning down Firenza trade-ins from people who’d bought the car from them the year prior. Some reported being offered as little as $700 for a six-month-old 9,000-mile Firenza they’d bought new for almost $3,000. Already-frustrated Firenza owners now felt stuck with their cars.
In January of 1973, GM announced the Firenza would no longer be sold in Canada; the official line was that it was too expensive to adapt it to meet new Canadian safety standards, but Edmonston is certain it was the negative publicity the APA had drummed up.
In any case, the withdrawal of the car from the Canadian market drove depressed resale values down further, and members of the Dissatisfied Firenza Owners Association began to take action.
In a March 1973 telegram to GM Canada’s head office, the Ottawa chapter of Dissatisfied Owners demanded:
compensation for their cars’ high depreciation;
compensation for expensive repair bills, towing bills and rented cars;
extended warranties on their Firenzas;
courtesy cars while their Firenzas were fixed;
and copies of work orders for work performed
But when General Motors of Canada Ltd. president John Baker replied a few weeks later, he said the company would only meet with owners one-on-one, “since each automobile was purchased on an individual basis and experiences of owners will differ.”
The Toronto chapter got a similar response, which spurred them to drive 30 of their Firenzas to GM headquarters in nearby Oshawa in one of the group’s first protests; Ottawa owners picketed GM dealerships at the same time. So GM gave in a little, offering owners free repairs from then forward. Not good enough, said the owners.
GM countered three days later with this “fair and generous” proposal: $250 toward the purchase of a new Chevrolet, Pontiac or Buick purchased before the year’s end. The Dissatisfied Owners wanted the $250 and a new car free of charge.
Meanwhile, the protests drew the attention of the press. The automaker’s PR team told newspapers that owners’ complaints were minor and due to lack of maintenance; in an interview with a reporter, one flack literally told owners “take better care of your cars.”
The newspaper columnists in GM’s pockets blamed falling resale values on the bad publicity drummed up by the owners themselves. As you’d imagine, their frustration continued to build.
A Vauxhall Viva 1300 GLS, the U.K.-market contemporary to Canada’s Firenza. Edmonston says waging the public education
campaign against the car was “fun,” that “the beautiful thing was to see everyday Canadians, people who’ve never demonstrated
in the past, turn into dragons!” (image by Robotriot courtesy Wikimedia)
The government (sort of—not really) steps in
At the same time they’d reached out to GM, the owners groups petitioned Canada’s Department of Consumer Affairs and Ministry of Transport to force a recall on the Firenza. Though reluctant at first, the government stepped in after a 19-year-old Quebec girl died when her Firenza’s steering failed.
In the course of their investigation, the ministry collected 75 owner complaints, including several reports of engine fires, but couldn’t pin down any one particular design flaw. (It didn’t help that, at the time, they generally relied on the U.S. automobile recall system.)
The most they could do, Minister of Transport Jean Marchand argued in Canada’s House of Commons, was reach out to GM in letters, let them know they were “concerned,” and encourage them to recall affected Firenzas.
On May 14, 1973, three days after the ministry closed its investigation, the Dissatisfied Firenza Owners Association in Ottawa staged a 32-car protest outside of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill. Two of the Firenzas caught fire during the protest.
“Whenever we would have a Firenza protest, if we could get ten, we could count on one car overheating to the point it could catch on fire,” says Edmonston.
Meanwhile, he and the APA had moved to step three of the campaign: litigation. “We went to court and, because Canada didn’t have class-action lawsuit legislation at the time, we filed a collective action suit against GM,” Edmonston explains.
These suits permitted people with the same kind of complaint to file together, but it was meant for maybe ten people—Ontario’s Supreme Court simply didn’t know what to do when an action represented more than a hundred litigants.
But the APA and courts soon afterward caught a break with a separate, more clear-cut case involving the Firenza.
4,079 miles and a few lies later
On March 24, 1972, as part of their scramble to repair the Firenza’s reputation, General Motors took out an almost full-page ad in national newspapers like the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail titled “4,079 miles and three lampbulbs later…”
The ad boasted of a cross-country winter road trip, from Halifax to Vancouver, undertaken by four new, unmodified Firenzas with GM engineers, plus Canada Track & Traffic writer Hugh McCall, driving them.
“Although it’s equipped specifically for Canadian driving conditions, we wanted to know firsthand that [the Firenza] really is tough enough to take on anything,” the ad copy explained, and apparently it was. All four Firenzas performed beautifully during the 75-hour drive, it said, and they even started in dead-cold temperatures without a block heater. The only casualties were two burnt-out parking lamps, a failed interior dome light and a fog lamp cracked by a rock.
But in 1973, McCall, whom GM had described in the ad as an “unbiased observer,” placed a call to Edmonston explaining he was ready to break the vow of silence the automaker’d sworn him to. “He said ‘Y’know, Phil, I can’t go in with this because it’s wrong,’” Edmonston recalls, “‘but not only did a number of the cars not finish that trip, one of them caught fire. We had a truckful of spare parts with us the whole time!’”
McCall went on to explain the cars were modified, did use block heaters, and that two of them still wouldn’t start on about a dozen occasions during the trip.
Edmonston filed a formal complaint to the Department of Consumer Affairs, who started an investigation. They verified McCall’s story, and in April 1974, a Toronto court found GM guilty of false advertising; they fined the automaker $20,000. It was the first time such charges had been filed against a car manufacturer.
How new legislation is born
The cracks in GM’s defense of the Firenza were spreading, so the APA moved to step four: legislation, that is, changing the laws to protect consumers.
After being thrown out of Ontario’s Supreme Court, Edmonston explains, they went to the province’s Court of Appeals, who understood their case was, essentially, a class-action lawsuit. Because Canadian legislation didn’t make room for class-action suits, the court pressed the APA to contact the legislature.
“That gave us a lot of momentum, because we could tell the legislators ‘You can’t tell us to go to court, the courts sent us to you!’” says Edmonston. The merits of the Firenza case made it apparent to Ontario lawmakers that it was necessary to draft class-action lawsuit legislation, and so they did. Legislators in Quebec and B.C. did the same shortly after.
“For that reason, I think it was one of the more important consumer rights cases to come down the pipe,” he argues. “Up to that point, you had to sue companies individually, and they could make it expensive and pick you off one by one.”
GM settled with the owners out of court before the new class-action legislation could be put to use against them, however; in the end they gave Firenza owners $250 on top of a fair-value trade-in for a newer car. But Edmonston argues that’s unimportant.
“What’s important is that we used the Firenza case to sharpen our skills at creating reform and building consumer support through demonstrations,” he says. It let the APA nail down the information-organization-litigation-legislation campaign template they still use today, and it revealed an unflattering side of GM’s character at the time. “You learn a lot about the real car company by opposing it,” Edmonston says.
GM had infamously tried to dig up all sorts of dirt on Ralph Nader during the Corvair affair, but Edmonston says that, outside of a threat from a Vauxhall exec during a trip to Britain, the automaker’s lawyers never approached him with defamation charges. That may, however, have been because Ford, Nissan and Honda had all previously tried, and failed, to sue Edmonston.
“Everything that could go in our favour, did,” he sums up. “The inability of the car company to defend itself, the fires, them shooting themselves in the foot, er, the tire—it was good training for all of us.”
The thing’s up for disposal now
To anyone who thinks
He has the time and cash in hand
To juggle with a jinx
—Elizabeth Cook, Ottawa Vauxhall owner
Driving a new Firenza (in 2002)
Because just over 12,500 were sold in the Canadian market, and because the problems some owners had sent a lot of them to the scrap yard, Firenzas are impossible to find nowadays. Or near-impossible, anyway.
Cameron Van Steenburgh, a Vauxhall enthusiast from Ontario, owned one of the few remaining Canadian Firenzas around, a silver ’71 used as a dealer demo. He bought it in 2002 to take to shows while he restored his Viva GT.
He’d heard of the Firenza’s bad reputation, but it didn’t deter him from buying it. “It did the exact opposite,” Van Steenburgh says. “I like weird little cars, and I thought, Wow, here’s the opportunity to have something that’s really a talking point when I take it somewhere.”
photo courtesy John Griffith
The 18,000-mile one-owner survivor had been on blocks since ’78, and was in mint condition inside and out, save for some minor rust on a front fender—Van Steenburgh had basically bought a new Firenza. So what sort of trouble did it give him?
“Actually, it really never gave me any problems. I think I could’ve driven it down [Highway] 401 at 75 miles an hour all day long,” he says. “It never let me down in 7,000 miles.”
Van Steenburgh did give it a basic tune-up before hitting the road, replacing the aged rubber hoses and belts, and one repair was required: a solid rear exhaust bracket that broke and rattled around. Once he replaced that with a rubber mount, he didn’t do anything besides change the oil, until he sold the car in 2009.
Though he tempers his opinion because he only drove it on weekends, not every day like owners would when new, Van Steenburgh thinks the negative attention the Firenza got was undeserved. “It definitely wasn’t a great car—I wouldn’t rank it up there above other cars of the era, but it wasn’t this horrible car it’s made out to be in the media.”
Van Steenburgh argues two things worked against the Firenza in Canada: the first was that because GM marketed it through Pontiac and Chevrolet dealers, buyers expected Pontiac and Chevrolet quality from it, not the generally inferior build quality British cars were known for. (In 1973, about four-fifths of Dissatisfied Firenza Owners Association members said they’d have never bought the car if they’d known it was British.)
The second was that, being an arguably bad-looking economy car, owners were less willing to put up with the reliability issues typical of other, more stylish British marques like Triumph or Jaguar.
Edmonston and Van Steenburgh both agree the servicing and spare parts situation didn’t help either. “The ex-GM dealer employees I talked to said they just weren’t trained on how to fix these cars,” Van Steenburgh says. “They told me ‘None of us had a clue! We didn’t even know what a Stromberg carburetor was! We didn’t have the tools, and we weren’t equipped to give it back to the customer properly.’”
Thank God for the horrible Firenza
You can argue whether or not the Firenza had designed-in defects; was just a little too liable to be a lemon; or was par for the course (for British cars) but simply not what owners were expecting, but GM’s handling of the situation was indisputably wrongheaded.
Public relations has come a long way since, as evidenced by the automaker’s apparent transparency in disasters like their recent ignition switch recall. But Edmonston’s not so sure the industry as a whole has got any better.
“If you ask me, they’re less honest,” he says, citing headlines about Hyundai and Kia fudging their fuel economy numbers (and, five years ago, horsepower figures, too); Honda being fined for doing some of the same; and Ford and GM getting caught removing trucks’ bumpers to better payload ratings in tests.
“I think there will always be deception in the automobile industry, just like there will always be crooks in the Senate,” Edmonston says. “People are always going to try go get away with what they can get away with.”
He does concede that cars and trucks are generally built a lot better now than they were when the Firenza came out, and that as a result automakers have less to lie about. But the biggest changes have been made in the areas of consumer education and protection via the efforts of advocates like Ralph Nader and groups like the APA.
It was through campaigns like the one against the Firenza that these changes were made—as bad as it may or may not have been, Canadians owe a lot to the Vauxhall Firenza. “It really did a lot to educate us as to what we needed to do to have our consumer rights respected,” Edmonston says. “What it created in the early years of that movement was just priceless.”