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Special feature

The Firenza still providing fun 50 years on

It may not be as famous as Gerry Marshall’s ‘Old Nail’, but Tony Davies’ sister Transpeed car also has an interesting history. This is the full story of a machine that was rebuilt in 2018 and remains in action in the Historic Thunder and Special Saloons series

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Dealer Team Vauxhall under the helm of Bill Blydenstein is synonymous with Gerry Marshall and the Special and Super Saloon machinery he piloted in the 1970s. From Viva GTs, through Vauxhall Firenza ‘Old Nail’ and Ventora ‘Big Bertha’, to Firenza-based ‘Baby Bertha’, all are part of British racing folklore.

But, while those cars’ nicknames helped earn them almost mythical status, Old Nail in particular was not entirely unique. A handful of similar chassis were created in Blydenstein’s Shepreth workshops. One, like Baby Bertha under Joe Ward’s guardianship, continues racing regularly to this day, half a century later.

It became known as the Transpeed Firenza, after the Davies family’s Hove motor accessories business, and was a frontrunner in Special Saloons and Thundersaloons. Long-time pilot Tony Davies now campaigns it in Historic Thunder and Special Saloons series run by the Classic Sports Car Club and Historic Sports Car Club.

“The shell was built as a T-car for Gerry Marshall’s Old Nail, in case he ever needed it,” reveals Davies, who acquired the car jointly with brother Mike for the 1978 season.

Built in 1974, it was first raced by Phil Clarke and then Geoff Janes, the pair enjoying success at their local circuits of Snetterton and Castle Combe respectively. Complete with iconic ‘droop snoot’ from the High Performance road model, it was powered by Vauxhall’s 2.3-litre single-overhead camshaft ‘Slant Four’ engine originally used in the 1960s Vauxhall Victor FD. But, just as it had been for Marshall in Old Nail, the original four-speed gearbox proved troublesome for the Davies brothers, who replaced it with the five-speed ZF unit that remains in service 46 years later.

Mike gave the car its first outing in Davies hands, recording a fourth-place finish at Lydden Hill. A week later, with only a single sprint in the family Mini to his name, 19-year-old Tony started his first motor race in the fearsome Firenza. Undaunted, he finished seventh overall in an allcomers-type thrash at Silverstone’s annual Eight Clubs event. The brothers alternated for a few years, before Tony’s shunt in a Goodwood sprint led to Mike stepping back, reluctant to contribute to the rebuild costs.

Tony Davies first raced the car aged 19 at Silverstone in 1978

Tony Davies first raced the car aged 19 at Silverstone in 1978

Photo by: Davies family

“That was a big off,” admits Davies Jr. “It substantially shortened the rear end. As my wife has pointed out though, every time I’ve crashed it, it’s always gone faster afterwards!”

That hypothesis was tested with two high-speed smashes at Thruxton.

“In 1983, I rolled the Firenza through Church,” Davies recounts. “It went end over end, and David Enderby got engine oil all over his roof as he went underneath me! It was a bit of overconfidence, because I’d won the weekend before and I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to go out and put it on pole, really nail it’.

Davies and the Firenza benefited from starring in the role of champion driver Allan Hearshner in the BBC drama series Driving Ambition, filmed in 1983

“But I didn’t really give it enough time to get up to temperature, and just lost the back end. It pushed the tyre off the wheelrim and the car then rolled over – and rolled and rolled down the middle of the track. I could see four streams of fuel coming out of the inlet trumpets because the bonnet had gone, and I thought I better switch the fuel pumps off.

“My second shunt at Thruxton was more frightening. I came through the Complex and, as I went right, left, and then turned for the last right, the steering column broke, and the car went straight on, and I hit the marshals’ post. They reckoned I hit it at about 70mph and the car just stopped dead and, oh, that winded me. The left-front wheel ended up in the passenger compartment. It was frightening to see that marshals’ post coming at you at that speed.”

An acquaintance metallurgist deduced that the failure originated from a seemingly innocuous incident 12 months earlier when a loose battery cable short-circuited on the steering column. Davies recalls the investigator explaining: “‘That started a crack and, from that point on, I can see every time you’ve turned the steering wheel. Eventually it broke.’ That was a lesson learned.”

In the meantime, an unlikely source of funding helped upgrade the Firenza’s engine, first by boring it out to 2.5 litres, and then installing the twincam head Blydenstein had developed for the Chevette HS. Davies and the Firenza benefited from starring in the role of champion driver Allan Hearshner in the BBC drama series Driving Ambition, filmed in 1983.

“I was actually the ‘baddie’,” remembers Davies. “The series was about a woman who wanted to start motor racing. Her character was driving Peter Baldwin’s BDA Mini and I had the Firenza.”

After a few high-speed shunts at Thruxton, both the Firenza and Davies are going strong

After a few high-speed shunts at Thruxton, both the Firenza and Davies are going strong

Photo by: Richard Styles

Further development work was conducted by Gerry Johnstone, who had led the original build at DTV. He rose-jointed the front wishbones, built a four-link rear suspension system and replaced the Vauxhall 052 axle with a Gartrac version. Group C sportscar squad ADA Engineering then installed larger front brakes and centre-locking wheels.

“I would say from 1986 onwards, the car spec hasn’t changed at all,” Davies adds.

More Star Club cars:

Single-nut wheels were useful for pitstops in the new-for-1985 Thundersaloons series, which outlawed spaceframe specials. Its two-driver races also meant Tony could share the car with elder sibling John, Mike’s twin brother. Despite running in the smaller-engined class, they annexed pole position for the inaugural race at Brands Hatch and scored five overall podiums en route to topping the class standings. Later, Davies Jr also shared the car with Marshall on occasion.

Davies says: “Being that he was very experienced with Firenzas, I was intrigued to get his feedback on my chassis. He liked it – he thought the car’s handling was excellent.”

But, as newer machinery outpaced the Firenza, Davies and new partner John Goldacre began developing a successor. Their Ford Escort Cosworth incorporated innovative features such as pushrod suspension designed to stiffen the car by transmitting forces to the rollcage, and steering with adjustable ratios that also allowed lower engine mounting.

“The handling was phenomenal, it was so much quicker than the Firenza,” says Davies, but a lack of budget hampered early development before an engine blow-up and a roll for Goldacre ended its days.

The Firenza was pressed back into service but, with a growing family, Davies reduced his racing schedule, while still contesting speed events: “My dad was always a very keen sprinter and hillclimber. He said that a bit of sprinting does a world of good for your first lap in racing because you know how to drive on cold tyres.”

The Firenza’s last competitive outing for more than a decade was in Classic Modified Saloons at Snetterton in 2007. But in 2018, Davies commissioned a full rebuild.

Davies is keen to get back to using cross-ply tyres from Nova Motorsport once it commences manufacturing

Davies is keen to get back to using cross-ply tyres from Nova Motorsport once it commences manufacturing

Photo by: Richard Styles

“I suppose I was getting older and thinking, ‘There’s not many more years left that I can actually enjoy this sport, so to hell with it, I’m going to do it’,” he admits.

Bath-based Anderson Racing Engines overhauled the long-serving four-pot, and the Firenza returned at Oulton Park in May 2019. Davies qualified third for the CSCC’s Special Saloons race before gearbox gremlins intervened. Once fixed, a Classic Thunder podium – against much more modern machinery – followed at Cadwell Park later that year. Now prepared by Sussex neighbour Westbourne Motorsport, the 50-year-old Firenza is going as strong as ever.

"I just love it, it’s like an overgrown go-kart"
Tony Davies

“My fastest lap in 1985 was 0.1s quicker than I managed in 2019 when I came here,” Davies noted at Cadwell Park last month, although a shortage of 16-inch crossply slicks has been a problem since Avon ceased production. Radials on 17-inch rims are a stop-gap solution.

“They’re horrible,” says Davies. “It doesn’t handle right. So I will be going back to 16s as soon as Nova starts manufacturing again.”

Regardless, it remains “such fun to drive, it really is; I just love it, it’s like an overgrown go-kart”.

The other veteran Davies machine still racing

The Firenza isn’t the only long-serving racing saloon in the Davies family. In fact, it is a relative youngster compared with the 1964 Mini Cooper S owned from new by the brothers’ father Jack.

While it was initially used as a family car, Davies Sr began competing the following year. In the next quarter of a century, he clocked up nearly 500 competitive outings before bowing out at the 1990 Brighton Speed Trials. His three sons began taking turns at the wheel in the 1970s before Mike and Tony reduced demand on the Mini by purchasing the Firenza.

Having spent nearly 20 years in storage, the car was restored by Westbourne Motorsport in 2018, while a new engine and ’box were fitted by Mini specialist Kent Auto Developments a couple of years later. ‘CPJ’ is now raced regularly by twin brothers John and Mike, while family friend Jonathan Palmer – who spent some time working for Transpeed as a teenager – has also been tempted out in testing.

The 1964 Mini has been in the family from new, originally campaigned by the Davies brothers' father

The 1964 Mini has been in the family from new, originally campaigned by the Davies brothers' father

Photo by: Mick Walker

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