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Chevrolet Firenza Can Am

Broadcast dates : 11th December 2005
17th December 2005


The advertising copywriters called it "The Little Chev". It was one of the most outrageous production cars ever built – anywhere! – and it was conceived and manufactured right here in South Africa.

The Chevrolet Firenza Can Am was the brainchild of SA saloon car champions Basil van Rooyen and Geoff Mortimer, produced in 1973 to compete on our local race tracks and rally stages.

To make it eligible for the Production Car Championship, one hundred road-going examples had to be sold.

Some 32 years later, two absolutely original examples are owned by twin brothers, Hendrik and Jan Vos, who bought the cars when they were brand new!

290 horsepower from what was essentially a factory race-level five litre Chev V8. And the cars weighed just on 1100 kilograms.

The engine that Basil van Rooyen and Geoff Mortimer specified was a Z28 motor built for competition in America, but available in road-spec in the Camaro.

Rated in metric terms at just under 220 kiloWatts, it produces power levels respectable for a five-litre V8 today.

And in a car weighing less than a modern Golf 5, the power-to-weight ratio was mind-warping.

So was the gearing. First gear is good for nearly a 130 km/h, using the four-speed Muncie gearbox. Second a 162 km/h, third over 200.

As for fourth, aah, the speedo was off the dial and climbing back right round to the zero mark again.

The benchmark car at the time was the Capri Perana V8, another SA special, built by Basil Green.

Hendrik owned a Perana until his twin brother showed up one evening with his new Can Am. Then he knew he had to have one too.

All the Can Ams were white with black bonnet detailing, personal alloy wheels and an aluminium boot spoiler made by American Racing Equipment. Apart from beefed up mechanicals, the rest was stock Firenza.

Apart from the Personal steering wheel and chunky gear knob for the Munci ‘box, the interior was stock Firenza GT. The seats, however, came from an Opel GT for some reason.

The instrumentation was also stock Firenza and hopelessly inadequate for a car that could top 230 km/h.

Acres of black plastic, vinyl upholstery and totally parts-bin switch-gear were hardly calculated to impress the Café Society.

On the other hand, the team led by Mortimer and Van Rooyen had done a thorough under-skin engineering job, given the available technology 32 years ago.

In light of all this, the asking price of R5 800 was steep. At the time the top four-cylinder Firenza GT cost just R2 700!

So the home-brewed V8 engined homologation special was more than twice as expensive as the top factory-built car.

But as the Vos twins explain, there was nothing, absolutely nothing to touch it on performance. Ferraris, Porsches, you name it, the Firenza had them for breakfast.

These cars are exactly as they were in 1973. The engines have never been opened, the paint is original and oh how healthy they sound!

To make sure that the Firenza would beat the Capri Perana, Van Rooyen ordered the very best stuff from America.

The Z28 motor has an eleven-to-one compression ratio, a beefed up crankshaft and block, big valves and ports and a high-capacity Holley carb.

The Muncie gearboxes are legendary for their strength, as are the Borg-Warner limited slip differentials.

The engine number on Hendrik’s car is number forty-three of the one-hundred built, while Jan’s is number ninety-three.

The Vos twins both worked as train drivers for 35, they both still drive Chev Can Ams, and neither are planning on selling them.

Three decades on and the Vos boys are still waking up the neighborhood. Like they say, twins have an almost telepathic communication.

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