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Paul Chase-Gardener’s Vauxhall Firenza ‘Old Nail’ – Man and Machine

Paul Chase-Gardener’s Vauxhall Firenza ‘Old Nail’ – Man and Machine Classic and Performance Car

Paul Chase-Gardener’s Firenza may be Old, but it’s no Nail


As Paul Chudecki observed when he drove it for Octane in 2013, Old Nail is the ultimate racing development of a non-silhouette Firenza and the car that forced people to re-evaluate Vauxhall’s straight-laced post-war image. While Baby Bertha is the car forever associated with the great Gerry Marshall, this one, its predecessor, had many more race wins – reckoned to be 59, plus four saloon championships, the last with Bill Dryden in 1975. Remarkably, it has survived in its last-raced form, due to being on static display for most of the time since, in the Vauxhall Heritage and Donington Park museums.
 
Old Nail was first raced as the flat-front ‘Thames TV’ Firenza in 1971 and, bearing in mind that a collective of dealers was funding the team, grew the droop-snoot nose in 1973 to fit in with Vauxhall’s marketing of the new High Performance Coupé. The motor, a twin-cam Lotus development whose head found its way into HS Chevettes, has been everything from a 2.0-litre to a 2.6 and back again; now it’s a 2.3 making about 230bhp on Tecalemit-Jackson mechanical injection. The car’s name comes not from being bent and straightened out so many times, but for its long service when most racers were pensioned off after a year. Marshall was gentle on his cars – he never crashed Baby Bertha, or seriously damaged this one.
 
When the Firenza came up for sale in 2012, having been given to Marshall in 1978 by a grateful Dealer Team Vauxhall, Paul Chase-Gardener had to have it. Though he was better known for playing with Astons (another story for another time), he already had a replica Shaw & Kilburn Viva GT racer. His fascination with DTV cars started with the HB Viva he’s owned from age 17: ‘It was a fantastic-handling car and good looking, too. Because of that I went to see the Shaw & Kilburn cars racing, and that’s where I first came across Gerry Marshall. I saw him race Old Nail maybe three times.’
It its final form, Nail is very different from a standard Firenza. The motor’s been moved down and back almost under the scuttle on a new subframe, necessitating a refabricated bulkhead extending into the cockpit, and a big hump in the left of the floor accommodates the side exhaust. Chase-Gardener still has the original seat for shows, and remarkably the car still runs standard rear drums, which Marshall preferred.
 
‘I’ve raced it three times, though when we first got it we quickly realised it was a sprint race car – it would quickly overheat. Then I realised I had LV engine number 1, and I really shouldn’t blow that up, so I bought the sister car, which had been racing in the US, for its engine. You need to keep it above 4000-4500rpm and max power is at 8000rpm – it screams, we’ve measured it at 116dBA – and it’d keep revving until it blew up. The steering is super – it just turns in instantly – though, on 15in slicks, I haven’t been brave enough to drift or slide it yet.’
 
Paul is now pondering what configuration to restore the second Firenza back to, as it was the ‘Brookhire’ car before it found fame winning an SCCA championship in America… and then there’s his HB Viva GT ‘Pop’ to complete the set: ‘I seem to have the monopoly on Vauxhalls.’
 
Words and photography: Paul Hardiman
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Evo, the world’s premier performance car magazine. Try 5 issues of evo today for just £5 and receive a free welcome gift!