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Hooniverse Obscure Muscle Car Garage – The Chevrolet Firenza Can-Am 302

Jim Brennan December 6, 2013 Hooniverse Obscure Muscle Car Garage 35 Comments

Firenza Can-Am

Welcome to the Hooniverse Obscure Muscle Car Garage, a feature in which we try and introduce you to muscle cars you may never have known about, as well as re-define what a muscle car can be. It was brought to my attention a couple of years ago about two V-8 powered muscle cars of the ’70s that were manufactured by Ford and GM. Neither one of these machines were produced for the North American Market, nor were they made for our close cousins down under in Australia. These were locally produced in the country of South Africa, to be certified for racing in a local Production Car series. I will get to the Ford version at another time, but first, let’s discover the Chevrolet Firenza Can-Am 302!

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The Chevrolet Can-Am was always referred to as ‘The Little Chev’ in local advertising campaigns. However, there was an American V8 power plant that put out massive amounts of power, which sat in one of the smallest cars ever. Results, an ultimate track winner that killed its competition. Before the car could be raced, one hundred had to be built to comply with the rules for the South African Argus Production Car series.


According to the South African Magazine Top Car, it is estimated that today only thirty of these scalding hot rods are still in existence. The Can Am owes its existence because of two very different reasons; One was the other South African great V8, the Ford Capri Perana (A feature on this car is forthcoming), and the other is due to the efforts of local racing legend Basil van Rooyen. Van Rooyen was a South African race driver, engineer and founder of tuning company Superformance at the time. This establishment oversaw the building of a couple of Firenza coupes (A British Vauxhall Design originally) with a 308 cubic inch Holden V8, Van Rooyen took the cars to Port Elizabeth to prove a point to General Motors


The project was giving the go ahead by GM, although funding only came from the Chevrolet Dealer Team, set up by Van Rooyen. The initiative established that for every Chevy sold in the country, R5 (The Local Currency is the Rand (R), which was virtually equal to the American Dollar at that time) would be contributed to the competition budget.


The Argus Production Car regulations stipulated a maximum capacity of five liters. The Holden V8 was therefore 45 cc over what was needed, and a batch of 302 CI small block engines were sourced and imported from Michigan. These engines were prepared for the Camaro Z28s competing in the Trans-Am racing series, but after Chevy decided not to compete in the North American Series any longer, these engines were readily available. The big-valve engine had four-bolt main bearing blocks, ran a 11:1 compression ratio and with an 800 CFM Holley on top, it was rated at a conservative 290 hp and 300 foot pounds of torque.


Production took place in the latter part of 1972 and early 1973. Chassis numbers suggest the Can Am’s were built in relatively small numbers, with a team of specialists assembling the cars. Superformance provided GM all the kits comprising of; Personal branded 13 inch wheels, a Personal three spoke leather steering wheel, Koni shocks and vented hood slats. Added to the package was the trademark American Racing Equipment spoiler which could be adjusted. The wing was aluminum while the hood was fabricated using some rather crude fiberglass. This helped keep weight down to 1100 kg (2,425 Lbs.), helping the Can Am sprint from 0 – 100 km/h (Close to 0 – 62 MPH) in a very impressive 5.4 seconds, while top speed was an estimated 229 km/h (Over 140 MPH!). All cars were fitted with a Municie M21 four-speed manual box.


The ‘Little Chev’ is firmly embedded in South Africa’s motor sport history. The oil crisis hurt sales, although new examples were still being purchased in 1975 at a reduced price of R 5,800. The standard Firenza could be had for a little over R 2,600! Just like in America, if one had a crystal ball to see their future worth, more of these scalding cars would have been bought. But what I would like to know is this: Do you really care about South African Muscle Cars in this series? Sure they were fast, and they are rather obscure, but do they belong in the garage? They have American V-8 power, and a Muncie 4 Speed transmission, but is that enough for you? Let me know.

Is the Chevrolet Firenza Can-Am the very definition of an Obscure Muscle Car, and should it go into the Garage?

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Please Note: All Images are screen grabs from around the web. If you want credit for any image, please let me know in the comments section. Thank You!

  • 66Mustanger

    This is Hooniverse, after all. Capacity for open-minded consideration of any wheeled appliance runs rampant here. The thoughts that go through your mind when first seeing this vehicle. Wow, what would it be like to pull up to a stoplight next to [insert name of American V8-powered machine here], and seeing the driver's jaw drop as you light 'em up and swing past. The racing series that beckon your presence. Yeah, nice.

  • mr smee

    Mr. Smee approves (nods, strokes chin).

  • <img src="http://johnlangcastercars.com/Images/FINISHED%20SNOOT.jpg&quot; width=680>

    Mount the glassfibre droop snoot and it would be epic, epic.

  • GTXcellent

    What a neat looking little car. I imagine it's pretty temperamental to run as a street car (given the 11:1 compression ration, I assume it has solid lifters as the US cars did), but I really kind of want one. In fact, I'll gladly take one of these over a Datsun dime or BMW 2002tii or 1750GTV or Skyline or whatever other hot little car you can name.

  • OA5599

    "These engines were prepared for the Camaro Z28s competing in the Trans-Am racing series, but after Chevy decided not to compete in the North American Series any longer, these engines were readily available. The big-valve engine had four-bolt main bearing blocks, ran a 11:1 compression ratio and with an 800 CFM Holley on top, it was rated at a conservative 290 hp and 300 foot pounds of torque."

    That sounds like the specs for the '69 Z/28. In 1970, the rules changed so that the race cars still had a 5 liter limit, but could be homologated from street cars having more displacement. Accordingly, 1970 Z/28 street cars came with 350 CID LT-1 engines, Dodge T/A Challenger street cars had 340 inch engines, etc. Chevy was still racing in the Trans Am series when these Firenzas were produced, so I think it is more likely they were fitted with leftover warranty replacement production car engines from 69, or engines otherwise built to the same specifications.

  • PushrodRWD

    Would it take an American muscle car at the light, probably not. Would it take one in the turns or a long straight, most likely. The 302 was not a torque monster. It was a lightweight, high reving race engine. The original Z28's had this engine and it did not match up well against their more muscular siblings and competitors on the street. That being said I wish that the mindset was not as strip oriented and that this type of car was given a chance to evolve here. Although the Manta would have been my body style of choice for this platform. A little bit muscle car, a bit sports car and just a great overall look. I wonder if you can stick a LLT or LFX 3.6L with a six speed in one…..

    • My thoughts went to the Manta A as well.
      Here's one with a nice Rover 3.9 swap:

    • UDman

      I deleted the image as it was way too wide. Here is the image with an appropriate width…

      <img src="http://p5.storage.canalblog.com/56/63/568981/77971519_o.jpg&quot; width="680">

      Then I fixed the original… Isn't WordPress Fun?

    • Rover1

      Don't forget, these cars were small and light. These were based on the British Vauxhall Viva which was replaced by the Vauxhall Cevette, itself, slightly lighter than it's sister car, the Chevrolet Chevette.
      How torquey would a 302 Chevette be?

  • dukeisduke

    A friend of mine who's a Pontiac guy once said about the Z/28 302 and its 290 ft-lb of torque, "That's almost enough to spin the crank".

  • Kogashiwa

    Is this the fastest car yet in this series? I think it might be.

  • topdeadcentre

    Thank you, Hooniverse! Before today I had no idea that anything like this ever existed!

  • toastnet

    Reminds me of a BMW E21 (with balls 🙂 )

  • Reminds me of the South African BMW 333i, a E30 with the 3.2L M30 Big Six out of the 7 series.
    <img src="http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ls6tay5Wly1qh3t6o.jpg"width=500&gt;

    You could do a nice little series of wild South African Specials.

  • craigsu

    I'm seeing Opel Manta and Kadette in the body and Pontiac in the grille shot. Apart from the engine though, no Chevy.

  • Rover1

    The other Vauxhall Viva based car in GM's worldwide empire was based on the earlier HB Viva rather than the HC like this.
    But Holden gave it a longer nose so that their iron straight six would fit.
    I it's biggest 202 c.i.,3.3 litre capacity and triple carbs, and the same Muncie gearbox it was quick enough to beat the V8 Falcons and win Bathurst more than once or twice.
    <img src="http://holden.itgo.com/July2004/Lcxu1_2.jpg"width="400'"&gt;
    <img src="http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5480/10570536873_f07712be21.jpg"width="400"&gt;

  • Rover1
    • sporty88au

      The article with the yellow LH prototype summarizes the basics of the myriad versions of the story that have been circulating about these cars since the 1970's. Some versions have the LJ V8 prototypes all crushed, others have one or more of them quietly slipped out the back door and/or passed off as dealer-built conversions (in the same mould as Yenko or Baldwin-Motion Chevrolets) or sold to factory employees. AFAIK, nobody has yet found a verifiable factory LJ V8, and, like a lot of these kinds of stories, the truth becomes less clear the closer you get to those who were there.

      The pink car is probably one of the home-built clones I wrote about earlier. Back in the 80's it was easier to build a replica XU-1 than it is to build a Shelby GT-350 clone today – base-model donor cars were ridiculously cheap, and almost everything needed was readily available and relatively inexpensive. The practice only stopped being popular in the 90's when the supply of good donor cars started drying up, and the internet made it easier to verify a real one. The 'XU-2' decal on this one, however, was probably custom made, copying the design from the LH prototype in the article above.

  • danleym

    I'm looking forward to the Capri Perana post. I first heard about those a few years ago, and ever since they've been at the top of my "when I have a few hundred thousand dollars and nothing better to do with it list." That was the first thing I thought of when I saw the first picture. No surprise then that they're both South African.

  • I really enjoyed driving and writing up the Firenza Droopsnoot earlier this year. It didn't hang around, and that was with half the cylinders and less than half the displacement of the 302!

  • Tony Unruh

    what about the South African Dart Flamingo. A beautiful little car. If anyone has the info please post it. The Perana was really an amazing monster in the days.

  • maritza

    I’m currently the owner of a Chev Firenza 74 model and i absolutely love my car… wish there could be more love and respect for our classics!
    Nice day

  • Kent Gabrielson

    If interested, my father was involved in the production of these motors @ the Flint V8 Engine Plant. I have a copy of the factory magazine from GM of South Africa with an article regarding the build of these cars. Glad these are still enjoyed and rank right along with ’69 COPO Camaro, Hemi Dart, and others as a REAL muscle car!!

  • Hendo337

    Never heard of these before. Looks a lot like a 70s European Capri that was sold as a Ford overseas and as a Mercury in the USA…those with a V8 swap are leaps and bounds better than a Mustang II.

  • darkafrica

    I grew up in a small Karoo town called Cradock in South Africa. This town is about 300km from Port Elizabeth where the Firenza Can Am was being built. I remember as a small boy in 1973 seeing two of the Can Am,s parked next to each other at the GM stand at the local Agricultural show in Cradock. They formed part of the exhibition. For a while thereafter the local GM owner drove one of these around town for a few months. Mince meat was made of all competition in town, a local Mustang or two, a Porsche, the odd Fairmont GT, sports Mercedes etc. The story then goes that there was a guy in a neighbouring town who owned a Lamborghini Espada, and a secret race was organised in no time. Apparently the Can Am just about obliterated the Lambo during a drag race. The guys went for a second time, this time over a distance of about 10km with the same results. It was said that this Lamborghini was way way behind at the “winning post” even though it was supposed to have had a higher top speed. No this Little Chevy was a mean beast for sure.