A MOMENT OF MADNESS

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By Stuart Grant and images by Jan van der Walt

Ease out the heavy clutch, add some loud pedal and it shudders into motion. I see 4000 arriving on the tacho and pull back on the bull ball-sized Hurst Shifter to grab the next cog. It pulls strongly, accompanied by a crackling V8 soundtrack. I’m being encouraged to give it some more right foot, so up it goes to the 6500 mark, adding a turbo-like whooshing sound as the vacuum secondary choke is sucked into action to satiate the demand for more mixture to feed a hungry engine. Now the madness begins; acceleration becomes mind-boggling, the exhaust tone earth-shattering. Let’s take in  a Johannesburg sunrise with a South African legend that earned its stripes at the original Kyalami track in the 1970s.

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This surreal moment of driving a road-legal racer around Jozi came about following a drawn-out resurrection of Dick Sorensen’s Chevrolet Firenza V8 Can Am, a process that started with the recommissioning of the engine in 2008. This is not a restored car with new and shiny replacement parts, simply because it didn’t require restoration at all. Following its life on-track in the 1970s, this machine hasn’t turned a wheel or seen daylight until very recently, showing a just-run-in 31 500km on the still-functional speedo. The interior is 100% original, and it looks, feels and smells like it just pulled into the pits almost 40 years ago, because that is exactly how it was raced – without a racing seat, harness or roll cage.

Those of a certain age might remember Dick’s exploits at Kyalami in the popular Castrol Clubmans handicap races in the late ʼ70s. The car stands out from its band of brothers by virtue of its 16-inch diameter, 12-inch wide Compomotive wheels nestled under wheel arches expertly fabricated in steel by an old-school Portuguese artisan down at Cornright’s Motors. The man clearly had an eye for form, the recessed lip of the standard arches grafted on for a factory-made look. Such upgrades helped Dick wrestle this very machine from over two laps down relative to the first car away, un-lapping himself twice on his way to victory at the Kruger Day races in 1978.

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Numbers run through my head as I watch the needle climb up the rev counter, onward and upward toward 8000, thanks to the short-stroke and bulletproof componentry designed for the Trans-Am-winning Camaros in the USA. I have over 400bhp propelling just 1 066 kilograms underfoot, present company excluded. Gripping onto the 3-spoke, over-sized, thin-rimmed steering wheel tighter than any driving instructor would be happy with, I struggle to keep the barrel-like tyres from turning every tiny road irregularity into the scene of an accident. Such errant behaviour highlights how cars have come on in leaps and bounds in the decades that have followed, with even basic creature comforts such as power steering and air-con reserved for high-end luxury models back then. By today’s standards the Firenza is simple, basic and feels dangerously fragile. The body is almost an afterthought; as though the idea was to wrap the smallest possible shell around the most powerful drivetrain. It’s at once both terrifying and thrilling.

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Gaining a bit more confidence, I give the Can Am a proper tonk and it takes off. The ridiculously heavy steering abates and the ride up Joe Slovo Drive past The Wilds never sounded so good. It’s addictive, and I mentally pen a thank you note to those in charge of decision-making for looking the other way while such politically-incorrect madness was conceived into a corporate world. Consider that GM had a global ‘non-participation in motorsport’ clause in their charter at the time, and the company culture was anything but progressive.    

As my speed climbs so does the demand for concentration. The seats, borrowed from the Opel GT, are slightly more supportive than those of most cars of the early 1970s but fall way short of modern performance car furniture. I can’t imagine how Dick held himself in place around Leeukop or braced himself while he threaded the proverbial needle through the super-fast kink halfway down the straight, aided only by a static 3-point seatbelt that serves little purpose other than to allow the marketing types to include it in a brochure. Mr Sorensen, you are a braver man than me.  

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Of course, the Can Am story is one we’ve told before, but having now had the chance to fully explore the fury of one of these cars, and finally realising just how brutal a machine it is, I feel it’s worth a recap. It started with the legislatively-liberal approach of ‘We need a competitive race car, so let’s shoehorn the most powerful engine into the lightest body and convince the authorities to sell this model in sufficient numbers to the public’ that spawned many homologation specials the world over, including the SA-specific BMW 530, Alfa Romeo 3.0 GTV 6 and Sierra XR8, to name just a few. In 1972 the requisite production volume was 100 and the advert provocatively read: “You and 99 others”.  The Sorensen car, tagged 575619, is the one of the last of the road cars off the line at the Kempston Road factory in Port Elizabeth.

Today a Can Am is a very rare beast, ever more so in anything approaching original, unmolested condition. Most were modified, drag-raced, broken, crashed and have at the very least been rebuilt from the ground up. A few have been shipped offshore too, now oddities in the UK, Australia, the US and Sweden. Dick’s son Richard bought the car from his father quite recently, and rather than take it back to factory standard, it was simply wound back a notch to its slightly less wild 1978 spec. That makes it road-drivable at a stretch, but preserves the heritage of the only remaining Can Am with race-winning history in-era. Richard considers the car too special to track, considering it still has its original matching-numbers engine and gearbox, and fears the car might not pass scrutineering for lack of any kind of modern safety equipment!

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Passionate about these unique SA cars, Richard founded The Chevrolet Can Am Register on Facebook in 2011, serving to find and document the remaining cars. That number now sits at around 45, of which only a handful are still fitted with their original motors and transmissions. Time and effort contributed by members of the group ensures that they know all the tell-tale signs of the real deal versus a copy; more than 25 detailed differences that remain a closely guarded secret.

Credit for the gestation of the Can Am goes to Basil van Rooyen, following his efforts campaigning a V8 Capri Perana against the Basil Green-run car of Bobby Olthoff. Fed up with Ford’s general lack of interest, he approached General Motors SA with the plan to get one over Ford using the Vauxhall Viva shell as a base, and adding a military-grade drivetrain in the form of the ’67 Trans Am series-winning Camaro Z28 power plant with its 2-inch inlet valves, a steel crankshaft held firm by 4-bolt main bearing caps and high compression forged pistons, fed by an 800 CFM Holley carb. Very conservatively, it was officially rated at 290bhp for regulatory purposes, but was reputedly well over 300 without modification. Revising the choice of body at GM’s behest to the popular Firenza coupé, Basil had Hennie van der Linde (yes, that Hennie) hustle together a couple of 150bhp 307ci-powered prototypes at his Superformance workshop in Wynberg – one manual and one automatic. Decked out with all the familiar Can Am trimmings, including the distinctive black-over-white colour scheme, Italian 4-spoke 13” alloy wheels and leather-bound steering wheel from Personal, they were finished off with an adjustable aluminium spoiler from American Racing adorning the boot lid.

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Along with the idea to fund the team with a contribution of R5 per car sold by each GM dealer, it was sufficient to convince GM Managing Director Bob Price to give the go-ahead for the necessary production run. Argus Production Car rules dictated a maximum capacity of five litres, and Basil knew well that the DZ 302 (4.95-litre) was fit for serious competition duty, but was told the States couldn’t supply more than six, or less than 3 000, of the now out-of-production units. Some arm-twisting of Price’s powerful Detroit contacts did the trick, resulting in 102 engines being hand-built at the Tonawanda plant and shipped to SA, along with a matching quota of Muncie M20 4-speed transmissions. A name for the new model was hotly debated, Basil favouring ‘Can Am 5000’, ‘Hustler’ or ‘Mamba’, but GM insisting on ‘Little Chev’, fearful that the public would fail to associate the car with the brand. In the end, period advertising called it a ‘Little Chev Firenza V8’, and the handbook supplement was stamped ‘Firenza 302 Can Am’, so take your pick.

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While Van Rooyen and Geoff Mortimer started the build of the race and rally cars in preparation for the 1973 season, a small engineering team led by Jonny Pittaway at the factory in PE co-developed the most brutal of all South African road-legal specials to a level that somehow passed the General’s tough testing standards in super-quick time. I suspect a little dirt was swept under the carpet in the process, as standard Can Ams were known to have a few built-in flaws, including ready-to-fail clutch cables, inadequate brakes, and tyres that would self-destruct just north of 200km/h.

If durability was not its forte, performance certainly was. The road-going Can Am officially rocketed to 100km/h in just 5.4 seconds as tested by Technicar, completed a standing quarter-mile in under 14 seconds and topped out at 229km/h. The GM official test car considerably bettered those figures. If you can name a faster accelerating road car available in 1973 at any price, let me know.

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But the real goal was to win on the track. Right off the bat, Van Rooyen and Mortimer finished 11th overall in the ’72 9-Hour at Kyalami, running in the prototype class. Van Rooyen claimed victory on its Production Car series debut at Kyalami in January 1973 while Ford withdrew the Capri Perana, arguably figuring they would not win this fight. That left Chevrolet in the somewhat sad situation of staging demonstration races, with the only competition coming from the second Dealer Team car steered by guest drivers Paddy Driver, Eddie Keizan, Nols Niemann, Ray Emond and Colin Burford, with each ‘duel’ drummed up by GM’s press department.

For the 1973 9-Hour at Kyalami the ultimate Can Am racer was built, with several key improvements over the initial Group 2-spec race cars, including 15-inch wheels to allow for larger brakes and revised suspension geometry. Finished at the very last minute and starting from the back of the grid, Basil promptly stroked the car up through the field to catch the class-leading works BMW 3-litre CSL steered by Jacky Ickx and Hans Stuck, only for the gearbox to fail due to the small but critical oversight of installing a speedo drive to keep the oil in place.

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With the oil crisis hitting South Africa, hard fuel rationing and a ban on motorsport events cut short the Can Am’s factory racing career, while the road cars languished in Chevrolet showrooms through to 1975 – perhaps not surprising considering their ferocious appetite for fuel and a R5 800 price tag – double that of a 4-cylinder Firenza. The official Dealer Team closed its doors and for ’74 Chevrolet dealers themselves took over the race cars which continued their winning ways in regional saloon car races in Natal, PE, East London and Cape Town. The eventual demise of these ‘works’ cars is well known, two donating their drivetrains to Chevairs being built for the emerging Manufacturer’s Challenge series around 1978. One Dealer Team car, chassis 575528, enjoyed great success in Rhodesia until 1980, before returning to the Highveld and being raced against Sorensen’s car in Castrol Clubmans by then-owner Mitri Mitri (yes, that’s his real name). In the late ʼ80s, that car was fully restored and raced in anger by Paddy O’Sullivan at Zwartkops in the Ultimoil series, but was eventually exported to the UK and butchered beyond recognition as a result of a convoluted dispute over ownership.

That brings us neatly back to the car I’m driving today, initially purchased from the first owner by film director Tai Krige because he was struggling to operate the clutch. In Australia, Dick had owned one of the still-born 140mph Ford Falcon XA GTHO Phase IV homologation special supercars that had silently slipped out the back door of the Australian factory as RPO 83s, so unsurprisingly the wild Chevrolet V8 special caught his eye after he emigrated to South Africa after a stint in England. Having bought the car from Tai, it didn’t take long for Dick to realise that the Chevy might be better suited to the track than the Saturday morning shopping run, prompting a visit to see V8 guru (and one-time notorious criminal) Derrick Preston at his Hi-Performance business in downtown Benoni. With the addition of a competition cam, quad Weber IDAs and up-and-over drain pipe-sized side-exit exhausts, the engine was progressively developed to liberate over 450bhp, propelling Dick to 260km/h through the speed trap after the Dunlop bridge.

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By 1980, Dick had been convinced by the racing fraternity to put the Can Am aside and move into the Star Modified series, which he did in the ex-Brian Cook Datsun 140Z, followed by the ex-Willie Hepburn Chevrolet SS, ex-Hennie van der Linde Datsun Stanza, ex-O’Sullivan Rover SD1 V8 and finally the ex-van der Linde Nissan Skyline GTX that is arguably SA’s most race-winning car of all time. Dick finally retired from national racing in 1989, opening the way into the sport for his eldest son Richard, who claimed National Championships in WesBank Modifieds in a Mk1 Golf, campaigned the groundbreaking Audi Quattro 200 Trans-Am in the halcyon days of the formula before the rise of Super Touring Cars, and went door-to-door with the best in BMW and Audi Production Cars. Both have kept their hand in the game in recent years by competing in various historic events in the Skyline, Jaguar D-Type replica and a nimble one-off Australian-built special christened Nemesis, which Richard raced at the Phillip Island Classic last year following Dick’s recent move back to his native Australia.

That meant selling off most of his 20-plus car collection, but the Can-Am has remained in its homeland, right here in Johannesburg.

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