Only sold in Canada, the Viva Firenza remains a mostly unknown name outside the country. Within Canada, the Viva Firenza was widely hated
Certain models like the Mustang live on as a famous name through history, standing out as prime examples of what a car can be. Yet, some cars stand out for being good and inventive, while some manage to stand out for the complete opposite reasons. Names like the Pinto are just as well remembered as good cars, as they indeed did bring something new to the table. Something new isn’t always something good, and what the Pinto brought to the table was a low quality car that had a lethal flaming fault, thus leading to its infamy. There are plenty of legendary bad cars like this, standing out simply for having horrible faults. But, one car remains relatively unknown, yet just as bad as the legendary lemons throughout history most people remember.
That car is the Vauxhall Viva Firenza, and it’s worse than you could imagine. Only sold in Canada, the Viva Firenza remains a mostly unknown name outside the country. Within Canada, especially at the time it was sold though, the Viva Firenza was widely hated. While plenty of bad cars receive public scorn, the Viva Firenza was so bad, that an association of angry owners was created, and protests were even held outside the Canadian Parliament against the car. The anger didn’t stop there either, as Canada’s first ever class-action lawsuit was launched specifically as a response to the Viva Firenza’s faults.
What exactly made the Viva Firenza so bad, and why did it anger Canadians so much?
Vauxhall In Canada
While mostly an unfamiliar name in the USA, Vauxhall had been a player in North America in the past. Briefly selling their cars in the USA through Pontiac dealers, Vauxhall found limited success in America, but in Canada had become prolific.
Beginning in 1948, Vauxhall started importing their cars to Canada through GM, avoiding taxes on imported British cars through the use of Canada’s status in the British Commonwealth. Selling cars like their Victor sedan under new names like the Envoy, Vauxhall enjoyed success up north as the affordable British cars gained popularity. As 1958 rolled around, Vauxhall hit the peak of their Canadian success, with models like the Envoy, Velox, and Cresta turning the brand into the 5th best seller for cars in all of Canada. By 1960, the Vauxhall Envoy model marked 27% of all cars imported to Canada, a huge win for the company. But this wouldn’t last, and Vauxhall would soon see a sharp decline.
Vauxhall’s virtue in Canada had been its focus on affordable, reliable, and practical compact economy cars, beating most American brands in the segment thanks to their affordable price, in part due to not being taxed on import. But, with affordable American compacts like the Ford Falcon gaining popularity, and arriving at Canadian dealers, Vauxhall began to lose market share, falling from 5th to 27th best selling brand for cars in Canada. Even worse for Vauxhall, their ability to import cars tax-free would soon be overruled by the Canadian government, and their cars began being taxed like all other imported cars of the time. As an attempt to salvage sales, Vauxhall introduced the compact HA generation Viva to Canada in 1964, selling it as the “Epic” or “Envoy Epic” through Chevy and Oldsmobile dealers. Undergoing several face-lifts and changes, the Viva went through the HA and HB generations, remaining a moderate success, and decent car. In 1971 though, the HC generation Viva was introduced to Canada at the Montreal Auto Show, gaining the name “Firenza,” and carrying the promise of sporty fun, great affordability, and comfort. But the new Viva would soon see its image take a sharp turn in Canada, from decent economy car to a worthless lemon.
An Immediate Disaster
Previous generations of the Vauxhall Viva were beginning to gain a reputation for un-reliability by the early ’70s, and the Viva Firenza would only make things worse. Almost immediately off the showroom floor, owners who had purchased a Viva Firenza discovered that just about everything and anything could and would go wrong with their new car. Widespread reports of the Viva Firenza’s failures began, including electrical systems that refused to work properly, to engines that would burst into flames without a moment’s notice. Things only got worse in the months after sales began, and Viva Firenza owners reported a further list of problems like sticking gas pedals, brake failure, sudden loss of steering, exhausts that would leak, and even issues like hazard light switches that would randomly break off when pressed. That too wasn’t the end of the Viva Firenza’s woes, as owners soon discovered the good fuel economy advertised to be completely inconsistent, and frequent repair bills began adding up to more than the car’s retail price for many owners. Then, the Canadian winter hit, and the Viva Firenza’s tendency to corrode at a disturbingly fast pace revealed itself fully. Parts began to spontaneously fall off of them, and owners were rightfully angry.
Instead of acknowledging that the Viva Firenza was simply low-quality, and riddled with issues, GM doubled down. In 1972, in an attempt to hide the car’s stained reputation, GM simply removed all Vauxhall badges and continued sales within their existing dealers like nothing had happened. This only made owners angrier, and the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a Canadian non-profit consumer advocacy group, got involved. Reaching out to owners of faulty Viva Firenzas, the APA gathered reports, and created the Dissatisfied Firenza Onwer’s Association. Right after its creation, 1 out of 20 Viva Firenza owners joined the association, but GM would continue to ignore the car’s glaring faults. Running new ads that praised the car’s reliability, GM decided to stiff arm Viva Firenza owners who had been experiencing problems, refusing any trade-ins, and offering less than a quarter of the retail value when buying back the faulty Viva Firenzas sold just months earlier.
Protests And Canada’s First Class Action Lawsuit
Spreading the word through press-releases, conferences, and crashing the 1972 Montreal Auto show, the APA and angry Viva Firenza owners started to make it well known just how bad the car was. With public outcry over the car’s complete failure, GM finally removed it from the Canadian market in January of 1973, but this only made things worse for owners. Now faced with a car everyone knew was terrible, and dealers that refused to buy them back, Viva Firenza owners were stuck, unable to sell their rapidly deteriorating cars. The Canadian Ministry of Transportation began investigating the demand for a recall when a 19 year old girl died after the car’s steering suddenly failed, but were unable to pinpoint a specific design flaw that could trigger a recall by the government. The investigation ended, and despite the Canadian Minister of Transport’s advice to send concerned letters to GM, no recall or buy-back was initiated by the company. Letters were ignored, and the protests began.