South Africa’s car history, especially racing history, runs deeper and with a wider variety than many of us realize. Combine that with homologation specials, and some truly remarkable cars have graced our racetracks and roads.
In our latest SentiMETAL episode, we head to Bloemfontein where Frikkie Esterhuizen opened his garage doors for us. Frikkie has not one, but three Chevrolet Can Ams.
It was racing legend Basil van Rooyen (who at the time raced a Ford Capri Perana) that understood the value of working with rival General Motors when it came to local motorsport. To convince the company of his idea, he took two Firenza GT coupés and fitted each of them with a 307 ci (5,0-litres) V8 engine. Keep in mind these cars came standard with modest 2,5-litre, four-cylinder engines...
General Motors enthusiastically approved the project, and the plan to build 100 cars for homologation purposes started in 1972. Ultimately, however, 302 ci (4,94-litre) V8s were used to comply with racing regulations. Fitted with Holley carburettors, the engine delivered a healthy 216 kW (290 bhp) and around 400 N.m of torque.
Although the Firenzas were lightened further for racing, in road trim these small muscle cars already tipped the scales at only 1 100 kg. The black fibre-glass bonnet shaved some weight while also allowing additional airflow into the engine compartment through its bonnet vents. Possibly the most recognisable body addition was the American Racing Equipment wing on the boot lid.
The Can Am was seriously fast. The 100kph dash was blitzed in around 5,4 seconds, incredible performance for the era. Power went to the rear axle (where there was a Borg-Warner limited slip differential) through a four-speed manual gearbox.
Additional performance parts included the updated braking system while inside the cabin sports seats were fitted, together with a sporty three-spoke steering wheel. Apart from the 100 road cars made, another six race cars were built for local racing.
The most notable racing success of these cars came in 1972 at the 9 Hour Endurance race when Van Rooyen and Geoff Mortimer claimed 11th place while Van Rooyen achieved no fewer than 11 wins in a row (!) in 1973.
Frikkie explains when his interest in this car started: “The car arrived in 1973 when I was 22. This car was just, and still is, different to other cars – the driving experience is wild! The first time you put your foot down on the throttle, you realize the car is sliding to the left and to the right and you struggle to keep it in a straight line. It is then that you realize you need to feather the throttle in first gear. The car is even strong once you’ve slotted it into third or fourth gear. It is unlike today’s cars that do everything for you – here you must keep the car on the road yourself.
“I was so impressed with the car when I bought it and with the condition it was in, that I decided that if I were to find another one in such a condition I would buy it.”
One of the three Can Ams that Frikkie owns is not a matching numbers car (where the engine and chassis numbers correspond), but is fitted with a race engine that delivers an even more exhilarating experience.
“From the age of six I’ve been interested in cars and have collected Dinky Toys. Today I have over a thousand little models. My late father used to work for Ford in Bloemfontein and he used to bring newly released models home, pick me up and then we would go for a test drive – that's where I developed my love for cars.
"Through the years I’ve realized I like cars that have been manufactured here in South Africa and secondly, I like numbered cars, meaning cars of which only a certain, limited number were made.
“If I find another Can Am in a good condition, I’ll add number four to the collection, that is how passionate I am about these cars.”
Car: Chevrolet Firenza Can Am (1973)
Engine: 4 958 cc, V8, petrol
Power: 216 kW at 5 800 r/min
Compression ratio: 11:1
Torque: 393 N.m at 4 200 r/min
Top speed: 225 km/h
0-100 km/h: 5,4 seconds
Gearbox: 4-speed manual
Wheelbase: 2 465 mm
Number made: 106 (including 6 racing cars)
Weight: 1 100 kg