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Part 63 – Lancia: Into the Fiat Years

The History of the Italian Automobile

Part 63 – Lancia: Into the Fiat Years

By David Cavaliere

It was the best of times and the worst of times. In the late 1960s there were two manufacturers who stood side by side as builders of high-quality touring coupés and sport-inspired sedans. Each produced their exciting cars in relatively low volume, but rather than being marginalized, the cars were made for buyers with a desire for well-crafted performance automobiles. The companies were Lancia and BMW. The ‘Neue Klasse’ (New Class) launched by BMW enjoyed a 15-year production run and single-handedly ensured the automakers solvency. During the same period, Lancia achieved motorsport successes and its cars were applauded by the automotive press, but to stay independent during the difficult period of the 1960s was no easy matter. The company’s Fulvia, adored by auto enthusiasts, had been developed with little concern for cost-effective production. It was a relatively high-priced car built in correspondingly low volume. When, in 1968, Lancia’s Technical Director Antonio Fessia died, there was no clear successor. In financial distress, Fiat bought the ailing firm in 1969. It was then that BMW and Lancia took different paths. Only one was bound for success and one can only wonder why.

The Lancia Flavia was the first new model of the decade offered by company. It was introduced in 1961 and had a long production life. It was produced as the Flavia until 1971 and then as the Lancia 2000 until 1975. It was named after Via Flavia, the Roman road leading from Trieste to Dalmatia.

The Flavia was fitted with a new engine - a 1500 cc aluminum boxer engine (horizontally opposed 4 cylinder). Introduced at the 1960 Turin Auto Show as a sedan, coupé and convertible versions developed by Pininfarina and Vignale were soon in production. Always a lively driver’s car, performance improved over the decade as the engine displacement was progressively increased to two liters. The car was fitted with Dunlop disc brakes on all four wheels, front-wheel drive and a sophisticated independent front suspension. The engines were notoriously difficult to keep in tune. Much of the reason came down to timing chain stretch. It was recommended that the timing be adjusted every 6,000 miles! Towards the end of the 1960s, when Fiat took control of the company, the Vignale and Zagato versions were discontinued. In 1969, the coupé and sedan versions received new bodywork and a larger 2.0 liter engine.

In 1963, Lancia introduced its next model - the Fulvia. Named after Via Fulvia, the Roman road leading from Tortona to Torino, it was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show and manufactured in three styles - as Berlina 4-door sedan, a 2-door Coupé and a Sport model. A fastback coupé was also designed and built by Zagato. As was featured in last week’s article, the Fulvias were notable for their role in motorsport history. Road & Track called it "a precision motorcar, an engineering tour de force." Well-balanced, nimble and with outstanding brakes, the Fulvia was a fantastic driver’s car. The early models were somewhat underpowered, but the car’s engine provided plenty of development opportunities, with the final models displacing 60% more cubic inches and more than twice the horsepower.

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The general engineering design of the Fulvia was identical to that of the Flavia with the major exception of the engine, the Fulvia used the familiar narrow-angle V4 configuration. However, the new engine was a double-overhead cam design using one camshaft for the intake valves and another for the exhaust. The narrow angle allowed for use of a single cylinder head. The engine was mounted well forward and was angled at 45° in front of its transaxle.

Displacement began with 1091 cc and 58 hp. Following re-engineering of the engine in 1967, three displacements were available - 1199 cc, 1231 cc and 1298 cc. The engine was reworked for the new 1.6 liter version with power ranging from 115 to 132 hp, depending on tune. Final production of this wonderful car ended in 1976.

The Lancia Beta had a tough act to follow. Introduced as a replacement for the Fulvia, it was classified as an entry-level luxury car when introduced in 1972. It was the first new model introduced by Lancia after it had been taken over by Fiat in 1969. The first "Fiat Lancia" was by no means a bad car, but its heart had been replaced. Development of the car took place in a very short timeframe and money was limited. The Lancia V4 was an expensive engine to build and given the constraints, Fiat used instead its own twin-cam iron-block inline four. Fiat’s objective for the Beta was to maintain the quality image of the Lancia brand, while minimizing development time and production costs by using in-house Fiat group technology and parts. In contrast with the Fulvia, the Beta design was relatively inexpensive to produce in volumes significantly higher than previous Lancia models. The Lancia engineers designed a unique independent rear suspension for the Beta. It used MacPherson struts with pivoting transverse links. This design went on to be used in later Lancia models, but was never patented and a raft of manufacturers used this layout throughout the 1980s and 90s. The Beta was made in several body styles - a two four door sedans (traditional and fastback), a two door coupé (Beta Coupé),the targa (Beta Spider) and a mid-engine sports car, the Lancia Beta Montecarlo.

The Montecarlo was Pininfarina-designed and was powered by a twin cam, 1995 cc Lampredi inline four. Cars from the first series (1975 to 1978), were known as Beta Montecarlos, while the second series, from 1980 to 1981, were simply Montecarlos. Both series were offered in Coupé and Spider versions, the latter featuring a unique roll-back, manually operated targa-style convertible top. The Spider was sold in the United States as the Lancia Scorpion (Monte Carlo was a Chevrolet model name) during 1976 and 1977.

The Gamma was the next car produced under Fiat ownership as Lancia's new flagship, following the discontinuation of the Flavia/2000. It was a front-wheel drive car and used a boxer engine, initially of 2.5 liters. The engine offered certain engineering advantages; it was extremely light, offered a low center of gravity and although it only produced 140 hp, it had plenty of torque. It allowed Pininfarina to design a rakish looking coupé with a low hood line and steeply raked windshield.

Introduced in 1979, it was very graceful looking car and was available as a fastback or coupé. Initially well-admired, the innovative engine proved to be the car’s downfall. It overheated far too easily, often leaked oil and was prone to snapping the left side cam belt (which also drove the power steering) if the wheel was turned to full lock, resulting in massive repair bills. By the time the fuel injected version was launched in 1980, the problems had been rectified, but the damage to the car’s reputation was done. For the first time in the marque’s proud history, people spoke of a poorly engineered Lancia.

Production ended in 1984 and the model was followed by the Lancia Thema. It was one of four cars to share the Type Four platform alongside the Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma and Saab 9000. Designed by Pininfarina, the Thema was available as a sedan and station wagon and was considered one of the most spacious and comfortable European cars of its time. The car offered stunning performance and excellent refinement, including a handmade wood dash and appointments plus optional leather interior by Poltrona Frau and luxury equipment. It was available with a number of different engines, including a detuned Ferrari V8 and later, an Alfa Romeo V6. Production for the Thema ended in 1994.

Next week we will conclude this multi-part series on Lancia. Please send comments to Dave@ItalianTribune.com



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