Archie Vicar tests three sporting saloons: Triumph’s Dolomite, Lancia’s Fulvia and Alfa Romeo’s evergreen Giulia.
From the Driving & Motoring Weekly Guide, 1975. Photos by Nigel de la Warr. Owing to the loss of Mr. De la Warr’s Nikons, stock photography has been used.
Small sporting saloons are becoming an important if quite tiny part of the market place. Naturally, the large family car will always remain the most popular choice for the suburban motorist and business-man on the move. But, for the fellow who likes energetic driving and who also needs to chauffeur his wife and children about from time to time, there are three cars offering an alternative to the much loved Ford Cortina, the humdrum Vauxhall Viva and dull Morris Marina.
The Triumph Dolomite, Alfa Romeo Giulia and Lancia Fulvia are three similarly conceived cars to tempt us into more lively motoring. Each has a sleek and well-tailored body enclosing four seats and a choice of powerful engines. We took a trip to Canley, near Coventry to inspect the latest version of the Triumph Dolomite and to compare it with Lancia’s evergreen Fulvia and Alfa’s standard-bearer, the Giulia.
“a clever mixed blend…”
The Dolomite is part of Triumph’s fiendishly comprehensive model range of small cars. Lately front-wheel drive has become almost acceptable for small cars, and Triumph have indeed had a bit of a stab at this format for the 1300 and 1500. However, as the old saying goes, the only way forwards is backwards. The new Dolomite (890 lbs weight) is a clever mixed blend of bits of Triumph’s small cars and pilfers freely from the firm’s engineering past.
It sports the elegant, longer body of the front-driven Triumph 1500, but the oily bits are mostly inherited from the rear-wheel drive Triumph Toledo (reviewed November 1971). This means it has a simple live rear axle with coil springs in the interest of simplicity and higher profits. This is an inspiring example of BMC thrift and shows clearly that rear-drive has some legs yet.
“…Lancia´s evergreen Fulvia…”
Standing up against the Dolomite is Lancia’s refined Fulvia, launched in 1963 and updated only five years ago with the 1298 cc engine and 5 speed gearbox. Effective Girling calipers and pads replaced the shoddy Dunlop system attached to the earlier cars. [See page 34-36 for more details on Girling’s new brake pad compounds – Ed.] The handbrake design is also new (for 1970) and deploys separate drums and brake-shoes operating on the rear wheels. This and other small modifications show that Fiat, who now own Lancia, are determined to keep this great marque healthy in these increasingly competitive times.
Carried over also is the crisp and smart bodywork, which reminds one of a small Mercedes. Plenty of chrome embellishments and a very refined driver’s compartment certainly enunciate Lancia’s distinguished pedigree. I’ve managed to lose my little Fuvia brochure so I can’t quote the vehicle´s weight, except to say, in Rolls-Royce style, it is “adequate.” The Fulvia’s driven wheels are located forward of the driver’s ashtray.
“…frankly marginal company…”
Finally, Alfa Romeo are still investing heavily in their rear-while drive Giulia to maintain its dominant position as the sporting saloon preferred by serious and enthusiastic drivers. On sale in one form or another since the unification of Italy, it seems no-one can topple the Giulia from its position on the sales charts or in the hearts of red-blooded drivers. Some might whisper the name “BMW” here but one can expect little from this frankly marginal company who have long struggled with their boxy and evil-handling saloons. The Giulia tested here has a powerful 1.6 litre engine which must move a mere 2,200 lbs.
“…the lethal Herald…”
We took the cars on a 116 mile test drive from Canley to Worcester and had a good opportunity to assess their various foibles and flaws. The driving conditions were fair to moderate, with a light North-Westerly breeze. The temperature was mild. We passed through Gaydon, Ratlez, Compton Wynyates, Honington, Weston Subedge, Evesham and Pershore. The 14th century church at Warmington is worth a look.
Rather surprisingly, Lancia’s Fulvia belied its controversial chassis-configuration and proved to be the most surefooted and tractable of the three cars. Whilst the top-speed was nothing about which to telex home, the crisp steering, rifle-slick gearchange and smart acceleration contradicted the limousine-in-miniature appearance of the car. The driver’s position is a little odd but far less so than one might expect (The Mini’s is far, far worse.)
Naturally, the front-driven Fulvia is prone to understeer yet I found this much less unsettling than the Dolomite’s tendency to swing its tail at the lightest of touches. Even the lethal Herald had more stability, which is saying something. Triumph have saved some pennies with their cleverly simple engineering and this is to be respected. However, this does not compensate for the sense of fearful anxiety one feels merely pulling into the pub carpark to down some afternoon refreshments.
Incidentally, the Butler’s Plough outside Honington is a topping place for a good lunch. The ox-tongue sandwiches deserve a special mention. I have not had any finer since road testing the Riley 4/72 in the Lake District in 1972. It was in the Lake District Arms Hotel that I had a smashing basket of home-baked bread, thick slices of ox-tongue, English mustard, cress, lettuce, creamery butter and a baker’s dozen of Slattern’s Extra Dark Imperial Stout. For me this transformed my views of the Lake District utterly. I’d previously been unable to find a single decent pint of beer or a half-way palatable luncheon in nearly twenty years of testing in that otherwise pleasant region.
When Riley summoned us there (back when I worked for the Weekly Manchester Advertiser) I was filled with a deep dread, despite my fond regard for Riley cars, God bless them, because I thought we’d be forced to eat awful vittels for three days straight. That tongue-sandwich thankfully saved the Lake District for me. And the car we tested seemed to be equally as good. I always said that the 4/72 was a much better car than its BMC competitors: the laughable A55 Cambridge, the appalling MG Magnette (the wife has one!) and the stout Morris Oxford. Perhaps the Wolseley 15/60 is nearly as good a car but I’d hate to be asked to justify this prejudice in a court of law.
To sum up, the Dolomite is credible motor car and a credit to BMC. It’s cheaper and simpler than its predecessors which is a sign of progress. The Flavia is formidable little thing whose main failing seems to lie in the viscosity of the engine oil recommended by Lancia. I think a slightly lower viscosity would allow far better performance from its thoroughly-resolved 92 horse power, narrow angle-V engine. The Alfa Giulia in 1.6 litre guise has benefited from its restyle, with modern black plastic replacing the old-fashioned chrome grille of earlier cars. The comfortable grey velour upholstery is another attractive feature too. And finally, even if it’s not the fastest car of the trio, it is better assembled than the Triumph and has a bigger boot and an even bigger ashtray than the Lancia.
Is that enough to swing the test? No, I prefer the Lancia for the simple reason that is the more honest and carefully constructed of all three cars and this makes it worth the extra money. Triumph take note. You can not rest on your laurels for too much longer!