The Gamma’s engine became its Achilles heel, but what choice did Lancia have? In this part we look at some of the options available to them.
The central pivot of the Gamma’s failure is encapsulated in one area of its specification that should have been inviolate. Because the Gamma’s engine was a pure-bred power unit based on a design produced under the stewardship of the late Dr. Antonio Fessia. But why this configuration at all? As we know, Sergio Camuffo originally schemed Tipo 830 to replace the mid-range Flavia, making this engine a logical choice, if not one entirely in keeping with Fiat’s rationalisation plans. Lancia’s masters it appears, had other ideas initially, particularly once they elected to place Tipo 830 further upmarket than its presecessor. A V6 of course would have been an appropriate power unit for a corporate flagship, especially since Lancia were synonymous with this engine layout for decades.
Lancia’s own engine guru, Ettore Zaccone Mina had a 120 degree V6 engine on the drawing boards; one which would have been compatible with a front drive layout, but this was quickly abandoned on cost grounds. There was also said to have been talk of using the 3.2-litre Fiat V6 engine from the 130-series. But with no suitable FWD transaxle available and Fiat unwilling to fund the costs of developing one, the V6 option was abandoned. With little by way of alternative, the Flavia’s venerable flat-four unit was repurposed. Furthermore, and no small matter to Lancia’s engineers, it was their own engine, not a Fiat-derived unit. The Flavia powerplant recieved wide-ranging revisons for the Tipo 830 installation. Expanded to 2.5 litres, it produced sufficient power and abundant torque and came with a ready-made five-speed transaxle into the bargain.
So while this solved one problem, it opened up another more subtle marketing issue. Producing a prestige saloon with a four-cylinder horizontally opposed engine – (a layout more readily associated with far cheaper cars) – against six and eight cylinder rivals was commercially risky. The Gamma therefore would need to be exceptionally refined to overcome an inbuilt customer resistance to such an unorthodox layout. Car Magazine got straight to the point at the Gamma’s UK début: “People don’t expect such a car – in fact any car – to have a thumping great flat four engine under the bonnet these days and following such a path was indeed a brave and curious move on Lancia’s behalf.”
An inherent characteristic of the horizontally opposed engine is its uncanny mechanical smoothness at high revolutions owing to almost perfect balance. But its characteristic beat at idle doesn’t sit well in a luxury car. At high revolutions, the Gamma engine was smooth and very quiet in operation, but low engine speeds told a different story. Car observed: “When you fire it up it sounds as if it belongs in one of Fiat’s tractors rather than in Turin’s flagship. At idle, the engine sounds and feels as if it is running on three cylinders. There is a staccato beat when you blip the thing but from 3000rpm upwards the engine is extremely smooth and pleasant…”
“It positively sparkles in the mid and high ranges, delighting in sailing past the usual 6000 rpm limit and on to a full 7000 rpm. So it is an engine of enormous and appealing character as well as ability. Its only drawback is the out of place cacophony it makes at idle.” Interestingly, Alfa Romeo’s much cheaper (and similarly configured) Alfasud model employed a double bulkhead as a means of isolating the passengers from this very issue.
But while the engine’s distinctive character was one issue, there remains the thornier question of how Lancia’s legendary engineering rigour went so badly awry. Despite the work modifying the original Flavia power unit being overseen by the exceptional Zaccone Mina, decisions over the specification of the engine and its ancillary drives ultimately proved the model’s bête noire.
Enthusiast website, Gammaweb, examined the thinking behind the car’s disastrously executed valve gear, observing; “Why engineers decided upon rubberised cam belts instead of good, old-fashioned chain-driven valve mechanisms many people are still trying to figure out. Originally, in fact, a single if lengthy timing chain was designed, in the end two cam belts, of different lengths, one for each bank of cylinders (the longer one drives in addition the power steering pump via a camshaft), were installed and, of course, they are unique to the Gamma.”
It’s true that belt-driven camshafts were standard Fiat engineering practice at the time, and it is possible that pressure was exerted upon Zaccone Mina to adopt a more orthodox (to Fiat engineers at least) and potentially quieter running arrangement for the Tipo 830 engine. Additionally, engineers employed paper gaskets (instead of steel) to mate the cast iron cylinder liners with the aluminium engine block. In the case of the Gamma engine, this allowed the liners to sink over time into the softer metal, leading to head gasket failures. It is also reported that the engine’s camshafts were made of an inferior alloy, leading to premature wear.
It’s clear Tipo 830’s development took place during perhaps the most chaotic and difficult periods of Fiat’s history, when the car giant’s very existence was in question, so while it’s likely the project suffered severe cost constraints and an insufficiently thorough proving regime, can these omissions be left solely at Fiat’s door, or was the civil war being waged from the Via Vincenzo Lancia a factor too?
Sources, quotations & acknowledgements: see part one.