Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part Six

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.

Image via roadsmile
Image via roadsmile

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

23 thoughts on “Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part Six”

  1. Of course, there was Pininfarina’s handsome Scala proposal, but would a cheaper Trevi-style notchback conversion have helped the Gamma’s prospects?

    1. Sean: Lancia did in fact attempt this, building a running prototype, which I believe they retain in their collection. It wasn’t a visual success. In the next part I will focus on the styling of the Berlina; the Tre Volumi will form a part of that.

  2. Underdevelopment seems to be cause of this nest of failures. Too little time and too little money. Fiat actually needed to invest more at this point not less. Lancia might have reasoned that a car idles for less time than it runs at speed so set a higher weight on cruising refinement than idling. Of course both matter.

  3. Tinkering, mentally, after the event, I found myself wondering whether the Gamma used exaclty the same ZF transaxle as the 2000, or whether a new or heavily modified transaxle was eventually devised for the bigger flat four.

    The 130’s V6 in its original 2.9 litre capacity had an output of around 140bhp, much the same as the 2.5 litre Gamma engine. I’d expect it to be quite a bit heavier than the all alloy flat four, but the Gamma’s a big heavy car, so wouldn’t be too unbalanced. So using the Fiat V6 longitudinally with the Gamma transaxle – with a little bit of help from an a-daptor kit – looks feasible. Not ideal, but Renault and Audi used the configuration successfully.

    Alternatively, fit the V6 transversely with the CX / Beta end-on gearbox, which demonstrably could cope with the larger capacity 130 V6’s 165bhp. Did Fiat really want the 130 V6 to live and die with the car it was designed for?

    Lancia’s in-house Mina designed 120 degree V6 mentioned previously has tremendous appeal. As far as I’m aware, there’s never been an application of the configuration in a series-produced road car, but in racing applications it has the advantage of allowing an even lower centre of gravity than a ‘flat’ engine, as the heavy crankcase can be set lower, as its height is not dictated by the clearance required for the exhaust manifolds.

    1. It’s a boring question yet might have a bearing on the engine selection: would the V6 have been too costly? Perhaps Lancia felt only a Lancia engine would be appropriate?
      That was an insightful comment, Robertas, as ever.

    2. Yes, Renault and Audi stuck a chunky V6 in front of the gearbox, but I can’t imagine Lancia engineers would have countenanced putting an upright V6 into the nose of the Gamma. I never drove a Renault 30, but even the 2 litre 20 was a pig in the wet and, until they managed to get the engine a bit further back and tame it with electronics, Audi’s understeer was infamous. It just wouldn’t be right for a Lancia.

  4. I have a bit of a problem with the low speed beat of horizontally opposed engines. Ok for some reason in a Beetle and GS, because they were ‘off-beat’ sorts of cars, but the Boxster felt like sitting right in front of a water pump.

    Subaru people seem to positively relish the distinctive aural signature, and often choose to amplify it through megaphones.

    Perhaps Lancia were aiming at the wrong ‘constituency’ with the Gamma. Does the Italian language have a word equivalent to “oaf”?

    1. They imagined their customers would tolerate originality for its own sake. I must go and listen to a Subaru to experience the difference. Hearing a Gamma in person is as big a challenge as deciding to hear a symphony live. Unless you live near a concert hall. I don’t. I live in a classic car desert.

  5. Excellent series of articles there. It’s amazing to think that the little Alfasud – in some ways at least – was engineered better than a top spec Lancia. Let’s hope Alfa doesn’t quietly fade away in the same style. Sadly, it seems entirely possible at this stage, despite Serge’s hopes and dreams for the brand.

    1. Scott: It’s worth remembering for all political machinations surrounding the Alfa Sud project and the turmoil that ensued once production got under way at Pomigliano d’Arco, Alfa Romeo’s engineering department was by then a more stable organisation than Lancia’s and under Rudolf Hruska, was led by engineer with a clear and concise vision for the model – and the unambiguous backing of management.

  6. With my contra-factual product planner’s hat on I continued my V6 search. The 130 V6 is rejected as too heavy, the 65 degree, four cam Dino V6 is too revvy, even in its tamer 135 G form: 2.4 litres, cast iron block, 178bhp @ 6600rpm.

    The Flaminia engine, if available, looks promising. All alloy, OHC, mildly oversquare, and 150bhp from 2,8 litres. Then again, made in tiny numbers, probably very expensively.

    Despondent, I take a break and delve into the mysteries of Citroën’s Projet L, often cited as the Gamma’s twin in the Pardevi era. More like Pininfarina’s Berlina Aerodinamica than the CX, into which it eventually evolved, and with an inexplicably bluff front end, not unlike the Gamma, but even more like the BLMC ADO71 Princess.

    Which conceals a 1654cc, water cooled, flat four. Not much use for my plan. There’s mention of a flat six, presumably of 2.5 litres. That’s more like it. Then it’s reported that the car was designed to accommodate the Citroën-Maserati V6. All-alloy, weighs only 140 kilos, good for 170bhp in SM trim. Eureka! We have our engine!

    Not as fanciful as appears; The deal might have saved Maserati, or at least given Alex Thompson a steady earner while he firmed up his Biturbo-based world domination plan…

    1. Impressive research Robertas and I agree, the Maserati engine could have suited the Gamma very well. But think of the cost, the politics? But on the other hand imagine a Gamma powered by a sonorous, proven Maserati V6. What a car it could have been.

      I have been unable to lend any further light on the gearbox, but I would imagine continuing with the Flavia 2000’s ZF unit was more cost effective. The Gamma engine, while revving to the heavens, was also blessed with a generous bottom end, the engine developing 153 Ibs/ft at 3000 rpm, so the capacity to handle those outputs would probably have been a decisive factor. Seeing as both Flavia and Beta/Trevi were pumping out close to 130 Ibs/ft of torque, it’s perhaps an even match.

    2. Robertas. Yes, to a point. The Alfieri V6 is remarkably compact, light and, with a 90 degree V, not too top heavy. It’s also, despite its early timing chain tensioner problems (which might have been solved by the Gamma’s introduction), an excellent engine – flexible and reliable. However, like the flat 4, because of the lack of balance due to the V angle, it sounds rather ordinary at idle and low speeds. Probably, too, for a saloon, it goes the other way by sounding too endearingly sporty at speed.

  7. According to Dante Giacosa’s ‘Forty Years of Design with Fiat’, Rodolfo Hruska was employed by Fiat as a consulant to work with Bertone on the Fiat Dino coupe. This must have been between 1964 and 1966. Fiat would have done well to have held on to him, although sorting out the Lancia problem – all these empty plan chest drawers – would have been the automotive engineering job from hell.

  8. Have read that Lancia also investigated 170 hp 2.5 16v and turbocharged Gamma prototypes, yet cannot find the figures for the Gamma Turbo prototype.

    Interested to know if any more information exists on the 120º V6 as have read elsewhere that it was either 3.0-4.0 litres and featured 4-cams, though little else specs wise.

    Would have been interesting to see the Beta and Monte Carlo utilize a reliable Gamma Flat-4 assuming it was under consideration as an alternative to the Fiat Twin-Cam though have always wondered whether any plans were in the works to further develop the Lancia Fulvia engine into a 2.0-litre V4 possible for use in the Lancia Stratos in the event Enzo refused to sell the Dino V6.

    1. Thanks for reading & commenting Bob. I would imagine like most intended developments, the turbocharged Gamma fell victim to the model’s commercial failure. Interestingly however, there was a British conversion offered in the early 1980’s – a matter I will return to in the course of this series.

      Regarding the 120º V6, little appears to be known about it in English speaking circles anyway, I do know that Zaccone Mina was involved in it’s conception, but whether it existed outside of a drawing board I cannot say.

      I too often have speculated about ‘proper’ Lancia power units being fitted to the Beta series – certainly, doing so would have mollified many who were aggrieved by its Fiat roots – a view which really isn’t all that accurate really, even if it was a less technically dense design than its forebears. The Lampredi four was a very good engine and had a unique installation in the Beta, but it did send out the wrong message.

      As far as I can recall, the Fulvia V4 was close to the limit of its development potential at 1.6 litres. Certainly, there was scope to produce more power, but I seriously doubt it could have been stretched to 2.0 litres. However, in my view it would have been a nice alternative for the Beta; even at 1.3 and 1.6 litres, it could have served well, but the main reason Fiat wanted to avoid using these engines was their cost. At a higher price point, Camuffo clearly won the argument about using a more expensive unit – plus of course Fiat’s lack of a viable alternative.

    2. Apparently prior to the Stratos, a Fulvia 1.6 HF with Variable Valve Timing was looked at though development work was not continued and unless otherwise doubt it was ever intended for road use.

      A pity there was no way to stretch the Lancia V4 to a 1.8-2.0 litre unit or available means to develop such an engine from clean sheet.

      Could the Beta (plus the Monte Carlo) really have worked though with both 1300-1600cc V4 and 1800-2500cc Flat-4 engines if Fiat had the means let alone the inclination?

  9. What limited the Fulvia V4 going further? Typically the bore can’t be widened with eating away too much sidewall. Was it this?
    Bob: do you mean a turbo version of the four-cylinder boxer?

    1. The 1.6 litre V4 unit had a longer stroke and bigger bore, which necessitated a new block, cylinder head and crankshaft. It also had a narrower vee angle than that of the smaller unit – 11 degrees, 20 minutes. I’m not certain whether there was any residual ‘meat’ in the block to allow for boring or stroking the unit further, but with the 1.6 developing 132 bhp in ‘Fanalone’ form and a very impressive 158 bhp in final rally trim (without fuel injection), the unit certainly wasn’t short of development potential. But as I said, these were very, very expensive engines to produce. They were also designed specifically for the Fulvia, so installation in any other car would have been problematic. It’s possible they were tried, but there’s no way Fiat would have sanctioned such an expensive engine.

    2. Yes, meant a turbo version of the four-cylinder boxer Gamma engine.

    1. My guess would be the complexity of the machining equipment, with the variety of precise angles at which it had to operate. The head would be tricky to design and the block/head junction may have dictated the design of the combustion chamber to some extent. Cooling is also crucial, you can’t get away with sand-choked waterways in the way the British foundrymen did with in line fours and sixes.

      The Lancia V4 is a lovely thing, but less adventurous manufacturers would have gone through the cost / benefit analysis and concluded that there weren’t enough advantages over the easy to make in-line four – flat crank, right angled boring, easy formation of water passages.

      VAG thought that they could do the narrow angle V engine better than Lancia, and discovered that they had to put so much of their engineering resources into making the VR5/6 work that their mainstream four cylinder petrol engines fell woefully behind the competition. Audi got so fed up waiting that they developed their own 90 degree V6 from the V8. It was reported that it fitted everywhere the VR6 was intended to go.

      BMC also had a go at a very promising OHC narrow angle V4 and V6 family in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but the project was abandoned on grounds of cost and complexity, and insufficient improvement over the A, B, and C series engines they were intended to replace. The Morris 1100’s uncharacteristically long nose happened because it was intended to accommodate the V4 longitudinally.

      Finally, I was thinking today of where engine design would go after the 500cc module in line orthodoxy, and thought that the future could be narrow angle V engines.

      Built in big numbers with dedicated automated tooling the machining issue would evaporate, and there is potential to reduce weight to less than an in-line engine, As only one cylinder head is needed, component count would be no greater than an in-line engine.
      Other advantages: ability to reach optimum temperature faster, and compactness, leaving more room for hybrid drive hardware.

      You heard it here first…

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