Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part Ten

Rumours of a turbocharged version of the Lancia flagship proved to be more than hot air, but the Gamma Turbo failed to enter production. Well, not quite…

Image:drive-my
Image:drive-my

Even following the car’s announcement, it appears that debate over the wisdom of employing the Tipo 830 boxer engine continued to rage; especially once the powerplant’s frailty in service became apparent. This schism was alluded to by Car magazine’s Italian correspondent, Giancarlo Perini in June 1979, writing; “At Lancia they are developing a new 6-cylinder engine that could be fitted into the Gamma. But a big struggle is going on between the directors who supported the flat-four project (who will not recognise they were wrong) and the other directors who support a change to a six cylinder engine.” It’s likely Perini was getting his timelines muddled, since Fiat were by then firmly in retrenchment mode and would never countenance such expense having already invested in the existing powerplant. Nevertheless, it does suggest a measure of hand-wringing was taking place over the Gamma’s fortunes in Turin.

Not to be outdone, Perini had his soothsayer’s hat on again in Car‘s March 1981 issue, reporting that Lancia was testing a turbocharged Gamma for launch the following year. Now here Giancarlo was on slightly firmer ground, since Lancia did appear to have developed a turbocharged Gamma; reports suggesting at least one prototype was fitted with 16-valve heads, although it remains unclear as to how these would have been actuated. This was borne out by enthusiast website, Lancia Central, who state the Gamma’s 16-valve turbo engine produced 170 bhp, some 30 horses up on the naturally aspirated model. A prototype was also reportedly catalysed for the US market. Could Lancia have seriously considered selling the Gamma in the US?

Additionally, rumours suggested this unit would also find its way into the mid-engined Monte Carlo, a car that was certainly crying out for more power – not to mention decent brakes. Nevertheless, no turbocharged Gamma was officially introduced, the model’s stalling sales figures putting paid to any but the most pressing investment to shore up its rapidly shrinking market.

The Gamma Centre (aka Waterloo Carriage) ad for their enhanced Berlina, later christened the Six Nine Special.
The Gamma Centre (aka Waterloo Carriage) ad for their enhanced Berlina, later christened the Six Nine Special.

However, UK customers (those who were feeling particularly lucky anyway) could get their hands on a turbocharged Gamma. London-based Lancia dealer Waterloo Carriage commissioned the conversion, carried out by ex-Janspeed consultant engineer, Malcolm Cole using a Garrett Rotomaster T04B turbocharger with boost pressure of 7psi. The compression ratio was lowered from 9.0 to one to 7.8 to one by skimming the combustion chambers and the use of short-reach plugs. No alteration was deemed necessary to the cooling system, but heat shielding was widely employed in the under-bonnet area.

The converted cars were sold direct from Waterloo Carriage in South London, the Gamma Coupe being the sole recipient of forced induction. However, also available was the Gamma Six-Nine special edition, an unofficial Brougham version of the Berlina, which came with duo- tone paintwork, a unique front air-dam, special alloy wheels, front & rear foglights, electronic ignition, and a radio cassette player. RRP £8348 – price £6900. So while they weren’t exactly giving them away, certain UK dealers certainly were flinging a whole lot of incentives towards customers brave enough to take the plunge.

In the November 1981 issue of Car, Roger Bell tested Waterloo Carriage’s development Gamma Coupe turbo. Bell writing; “Unfortunately, engineering purity doesn’t necessarily attract paying customers, as Lancia have discovered. Despite the Gamma coupe’s stunning looks – Pininfarina at their best – and its marvellous manners (the product of sharp, perfectly weighted power steering and a firm footed agility that belies the car’s size), Lancia’s flagship has yet to hit a winning streak.” No power or torque figures were quoted, but performance figures for the development car were impressive. The turbocar shaving 2 seconds off the standard model’s 0-60 time and 6 seconds off 0-100. Through each of the standard increments, the turbo car was notably faster, the recorded figures proving remarkably close to those offered by the six cylinder BMW 635 CSi.

The prime recipient for the turbo conversion was the comely Coupe. Image:onlytruecars
The prime recipient for the turbo conversion was the comely, if slightly floppy Coupe. Image:onlytruecars

Bell observed; “The boxer engine, in perfect primary and secondary balance, is marvelously sweet running and refined, from its steady, even idle, right up to the ignition cutout at 6200 rpm. There’s little effective turbo boost below 2000 rpm, but the 2.5 litre engine’s inherently good lugging ability, still strong despite the lower compression ratio, masks that disability. As the revs rise, there’s a progressive increase in output rather than a sudden surge, which produces splendidly vigourous and effortless mid-range acceleration. At 100 mph, engine noise is no more than a murmur and an mpg range of 18 to 24 – about the same the standard [model] and marginally better than the BMW’s – underlines that economy hasn’t been sacrificed for increased urge.” The development car was an earlier carburettor model, but its creator was confident fuel injected Series 2 model would be even better suited to turbo treatment. Bell described the Gamma Turbo as; “a fine car, a real drivers car which turbocharging has made inspiring.”

He did however add to the chorus questioning the coupe’s “questionable torsional rigidity”, pointing out, “the way the car shudders and shakes on the rough suggest further reinforcements are necessary in the scuttle region”.

Accurate numbers for turbo conversions are difficult to ascertain, but suggestions of between six and ten cars seem to be the accepted number. At least one is known to survive.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part Ten”

  1. Is this car not the one that appeals and repels in the most extreme mode imaginable, for a car? Maybe in my little fish-bowl this car looms large, but isn´t remarkable the attention it still gets. By most measures a Ford Granada or Opel Senator were better vehicles. They don´t however command the morbid fascination of the Gamma. If we link this back to our Fiat 130 article we can see these cars were switched at birth. With a few tweeks the regal 130 would have been the better Lancia (give it a different engine, maybe) and with a few tweaks the Gamma would have fitted in with Fiat´s industrial design kick of the time.

    No uncoincidentally, the problems at Lancia are not unrelated to the problems in Fiat generally. If you take a look at the motoring press at the time, Fiat often featured and not for good reasons.

    1. It is odd that a fastidious soul such as Gianni Agnelli should have ruled an empire that produced the rust laden crocks that so many excellent Fiat designs became in a few short years (or should I have written months?)

    2. To be fair the Gamma was more of a Lancia 2000 replacement than a Flaminia replacement. at the same time it is easy to imagine the Fiat 130 forming the basis of a Lancia Flaminia II wrapped in body influenced by the Ghia styled 1969 Lancia Flaminia Marica and equipped with a more powerful engine.

  2. The coupe is deceptively gorgeous. I love the lines along the flanks, especially how they are worked in with the wheel arches, especially the straight line that comes off the top of the flattened rear arch into the bumper’s top surface.

  3. Sean, funny how “we” remember the Italian car rust problems of some 40 years ago, yet forget that the Japanese cars rusted away just as quickly. Maybe because the Mitsubishi, Datsun and Toyotas of that era were largely forgettable? Even into the ’80s, there were many cases of rust perforating the bodies of some Mitsubishi within a year.

    1. Paul. I’m well aware of historical Japanese rust, but only anecdotally since, until last year, I’d never owned a Japanese car, or oddly even driven one. However, Italian rust is personal – from 1969, into the early 70s, I waged a personal war against rust on the year old Fiat 124 our family had bought. Needless to say, I wasn’t the victor. So, yes, the juvenile me begrudges Gianni his spotless shirts, flawless lovers and immaculate bank account.

  4. If I might turn socio-political for a moment. Agnelli liked perfection in his personal life. That does not mean he wanted it for the serfs who bought his cars. Lots of conservatives (and I assume Gianna A. was very conservative) live lives of immaculate cleanliness and order. Rupert Murdoch has a man whose sole job is ensure regular spacing of Rupe´s shirts on the clothes rails. The order and neatness of the private lives of oligarch and aristocrats has no bearing on the filth and squalor of the world outside their gilded bubble. On the other hand F Piech wants the products his firms make to reflect his ideals. You have to hand that to him: his pursuit of excellence (dieselgate aside) has paid off for Joe Blow and Jane Ordinary.

  5. The engine really was a poor excuse of detail design. Can’t find it now but last time DTW was waxing eloquent on the car, I found a cutaway drawing and was startled at its apparent antiquity. Perhaps the Curbside Classic article on the Gamma, but really the subsequent comments, gives some idea of what was wrong with it. Seems as though not enough development money was expended on it; the technology to cast the iron cylinder liners into the light alloy block wasn’t considered and a right old bodge of a paper gasket for the liner was used in the block next to the crank gallery. In addition an oil galley in the heads was simply overlooked. Then they drove the power steering pump off the cambelt on one bank. Too clever by half.

    To my turn of mind, Lancia twice gave Subaru a flat four engine to improve upon by having a bit of a think and rationalising the design. The 1960 Flaminia pushrod, and the Gamma ohc. To see what I mean about rationalising the push rod engine, see this nice Subaru picture, where the problem of driving the pushrods is avoided by using two camshafts and thus simplifying the entire rest of the layout:

    http://subaru-philosophy.com/post/29112851147/distinct-engineering-mounted-into-the-subaru-1000

    Note, even back in the middle 1960s in the Subaru 1000 FWD, they utilized the world’s first proper plunging UJs and CV joints in a mass produced car. Mind you, the Oldsmobile Toronado was similarly equipped a few months later. The BLMC and Renault axle designs were cheap indeed compared to this and for a decade afterwards. The Japanese seem to want to make a complete mechanical design that doesn’t immediately fall apart upon use. Pity their sheet metal tin bashers weren’t similarly inspired, nor were their chassis/suspension engineers particularly interested in decent handling for decades. So long as it moved and lasted a bit they were happy.

    http://subaru-philosophy.com/post/31046766901/constant-velocity-joint

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