The option of an automatic transmission did little to mitigate the Gamma’s reputation as a disaster on wheels. If anything, it appears to have added to it.
One option missing from the Gamma’s specification at launch was an automatic transmission, not a fatal handicap in the domestic market where manuals proliferated, but rather more so in the UK, where a sizeable proportion of luxury saloons were specified as self-shifters. But in fact, Lancia had foreseen this necessity and in conjunction with UK supplier Automotive Products, engineered a four-speed automatic transmission specifically for the model.
Based in Warwickshire, Automotive Products were best known in the UK for Lockheed brakes and Borg & Beck clutches. However, they branched into transmissions during the early 1950’s offering the short-lived Manumatic gearbox which employed an electro-pneumatic centrifugal clutch. It was offered as an option on a number of British cars at the time, but failed to ignite the car-buying public’s interest. From the mid-fifties, AP concentrated their resources on developing a light and compact fully automatic transmission, starting with a two speed unit, ultimately progressing to four speeds.
Following successful tests, it was taken up by BMC for the Mini and 1100 models. Key to the unit’s appeal was its light weight, compact dimensions and its ability to be used like a manual. This gearbox proved both popular and durable, being offered in both ’60s BMC mini-cars, the subsequent Austin Allegro and later, the Metro.
AP was keen to widen its customer base and challenge established market leaders, like Borg Warner and ZF. Automotive Product’s Mark 111 transmission was designed to be both compact and interchangeable for both transverse and longitudinal installation. This was the transmission proposed for the Gamma and AP was asked to develop the installation in conjunction with Lancia’s engineers.
AP’s technical director at the time was ex-Triumph/BMC engineer, Harry Webster, who recounted to leading historian and author, Graham Robson that Lancia sent over a prototype Gamma for them to carry out a testing programme with the automatic around 1974/5. However, this black painted prototype caused considerable confusion owing to the fact that BL were also proving the as yet unannounced Rover SD1 around the same time. Webster asserted the two cars at that stage bore an uncanny resemblance, leading many to accuse them of running the new Rover undisguised, adding; “You see, the Gamma started life with a styling crease down its flanks just like that of the SD1, but went into production with plain sides, and our prototype had that crease. The resemblance was uncanny.”
However there is no real evidence to back up Webster’s assertion – in fact it appears as though the opposite is true. Even early styling studies for SD1 have the Pininfarina-aping body-side crease of the production car, while early Gamma prototypes initially lacked the body-side crease the production cars wore. It’s possible Webster got slightly muddled on the detail, but still, it’s a nice anecdote. So while early development work was carried out in the Midlands, it does appear that the bulk of it took place in Turin, where the finished product was also manufactured.
The gearbox’s gestation appears to have been almost as protracted and some suggest as troubled as that of the car itself – certainly, the seven long years it took for it to become available in the UK suggest problems reared their head. Of course by the time customers could purchase a self-shifting Gamma, the model was on its last legs commercially.
Worse still, it was far from debugged and with most of the late series 2 Gamma’s imported to the UK so equipped, it added yet another layer to the model’s toxic reputation. According to Lanciacentral, the automatic transmission “sapped much of the car’s performance and rumour has it the Gamma’s autobox is the only one more troublesome than that fitted to the Beta.” Gamma Consortium were equally forthright, saying, “The automatic gearboxes are an Automotive Products design unique to the Series 2 Gamma and were not reliable, many having been replaced under warranty having lasted only a few years. Most auto Gammas have probably been converted using the more reliable manual gearboxes by now.”
Contemporary tests of the automatic Gamma are few, but Classic Cars drove one in July 2000, with journalist Glen Waddington making a positive case for the auto, saying; “You can leave it in drive, and let it slur seamlessly from gear to gear but, with judicious use of the selector, you can hold any ratio and play tunes with the engine. You never get a kick in the back, but neither do you get bogged down in the wrong gear, waiting for the action to start.”
It didn’t matter – by 1983 Gammas were selling in tiny numbers and by then at prices that undercut considerably more downmarket rivals. There was no way back and with the Tipo Quattro Thema in development, production was quietly wound down.
Automotive Product’s links with Lancia continued for some time however, the UK supplier also responsible for the design of the automatic transmissions fitted to the Beta/Trevi and Delta models.
[My thanks to Robertas Parazitas for his assistance with this piece].