The tale is etched in automotive folklore, but how well do we really know the Lancia Gamma ?
Death by a thousand Fiats:
Fiat’s stewardship of Lancia has seen such a pitiful series of reversals, it is difficult to now imagine the road to perdition having once been paved with good intentions. Throughout its history as an independent manufacturer, Lancia produced exquisitely engineered automobiles that garnered respect and deep admiration, but consistently cost more than the company could afford.
For decades, Lancia’s corporate culture centred round the concept of innovation and engineering depth, coupled with the enviable quality. Once the preserve of an elite; customers from the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie, to Pontiffs and film stars, Lancia’s descent from the very pinnacle of grand marques contains within it an element of grand opera. The manner in which a proud nameplate became little more than a series of clumsily ennobled Fiats stands as amongst the lamentable examples of brand mismanagement in recent automotive history. Because if nothing else, the Gamma stands as a vivid illustration of how mergers and acquisitions never quite work out.
Lancia’s ethos was aptly illustrated by the fact that their expansive Sixties car range was based upon three unique platforms, each with a model-specific engine, and little mechanical commonality. By the end of the decade, Lancia’s business collapsed largely because its management failed to realise that in order to survive it first needed to make money, not just cars. With debts believed to be over 100 billion lire, it became impossible for them to continue. In 1969 Lancia fell into the hands of Fiat Auto, entering perhaps the most protracted and humiliating decline of latter-day automotive memory and it is from this turbulent cauldron, the subject of our examination emerged, unready, in the spring of 1976.
Today, the Gamma is primarily remembered for its notoriety, yet there was much to admire: its technical specification, its styling and its critically acclaimed road behaviour. Lancia’s Seventies flagship also contained more marque-specific engineering than any contemporary or latterday model, representing the final flowering of a noble line.
Received wisdom holds that Gamma was Lancia’s opportunity to prove to its new masters that it could build a luxury saloon according to marque ideals, its failure ensuring Fiat would never again sanction anything as expensive and individualistic. Certainly, the Gamma’s successor (the 1984 Thema), a resolutely conventional design in style and engineering, lends credence to this view. Similarly, the party line for the Gamma’s downfall (its engine) is well documented. But while neither are strictly untrue, they tell only a facet of the story.
The purpose of this piece is therefore to examine the Gamma’s commercial failure and attempt to determine whether its failure has as much to do with Fiat’s lack of a cohesive creative vision for Lancia as much as any specific failure of the car itself. But before we delve into the Gamma’s origins, let us first examine the economic and political background from which it emerged.
Fiat made its name, its reputation and not inconsiderable fortune from small cars, cost-engineered and rationalised to be inexpensive to produce, to buy and to maintain. During Italy’s post-war industrial boom, the Turin carmaker grew massively, catering to the home market’s growing affluence and thirst for motorisation. By the late Sixties however, Fiat management realised that over 70% of their car business was concentrated in the bottom end of the market – one with the least potential for profit.
Fiat saw their future upmarket, an arena hitherto unfamiliar to the Italian car giant and one the company had ignored in the post-war boom. However, they faced a fundamental problem, one that went to the very root of their corporate culture. Fiat’s modest yet technically brilliant engineering chief, Dante Giacosa, was ideologically opposed to a move upmarket and at Fiat, engineers exercised enormous influence.
In a detailed paper discussing the effects of Fiat’s takeover of Lancia, academic, Giuliano Maielli makes the case that “production engineers at Fiat had reproduced an engineering ideology. This is well reflected by Giacosa’s conviction that the role of Fiat was to produce cheap reliable and enjoyable cars for the people rather than expensive luxury cars.”
Despite his misgivings, Giacosa’s team embarked upon the design of a new large Fiat saloon. But the 130 Berlina, despite its many fine qualities, proved a lacklustre seller; chief amongst its deficiencies being the name on its prow, one which failed to resonate with luxury car buyers. Not only that, Fiat’s dealers, used to handling cheaper cars and less demanding customers were ill-equipped to satisfy luxury car customers.
The 1969 acquisition of Lancia therefore was timely, providing a ready-made nameplate with a proven record of engineering excellence and the sort of sober upmarket image that would open all the right doors. With a series of cost-rationalised Lancia models developed, Fiat would be in a position to mop up a large chunk of the European upper-medium car market.
So went the theory anyway, but realities on the ground were proving a good deal less straightforward. Fiat management were already struggling to adopt a cultural shift from small to larger cars, but with key decision-making power regarding product retained with Fiat’s engineers, (already known to be ideologically opposed to change), such moves were being resisted. Into this political maelstrom, Lancia entered – limping.
The business Fiat acquired in 1969 was a pale shadow of its glory days. “We have found the engineers’ drawers empty,” Fiat supremo Gianni Agnelli stated upon his acquisition of the stricken carmaker. Gripped by crisis and a distinct lack of leadership, Lancia was a vessel hopelessly adrift. Dr. Antonio Fessia – Lancia’s well regarded technical director had died in 1967, his position remaining unfilled for well over a year.
Lancia’s product range had become dated – the flagship Flaminia débuted as far back as 1957 while their most recent model (the Fulvia) entered production in 1963. Owing to Lancia’s cash flow crisis there were no plans to replace them. Sergio Camuffo, who had served as the Fiat 130 project engineer was appointed as Lancia’s technical director upon Fiat’s acquisition, with a brief to develop a new generation of cars, but with cost a key factor.
Camuffo was reputedly horrified by what he found upon his arrival. Morale was on the floor and worse, engineers were departing in droves. Camuffo moved to arrest what was becoming a mass exodus, convincing key engineering staff to remain; namely chassis engineer, Romanini, and engine designer Ettore Zaccone Mina – (responsible for the Fulvia’s acclaimed V4 unit).
This achieved, he embarked on a three year crash development programme for a new model to succeed the compact Fulvia model. Only with this car in hand, could thoughts turn to development of more upmarket models.
As Fiat began the process of ingesting their new acquisition, they were opposed tooth and nail by Lancia’s core of loyalist engineers. Like most grand marques, Lancia was an engineering-led operation, so naturally all resistance to Fiat’s integration was centred here. Camuffo it is believed, was viewed with suspicion, seen as Agnelli’s man and schooled in what was probably viewed as an inferior tradition.
Furthermore, Lancia’s workforce (previously accustomed to viewing themselves as an elite) found life as reluctant Fiat employees a downgraded reality. For a marque historically synonymous with the Italian aristocracy to be taken over by Fiat, a company with a populist, some might say socialist outlook, tensions were inevitable. Coupled to this was a political situation within Italy during the early 1970s that would ultimately degenerate into kidnap and murder. Lancia were not alone in being affected. The ‘anni di piombo‘ saw Italy’s entire social, political and economic landscape torn apart by this ideological power struggle.
Politics notwithstanding, in 1972 work began on what was termed Tipo 830. Prior to this, there had been some discussions around a topline model , dubbed Ammiraglia (or flagship). This had come about as a result of the 1968 PARDEVI accord between Citroën and Fiat, with discussions said to have taken place around a common components strategy with the double chevron’s Projet L.
This alliance it is believed, was to have incorporated Citroën’s (Comotor) rotary Wankel engine and oleopneumatic suspension. Technically, and on paper at least, a Citroën–Lancia marriage would have made sense. This Franco-Italian hybrid however was allegedly shelved owing to the collapse of the PARDEVI agreement in 1973, when the two carmakers (largely) went their separate ways. Furthermore, there were said to have been sensitivities around the transfer of French technology to a rival – the powerbrokers in the Élyseé Palace being ideologically determined to position the Republic as technological leader within the EEC.
As serious development of Tipo 830 got under way however, the automotive industry was hammered flat by the aftermath of the 1973 oil-shock. Italy’s economy was probably more fragile than most, and certainly the massive contraction of domestic demand caused outright panic in Fiat’s Turin headquarters. Forward programmes were either cancelled or radically downgraded as the Italian car giant tried to take stock of a fundamentally altered reality.
By 1974, the climate within Italy and most especially within Fiat had become hostile to the development of an expensive, luxury flagship. As auto journalist, Richard Hughes wrote in a 1978 article for Car magazine; “The social scene convinced Fiat that, in their vital home market, large cars were dead… and in Italy, large cars start further down the scale than elsewhere in Europe”. In fact, the situation became so dire, Fiat’s management, believing the car business was finished, began to diversify into public transport and commercial arenas outside of the auto industry.
In some respects then, it is curious that Tipo 830 wasn’t cancelled, especially given the domestic situation.
One key question surrounding the Gamma was its mission. Was it to be a successor to the Flaminia or the midline Flavia model – by then in its third series and appearing somewhat dated in appearance against domestic and European opposition? Discussing the Gamma’s gestation with journalists some years later, Sergio Camuffo clarified matters: “At Lancia, we never imagined the Gamma as a replacement for the Flaminia. The specification of the 830 project was on the contrary to give a succession to the Flavia. The ambiguity explains the choice of a 4-cylinder, in the tradition of the marque”.
Prior to the oil crisis, Fiat’s plans for Lancia had been quite ambitious as illustrated by massive investment in the Beta family; a model range that spanned saloon, 2+2 coupé, a shooting brake estate, Spider and a mid-engined two seater. Clearly, some of these variations were specifically aimed at the North American market, but it does appear in retrospect that there was considerable product overlap.
This proliferation of model variants engine specifications and individual market requirements clearly presented Camuffo’s engineers with a formidable workload; Betas being sold, not only across European markets, but in North America as well. Problems soon surfaced, with early Beta models manifesting a structural corrosion problem that would sully its reputation for life. In addition, serious braking deficiencies affecting the mid-engined Monte Carlo model precipitated its withdrawn from sale until they could be addressed.
The level of disruption caused by these crises can only be guessed at, but certainly by the time the Gamma was introduced to the press at the Geneva motor show in the spring of 1976 it was already significantly late to market and worse, wasn’t quite ready. In fact, it would be a another year before the first cars were delivered to customers. The reasons for this further delay remain unclear, but one can draw one’s own conclusions. Similarly affected was the elegant Gamma coupé, based on a shortened Berlina platform, assembled at Pininfarina’s facility in Turin.
The Gamma’s Geneva unveiling reportedly ended in farce as Lancia’s PR, in an attempt to create an aura of mystique around the car, initially refused to remove the dust shrouds covering both models. With press day fading, impatient journalists and photographers took it upon themselves to rip the covers off and in the ensuing melee, the show’s organisers compelled Lancia’s PR to keep them uncovered or risk being asked to leave.
Mel Nichols reported on the unveiling for Car, describing the Gammas as “two cars of elegance and bearing”. He went on to add with chilling (if unintentional) irony, “No-one would dare dispute Lancia’s ability to get the mechanicals right.”
Technically speaking, the Gamma was classic Lancia in that it mated an unconventional powerplant to a largely orthodox chassis layout. However, the big Lancia’s mix of conventional components came with an added dash of élan. The engine was a development of the proven Flavia unit, bored out to 2.5 litres. Sergio Camuffo outlined why he chose to enlarge the engine capacity: “This increase in capacity of 25% was guided by experience. The same one who pushed my predecessors from 1.5 liters to 2 liters to solve lubrication problems. As oil capacity were (sic) equivalent, it seemed more prudent.”
While the Flavia engine family employed pushrods for valve actuation and a chain-driven camshaft, the redesigned cast aluminium boxer unit used belt-driven overhead camshafts and a twin-choke Weber carburettor providing 140 bhp at 5400 rpm, with a hefty 153 lbs/ft of torque at a mere 3000 rpm.
Suspension was similar in principle to that of the Beta, but was unique to the Gamma – MacPherson struts at all four wheels with wide-based lower wishbones at the front and parallel transverse links at the rear – the front suspension being subframe-mounted for isolation. The rear suspension design was later used in the Thema model and was believed to have been copied by other manufacturers after Camuffo neglected to patent it. Steering was by servo assisted rack and pinion with 3 turns from lock to lock. Brakes were discs all round, ventilated at the front.
So, engine layout aside, nothing terribly outré about the Gamma’s hardware, but Lancia engineers were masters in the science of alchemy. It was the manner in which these prosaic components were honed that made the difference and here the Gamma was to cleave to marque archetype.
Keenly anticipated, and launched to a broadly enthusiastic reception from the gentlemen of the press, the Gamma got off to a good start. In look and feel, the Berlina (which was built to a high standard at the Via Vincenzo Lancia works), was a seen as a worthy successor to its forebears and was warmly welcomed by Lancistas.
Car magazine’s 1978 estimation was typical of the Gamma’s initial reception. “It is a driver’s car par excellence; it will please those who like the individuality and detailing that belong more to days gone by: for this is a car in the true Lancia tradition…” Praise for the car continued: “Frankly we were amazed at the amount of attention this car attracts. People who stop to admire it suggest that it has an air of classic elegance, a sort of old fashioned quality appeal, despite its contemporary shape. Indeed there are features of the body design that reek of times long gone and make one wonder how on earth Lancia can afford to build them into the car… this impression of traditionalism and quality comes over, and the Gamma owner will be much envied wherever he goes.”
But it wasn’t just the car’s appearance and image that won Car over. The driving experience was from the top drawer too: “There is a real liveliness about the Gamma as well as an obvious and quantifiable ability and there won’t be many interested drivers who won’t enjoy getting out on the road with it or even punting it around town: it feels and acts like a proper gentleman’s sporting saloon.” They concluded: “It’s an especially good car. The strange throb of its engine at low revs is somewhat difficult to accept but within minutes you’ll find that you’re enjoying the car for its character as well as its pure ability – and that character comes as much from the engine as anything else.”
UK weekly, Motor tested a Gamma Coupé against its rivals in 1979. Motor, traditionally the most critical of the UK weeklies, found much to admire in the Gamma, lauding the car’s road behaviour and handling finesse: “It is the way the Gamma combines stability and grip with sheer finesse that gives it the edge. Its steering is sharp and quick, has enough weight… and suffers little from tugging of the wheel when the car is powered out of a tight corner. It’s perfectly complimented by the behaviour of the chassis, which is agile without being twitchy and sure-footed without being ponderous.” But despite the warm praise, the Gamma’s honeymoon would prove breathtakingly short.
From a stylistic perspective at least, 1976 was a good time to introduce an unorthodox-looking luxury saloon, the market being for a time disposed towards difference. Two years previously, Citroen had introduced the futuristic CX saloon and Rover were set to début the similarly forward-looking SD-1. All three offered a divergence from the classic three volume silhouette and buyers seemed prepared to accept this.
All three could trace their stylistic lineage to a single highly influential Pininfarina design concept, and with customers embracing the new, the Gamma should have been well placed to pick up sales. Journalists lauded the car, the public found it striking to look at, and it had one of the most respected names in the business. Yet the Gamma crashed messily to earth.
The major issue was one of reliability and durability. Unfortunate owners found that attempting to start the car from cold with the steering on lock, the camshaft belt drive (which also drove the power steering) could jump or snap causing a catastrophic meeting of valves and pistons. Similarly, if the car was parked in gear and was nudged by another vehicle (a fairly common occurrence in crowded mainland European cities) the cam-belt could jump a tooth, with similarly dire consequences.
The flat four engine was a low-volume unit produced to exact tolerances and by consequence intolerant of ill-use and unsympathetic maintenance. Gammas required high-quality engine oil changed at short, regular intervals and when owners failed to adhere to this regime, they found out exactly why Lancia engines were so costly to produce – and replace.
Coupled to this was the lack of dealership support, with Lancias now being sold and serviced through Fiat outlets, with a commensurate level of customer care. With Fiat and Lancia in a state of hostility throughout this period, engineers were slow to act on these problems, technical support was lacking, and customers voted with their feet. By the close of the decade, sales (never stellar) were collapsing.
1981 saw a re-launched and revised model being offered. The series 2 Gamma was significantly improved with engine revisions aimed at curing the power unit’s fragility. Fuel injection was standard amid other technical refinements, but the market wasn’t listening and coming on the heels of the Beta’s well publicised failings, the Gamma’s fortunes never recovered.
Production ceased in 1984, with stocks available well into 1986. It has been stated that quantities of unsold Gammas were stockpiled; the cars mildewed and deteriorating, the majority being scrapped. The final production total came to 15,272 Berlinas and 6790 coupés over an eight year production run. Commercially and reputationally then, the Gamma was a hugely expensive market failure.
1984 also witnessed the Gamma’s successor. The resulting (Tipo-834) Thema was a thoroughly conventional product, turbocharging and engine balancer shafts notwithstanding. Although well received, it never sold in significant numbers outside of its home market, and with the cars now suffering from indifferent build and substandard aftercare, it really had no chance in the once lucrative UK market. Fiat trudged on for another decade before pulling the marque entirely from right-hand drive markets, its quality reputation shredded.
For a car with as much promise and pedigree as the Gamma to have failed so abjectly has been the subject of repeated post-mortems since its demise. Received wisdom points to Fiat’s cost-cutting and interference which prevented Lancia engineers from carrying out their usual thorough pre-launch development. But is this the sole cause? Several additional factors bear further scrutiny within the Gamma’s initiation and development, and is around these that the basis of this examination will now centre.
The central pivot of the Gamma’s failure is encapsulated in one area of its specification that ought to have been inviolate. Because the Gamma’s engine was a pure-bred power unit based on a pre-existing and proven design. 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 position Tipo 830 further upmarket than its predecessor. A six cylinder of course would have been an appropriate power unit for a corporate flagship, especially since Lancia were synonymous with the V6 layout for decades.
Lancia’s own powertrain guru, Francesco De Virgilio had schemed a 120° V6 engine 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 from the 130. But with no suitable FWD transaxle available and Fiat unwilling to develop one, the V6 option was abandoned.
The Flavia’s venerable flat-four unit however was both proven and available, albeit requiring considerable re-engineering. Furthermore, and no small matter to Lancia’s engineers, it was their own, not a Fiat-derived unit. The Flavia powerplant received wide-ranging revisions for the Gamma 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 any 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 exceptional engineers, decisions over the specification of the engine and its ancillary drives would ultimately prove the Gamma’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.”
Belt-driven camshafts were of course standard Fiat engineering practice at the time, and it is possible that pressure was exerted upon Lancia’s engineers to adopt a more orthodox (to Fiat’s way of thinking at least) and potentially quieter running arrangement. Additionally, engineers employed paper gaskets (instead of steel) to mate the cast iron cylinder liners with the aluminium engine block. In this case it 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 is clear that 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 is 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?
The styling of both Gamma variants was the responsibility of Pininfarina, a design house with a lengthy and distinguished association with the Lancia marque. While the Gamma coupé would reference themes from Lancia’s stylistic past, the scheme for the Berlina would prove a complete departure; echoing, particularly in the canopy area, ‘Farina’s 1967 Berlina Aerodynamica, possibly the most influential saloon concept since that of the Lancia Florida series a decade earlier.
Like many influential designs, Berlina Aerodynamica has been attributed to more than one hand over the years and given Pininfarina’s reluctance to credit individual stylists, the facts have been left for historians to puzzle over. The concept originates with Leonardo Fioravanti’s student days at the Politecnico di Milano. Studying design and aerodynamic theory, the young engineer was tutored by none other than Lancia technical supremo, Professor Antonio Fessia. With encouragement from the veteran engineer, Fioravanti is said to have created a design for a low-drag, Kamm-tailed fastback saloon, elements of which in retrospect resemble Tipo 830.
Following his 1964 appointment at Pininfarina, Fioravanti revisited the concept in conjunction with fellow stylist, Poulo Martin, who according to Fioravanti contributed a number of stylistic elements to the substantially revised 1967 design, which was based on the platform and mechanical layout of BMC’s ADO17 saloon. (Interestingly, retaining a British connection, Fioravanti’s original concept was to be powered by a derivation of Daimler’s compact 2.5 litre V8 unit).
Upon release, Autocar magazine described Berlina Aerodynamica as “a demonstration that so far as styling for the 1970s is concerned, this is the kind of shape we shall all be driving”. They were only half wrong: It was to have a profound effect on saloon car envelopes during the early years of the 1970’s, inspiring many of the Gamma’s contemporaries. Ironic then that the car most closely related to Pininfarina’s original concept would in fact be the very last to appear.
As Tipo 830 was being created under the direction of Sergio Camuffo at Lancia and Fioravanti at Pininfarina, early proposals by Aldo Brovarone bore a close resemblance to Berlina Aerodynamica, but without the prototype’s glazed rear three-quarter light treatment. The most significant departure from the completed design was the lower, more penetrating nose and semi-enclosed headlights, altered on Camuffo’s instructions to a more formal arrangement. The addition of a body swage line appears a direct lift from the smaller 1100 Aerodynamica prototype from the same period. Interior design was also carried out at Cambiano – Lancia adopting the proposed treatments largely unaltered.
Bucking contemporary luxury car convention, the Berlina was a fastback shape, but with a separate boot. To some eyes at least, the styling looked a bit heavy-handed. Certainly from some angles, the car can appear slightly overwhelmed by its canopy. Viewed in profile, the truncated wheelbase is notable and one has to wonder whether a few additional centimetres might have allowed the designers create a slightly more balanced shape?
Significantly, the Gamma’s silhouette also reprised that of cheaper cars like Alfa Romeo’s Alfasud, Citroen’s GS and Lancia’s own Beta model. So despite the fact that the Gamma appeared both modish and intriguing, there may have been an element of stylistic resistance to the car within its target market, especially from customers of a more traditional bent.
Certainly, from quite early in its career, Pininfarina appeared to distance itself from the Berlina design, concentrating efforts on the more conservative looking and better received coupé. It is possible that owing to the lateness of the Gamma’s arrival to market, it was felt to be a dated design theme within the carrozzeria; certainly, as the decade wore towards its close, the fashion for fastback styles had faded, heralding a return to either more traditional three-volume or more overt hatchback shapes.
Lancia’s own centro stile acknowledged this trend, creating a tre-volumi Gamma variant in a similar vein to the 1980 Trevi. But while the Beta-derived model had the benefit of a certain visual intrigue (if a not an entirely harmonious one), the Gamma Tre-Volumi was simply bland – the rear end being particularly featureless. It is difficult therefore to imagine it being any better received.
When Lancia’s half dead remains turned up on Fiat’s doorstep in 1969, the product drawers may well have been empty, but there was a clear and logical model hierarchy in place. So it is odd that Sergio Camuffo saw fit to disrupt this well defined model stratification with the first of his new-era Lancia’s – 1972’s Beta Berlina.
The background to this car’s development is nearly as politically fraught as that of its bigger brother, but nevertheless, Fiat allowed Camuffo a measure of creative freedom once the basic parameters were established. But what wasn’t entirely clear is what model the Beta was intended to replace, since it essentially straddled the Fulvia and larger Flavia in size, which couldn’t have helped matters when it came to fixing the parameters for the Gamma.
A study of the relative dimensions for Lancia’s various saloons is instructive. Camuffo stated Tipo 830 was initially schemed to directly replace the mid-range Flavia, which is borne out by the close dimensional relationship between both cars. In overall length, the Gamma is shorter by 40mm – owing to its truncated tail – and a mere 20mm separates them in wheelbase. One would naturally expect a more modern design to be both wider and lower, and unsurprisingly here the Gamma conforms.
But a surprise comes to light when one examines the more compact Beta’s dimensions. A palpably larger car than the Fulvia it supplanted, the Beta was also notably larger than domestic rivals such as the 116-series Alfa Romeo Giulietta. But given that the Gamma is only slightly larger again, it’s difficult to see what owners stood to gain over the cheaper model.
In mainland Europe the Gamma was offered with a 2.0 litre version of the Tipo 830 boxer unit, developing 113.5bhp at 5500 rpm, 127 ft lbs of torque at 3500 rpm and 56.8 bhp per litre. This model would form the bulk of Italian Gamma sales – Car magazine’s Giancarlo Perini reporting that only 76 Gamma 2.5’s were sold in the home market during 1978. But two years earlier, with the Flavia 2000 fading and the Gamma’s introduction delayed, the strongly selling Beta was made available with a 2.0 litre version of the Lampredi four, developing 115 bhp at 5500 rpm, 130 ft lbs of torque at 2800 rpm and 57.6 bhp per litre – putting paid to any suggestion of a power advantage.
Little to gain from a style perspective either. To the untrained eye, the Gamma’s silhouette appeared similar to the smaller car. Certainly, the larger car was more dramatically styled, more elegant, more expensively finished and specified, but given the price differential, it’s hardly surprising if a sizable number of customers felt the Beta (especially in more refined series 2 form) offered a broader balance of virtues in a handier-sized package.
Journalist and marque enthusiast, John Simister suggested in a 2001 piece for Thoroughbred & Classic Cars, that the Beta was originally an aborted joint venture model with Citroën, which was later hurriedly re-purposed and engineered for Lancia. It’s certainly plausible and if so, it would at least explain the model’s unconventional dimensions. What it fails to do however, is adequately explain why Camuffo and Fiat’s product planners sanctioned two cars that were so similar in size.
As the Gamma failed in the marketplace, Lancia introduced the conservatively styled, more upmarket Trevi 2000 in 1981, and while it was in many ways a pragmatic response to a clear need, it also helped seal the Gamma’s fate. Because not only did the Trevi codify the principle that customers favoured three volumes to two in this sector, it successfully queried the necessity for a larger Lancia saloon at all.
But while Lancia’s in-house rivals were one thing, how did the Gamma compare to its intended rivals? The European upper-middle class market of the 1970s was populated by just about every major manufacturer, but Citroën, Peugeot and Rover offered perhaps the closest competition to Lancia’s big saloon. Similar in its left-field appeal, Citroën’s CX was also front-wheel drive and in upmarket Pallas form was powered by a large-capacity four-cylinder engine, but unlike the Gamma was also available with a wider range of lower-order engine, trim levels and body styles.
A fundamental tenet in luxury saloon design is scale and at the very least, the perception of a certain visual heft. The Gamma flew in the face of luxury car orthodoxy in several ways, but notably here. The Lancia was a noticeably more compact car than its rivals and what is more, it looked it. Immediately apparent from reference to the table below is how the Gamma was eclipsed by each of its major rivals in several key dimensions, not just in length but most noticeably in terms of wheelbase.
By pegging the car’s dimensions to that of the previous generation Flavia, the Gamma would struggle to match its more generously dimensioned rivals when it came to interior space. Comparing a Gamma against a Rover 2600 SD 1 and Peugeot 604 in 1978, Car magazine observed: “The sizes of these three cars are interesting: the Peugeot looks the biggest and the Rover the smallest. In fact, the Lancia is five inches shorter in both length and wheelbase than the others.”
They went on to point out; “There is adequate room in the rear but the cushion is a little too low and short and the backrest is too upright for optimum comfort; it is only here that the Lancia is less than very impressive.” All of which suggests the figures weren’t misleading, the Gamma’s wheelbase was indeed too short for genuine comfort.
Lounging space aside, the Gamma provided an inviting ambiance, although the sales brochure’s description of; “An interior ravished with velvet upholstery and quality carpet” might have been overstating matters. Nevertheless, the Lancia’s cabin was tasteful and warm, the velvet finished seats and door cards lending the interior a sober but refined air. To be fair, the impressive finish of the Berlina might have eclipsed that of the futuristic Citroën and would certainly have been in marked contrast to the modernist, austere but sadly, shoddily wrought Rover.
Car praised the Gamma’s driving position and its front seat comfort, but dismissed the instrument layout as “eccentric“, criticising a lack of oddment provision, the heating/ventilation, and the size of the boot. Nobody had a positive word for the Lancia’s big slab of a fascia moulding however, even marque celebrant, Martin Buckley latterly describing it as “easily the car’s greatest aesthetic crime”. In 1979, Lancia offered a revised interior, featuring more velour, more sober interior colours and darker carpets. A year later the series 2 model was announced, featuring even more subdued cabin décor.
On balance, Car was rather taken with the Gamma, also praising its low speed ride quality and lack of wind noise in addition to its handling, ride and overall refinement. The UK press, by and large were impressed by the Gamma, but such praise tended to come with a proviso regarding both the engine’s low-speed characteristics and the car’s unorthodox shape.
While the press gave the Gamma’s fastback silhouette a modest thumbs-up, Lancia’s conservative UK customer base clearly thought otherwise, the lack of a three volume version a likely impediment in what was Lancia’s biggest export market at the time. In fact it has been suggested the conventionally (and attractively) styled coupé, (like the Flaminia before it), comfortably outsold the Berlina in the UK, despite being considerably more expensive. Did Camuffo and Pininfarina get it wrong, or did UK customers simply prefer their big Lancias in two-door form?
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 heavily 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.
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 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 Coupé 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 was notably faster, the recorded figures proving remarkably close to those offered by the six cylinder BMW 635 CSi.
Bell observed, “The boxer engine, in perfect primary and secondary balance, is marvellously 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 vigorous 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.
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, “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 tell their own story. 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 latter 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 Gamma sales had collapsed with the UK importers offering them 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.
When Fiat handed Sergio Camuffo Lancia’s flatlining cadaver and told him to administer emergency CPR, he did the best he could, but there was only so much that could be achieved. Because despite Fiat management allowing him sufficient autonomy during the immediate post-takeover period to produce cars that were (on the face of things at least) respectful of Lancia’s traditions, the Italian car giant’s locked-in ambivalence against the upmarket probably led to the compromises that damned both the Beta family and later, the Gamma itself.
Also at odds were the ideologies of both marques. Fiat found themselves tied up in an acrimonious war of attrition with loyalists within Lancia’s engineering team over the identity of the crippled marque. Within this maelstrom, work was supposed to be progressing on new model development, so it is fairly unsurprising that attention and critical resources were diverted during the course of the Gamma’s gestation.
Couple this to the catastrophic fallout of the oil crisis, political intrigue and the multiplicity of Lancia’s range by the mid-seventies and it becomes apparent that Fiat’s product planning function had overstretched itself. This is particularly evident in the decision to place the mid-sized Tipo 830 concept into the luxury saloon sector.
The aspects of the Gamma that were rightfully lauded were factors where Lancia engineers were adept – excellence in road-holding, handling and steering were all marque hallmarks, and indeed requisites for a sporting saloon, if not the foremost priority in a luxury flagship. The Gamma’s weaker aspects were the very things a luxury car buyer expected. Interior space, quiet running, the snob value of a multi-cylinder engine and unsurprisingly, dependability. Pitted against 2-litre rivals, the Gamma would have been a far more compelling sales proposition than it was to become as corporate flagship, simply because it was the wrong car for the job.
But even had the Gamma proven a commercial success, it would inevitably have been superseded by a markedly more conventional motor car. The reason for that lies within Fiat’s corporate culture and the mentality which ultimately straitjacketed them into the lower reaches of the market. Giuliano Maielli: “After an initial attempt to shift upmarket, Fiat remained locked in the lower segments of the market (as is still the case today) while Lancia lost its brand and technical specificity along with its internationally acclaimed reputation as a manufacturer of high quality and high performance cars.”
Because even as the Gamma was launched in the UK, some keen eyed observers were viewing the car as Lancia’s swansong. Journalist, Richard Hughes proved eerily prophetic in 1978 when he wrote in Car, “…it is obvious that Lancia’s closely guarded independence cannot withstand the game plan of the next few years. In essence, Lancia as a separate marque are on the way out. It may never quite descend to the worst excesses of badge engineering, but Lancia’s technical and design independence cannot be allowed to survive in the long-term.”
The period encompassing the Gamma’s development proved to be a false dawn for Lancia as an independent marque within the Fiat empire. Once its engineering had been subsumed, there was no going back. So in addition to tragedy, it is possible to add a further layer to the Gamma’s dolorous opera: one of sheer futility.
The troublesome areas of histories usually centre around the intersections where established fact rubs shoulders with received wisdom. Established fact is straightforward enough to reconcile, but received wisdom generally requires a shared set of assumptions. It is these that provide a slightly skewed version of the Gamma’s failure, seeing it only through a single, simplistic dimension.
It is clear that the reasons for the car’s downfall are manifold and complex, encompassing the domestic fallout from the 1973 oil crisis, the charged socio-political situation in Italy throughout the Seventies, the civil war that had broken out between Fiat and Lancia as the two companies struggled to integrate, and Fiat’s fundamental inability to understand the luxury car market. The Gamma came bitingly close to brilliance, but was fatally hobbled by a chaotic and insufficiently thorough development process and a lack of clarity in its scoping.
With these handicaps, its failure was inevitable, while the ensuing unreliability and evaporation of customer confidence can only be viewed as the fatal coup de grâce.
In summation then, the Gamma stands as a potent example of how executing the correct course poorly will invariably provide worse results than doing the wrong one well. It’s not much of an epitaph, but it somehow seems appropriate for a car that appears to have been doomed from the beginning.
 By 1969 the Flaminia was built largely to order, demand for the car – the saloon especially – having largely dissipated.
 This would have been ironic, given that Fiat’s engineering tradition really was second to none at the time.
 This may have been the party line, but surely a little creative thinking and a request to Fiat’s erstwhile collaborators in Paris – Quai de Javel might have elicited a suitable gearbox?
 A matter also borne out by none other than LJK Setright, who otherwise rated the Gamma Coupé he drove. Cleraly someone got their calculations wrong.
Carrozzeria Pininfarina employed the Gamma Coupé as the basis for a number of speculative concept cars. We profile them here.
Could Fiat have taken a different route with the Gamma programme? We explore possibilities here.
Giorgetto Giugiaro’s 1978 Gamma-based concept proved to be a design landmark. We profile Ital Design’s Megagamma here.
Sources, quotations & acknowledgements:
Explaining Lock-in through the Concept of Hegemony: Evidence from Fiat’s take-over of Lancia in 1969 by Giuliano Maielli – Hull University.
Fiat: The gloves come off! Richard Hughes for Car Magazine: August 1978.
Giant Test: Car Magazine: August 1978.
Motor – Lancia Gamma Coupé group test : October 20 1979.
Roger Bell – Gamma Coupé Turbo: Car Magazine: November 1981.
Sunrise Industry – Gordon Kent – Car Magazine: December 1984.
George Bishop – Greek Tragedy – Car Magazine: November 1987.
Martin Buckley, Classic & Sports Car: July 1987.
Martin Buckley – Classic Cars: December 2000.
Riches to Rags – Gamma Berlina vs Peugeot 604 – Classic & Sports Car: January 2007.
Classic Cars Magazine: May 2012.
Russell Campbell, Classic & Sportscar online.
Marco Visani, Gazoline Magazine February 2011.