Death by a thousand Fiats: The tale is etched in automotive folklore, but how well do we really know the Lancia Gamma ?
Fiat’s stewardship of Lancia has been such a shameful series of reversals, it’s difficult now to imagine the road to perdition being paved with good intentions. Because if nothing else, the Gamma stands as an illustration of how mergers and acquisitions never quite work out.
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 finest 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 clumsily ennobled Fiat stands as amongst the shameful examples of brand mismanagement in recent automotive history.
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 it simply couldn’t cover the vast expenses incurred producing such finely wrought machinery.
As the European auto industry contracted during the late Sixties, and with debts thought to be over 100 billion lire, it became impossible for them to continue. In 1969 they 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.
The Gamma’s primary achievement appears to be its notoriety. Best remembered for mechanical frailty, yet there was much to admire: its technical specification, its styling and its superb road behaviour. Lancia’s Seventies flagship also contained more marque-specific engineering than any contemporary or latterday model, representing perhaps the final flowering of a noble line.
Mythology states it was Lancia’s chance to prove it could build a luxury saloon according to marque ideals, its failure ensuring Fiat would never sanction anything as expensive and individualistic again. Certainly, if we look at the Gamma’s successor – (the 1986 Type-4 Thema) – a resolutely conventional design in style and engineering, one could be forgiven for cleaving to this view. Similarly, the primary reason for the car’s failure is well documented – namely its problematic engine. But is it possible we only know one facet of the story?
The purpose here is to examine whether this factor alone explains the car’s lack of commercial success or whether its failure has as much to do with Fiat’s lack of a cohesive creative vision for both Lancia marque and the Gamma itself. But before we delve into the car’s origins, we’ll first examine the economic and political background from which it emerged.
Fiat made its name, 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’s 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 – a car designed with at least one eye on the North American market. But the 130 Berlina, despite its many fine qualities, proved a lacklustre seller; chief amongst its deficiencies being the Fiat name, which failed to resonate with luxury car buyers.
The 1969 acquisition of Lancia therefore, was timely. It provided a ready-made nameplate with a proven record of engineering excellence and the sort of sober-suited upmarket image that would open all the right doors. All that was required was a series of cost-rationalised models to be developed and Fiat would be in a position to mop up a large chunk of the European upper-medium car market.
So went the theory anyway, reality proving a good deal less straightforward. Fiat was already struggling to adopt a fundamental cultural shift from small to larger cars, but with key decision-making power regarding product retained within Fiat’s engineering department, (already known to be ideologically opposed to change), such moves were being resisted. Into this political maelstrom, Lancia didn’t really stand a chance.
It was hardly in a position to challenge Fiat’s predominance anyway. The company 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 car firm. Dr. Antonio Fessia – Lancia’s acclaimed technical director had died in 1967 and due to Lancia’s financial woes, his position remained unfilled for well over a year.
Lancia’s product range had become dated – the flagship Flaminia débuted as far back as 1957 and their newest model (the Fulvia) to 1963. Due to the crisis within the company, there was little in hand to replace them, necessitating Fiat to start from scratch with the development of a new generation of cars, this time cost engineered. Agnelli appointed Fiat 130 project engineer, Sergio Camuffo as Lancia’s technical director.
Camuffo was reputedly horrified by what he found upon his arrival. Staff 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 chief Ettore Zaccone Mina – (responsible for the Fulvia’s acclaimed V4 unit).
They embarked on a three year crash development programme for a new model to replace the compact Fulvia. Only with this car in hand, could thoughts turn to the development of more upmarket models.
As Fiat management began the process of ingesting their new acquisition, they found they were being thwarted by Lancia’s core of loyalist engineers. Like most grand marques, Lancia was engineering / manufacturing-led, 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 somewhat 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 ‘years of lead’ saw Italy’s entire social, political and economic landscape torn apart by this ideological power struggle.
Politics notwithstanding, in 1972 work began on a new car (Tipo-830) taking elements from a shelved concept, dubbed Ammiraglia (or flagship); a concept that had originally been twinned with Citroën’s nascent CX programme, featuring the French manufacturer’s signature oleopneumatic suspension amidst its technical specification. Fiat had been exploring a tie-up with Citroën at the time and given both company’s backgrounds, a Citroën–Lancia marriage would have made a good deal of sense, not least from a technical perspective.
This Franco-Italian hybrid however was allegedly shelved owing to objections from powerful elements of the French government, who reportedly opposed the use of French technology in an Italian car. It should not be forgotten that this came at a time when serious national rivalries continued to fester despite the post-war era of collaboration, President De Gaulle having previously vetoed Britain’s entry to the EEC in 1961.
As serious development of Tipo-830 got under way, 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’s surprising the Tipo-830 project wasn’t cancelled entirely, but two years into its development, perhaps it was felt too much had been invested to stop it. Outlining the Gamma’s gestation to journalists some years later, Sergio Camuffo confirmed that initially at least, Tipo-830 was intended to replace the venerable mid-range Flavia model.
By then in its third series and very dated in appearance against domestic and European opposition, he said, “At Lancia, we never imagined the Gamma as a replacement for the Flaminia – [Lancia’s Sixties flagship]. 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 demonstrated 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 aimed at the North American market, but it does appear in retrospect that there was considerable product overlap.
This proliferation of model variants also presented Camuffo’s engineers with a formidable workload. In addition, some early Beta models began to manifest a structural corrosion problem that would later prove fatal to the marque’s prospects in certain Northern European markets. In addition, initial versions of the mid-engine Monte Carlo model proved so wayward, the model was withdrawn from production until serious braking deficiencies 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 and worse, still wasn’t ready. In fact, it would be a another year before the first cars were delivered to European customers. The reasons for this further delay is unclear, but suggests that problems already existed with Lancia’s new flagship. Similarly affected was the elegant Gamma coupé, based on a shortened Berlina platform, to be produced at Pininfarina’s Grugliasco facility in Turin.
The car’s Geneva show 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 saying, “This increase in capacity of 25% was guided by experience. The same one who pushed my predecessors from 1.5 liter 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 concept 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 was subframe-mounted. Indeed, the rear suspension design was said to be so accomplished that it was used in the later Thema model and was 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, belt-driven from one of the twin camshafts. Brakes were discs all round, ventilated at the front.
So, engine layout aside, nothing terribly outlandish about the Gamma’s hardware, but Lancia engineers were past 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 when they stated, “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 them 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…”
“So with the Lancia you have wonderfully accurate and sporting handling on one hand, and first class ride comfort on the other.” 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 temporarily disposed towards difference. Two years previously, Citroen had introduced the futuristic CX model and Rover were about to début the similarly forward-looking SD-1. Both cars offered a divergence from the classic three volume saloon template and for a time at least, buyers seemed prepared to accept this.
All three cars could trace their stylistic lineage to a single influential Pininfarina design concept, and with the market embracing innovation, the Gamma should have been well placed to pick up sales. Road tests 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 noisily to earth.
The major issue was one of reliability and durability. Owners found that attempting to start the car from cold with the steering on lock, the camshaft 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.
With Fiat and Lancia in a state of near-hostility throughout this period, engineers were slow to act on these problems, by which time the model became irreparably characterised as an ownership nightmare. Sales collapsed and a re-launched and revised model in 1981 did little to turn the tide. The series-2 model was significantly improved with engine revisions aimed at curing the power unit’s fragility. Fuel injection was standard amid other refinements, but the market had its mind made up and coming on the heels of the Beta’s well publicised failings, the Gamma never recovered.
The model remained in production until 1984, with stocks available well into 1986. It’s been stated that quantities of unsold Gammas were stockpiled; the cars mildewed and deteriorating, the majority being scrapped. The final sorry production total came to a paltry 15,272 Berlinas and 6790 coupés over an eight year production run. Commercially and reputationally then, the Gamma was an unmitigated disaster.
In 1984 Lancia launched the Gamma’s successor. The resulting Tipo-834 Thema was thoroughly conventional – turbocharging and engine balance shafts notwithstanding. Although well received by the UK press, it never sold in significant numbers in Britain, and with the cars now suffering from indifferent build and shoddy aftercare, it really had no chance. Fiat trudged on for another decade before pulling the marque permanently from the British Isles, its quality reputation in tatters.
That a car with as much promise and pedigree as the Gamma failed so spectacularly has been subject to repeated post-mortems since its demise. Received wisdom points the finger at 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 centre.
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 predecessor. 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?
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, the carrozzeria’s 1967 Berlina Aerodynamica, possibly the most influential saloon concept since their Lancia Florida series a decade earlier.
Like Bertone’s Lamborghini Miura, the Berlina Aerodynamica has been attributed to more than one designer over the years and given Pininfarina’s reluctance to credit individual stylists, the facts have been left for historians to puzzle over. The concept seems to originate with Leonardo Fioravanti’s student days at the Politecnico di Milano.
Studying design and aerodynamic theory, the young man was tutored by none other than Lancia engineering supremo, Professor Antonio Fessia. Reputedly encouraged by the redoubtable engineer in his studies, 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, Paulo 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 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 finished design was the lower, more penetrating nose and semi-enclosed headlights, which was altered on the instructions of Camuffo, who requested 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 for both models was also carried out by Pininfarina – Lancia adopting the proposed treatments largely unaltered.
Bucking contemporary luxury car convention, the Berlina was a fastback shape, with a separate boot. To some eyes at least, the styling looked bulky and under-resolved. Certainly from some angles, the car appears slightly overwhelmed by its canopy. Viewed in profile, the shortness of the wheelbase is notable and one has to wonder whether a few additional centimetres between the wheels would have allowed the designers create a slightly more balanced shape.
Damningly too, the Gamma’s silhouette reprised that of cheaper cars like the Alfasud, Citroen GS and Lancia’s own Beta model. So despite the fact that the Gamma appeared both modish and intriguing, there was a degree 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 and better received coupé. It’s 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 appeared to acknowledge this trend, creating a tre-volumi Gamma variant in a similar vein to the 1980 Trevi – a car incidentally, designed with assistance from Pininfarina. If anything, the resulting proposal was less of a visual success than that of its more compact sibling, so it’s perhaps a mercy it never saw the light of day.
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’s peculiar 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 tipo 830 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 perhaps 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. Power? Only if the 2.5 litre version is considered.
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 suggestions 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, thus failing to provide owners with sufficient visual receipt for the extra outlay. Certainly, the larger car was more dramatically styled, more elegant, more expensively finished and specified, but given the sizable 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 effectively cancelled one another out.
As the Gamma failed in the marketplace, Lancia compounded matters by introducing the conservatively styled, more upmarket Trevi 2000 in 1981, in many ways sealing the Gamma’s fate. Because not only did the Trevi codify the principle that customers favoured three volumes to two in this sector, it queried the necessity for a large Lancia saloon at all.
Previously, we looked at how Lancia’s in-house sibling Beta nibbled away at the Gamma’s market, but how did it compare to its intended rivals, each well established upper-middle class contenders? The European upper-middle class market was populated by just about every major manufacturer, but Citroën, Peugeot and Rover offered the closest competition to Lancia’s big saloon. Similar in its left-field appeal, Citroën’s CX was also front-wheel drive and powered by large-capacity four-cylinder engines, but unlike the Gamma was also available with a wider range of engine, trim levels and body styles.
A fundamental tenet in luxury saloon design is size and at the very least, a perception of a certain visual heft. The Gamma flew in the face of luxury car orthodoxy in several ways, but particularly here. The Lancia was a noticeably more compact car than its rivals and furthermore, it looked it. It’s immediately evident from reference to the enclosed table how the Gamma is 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, Lancia’s masters ensured the Gamma would struggle to match up to its more generously dimensioned rivals, especially when it came to interior space. Comparing a Gamma Berlina against a Rover 2600 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 possibly eclipsed that of the Citroën and would certainly have been in marked contrast to the austere and shoddily assembled 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 models was announced, featuring even more subdued cabin decor.
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. But in the end it ran a close second to the Peugeot 604 Ti, although the big French saloon was favoured by the narrowest of margins. 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 an impediment in what was Lancia’s biggest export market at the time. In fact it’s 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 coupé 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 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 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.
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 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 pathetic 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.
Ultimately then, how does one encapsulate the Lancia Gamma?
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 prejudice against the upmarket led to a fatal ambivalence. This schizophrenic attitude to their new acquisition most likely informed the compromises that damned both the Beta family and later, the Gamma itself.
Also at odds were the ideologies of the two marques: Fiat management found themselves tied up in an acrimonious war of attrition with loyalists within Lancia’s engineering team over the identity of their crippled marque. Yet 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 development.
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 become dysfunctional. 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’s performance envelope that were rightfully lauded were the very factors that Lancia engineers had intended to imbue the car with. Excellence in road-holding, handling and steering were all marque hallmarks, and indeed requisites for a sporting saloon, but 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 palpably the wrong car for the job.
But even had the Gamma been a commercial success, it would 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. So in addition to tragedy, it is possible to add a further layer to the Gamma’s dolorous opera: one of sheer, numbing futility.
The troublesome areas of histories usually centre on 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 those shared assumptions that provide a slightly skewed version of the Gamma’s failure, seeing it only through a single dimension.
It is clear that the reasons for the car’s calamitous 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. As a direct replacement for the Flavia 2000, 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 market positioning.
With these handicaps, its failure became 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.
©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.
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.