Three Volumes in Three Parts: 1

Don’t meet your heroes, they say. It’s bound to lead to disappointment. After stalking the Lancia Trevi for 26 years I finally got to drive one. So, you ask, how did that work out?

1981 Lancia Trevi 2000
1981 Lancia Trevi 2000

Very well indeed, thanks: I got to satisfy my curiosity and did so without my hopes being dashed. Much like my short trip to Italy in June, this experience has got me thinking. And re-thinking.

Before getting to the drive, let us look briefly at the Trevi’s origins. It was based on the Beta which Lancia launched in 1972 at the Turin Motor Show. The 1972 car had three engines – 1400, 1600 and 1800, (a (1300 came later) – developed from a Fiat twin-cam unit so it could be mounted across the car and to drive the front wheels.

1971 Lancia Beta: source
1972 Lancia Beta: source

For the Trevi, Fiat remodelled the exterior to make it a three-volume saloon (“Tre Volumi” – hence the name**) and they provided a new interior. Lancia reduced the engine range to leave the 1600 and 2000 for 1980-1982. From 1981 to 1982 the 2000 also came with fuel injection (IE) and supercharging (VX). So, mechanically, the Trevi is a revision of the Beta: four-cylinder engines, front wheel drive, five-speed manual (or 3-speed auto) power steering, and fully-independent suspension.

1981 Lancia Trevi grille
1981 Lancia Trevi grille

That’s the recipe for the majority of cars today but Lancia were among the first to do this and had a reputation for innovation. And even in 1980 front wheel-drive was still unusual at Ford and Opel and unknown at BMW and Mercedes. So Lancia merely had to refine their package to stay competitive for 1980.

1981 Lancia Trevi 2000 interior
1981 Lancia Trevi 2000 interior

The Trevi, if it is known at all these days, is known for its dashboard. Architect and industrial designer Mario Bellini designed the interior (we interviewed him). The received wisdom (available on Wikipedia) is that the dashboard is not a success. You can’t argue that so many motoring correspondents didn’t like it but one could argue that they were wrong. They mistook unusual for bad. That received wisdom is due for revision. Let’s revise…

Bellini’s concept – what he probably drew – involved assembling all the masses of the dashboard and centre console into one form, a T-shape, running down to the centre console. He also tried to get the dashboard to flow into the doors. In 1980 that was a radical conceit and it’s one that designers have struggled with ever since. The readouts and buttons got a recess each, with central axes centred on the driver’s eye point. It’s remarkable the essence of a dashboard should look strange. It makes you question the way they are usually done.

Additionally, Bellini drew from fashion in furniture design to shape the seats. These days car seats look like car seats, no matter how many panels and curves they have. The Trevi has seats that have their own identity while still serving their function.

Turning to the outside, Lancia retained the Beta’s main elements and adapted them for a notchback saloon. All the main panels have been changed though (as far as I can tell).

At the front, the lamps and indicators are wider, cutting into the wings. A version of the traditional shield grille re-appeared to remind customers of Lancia’s great 50s and 60s cars. On the trailing edge of the roof there is a small upward flick – there to improve separation (and the Ford Ka did the same thing in 1996).

1981 Lancia Trevi: note the raised edge of the roof
1981 Lancia Trevi: note the raised edge of the roof

Most controversially, the car has a distinctive c-pillar to visually separate it from the Beta fastback which carried on until 1982. One’s opinion about the C-pillar itself is likely to be influenced by one’s view of decoration. If you don’t like that then you might not like the Trevi. If you’re like me, happy with decoration as an optional form of expression, then there will be nothing amiss. Is this car Post-Modern?

1981 Lancia Trevi 2000
1981 Lancia Trevi 2000

The brightwork (stainless steel, no less) that frames the side-glass on the doors is larger than the area of glass inside it. Where one might expect a third pane of glazing there is a louvred panel. I don’t want to get into details about the significance of the panel or the intended effect. What I want to record is that in 1990 when I first saw the Trevi the car seemed hopelessly strange, a ‘hopeful monster’, which I did not perceive as a totality.

On the day of the test I had a chance to look all around the car and take it in in three-dimensions and from various distances. The C-pillar and the other elements now appear to me as one of those surprisingly complex designs with a lot of richness. The shape expresses a character that the 1972 car didn’t. I’ve talked about something called ‘eye feeling’ which is that general sensation one gets from looking indirectly at a car rather than tracking closely over details.

For a start, the proportions are excellent. The axle to bulkhead distance is spot on. The A-pillar intersects with the front axle. The C-pillar sits over the rear axle. Yet the car is compact (4.35 metres). All this adds up to a surprisingly aristocratic car: the steep rear window is formal. It is purposeful: the relation of the two axles to the glasshouse and the height of the body to the greenhouse are correct. The brightwork adds a luxurious character.

It might not seem very obvious now but the interior of the car is very radical and the exterior of the car aspires to some form of classicism or Post-Modernism. I can’t think of another car with such contrasting interior and exterior themes.

1981 Lancia Trevi: comfortable once you are seated.
1981 Lancia Trevi: comfortable once you are seated.

In the back, one finds very comfortable seats with a nice, wide armrest and head restraints. Take a look at the doors in the photos: two main pieces of material with the armrest pressed out of the carpeted panel. The door capping flows from behind your shoulder (if you sit in the back) all the way around via the dashboard, to create a unified rim for the tub of the passenger cell. This interior functions as a unified whole. I really wish a version of this could be made to modern tolerances.

Only the fact that manufacturing could not get the tight gaps found in modern cars tells against it: the glove box lid has a wide gap and the console’s join to the dashboard is not as tight as it needs to be (it should not be there at all). The theme though was excellent: a modern version would still be excellent. My impression is that a long journey in the back of this car would be perfectly nice.

1981 Lancia Trevi rear door
1981 Lancia Trevi rear door

All told, the Trevi turns out to be plain fascinating, a study in Modernist luxury and still very relevant. I would say the period assessments need to be reconsidered in the light of how cars have actually evolved.

I will report on my driving impressions in the next instalment.

** That’s what Lancia’s publicity material says. I still prefer to believe it’s named after the Trevi fountain.

Part two continues here.

Many thanks to F. Kemple for providing the vehicle for this article and taking the time to show me the car. Also thanks to the Lancia Motor Club of Ireland for putting me in touch.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

18 thoughts on “Three Volumes in Three Parts: 1”

  1. Great review Richard. I like these too, the dashboard was ahead of its time – yet ironically, the sort of thing you couldn’t get away with in a mainstream saloon now. Agree on the manufacturing tolerances letting the effect down – it’s evident even in the publicity photos, and in fact the dashboard fit on this particular Trevi is probably the best I have ever seen on any example.

    Interesting to note that the C-pillar underwent a somewhat-hurried revision after only two years, presumably in response to less-than-enthusiastic customer response. The horizontal ‘blinds’ insert was replaced by a simplified, near-vertical arrangement:

    In bodyshell terms the car is identical to a series 3 Beta berlina from the trailing edge of the rear door forward – bonnet was changed and front wing pressings were slightly altered, as you note, but the doors (minus the newly-integrated Coupe/HPE doorhandles) were the same as on previous berlinas.

    1. I don’t know how much difference there is between the series 1 and 2 and the Trevi’s doors and wings. I get the feeling the Beta series 1 had plainer surfaces. The surface on the Trevi above the rub-strip looks fuller than on the early cars.
      It would be so interesting to see the dashboard rendered in modern materials and with current assembly standards. Maybe Bellini tried something the production engineers couldn’t deliver – I am glad he tried and Lancia went ahead with it. It works well from the driver’s seat. It has a cockpit feeling to it. All in all, I went away impressed.

    1. That one has been on sale for a very long time indeed. It is not worth what the vendor is asking for, evidently. These cars are in a wierd spot in the market. The mainstream ignorantly under-regard it and those in the know probably have one already. If was in the UK or Germany I’d probably take the plunge now I’ve driven one. It rode as well as the 604, a bit less room but nicer steering (not that the 604 was bad), better mileage.

    2. Was your test car an I.E.? The injection makes a big difference to the economy figures. My HPE admittedly runs a touch rich but if I really try I can get it below 20mpg, and sub-25mpg is entirely normal.

    3. 20-25mpg in your HPE Stradale? I used to get much better than that in my 2.0 litre carb fed series 2 HPE. Apart from the rather heavy steering at low speed, it was a lovely thing to drive. Comfortable, nice handling and plenty of space. It was sold to someone who saw it parked on the street, offered me cash without even wanting to drive it, it was in such good condition. It got replaced by a BX.

      BTW, I really liked some of the more adventurous dash designs of the time. The Trevi’s appeared to be the sort of thing you’d only see on show cars.

    4. I’m not sure what this says about Betas, or their owners, but I actually bought mine through leaving a note on the windscreen…

      Part of the explanation for the economy number, I suspect, is that my driving is fairly town-heavy and carbs in general are simply hopeless at being economical on stop-start runs. I find that the HPE is really an open-road sort of car – above 50mph everything tightens up and the dynamics really start to work through long, open bends. The economy benefits significantly too – a back-of-envelope figure is around 30 in those sort of conditions. But for what it’s worth, most journalists that I’ve seen were getting similar figures to my original numbers in road tests.

  2. You have omitted the best Trevi of all Richard – the Bimotore which featured a VX motor front and back and makes the output of a 2CV Sahara look rather tame in comparison…

    1. Yes, a prototype to help develop tyres that would be suited for four-wheel drive, created when they were developing the Delta S4. It’s in the Lancia collection now:

  3. I am the owner of the Blue Trevi in this feature and I am delighted to see the Trevi getting a fair and balanced review. In relation to fuel consumption I have driven the car for almost 30K miles over the last 15 years and have never considered it to be heavy on fuel. My car is a 2 Litre Carb with a manual choke conversion. I have always gotten around 30 mpg from which is similar to what I get from my other more modern daily drivers.

    1. Hi: Does that mean it was an IE but now has a manual choke? While you were explaining it I might have been distracted; I was also trying to understand the details of the interior and I was also using computing power to assess the ride quality (the big surprise of the test drive). Period tests
      implied the Trevi had a more handling biased set-up than the Saab 900 or CX.
      Can you still get the Pirellis this car is designed for?

    2. Pirelli doesn’t remanufacture the P6, no. In general, they are a bit thin with remanufacturing classic designs compared to, say, Michelin or Dunlop. Their full remanufactured line can be found here (along with a neat period video):

      It does seem like a somewhat curious choice of tyres to remanufacture, I must say. They did briefly have the Cinturato P7 in their classic line, but it seems to have been dropped recently. Odd, that, considering it was OEM fit on pretty much any hi-po 1970s car you care to name and you’d think the recent boom in values would result in a sufficient originality fetish to keep the line going. I would have thought the P6 was a more significant design to remake than some of the others on that list (the mere mention of P6s was enough to get CAR staff giddy in the early 1980s), but then again I suppose the market for supplying Trevi owners and similar is somewhat limited these days. I seem to recall I have a couple of originals rotting in my shed and occupying what is, on consideration, a somewhat unnecessary amount of space.

  4. George Plant’s mad Bimotore is a new one on me – DTW is, as ever, a place of useful learning.

    It’s said to have 300bhp, with the Volumex superchargers running a bit faster than the production engine. Nowadays there are several 2 litre petrol fours managing that output, with half the capacity.

    I read somewhere that its illegal to use twin-engined vehicles on UK roads, with the exception of prime movers for abnormal loads. That may be an urban myth, and even if true, must make an exception for hybrids.

    1. The VX cars are a puzzle yet strangely appealing. It’s the torque delivery that matters. However, I’d find the engine a bit intimidating whereas I could imaging wafting about in a 1600 or 2000 as in Denmark there’s little uphill to deal with. I’d have to have one with the furniture-inspired seating. The last version is on the way to conventionality even if the Zegna cloth has appeal.
      I’m quite pleased about the interest shown in the article, primarily as it qualifies the period reviews. Lesson: test drive everything you can.

  5. Pininfarina was a styling consultant for the third series Beta, of which the Trevi was a derivative. It’s also said they were responsible for the more traditional grille design, which subsequently became a Lancia staple throughout the 1980’s. It’s believed that Giugiaro wasn’t delighted to have to adopt a rival carrozzeria’s work but Mario Maioli reputedly convinced him.

    It would be interesting to know if Pininfarina had any stylistic input into the Trevi design or whether it was entirely Centro Stile’s work. Anyone out there know?

    1. My money is on it being an in-house design. Why? Because it´s a bit too interesting to be Pininfarina. I think the work was entrusted to a middle-level design manager. It is idiosyncratic in the way a consultant would never dare to be. I like that aspect of the car.

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