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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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 tobelieve it’s named after the Trevi fountain.
[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.]