Sixty this year, Lancia’s zenith gets the DTW spotlight.
There are in life, some affronts you can never quite forgive. For instance, the manner in which the Lancia name has been debased by its current owners remains a burning injustice. This germ of resentment about Lancia’s latterday fate can be traced to one car. Built to exacting standards, and engineered like little else, this purebred ammiraglia is an automotive old master.
Patrician and upstanding, the Lancia Flaminia was a car intended for the elite – wealthy industrialists, Pontiffs, the vestiges of nobility. Sombre, yet not stuffy, the big Lancia saloon conducted itself with surprising élan, courtesy of one of the finest chassis of its era. But the Flaminia, especially in more rakish coupé and convertible form was also the favoured transport of Europe’s glitterati – Brigette Bardot, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni all were owners.
That other contemporary club of high living – racing drivers – also favoured the big Lancia. Fangio drove one, as did Peter Collins and Paul Frère. Battista Pininfarina wouldn’t be seen in anything else. After all, a Ferrari may have been a more powerful symbol of social arrival, but the Lancia’s superior chassis made a mockery of Maranello’s brash upstart. Even Enzo allegedly owned one, although he probably didn’t like to publicise the fact.
The Flaminia’s direct ancestor was the post-war Aurelia model, a car which introduced a new sophistication to a slowly recovering Italian automotive landscape. Engineered under the watchful eye of the fêted Vittorio Jano, the car’s V6 power unit (a production car first), de-Dion rear suspension and transaxle gearbox marked a continuation of Lancia’s pre-war reputation for technical innovation.
As in the coachbuilt era, the Aurelia was rebodied by innumerable carrozzieri as a series of rakish looking coupés, convertibles or shooting brake estates. In 1955, marking a clear break with the previous era’s voluptuous style, Pininfarina prepared a striking Aurelia-based concept. The Florida took its influence from the pioneering themes emerging from Detroit’s styling studios, featuring broader, flatter surfaces, fuselage wing treatments and a more linear style.
Florida proved a stylistic landmark: gone was the upright shield grille, while at the rear, two vestigial tailfins ran from buttress-effect c-pillars. Pininfarina followed this up a year later with Florida II, ostensibly a more production ready coupé version, featuring two additional hidden rear hinged doors. It remains Battista’s personal masterpiece.
The Flaminia represented nothing less than a change of stylistic guard – in Europe at least. The impact of the car has diminished over time and familiarity owing to Pininfarina reusing the essential styling theme many times over, but an entire generation of cars from this period inherited the Flaminia’s inset grille, unadorned flank treatment and mere suggestion of tailfins.
Mechanically, the Flaminia embodied most of the engineering themes which defined its predecessor, but under the stewardship of Ing. Antonio Fessia, Lancia’s trademark (if shimmy-prone) sliding pillar front suspension was replaced by a pair of stout wishbones, coil spring and damper units. The De Virgilio V6 remained at 2.5 litres, receiving updates throughout the model’s lifespan, culminating in a 2.8 litre triple carburettor unit producing 152 bhp, a power unit of impressive flexibility, refinement, prodigious torque and character, coupled with an admirable lack of temperament.
Rear suspension followed Aurelia practice but with Dunlop disc brakes fitted all round (inboard at the rear), predating Maranello’s reluctant and much later conversion to modernity. Quality was a holy writ. Like Peugeot, Lancia elected to produce their own dampers. The rear transaxle was fitted with a separate oil pump and each assembly was said to have been individually tested at 2000 rpm for a duration of two hours. Those not silent in operation were rejected. Additionally, the front suspension castings were case hardened, each carrying the tester’s individual stamp.
Pininfarina was not the only coachbuilder appointed to the Flaminia programme. Lancia gave several of Battista’s rivals their patronage, with Carrozzeria Touring being responsible for the GT two-seater coupé and convertible, while Zagato created the most rarefied of all – the Sport and Supersport. This latter duo were serious exotica, built in tiny numbers and purchased by the the cognoscenti.
The berlina remained virtually unchanged throughout its lifespan, apart from mechanical refinements, but was longest lived of all, production (officially) ceasing in Lancia’s Borgo San Paolo works a year after the Fiat takeover. However, over a thirteen year production run, just under 4000 berlinas were essentially handbuilt – the coupé being made in larger numbers (and to less exacting standards) by Pininfarina themselves.
Total Flaminia production amounted to around 12,500 cars – a pathetic number given the car’s sales potential and documented excellence. Mercedes-Benz made their reputation on cars not dissimilar to this – they simply made more and exported them assiduously around the World. Had Lancia similar ambitions, could the story have been different?
The Flaminia perhaps represented Lancia at its best: the finest engineering ideals, build integrity that matched anything in production at the time, an unparalleled pedigree that made it the finest Italian car of its era and in the case of the coachbuilt variants, some of the most desirable.
Conversely, it also came to represent the worst: the lack of business nous, a fixation on the domestic market and the insistence on low volume and obsessive quality to the detriment of sales, because perhaps with a slightly lower standard of build coupled to higher production volumes, the Flaminia could potentially have earned Lancia serious revenue – money that was desperately required to maintain the business.
The Flaminia was Lancia’s final great act. But the ideals it embodied were out of touch with the harsh realities of the 1960s, so by the decade’s end, not only was there no money to replace it, but the entire operation had run out of time, credit and creative leadership. In retrospect, it would have been best for the marque to have died with it, given the cruel fate which has since befallen it.
From Italy’s finest to pale white hen, surely no more dolorous aria could be written.