The Pinnacle – 1957 Lancia Flaminia

Sixty this year, Lancia’s zenith gets the DTW spotlight.

Image: autowp-ru via wheelsage
Image: autowp-ru via wheelsage

Pushed to choose one marque defining model I wouldn’t hesitate; after all, there are Lancias, and there is the Flaminia. Others might disagree and that is fine. We all have our icons, and if you believe the sliding pillar era was technically or aesthetically superior I wouldn’t necessarily argue. It’s a personal choice. To my eyes however, the Flaminia is firmly on its pedestal – a monument to what Lancia once represented, an abiding reason why I revere the marque to this day and why I still burn with resentment for what it has been reduced to. There are some affronts you can never quite forgive. Built to exacting standards, and engineered like no other, this purebred ammiraglia is an automotive old master.

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Patrician and upstanding, Flaminias were cars for the Italian elite – wealthy industrialists, Pontiffs, the vestiges of nobility. Sombre, yet not stuffy, the big Lancia conducted itself with surprising élan. 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 club of high living – racing drivers – also favoured the 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 more powerful, but the Lancia’s superior chassis made a mockery of Maranello’s brash upstart. Even Enzo had one, although he probably didn’t like to publicise the fact.

Film Actor Mastroianni with his 1964 Flaminia Supersport. Image:
Film Actor Marcello Mastroianni with his 1964 Flaminia Supersport. Image:

The Flaminia’s jumping off point was the post-war Aurelia model, a car which introduced a new sophistication to what was a rather dishevelled and conflict-torn Italian automotive landscape. Engineered under the watchful eye of the much 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, made flesh in delightful motor cars like the pre-war Aprilia.

As in the coachbuilt era, the Aurelia was rebodied by innumerable carrozzeri as a series of ever more rakish looking coupés, convertibles or shooting brake estates. In 1955, Pininfarina prepared a striking Aurelia-based concept. Marking a clear break with the previous era’s voluptuous style, the Florida took its influence from the pioneering themes emerging from Detroit’s styling studios, featuring broader, flatter surfaces, wing treatments and a more linear style.

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Florida was a styling 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,forming the basis for the 1957 Flaminia berlina and its coupé variant – arguably Battista’s personal masterpiece.

Lancia Flaminia Coupe. Image: Route Vecchie
Lancia Flaminia Coupe. Image: Route Vecchie

The Flaminia represented nothing less than a change of stylistic guard – in Europe at least. The impact of the car has probably been diminished over time and over-familiarity owing to Pininfarina reusing the essential styling theme many times over. In fact an entire generation of cars from this period and beyond inherited the Flaminia’s inset grille, unadorned flanks and mere suggestion of tail fins, something which has tended to dilute the car’s impact and influence.

Mechanically, the Flaminia embodied most of the engineering themes which defined its predecessor, but under the stewardship of Dr. Antonio Fessia (Jano’s more than able successor) Lancia’s trademark (if shimmy-prone) sliding pillar front suspension was replaced by a pair of stout wishbones, coil spring and damper units. The V6 engine was upped to 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 immense 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.

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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 and Zagato for 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 one-off Pininfarina 2800 Speciale. Image: Ultimatecarpage
The one-off 1966 Pininfarina 2800 Speciale. Image: Ultimatecarpage

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 Paulo 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 amounts 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 represented Lancia at its best: the finest engineering ideals, build integrity that probably surpassed 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 beautiful. However, it also came to represent the worst of Lancia: the lack of business vision, a fixation on the home market and the insistence on low volume and obsessive quality to the detriment of sales growth, because even with a slightly lower standard of build coupled to higher production volumes, the Flaminia could have earned Lancia serious revenue – money that was desperately needed to maintain the business and may have helped avert catastrophe.

Image: Car and Classic
Sublime. The Pininfarina Coupe. Image: Car and Classic

In handsight, the Flaminia marked the beginning of the end for Lancia. The ideals it embodied were already out of touch with the harsh realities of the 1960s, so by the end of that decade, 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 savage fate that has since befallen it.

From Italy’s finest to pale white hen, no more dolorous aria could be written.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

27 thoughts on “The Pinnacle – 1957 Lancia Flaminia”

  1. There’s currently a 43,000 km Coupe for sale for £35,000 and a Berlina for £25,000. Like everything Flaminia prices have risen significantly over the past few years and you can even find convertibles at six figure sums. But compare these with the sums that 60s Aston DBs attract (a ‘barn find’ DB4 needing massive restoration fetched £200K plus at auction recently) and it’s apparent that these remain underappreciated. The fact that the Lancia’s progress would be ‘gentlemanly’ rather than ‘Bondish’ doubtless affects perceptions. It’s a car that would be too much trouble for its owner to explain (‘Lancia? Aren’t they all Fiats underneath?), so will only ever be wanted by the informed and self-confident. The fact that I’d like one totally contradicts that last sentence

    1. 35,000 gets you an unremarkable BMW 5-series, doesn´t it? Of course the BMW does rather different things but it puts the price in perspective. While 35 k is a lot more than an immaculate Granada, for example, it is not so much more than people routinely pay for ordinary cars.
      Eoin asks if Lancia could have cost cut their way a little to make the car more marketable. It could be that they did not know how to do this. Mercedes had advantages in manufacturing that meant it could reliably turn out cars like the W-123 (which is very well made) at comparatively reasonable prices. Design is part of the equation – manufacturing is the other. Lancia might have been weak in this area, despite their quality.

    2. I think the Lancia does actually have a Bond connection. If I remember correctly Bond married a girl called Tracy who overtook him in his Bentley in a Zagato bodied Flaminia.

  2. Call me childish Eoin, but I do have one criticism of this piece. None of your photos features the Flaminia’s rear wiper set up. One of those things that would (for me) be one of the harmless pleasures of Flaminia ownership (should I be able to search out a car with them fitted). See what I meant about Lancias being for the grown-up owner?

    And to paraphrase Giugiaro, don’t say they’ve put them on the inside too? Yes!

    1. Interior wipers?! Mind blown.

      I know very little about this car, but now I want one. However, as I live in the UK and lack the required funds or place to store it, this is beyond me.

      Delightful car, though.

  3. In ’75 when looking for my next car I visited two Farina coupes, drove one. The one I drove was a delight, if not particularly quick. But both were badly rusted, the better one invisibly. I slapped its fenders lightly, could hear bits of rust sliding down it inside. And I poked a screwdriver gently at a sill’s underside. It went through easily. Both sills were effectively gone, front to rear, even though the paint was intact. Inexcusable in an eight year old car.

    But lovely. I’ve always thought that the Flaminia Farina couple was the most attractive car of his Peugeot 404 phase.

    Lancias of that era rotted. When we speak of build quality we should think of galvanizing as well as fit and finish.

    1. I suppose we have to view rotting Lancias in the same way we view, say, sexist attitudes on 60s television. Oh well they were all at it then. When my Mum got rid of her Mark 2 Jaguar it was, I think, 6 years old. It had already had one respray, the bodywork was bubbling again, and the headlining around the leaking rear window was going mouldy. Rust back then was like The Plague in Medieval times. Just something you lived with – or didn’t.

    2. All cars were suffering from the brown plague back in the Flaminia’s day – was it the Porsche 928 that was first to get over serious rust issues? Anyway, this problem certainly wasn’t exclusive to Italian automobiles, but an inevitable effect of technological limits at the time.

    3. Everything rusted back then, apart from aluminium bodied cars which just corroded 😉 The Italians did get on top of the rust problem before many others, but the reputation stuck fast. Heck, we had certain Japanese maker’s cars here still rusting through within 18 months or less well in to the late ’80s, but pretty much everyone’s forgotten now. I think Audi and Porsche were amongst the first to seriously address the rust problem, but Alfa weren’t that far behind. Neither my HPE nor 75 V6 suffered from tin worm.

      The big Coupe is sublime, nicer in the flesh than the photos, and there’s something rather lovely about its presence. It has a real feel of quality – real quality engineered in, rather than something cynically applied at the end.

    1. That´s very upsetting. Like reading “I met Nelson Mandela once. He stayed with us for a weekend. He spat on the floor and I saw him pilfering the cutlery. He would sit up late at night smoking and watching sports and he never flushed the toilet. But as soon as a visitor, journalist maybe, came in he´d switch on the gracious style and saintly manner. Right after they were gone he´d mutter loudly what a *********** they were and spit on the floor again.”

    2. In fairness though, who galvanised cars in the 1960’s? I don’t recall any cars from that era didn’t rust in damp climates. I remember seeing decade old Jaguar’s in 1970’s Ireland which were essentially scrap and we didn’t salt the roads in winter back then. During the 1960’s an 8-year old Ferrari would require a full engine and body rebuild. It’s known that Pininfarina did not build to the same standards as Lancia themselves – in fact there was something of a sliding scale quality-wise starting with Borgo San Paulo and ending with Zagato. So the most expensive Flaminia’s were in fact the least well made. Does this diminish the model’s significance or the obvious care in its design and construction? Not in my opinion.

      Carlo Presenti was Lancia’s boss from 1955 to its collapse in 1969. During that period he appeared to make no real attempt to streamline the business, introduce cost savings or rationalise Lancia’s sprawling model range. Instead, Dr. Fessia appears to have been allowed to do pretty much as he pleased. It is said that the San Paulo plant operated six days a week, 24 hours a day yet produced less than 200 cars a week. Lancia had something to learn from Stuttgart when it came to productivity it would seem. The Flaminia was to all intents and purposes a hand built car and the costs of altering that were possibly beyond them.

      Nevertheless, when you look at the Flaminia’s Sindelfingen rival, the larger-engined Mercedes W111/112 Heckflosse series, (which was produced over a similar lifespan), and while it’s unclear whether the 370,000 reputedly made represents just the six-cylinder models, they certainly were made in vastly greater numbers. Given the level of Fintail sales, there was clearly a much bigger market to be had if Lancia could have provided a viable competitor in key markets. So yes, manufacturing was a weakness, (and possibly rustproofing) but it could be argued that Presenti had a decade to transform the business, which he didn’t avail of.

    3. “Carlo Presenti was Lancia’s boss from 1955 to its collapse in 1969. During that period he appeared to make no real attempt to streamline the business, introduce cost savings or rationalise Lancia’s sprawling model range.”

      I am not sure I would go entirely along with that. The Flaminia sold so slowly it was more or less dead on the vine and essentially abandoned in development terms by the time the Fulvia was introduced – production of the sedans ran to just 599 in total between 1964 and 1970. Pesenti understood that Lancia had a deeply polarised range, so the Flavia was supposed to bridge the gap between in the range between the Flaminia and Appia. It’s also worth noting that Fessia was not dealing with an entirely open chequebook – the Fulvia represented Lancia’s idea of cost rationalisation in that a lot of the underneath, excluding the drivetrain, amounts to a cut-and-shut Flavia (and never mind that the minutely-altered V-angles between the different engine capacities meant that hardly anything is interchangeable between the various capacity V4s). But probably the biggest thing Pesenti did was to invest in the brand-new factory at Chivasso – Borgo San Paolo was pretty old and extremely inefficient by the late 1950s. In any case, I doubt even Lancia considered the Flaminia particularly material to their fortunes by around 1965 onwards – by that date, it was the archetypal ‘available to special order’ product that was receiving no promotion, marketing or investment beyond the barest minimum necessary.

    4. I didn’t want to simply write a hagiography for the Flaminia, even though its a car I admire greatly. But for me, its commercial failure is perplexing, given its excellence, obvious appeal and critical approbation. In fact, in 1958, the Flaminia presented perhaps the state of the large luxury saloon art, both stylistically and in engineering terms.

      Perhaps I’m being unfair to Presenti. But if you look at the commercial arcs of Mercedes and Jaguar during the same period, both marques were making concerted efforts with larger, more luxurious saloons to appeal to the other markets – (particularly the US), something which worked rather well for them as businesses. Lancia seemed barely to consider any region outside of Italy’s borders, yet the market for a Flaminia type of car in Italy was always going to be tiny given the political and social position in the post-war landscape.

      My question therefore is whether you think Presenti was working towards a more sustainable commercial position with the Chivasso cars but ran out of time and money, or whether a focus on more profitable lines and exporting to markets where demand existed would have yielded better results? Perhaps the result would have been the same either way?

    5. My view is basically that Pesenti bit off more than he could chew with the Lancia investment and should’ve stuck with cement if he was interested in turning a quid – think David Brown at Aston. By the late 1950s, Lancia was really stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of strategic options. To some extent this all goes back to the immediate post-war era and Lancia being denied Marshall Plan funds because Gianni was a commie (according to the Yanks’ logic), and then the commercial failure of the Aurelia, and the ill-fated racing program, etc, etc. But the long and the short of it was that by the time Pesenti bought in, there was an established trend of the top of the range draining away any profit that was being made on the small stuff, and then some. (In this vein, it’s easy to suspect that, given the build processes associated with the Flaminia, there was more than a touch of “We’re losing money on every unit, but we’re making up for it with volume” going on.)

      In a broad sense, I think Pesenti was well aware of Lancia’s problems and his strategy hinged on going after the emergent Italian and, I suppose, European upper-middle class – hence the investment in the Flavia, Fulvia and Chivasso, which was supposed to yield a major boost in production and thus profitability. The Fulvia did reasonably well (for a Lancia at least), so you could argue the strategy was not entirely without merit. But on the other hand, while the Fessia cars did enough to keep the lights on, it was only just enough – and nowhere near enough to finance development of their replacements, which is why Fiat money was needed for the Beta.

      But then, the history of the industry post-war – market dominance through volume – shows that bankruptcy or takeover by a giant (inevitably, Fiat) was simply bound to occur. Every other small independent manufacturer wound up in one of those two positions. You could argue that BMW is an exception, but then, I would say they are the exception that proves the rule. And they only managed it by growing to become a volume manufacturer themselves, and not without a bit of luck and a few red alerts along the way.

      For what it’s worth, I personally don’t see Mercedes as comparable to Lancia – the German political economy was and is different in myriad important ways to the Italian one, and Mercedes was important to Germany in a way that Lancia simply was not to Italy. Moreover, by the 1950s, Mercedes was already well-entrenched globally, not least in the US, with an established reputation and dealer network. I have seen a major M-B commercial vehicles dealer, with giant rotating three-pointed star, in the heart of Bujumbura. It is simply impossible, in my opinion, to conceive of a realistic alternate history where Lancia managed to establish this sort of global footprint. Sure, there were Aurelia exports to the US, but we are really talking about entirely nominal numbers and the company never had the sort of money needed to have a decent go at cracking the US market. Jaguar is a closer parallel, and really, but for a few slightly different turns of fate, they could easily have been consigned to the history books by now as well – in the same way that but for some different managerial decisions in the 1970s and 1980s, Lancia might well be the badge adorning the car we now know as the Giulia.

    1. You know, at one level, $89k is obviously a lot for that car. But I can see someone paying it, or something close to it. Notwithstanding the awful photos, it is a desirable specification with the right motor, it seems complete, and if the description is correct, it has an interesting history. I haven’t looked at Flaminia values lately, but assuming a full restoration ran to around $100,000 and the finished article was worth in the region of $200k (not impossible, the way values are going), it could be worth someone’s while. Certainly, I’ve seen an awful lot more money poured into more financially hopeless projects than this.

  4. But Sean, that’s a Touring bodied car.

    They rusted too. I ran a Touring bodied iron block two liter Alfa for a couple of years. Bought if from a friend for $400, sold it to another friend who hoped to restore it for $400. We’re still all on good terms. Anyway, my buyer put it in his garage, a tornado collapsed the garage on the car and by the time he uncovered it all that was left was rust.

    I shouldn’t malign Italian cars in particular for rusting. In the late ’60s I looked at a number of 356s. All required at least new floor pans.

  5. I am fortunate enough to know a few in the Flaminia community (one particularly, er, ‘committed’ individual has both a Touring hardtop and a convertible under restoration). They are wonderful cars but the parts and upkeep costs are every bit as ruinous as for any other piece of Italian exotica. Plenty of bits are unobtanium, and specialist vendors know what they have and charge accordingly. I suspect this has been a significant factor in keeping prices relatively low for what they are. The problem is that they are not quite as highly regarded as, say, a B24, which are now easily in the half-million-plus stratosphere and thus justify the sort of money (liberally) poured into restoring them. Some of the rarer coachbuilt Flaminias are starting to approach that sort of coin, but by no means all, especially the factory-built coupes and sedans. Yet the kind of investment needed to rebuild any Flaminia is lineball with that required for an Aurelia. To that end, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them jump relatively quickly to Aurelia-style money over a relatively short period – as it is, they’re in something of a no-man’s land with regard to value. (Disclaimer: As ever, predicting classic car prices is a fool’s game, and the quality of the advice above is worth exactly what you, dear reader, are paying for it.)

    1. Just to add – it seems there is a B24 America (not even the preferred variant) up for auction next week, price guide $1.4-1.8m. Even at $200k, a Flaminia is an absolute bargain in comparison.

  6. Why do I share the fascination with Lancia? It’s rooted initially in the Trevi I saw in 1990; the Thema 8.32 drew my attention in the magazines; in real life I saw Lybras and then a Fulvia saloon (the quality was astonishing); a work colleague had a 2000 coupe and explained the level of attention paid to details; then it is about the Kappa coupe and Thesis saloon combined with a growing awareness of the glorious back catalogue of cars like the one Eoin has described. Readers might like to review the visit to the Somers museum documented at this site: a good bit of part 1 is Lancia orientated.

  7. “Moreover, by the 1950s, Mercedes was already well-entrenched globally, not least in the US, with an established reputation and dealer network.”

    Let’s not rewrite history. Mercedes had no US national dealer network until 1958, and it was started at Studebaker dealers through a corporate agreement shortly after Packard bought Studebaker. That Hoffman fellow from New York sold the 300SL before that, and afterwards when BMW actually made a real car again, he was the importer for them, bringing the 2002 to the American masses in 1968. Mercedes’ terminated their Studebaker agreement only in 1964 when the latter went broke and went on to found MBNA.

    The provost of my university had a 1962 220SE, and boy was that an unusual beast to see in 1963 when I first attended the place. Volvos were far ahead in the sales distribution race, as were Saab, Renault, VW and Peugeot, let alone BMC. Studebakers weren’t exactly top quality, so a person had to be in the know to trudge into that dealership to find a solitary Benz. Lancias were literally nowhere to be seen and 850 cc Fiats screamed their lives out in two years.

    Having had a boss with a 1953 B24 Lancia when I worked in Blighty in 1971, I had a few rides in the Huntingdonshire/Cambridgeshire area as we tried to develop an early cassette-based equivalent to today’s nav units. Any excuse for a quick bop around the countryside as he was in love with the thing and spent all his spare time and money on it. Reminded me of the Reliant Scimitar another acquaintance owned the following year, the loping V6. Anyway, if he sold the B24 recently, he’s probably a millionaire.

    No question these Flaminias are lovely looking cars, elegant even now. Somewhere along the way, somebody forgot to price them properly, or forgot to get out and sell them. As an engineer myself, I am all too aware that brilliant engineers tend to believe if you build a great product, the world will beat a path to your door. Sadly not true most of the time. The propaganda machine has to be revved up unfortunately to at least provide an aspirational story. When the masses are impressed, the elite will buy to show off.

    I realize DTW is Lancia Central in many ways, where deep-seated longing for times past have elevated these machines to high status. None of it really tells me if these older models were really amazing cars to drive or not, deserving of the almost unlimited praise they receive here. Fangio also owned a 1938 Chev which he eventually sold to the American car writer David E Davis Jr, who ran Car and Driver for years and hired LJKS when he retreated to live in Texas. Should I regard a Flaminia, no doubt sold at a knock-down price for promotional purposes, as a car Fangio picked above all others? Famousness by big name association is the shallowest of reasons to praise any product in my humble opinion.

    1. As part of our 3rd Birthday celebrations we recently estimated the work put into DTW over the time and applied a not unreasonable hourly rate. The Prosecco suddenly went flat. We at DTW are, then, no strangers to the quixotic, so it is the very fact that Lancias were such commercially unviable products that attracts us so.

      As for big name associations, I certainly hold by that as a mark of approval. Idi Amin owned two Citroen SMs. Enough said.

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