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