Call Forth The Ravens And See Them Soar

After a binge of new car news and debate on Geneva, it’s time for a little retrospection: let’s Lancia.

1965 Lancia Fulvia Berlina: pinterest

The Danish magazine Motor Classic tempted me and I paid up. It lured me with a feature on the Fiat 124 Special T, Alfa Romeo Giulia and the Lancia Fulvia Berlina. The article argued all were cheaper alternatives to their coupé cousins.

The author characterised the Fiat as the “underknown sportsman”; the Alfa is portrayed as the “playboy from Milan” and not surprisingly the Lancia they called the “noble professor”. It was also called a “cult car for connoisseurs”. What more did they write?

The Lancia was summed up as follows: “A classic Lancia is a little bit of a challenge, because the mechanics are complicated and spare parts expensive and hard to obtain. The Fulvia Berlina is not an exception, not least because it has not the same status as its coupé sister. Buy the best and most complete example you can find.”

Lancia Fuliva Berlina: PhilSeed.com

The article declared the Lancia to be many levels over the Alfa Romeo’s “night club manner” and the Fiat’s “straightforward populism”. They view it as being at a high intellectual level. What car today falls into that category, by the way?  The second last Lancia I tested, the Delta, hadn’t got one ounce of intellectual content, being merely mutton dressed as lamb. The Lybra though did provide something to chew on – the rear suspension has captivated my affections along with the pleasant controls. That was from 20 year ago.

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Motor Classic calls the Lancia’s style elegant, cool and understated in all the details. You have to agree – it makes Mercedes cars from the same period seem incredibly brash (a word I hate using). There are a few inflections on the Fulvia: the little peaks of the front wings are deliciously placed as is the ridge of chrome down the bonnet.

I’ve always liked the costly details: Lancia used aluminiun screws. Did anyone else? What did Mercedes or Jaguar use? Did Ferrari use them anywhere? The price paid was the price paid: the 1.3 litre Lancia cost almost as much as the 1.6 litre Alfa Romeo and they only made 20,000 each year.

Lancia Fulvia Berlina in action: alma.it

The Motor Classic road-tester regretted not wearing a suit when driving the Fulvia. He noted the upright driving position and the need for finger-tip sensitivity, especially when using the dog-leg gear change. He didn’t think the gearchange was all that precise, which I find a little disappointing. I wonder is it due to the age of the car. I expect a Fulvia to have crisp haptics – is that not among the refinements one is paying for?

The engine delivers its peak output at 4500 rpm and seems to need to be worked to deliver its best efforts. It also understeers so the idea is that the Fulvia should be driven calmly. The exterior style and the driving position would encourage that.

1966 Lancia Fulvia Berlina: midcentury motoring

It seems to be a car to think and drive in, rather than a lazily-driven vehicle. The payoff for the suspension character is a good ride and low noise levels. It is a car that gradually wins your affections rather than something too approachable that loses its fascination.

Midcentury Motoring has a 1966 example for sale along with a large and detailed gallery showing the car’s features. They have this nice précis: “Replacing the Appia, Lancia’s Fulvia Berlina completely redefined the small sedan segment of the company’s lineup. Now configured with front wheel drive, a larger and boxier body, and the famous narrow-angle V4 under the hood, the Fulvia Berlina was an immensely charming and capable automobile. One year into production, the “2C” variant arrived, with twin Solex carbs replacing the previous single carb setup, along with some other small tweaks to the subframe mounts and trim. On the road the Berlina delivers all the thrills of the coupe yet comfortably seats five with luggage. Much like Alfa’s Giulia sedan, the boxy design yields innumerable design flourishes and intrigue the closer you look, complemented by the unmatched quality and attention to detail that pre-Fiat Lancia was known for”.

As I said the beginning, the Motor Classic article tested three cars. They concluded that the Fiat surprised the most: it was the Special T, note. It had a 1.4 litre motor and not the standard 1.2. They really liked the almost silent motor and that it had precise steering and a neutral handling character.

The other day I plaintively asked for a car that was only about the suspension and controls. A modern version of the Lancia Fulvia is probably what I have in mind. While an exemplar, its engineering is still fifty years old. It provokes my imagination as to what could be achieved using modern methods of construction and contemporary engine design aimed at the same intent this car expresses.

Currently cars are feature festivals and yet, as far as I can see, it’s a matter of diminishing returns. Are there not a pool of buyers who would pay for a compact, well-made, simple but considered car?

Slideshow credit: midcentury motoring.com.

 

Author: richard herriott

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

17 thoughts on “Call Forth The Ravens And See Them Soar”

  1. Having driven a Fulvia saloon (on professional duty: http://bit.ly/lanciafulvia), I can report that the gear change is tricky indeed, whereas the rest of the controls is delightful. I didn’t get to experience it anything other than inner-city driving speeds, but in that context, it was wonderful – gearbox apart, obviously.

    Another point that ought to be highlighted – and which had previously eluded me – is that the Fulvia’s brightwork isn’t humdrum chrome, but stainless steel. Which says it all about this car, really.

    1. Lucky you – is the gearchange predictably odd or randomly odd? I see a column-mounted shifter which makes for a lot of room upfront. Stainless steel is not as easy to work with – it is, I think harder to press and harder to cut. It doesn’t rust though, hence the attraction.

    2. Predictably odd in that downward changes were generally difficult and engaging reverse borderline impossible without the impression of inflicting mechanical harm upon the car.

    3. Stainless trim doesn’t necessarily mean that a car is generally well finished. My Citroën GS (and other Citroëns of the same time) have loads of it, and they’re not really known for the quality of their execution. But yes, Citroën had a reputation for using expensive solutions before the bean counters at Peugeot took over. Also this is probably a close parallel to Lancia before Fiat.
      I envy you for having driven such a car, it’s an experience I completely lack. However, I was surprised that in Swiss Autoscout24 there are currently two Fulvia saloons for sale, and for quite reasonable prices.

    4. There´s an idea for a holiday: take a week to tour and each day test drive a car you are curious about. It´s as good an agenda as any other.
      When I looked at Autoscout I saw one car in white, a GT.

    5. That’s a very pleasant holiday idea, Richard. However, I’m always a bit reluctant to pretend interest in something I haven’t even a remote intention of buying. I feel it’s not fair, and to be honest, if I was selling a car, I wouldn’t want to spend all my evenings showing it to non-buyers.

  2. I have never driven a Lancia Fulvia Berlina, nor have I read the article you refer to.
    However, having driven both the Coupe version with Lancia’s 4 speed box (Leva lunga)
    and the later S2 with the FIAT 5 speed (Dog leg) I know what I prefer. And it is not the latter.
    At least in well worn condition the 5 speed is knobbly, and has the usual FIAT down shift resistance.
    The 4 speed on the S1, while at first a bit cumbersome with long movements, is rather precise and easy to use.
    Much the same as on the Flavia / 2000 models. The column shift I am unfamiliar with.
    For those “lucky” enough to live in Denmark. There will be amble opportunity to check out classic Lancia’s
    at “Nordisk Lancia træf” (Nordic Lancia meet) held 08-10th June 2018 at Munkebjerg hotel in Vejle.
    Where around 50 old Lancia’s will enjoy the company of each other on the parking lot, and on the roads of
    eastern Jutland.

  3. When these cars were new I had several opportunities to drive a Fulvia HF coupé from someone I knew who liked Italian sports cars.
    The Fulvia was a stark contrast to the Alfa 1750 GTV I owned at that time.
    The Lancia was light footed and agile and encouraged you to drive it fast without any negative reactions from the car. It also felt like a modern car, that being the biggest difference to the Alfa which was very old fashioned in its road manners already when it was new and was hard work to drive fast on any back road.

    From an engineer’s point of view the Fulvia is a mixed blessing. It always suffered from some mechanical restrictions resulting from using the Flavia’s front infrastructure and drivetrain from. The gearbox with its high set mainshaft (to bring the Flavia’s boxer engine up to create enough room underneath for the exhaust and oil sump) always limited the Fulvia’s under bonnet space despite of the heavily tilted engine.
    There never was enough room for a proper carburettor setup under the bonnet (on the HFs they let the bonnet stand open for one or two millimetres at the front because the big carbs otherwise wouldn’t fit) and under the engine there was never enough room for a proper performance exhaust manifold. The unequal length inlet tracts of the Fulvia V4 also made harmonic tuning of the carburettors very difficult, a problem only solved on the last competition HFs with fuel injection and equal length inlet tracts.
    The Fulvia engine also is a pretty weird design with its aluminium crankcase and head and a separate cast iron cylinder block that was used because its thin walls between bores wouldn’t have been possible with aluminium. These thin walls also are the reason for the changes in the angle between cylinders which became smaller with every increase in engine capacity because the lower ends of the bores had to be moved further apart to retain a minimum of material between them. This also makes engine overhauls extremely difficult because for any work on cylinder bores a two axis machine tool is needed as well as someone who knows what he does on such an engine with a block ruined in no time by using the wrong tools.

    1. Dave: thanks for that commentary. On the one hand it makes me really want to drive one to find out what it was like. On the other hand, the maintenance must be a challenge. It´s very interesting to hear why the car is the way it is and also that the outcome of these complications is a modern and agile driving car from five decades ago (the Trevi I tested had something of the same quality). I think I´d have to live in place where other such cars were to be found. There are Danish Lancia owners which means you can live outside the car´s normal range. These owners must be competent spannersmiths and also have access to an intelligent and helpful mechanic for bigger jobs. Lancias of this type might very well be as costly to maintain as, say, a Ferrari or Maserati. I imagine they are also very rewarding cars – they certainly fascinate me.

    2. The Fulvia’s idiosyncratic technical design details mostly are solutions to problems that are self imposed by the decision to use the Flavia’s chassis underpinnings for the new vehicle.
      The cast aluminium suspension carriers (which were already used by professore Fessia at the CEMSA Caproni) were very voluminous, the transverse leaf spring further restricted space and the new engine had to longitudinally fit into the space originally intended for the Flavia’s flat four. Therefore, the V4 had to be as compact as possible, which was duly achieved.
      The engine had a crankshaft nose pointing upwards which put the tallest part of the engine with the cam drive where you least want it, behind the bonnet’s edge, which counts for the exceptionally tall front of the saloon and the chamfered bonnet and wing line of the coupé to make room for the engine.
      The price you pay in everyday use is that the engine is nowhere as smooth as an old (properly tuned) Alfa because of its unfavourable inlet tract design. The V4 is no more difficult to maintain than any old Alfa. Problems start when major engine work is required because you face cylinder bores that are not perpendicular to the head gasket surface and therefore need machine tools able to cope with that, you have pistons where the crown doesn’t sit perpendicular to the pistion’s sleeve, you have cylinder bores whose centres don’t intersect in the centreline of the crankshaft – all making work on the separate cylinder block an excessively demanding task.
      When you do the obvious comparison with the classical Alfa four, you can immediately see that the Alfa is a race bred design with its parts count (possible number sources for defects) reduced to the absolute minimum for the architecture whereas in the Fulvia’s V4 you find solutions like the innumerable small bolts holding crankcase and cylinder block together and the strange valve gear with tappets for half its valves.

      If you have the opportunity to drive a Fulvia, try it! You will be astonished how modern this car feels and how much it encourages you to use it hard. Just like any good Italian car should be.

  4. “Are there not a pool of buyers who would pay for a compact, well-made, simple but considered car?”

    The last time they tried, it was the Lybra, a lovely car which found few buyers. Not so simple under the skin, and c €25k 18 years ago, but easy to drive well.

    The Fulvia was nice, too, despite the awkward under-bonnet arrangement caused by using the Flavia’s big subframe.

    Your Danish mag assumes coupés came before berlinas; it was always the other way round, from Aurelia to Kappa. The berlina was the bread and butter, and had to be shaken down before the coupé was attempted.

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