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