The Big Reveal/Confirmation

It seems unfair to keep you on tenterhooks so I have decided to reveal/confirm the identity of today’s mystery car.

Lancia Fulvia nameplate

It is, of course, a Lancia Fulvia saloon, produced from 1963 to 1976 which really is a very long time indeed. The Fulvia was still good when it ceased production but the market’s tastes had changed. While everyone adores the admittedly perky, perty and pretty Fulvia Coupé, and many like the odd Zagato derivatives, I hold a candle for the austere and formal saloon, attributed to Piero Castagnero at Lancia’s Centro Stile. This and a few other cars suggested to me that if you want to understand car design in general, think of tailoring as a metaphor.

The Fulvia is properly detailed and the parts so carefully related to one another that the car possesses a quiet, resonant dignity. Having a chance to see one so close is a rare treat and when you do so you see that it is not necessary to lard a car with features or even to imbue it with a great deal of luxury to make it feel very special. Rather harder than adding 30 more bits of equipment and leather and wood is adding consideration and thought.

I think the sensibility that drove the creation of this car is utterly extinct and has been since 1976. And the car has no analogue today: a thoroughly refined, carefully assembled, excellent and modest machine whose emotional satisfaction comes from its rationalism. Perhaps the Subaru Impreza has something of that sufficiency or maybe the higher spec saloon versions of the Focus, Astra and Megane might be close in some ways.

And yet, to again cite David Pye, there is useless work all over the Fulvia, to show that the car’s form has been subject to care and attention. I particularly like the corner where the front wing meets the leading edge of the bonnet. There’s a small crest on the wing’s upper edge. Part of that corner is part of a perfect sphere with lead-in curvature forming the transition to the areas around it. This was formed by hand and eye and not a curvature fence in sight. It’s immaculate and pressed beautifully too.

Cast metal headlamp bezel

Consider the cast alloy headlamp surround. That could easily have been made of chromed stamped tin; Lancia decided that would not do, not precise enough. The interior has something of the robust comfort of good public transport (I live in Denmark so that is not an insult) which I associate with the Toyota Century. The luxury comes from knowing the vehicle is hard-wearing, fit for purpose, extra-sufficient as opposed to merely plush.

Lancia Fulvia saloon

In addition to all of that static pleasure is the fact the car drove very well indeed. The engines ranged from a little over 1.0 to eventually 1.6 litres, the weird narrow angle V engines being of considerable renown. At the front were a single leaf spring and wishbones; at the back leaf springs and a Panhard rod and beam axle. This delivered a refined ride and handling compromise in line with the car’s calm character.

What might be so captivating for me about the Fulvia is that it is a car created by a fusion of romanticism and rationalism. It is romantic because it there is needless beauty covering the car like kisses and rational because there is a sufficiency blended to excellence.

Nothing is superficial. The engineering solutions such as the front-wheel drive configuration and narrow angle V suggest adventure and the proportions and materials suggest formal conservatism. Which is it? You can never say for sure because the Fulvia is point, counterpoint.

Author: richard herriott

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

33 thoughts on “The Big Reveal/Confirmation”

  1. Impressive spotting by Simon D. I wouldn’t recognise the underside of my own car, never mind any other one!

  2. They are lovely cars. The last one with the same intent was the Lybra.
    The Flavia was similarly understated, and the Kappa was the last one like that (and k Coupés were largely hand-made.)

    1. Might I suggest the Bora of about 1998 or 1998, the very austere one. That strikees me as good and sufficient but not excessive and it makes a point of being restrained.

  3. I believe the ‘cast alloy surround’ is in fact made of stainless steel. At least that’s what a Lancia enthusiast once told me.

  4. Richard, for me, your second photo above of the rear door, door handle and C-pillar perfectly captures the careful precision of the design (and execution). It’s simply lovely and I absolutely understand what you mean when you draw a distinction between the real luxury it exemplifies and what passes for luxury these days; chintzy plushness and an overload of gadgetry.

    1. Indeed. I am always impressed by well-handled curvature. The blend between the upper part of the DLO surround and the part on the C-pillar is what they call “sweet”. All the elements are in harmony and they seem to have neatly handled the junctions too. This is lovely tailoring. If I was running a design studio I would send me team out to document things like this and try to learn the underlying values that make this car simple and good. Notice that the thinner band of chrome at the bottom of the windows is echoed or continued optically by a little crease in the thicker chrome top and left.

  5. Here’s an example of how not to handle the same area, on the Phantom VIII, no less:

    The brightwork is rather heavy-handed, but the detail that annoys me is the thin strip of brightwork above the rear quarter window disappearing under the thicker section at the window’s trailing edge. The Phantom VII had a more coherent and rational resolution, as this comparative photo shows:

    1. They walked themselves carefully into that problem, didn´t they? I am trying to imagine what the desired effect was on the revised car: more glass and less brighwork on the C-pillar edge.
      We are into the realms of tailoring: how to find neat solutions to the arrangement of parts. It´s not about creativity so much as something deeper related to topology.
      There are a couple of cars which have had problems with brightwork and body-coloured trim and glass. I was surprised to see it on the Rolls and even more surprised that the orginal version is fine and the revision is problematic.

    2. Giles Taylor was adamant that he’d created a more ‘casual, elegant’ car than the previous Phantom (which I always believed to be Ghost’s mission statement, but there you go…). To me, it’s just a lot more fussy – as exemplified by the brightwork – and a lot less assured a piece of design than its predecessor.

      I think the one area that gives us some idea of what they tried to achieve is the rear, which has slight Daimler DS420 undertones from some angles. Whether that’s a good thing is anyone’s individual choice.

  6. Having looked properly at the comparative photos above and below, that errant bit of brightwork is the least of the new Phantom’s problems, IMHO. The stance is odd: the ultra-short front overhang makes the car look tail heavy and it seems to be sitting very low on its wheels, as though the air suspension needs pumping up.

    The front end of the new model looks just too brutal, tall and cliff-like, despite the increased rearward rake of the grille. The grille itself looks like a pastiche, now that it no longer has any depth at its sides. Also, the higher positioning of the door handles on the previous model looks somehow more appropriately positioned for ease of use by the chauffeur or doorman at the Dorchester.

    Positives for the new model? The wheel arch treatment looks sharper and more in keeping with the angularity of the overall design theme than the “soft” wheel arches on the previous model, which now look rather old fashioned. Otherwise, I’m struggling.

    1. If you look at some of the design sketches, it becomes clearer that Taylor and his team tried to combine sheer planes (on the side) with delicate graphical elements (like the chrome whiskers on the lower front grille). This lends this Phantom its massive, yet strangely brittle stance, which I find rather unappealing – and isn’t helped by that ‘malfunctioning air suspension’ effect Daniel just pointed out.

      The grille has also lost its sharp edge – again supposedly lending it casual elegance -, further adding to this impression of lack of composure.

      The two dipping character lines, on the other hand, are very ‘BMW Group anno 2018’, as they appear to be a case of change for change’s sake – the new 3 series is even more confused in this regard. Did they think they’d achieve something Citroen CX-like with this?

  7. The headlamp surround is plastic. The metal coating had lifted in spots, so it was rubbed down and painted

  8. In those days, a premium price meant a premium product, the perceived quality was very much real, as you could see where the money went, there was an objective difference in the product. Today, there’s really no objective difference in production quality between a Mercedes S-Class and a Hyundai, all cars are made more or less to the same standard these days. And there’s a disconnect between real and perceived quality, because the perceived quality is not in the product but in the brand cachet. Branding is more important these days than what is being branded, that’s why Porsche makes a $30000 profit on every Cayenne, because that’s the price difference to the Touareg and the cars are made on the same factory line. But it can not be only me that misses the very real quality of the Lancia? What is the Lancia of today, where the 30% markup goes into the product and not the bling? Is there even such a car today, or are they all gone?

    1. I agree, it is indeed where the catch is with the industry and its dominant market approach: earlier, certain makes (which are now premium, as a result) used to simultaneously offer true engineering, true design and true build – as opposed to a largely kitsch-Platonic, macquette-like “product blueprinting” that’s the norm today even in so-called premium brands’ offerings.

      Nowadays, the so-called ‘genuinely premium’ buyer is usually humiliated in his/hers quest for product sincerity, and is instead rather forced to choose among the scarcity of the following:

      A) true build and true engineering (7-figure priced cars only)
      B) true design and true engineering (rare at any price category)
      C) true design and true build (even rarer).

      There’s a particularly vicious circle that seems to have started in the late 90s, and which now results in 80-90% of all buyers’ groups being obsessed solely with the brand cachet (and the social benefits it brings), and not really caring the tiniest bit about depth of engineering, build or styling purity. Suffice to say, this goes hand-in-hand with the anachronistic “my (XYZ) is longer/bigger than yours” state of mind, that created the recent sizing bloat (which didn’t help at all the above phenomena, btw.).

      I find that these trends are strongly linked to the overarching increase in the avg.price of the automotive product, that started in the late 90s, and which, by 2004-2005 roughly, turned around its principal societal role – from a, dominantly, basic transportation need, into a powerful, strategically important symbol of one’s social-status individuality,
      a foolishly explicit measure of his/hers perceived socio-economic competence.

      Throughout the 20th century, with very little fluctuation thereto, the above aspect was a function of the luxury vehicles (10-15% of the market share). Nowadays, it’s almost the polar opposite: only roughly 10-15% of the models offered (if not exactly in market share terms)
      are catering to the authentic, genuinely basic transport needs of the population, whereas everything else is ‘pretense of normality’ (eg.Golf) hiding underneath a strong social-class-specific status boosting effect it brings. Here comes into play the sizing bloat we faced in roughly the same era : as we all know, a Polo 9R is really a far bigger car, physically, than, say, a Mk1 Audi A3.. Or thereabouts with the Golf Mk4 – which tells a lot).

      This must be the prevalent reason behind the superficial, shallow engineering and/or lack of competent build that can be found in today’s premium offerings. It all began with the vulgar (from an aesthetically inspired engineering point of view) notion of a platformated vehicle development, where the bean-counters’ are on top of the development chain. Somewhere along the line, they found out that whatever pennies the platform-approach saves, will be much more effectively used as an ATL investment, turning it all into hype-driven bursts of vague trendiness.

      To illustrate the scarcity of technical content that’s flooding us:
      I was recently (2-3 yrs ago) appalled when trying out a very desirable, higher-end sedan of a premium brand, and found out that, on egress from the driver’s seat, the seat is actually placed so much inwards from the sill, that there’s no way to exit the car without staining your trousers on the dirty, outermost part of the sill. A cheap approach
      to tackling side-impact regs? Perhaps. It turned out that you cannot wear light-coloured trousers in a premium motorcar anymore.
      I was flabbergasted.

      And there are many more examples out there.

      The general public (not only automotive) is increasingly embracing Platonic train of “thought”, in their prioritisation of perceived values.

      This cannot be that bad in itself – it’s just inconsolably tragic for those
      of us who admire engineering as it once was.

    2. I have drunken too much sect at this wonderful dinner to counter all your arguments, but I thank you for your eloquent reply to my post. But I have this to say about my pet peeve:

      “To illustrate the scarcity of technical content that’s flooding us:”

      Goose neck hinges. Really. Goose neck hinges on the rear deck of an S-Class or a Phantom. Only ten years ago mere plebian makers like Volvo or Audi managed to engineer their own intricate solution to hinges of a luggage compartment and make them both technically and space efficient. Not so anymore when anyone and everybody uses goose neck hinges on cost reason alone. And I can not and will not believe Mercedes and Rolls Royce had to suffice with an inferior product because they couldn’t afford the extra cost of a better solution. They could’ve spent the extra hundred euro but they choose not to, and that is the difference what people perceive as quality and what real quality actually is.

    3. Oh, what a beautiful discussion this has sparked!

      Perceived vs. real quality, how very postmodern to make this distinction in the first place, and how hollowly shareholder-value driven to prioritize the former over the latter. I have come to find the notion of “perception [being] reality” short-sighted, ill-founded and dangerous. In the end, only reality is reality, which is its very definition.

      What arguments can we back the call for a comeback of the honest approach with, where high perceived quality is achieved by high actual quality? And where a car is more than the sum of its gimmicks?

      Three (mass market) cars from the past two decades come to my (small) mind which I think might stand for the “honest way” of engineering cars:
      1) The Audi A2 (engineering first, the true “Mercedes” of small cars in the way the 190 was, and the the A-Class was not)
      2) The BMW i3 (of course not in a subtle Lancia Fulvia sort of way, but an engineering-lead design that feels thorough through and through, especially on the interior)
      3) The Lexus LC 500, that unfortunately I have not had a chance to sit in but that from what I have heard about it, appears to have the kind of interior quality you would expect from a modern day S-Class, where instead you find aluminum coloured plastic applications on the steering wheel that squeak when squished and save a maximum of 15€ per car, if even. (Yes, the Lexus may be unnecessarily large, I know, but from a quality perspective, it might be the remaining holy grail of the late 20teens…)

      (I’d be happy to include the aforementioned Subaru Legacy here as well…)

      Unfortunately all of these three cars have been punished particularly harshly by the court of the consumer. Why, oh why, dear consumer, will you chose to be cheated like this?

      Regardless, I am still hoping for a new electric car brand to pop up (somewhere in Europe preferably) that will take a stand for the old engineering values of automotive design. A European version of Tesla so to speak. I would volunteer to become a part of suche venture in a second. Anybody else?

    4. Max: The first part of your message raises a few points or perhaps suggests ideas spinning aorund each other so fast they are blurred. That´s not a criticism of your message but an obsvervation about 1) perception and 2) quality.
      Dealing with “pereception is reality”. That idea lives in the world of politics (as I understand it) and is taken to mean that the way something is understood is important even if the way it is understood does not correlate with reality. In p0litics this *ought* to mean that a stakeholder should take people´s views seriously and not forget that the treatment of an issue must not only be correct but must be seen to be correct. The possible flipside of this is that some stakeholders think that *being seen to be correct* is adequate or even all that matters.

      Turning to car design, the cynical approach is that the product should *look* okay even if *looking okay* defeats a deeper, more worthwhile objective.

      Lancia at one stage figured that doing a good job would be the best argument for making their priorties about deep quality and appropriate design. No, it´s not. It is a start. The customer must be told why the car is the way it is too.
      Depressingly, the cynical customer will view that as pre-emptive excuse-making.

      Part 2.
      Perceived quality was not, I suspect, supposed to imply a priority over actual or deep or fundamental quality. I think the notion was a way to communicate that the product´s appearance of quality supported the fundamental quality.
      “What´s the poing of having a great gearbox and tough chassis if the interior trim seemed (though wasn´t) wobbly?” runs the rhetoric about perceived quality. That mode of thinking leads journalists to tap bits of trim one never touches to see if it´s soft. Ford (in my view correctly) and Peugeot often reasoned that it was better to spend money on fundamental stuff than waste it on superficial things like cloth-covered D-pillars and slush mouldings where they were not touched or seen much. They kept getting a kicking for it. Subaru thinks this way too, as far as I know, and keeps getting a kicking by dunderheads who forget Subaru doesn´t care about image and nor do the customers (lack of image is part of the wierd appeal of the cars).

    5. Richard: you make a skillfully ambiguous statement about your perceived quality of my post. I appreciate it. (In accordance with DTW best practice I forgo the opportunity to employ an emoticon blinking an eye)

      Excuse me if I blended a few ideas into a thought frappucino that may not have been very digestible. What I mean to say is the following:

      Drastically over-simplifying it, to me, the quintessence of postmodern epistemology is this: There is no objective reality. There only are subjective perceptions of it.

      In my version of reality there is no doubt that this is true. What the implications of it should be, is, however, less clear.

      What I believe shouldn’t be an implication, is for this to be used as an excuse, to confuse a first impression with all there is, which some people abuse the “perception is reality” statement to. That I reject. Perception is a choice.

      (Also from a logical standpoint, I find the statement of “perception being reality” flawed: Because if perception was reality, and reality was perception, then distinguishing between the two becomes impossible. I do think we should keep distinct concepts for both, because otherwise we lose the ability to speak about a reality that might exist beyond our perception. I realize this cannot have been clear from my above thought frappucino.)

      We do live in postmodern times. The car industry reflects this. As Al Pinaweiß very eloquently pointed out in the above post, I also perceive that since the 1990s cars have more and more become devices to project a carefully designed, supposed reality (about their owner?) to the outside world, rather than first and foremost being an carefully engineered and honest machine to transport people and their belongings from A to B in a safe, reliable, comfortable, elegant way.

      Of course, both is true. But the latter, I think, is what us (contemplative) enthusiasts appreciate more than the former. At least I do. The honesty, the purity, the adequacy of something that is very thoroughly designed for as noble a purpose as transportation, is what to me, in a Bauhaus sort of way, constitutes one of the highest forms of (man made) beauty.

      The Lancia Fulvia has loads of this beauty. A current Mercedes S Class Coupé doesn’t. Because it’s designed from the outside to the inside, with the intended perception becoming the design principle. The emotion evoking qualities are engineered to behave exactly the way they do. The sound, the smell, the look of it. It does not have a life of its own because the perception it is meant to create is so deliberate. It very intentionally manipulates us. It’s pop. But to me, that is a much lesser form of beauty, maybe rather a form of entertainment. To me, that is post modernism gone wrong.

      My realization, inspired by Ingvar’s and Al Pinaweiß’s posts was how this post modern approach to reality, had found its way into automotive design. I hope this is remotely making sense to anybody other than me.

      I truly enjoy and appreciate this discussion.

    6. Max: Thank you for that interesting clarification.

      In my haste I forgot to distinguish between what I thought the world was like and what others thought the world was like.

      I was discussing the point of view of (some) others, those who deal in statements like “perception is reality”. You are right that we need to distinguish between the two concepts a) perception and b) reality, as in the world outside our heads.

      The aphorism “perception is reality” is, I suspect, not meant to be a philosophical proposition (as unambiguous as possible) but more a poetic one (full of ambiguity). It can be unpacked thus: “the way people perceive X is very important even if the perception of X is incomplete, inaccurate or wholly wrong so we must make sure that people´s perception of X is as close to correct as X as we can make it; it is not enough to dismiss people´s perception of X because one thinks it is wrong.” The statement “perception is reality” also can be taken to mean “just because perception is a subjective state does not mean people are not actually experiencing something”. Perhaps it ought to have been written as “perceptions really matter”.

      I like it when an article on a nice old car leads to the word “epistemology” being used. Post-Modernism seems to have been a way to render it impossible for bad people to make truth claims e.g. “all the glasses-wearers are evil, we must kill them”. A lot of bad things happened because people attached too much importance to beliefs that were not true and also because some people claimed to have special insights or special access to the truth.

      The argument runs as: If we all have access to our own kind of truth then we are dignified and also all protected from bad people´s special, over-riding claims to truth. The problem is that post-modernism also means it is hard to call something a lie. We need to be able to make a truth claim, that something is a lie, but can not do so. I say X is a lie and you don´t. We are both entitled to our beliefs about reality, so the argument runs.

      If I am not allowed to claim a belief is true and I am unable also to argue against lies. That was what was corrosive about post-Modern relativism. In saying no-one can claim their description of reality is true we also lose the possibility to describe reality. Effectively “reality” evaporates into 7 billion different, equally valuable and equally value-less versions.

      I can´t even claim there is one reality out there, let alone say what it is like.

      Lancias may or may not be nice cars, who is to say?

    7. Richard: Yes, I don’t think we are very far apart now in our perceptions of this discussion now.

      “Perceptions really matter” is an excellent way to sum up the implications of post moder intersubjectivity. And I also agree that post modern thought is the right reaction to the totalitarian catastrophes of the past century.

      The “everybody is right in their own world” dilemma is, of course, best not to be taken to the extreme . We can still influence, inform and inspire each other perceptions, which constantly evolve and – after all – are not diametrically opposed in most cases. There still are competing ideas of right and wrong as there always have been, our arguing for and against them has maybe become more informed by knowing, that we have to take the individual perceptions into account.

      To loop it back to cars: Our dear automotive manufacturers have understood this very well and have hence started to very deliberately cater to what they perceive to be our perception (which is in turn how we expect others to perceive us and our new Bentley Bentayga).

      For some of us, that just won’t do. But who says we are not the spearhead of the next automotive design trend? I would be so bold as to proclaim that in the dialectic of automotive design, with death of the internal combustion engine, we are at a dawn of a new era, that may in a post post modern sort of way be more “honest” again in the above mentioned way. I remain an optimist.

  9. Is this the opportune time to reveal that while I’ve heard of and occasionally seen the Fulvia coupé, the existence of the saloon was a thing completely unknown to me until this moment?

    1. DP it´s always great to learn about something new, I feel.
      John: I presume you are associated with the car somehow. So, to be clear, those lamp surrounds: are they plastic then? Impressive mouldings then.

  10. Yes. It’s my car. Those headlamp surrounds are plastic. I removed them to convert the headlamps to LHD. The “plating” had bubbled in spots, so I painted them. The interior is the original vinyl.
    I am lucky to also own a coupe.
    The Berlina has a charm of it’s own that is very difficult to explain. There are little design touches that make you smile. For example, the support rod for the bonnet is spring loaded so that it can be closed with one hand. The door latch mechanism has a spring that pushes the door slightly ajar when you press the release button. Beautiful engineering and indeed needless to a point, but vital to attract someone to what is a pretty mundane looking saloon.

    1. You might think your Fulvia Berlina “mundane-looking”; to me it’s a little jewel.
      Lancia followed their preferred postwar practice of making a berlina first, only later producing a coupé version: Aurelia, Flaminia, Flavia, Kappa. Pity there was no Lybra coupé (but it didn’t sell well enough anyway).

      The two clever details you describe weren’t put on any Flavia I’ve seen, although in other ways they were kind of miniature Rolls-Royces: having Reverse opposite First was a boon when parking, but I know of no modern car which does this, when they easily could.

    2. Good morning, John. I have to agree with Vic: your Fulvia saloon is anything but mundane. It’s quiet formality is a delight to behold. Sadly, this quality is now largely extinct in automotive design, where brash “look at me” showiness prevails instead, especially amongst the so-called “premium” brands. If I saw your car on the street, I would spend many happy minutes studying it in detail. Thank you for looking after it and making the automotive landscape a bit more pleasurable for us.

  11. Unfortunately, a few days after that photo was taken, the head gasket failed. I will be rebuilding it, but it will take time. It had been off the road for a good portion of it’s life, so even with only 25 thousand miles on the engine, time took it’s toll.
    I was very disappointed, but at least it will be reliable with modern gaskets.

    1. John, I have some old Fulvia valvegear knocking around if you want to fettle that too as a break from arduous head work.

  12. The nearest “unshowy” car I can consider is the 206/207, before all that bullyboy x00x started. They sold 5 million, so something about them must be all right.

  13. “John, I have some old Fulvia valvegear knocking around if you want to fettle that too as a break from arduous head work”.

    All parts are welcome. I have a large selection of fulvia bits in stock, and there are 6 coupes in the lancia club running and roadworthy. There are a few more in various stages of restoration.

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