Il Sarto Piemontese

We compare a couture twinset from the tail-end of the GT era.

It’s an incontrovertible fact that the end of the 1960’s marked the apogee of the Gran Tourismo concept, both in design terms and in appeal to the broader swathe of the car market. Certainly by then, the choices available to the upwardly mobile individual who wanted to express their more indulgent side were of the more fecund variety. However, those who couldn’t stretch to large multi-cylinder engines or exclusive nameplates were perhaps less generously served.

Indeed, for those who favoured a less proletarian option than the one offered by Ford’s 1969 Capri, the mid-sized, mid-market choice narrowed down to two contenders from either side of the Alps, both of whom made a simultaneous debut at that year’s Geneva motorshow. This after all was a period that predated the notion that upmarket meant German. If you wanted to look the part, you’d best ensure your suitmaker was Italian.

Lancia planted their Shield and flag in this ground some years previously with the 1961 debut of the Flavia Coupé, a grand turismo variation of Antonio Fessia’s midliner. Sharing its technical felicities with that of the previous year’s berlina, the Pininfarina bodied Coupé shared a good deal of its styling theme with that of the contemporary Ferrari 250 GTE 2+2.

In 1967, the Flavia Berlina underwent a significant overhaul – which to all intents and purposes amounted to a full reskin. In Spring 1969, it was the Coupe’s turn at the scalpel, and while the outgoing car’s Pininfarina author seems lost to history, the remodelled Flavia Coupe had Tom Tjaarda’s imprint well in evidence. Taking the one-off 1963 Lancia 2800 GT Speciale as its basis, the 1969 recasting smoothed out the lines, adding a sense of visual length, while removing some of the more baroque details of the earlier car.

Proportionally, the styling suffered from excessive overhangs – partly a consequence of the overhanging flat-four sitting ahead of the axle line. However, while the revisions to the tail (while retaining a faint reflection of the first series’ cut-down tailfin motif), were broadly a success, the front end lost a good deal of the earlier version’s visual richness.

Technically, it was very much well-honed business as usual – the Flavia comporting itself in a far more impressive manner than its chassis layout might have suggested. Engine capacity was raised to 1991 cc, with or without Kugelfischer fuel injection. A four-speed transmission was standard, with an additional ratio available at extra cost.

The Flavia for some time had this section of the market to itself. Alfa Romeo’s GTV was smaller and more overtly sporting, BMW’s 2000CS, while undoubtedly a rival, was if anything, even more of an acquired taste, while Mercedes’ offering was vastly more expensive and rarefied. But across the Geneva ’69 halls, a sterner rival made its debut. Lacking Lancia’s patrician background perhaps, the Lion of Belfort nevertheless enjoyed a certain provenance, and in the 504 Berline, a fine basis.

(c) wheelsage

Indeed, the 504 was perhaps closer to what a mid-line Lancia ought to have been; rear wheel drive, with sophisticated all-round fully independent suspension, employing a laudatory degree of longitudinal compliance and embodying principles of engineering continuity that perhaps Lancia’s Dr. Fessia might have benefited from, the 504 Coupé presented a stern challenge to the Flavia’s hegemony.

It also looked the part, courtesy of the same Italian tailor. Speaking to chronicler, Antoine Prunet, former Peugeot styling chief, Gérard Welter spoke of the impact of Pininfarina’s proposal upon arrival at Sochaux. “When they unloaded the model and pushed it into the presentation room, we were all left breathless. I looked at it, and to myself I said, ‘superb!’ We studied it at length and without needing to talk it over, decided to industrialise it without any modification. It was – and still is – a really beautiful car.”

Certainly one of Pininfarina’s more elegant Sixties creations, its sobriety of line, married to items of stylistic flair lent it a highly appealing visage – certainly more so than the ever-so-slightly awkward-looking Flavia. Performance-wise, its fuel injected 1976 cc in-line four was at least a match for the Lancia. Interestingly, Pininfarina built both cars at their Grugliasco facility.

The Flavia name was discontinued in 1971 when the range was streamlined into the 2000 Berlina and Coupé, the latter gaining little of stylistic note prior to its ultimate demise in 1973/4. Unlike the Peugeot however, it was replaced – by 1976’s Gamma Coupé, again by Pininfarina, which in a neat piece of stylistic homage, saw elements of the ’69 Flavia’s tail styling reprised.

The Peugeot on the other hand, outlived the Flavia by almost a decade – the first series cars lasting until 1974, with the second series carrying on until 1979. In 1980, the car received its first significant visual change with the Pininfarina helmed addition of integrated PVC bumpers – body coloured on some versions. This wasn’t the monstrosity it might have been, but nevertheless didn’t really suit the car. In this form the 504 lived out its days before bowing to the inevitable in 1983. The Gamma scarcely lasted longer.

(c) wheelsage

Endings are not always dramatic – sometimes they simply creep up on us. It wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time, but 1969 marked, if not an ending, then the beginning of one. The GT era was passing, and with it an emphasis upon fine tailoring. Not all forward motion is progressive.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Il Sarto Piemontese”

  1. Cars like these were almost non-existent in Ireland in the 1960’s and 70’s. I well remember my excitement as a child when I would spot one, almost always a foreign visitor to the country. I would spend many minutes studying every aspect of the exotic creature in great detail, often to the annoyance of my mother.

    Even if you had the money, conservative Ireland would frown at the obvious extravagance of driving such a car, especially a coupé or convertible with the inference of batchelorhood and childlessness, states far from the ideal as promulgated by the Catholic church at the time.

    1. Ah yes, the holy mortifying shame of being seen as ‘having notions’. It’s true that cars such as these were almost unheard of in ’70s Ireland, but I do recall seeing the occasional Flavia Coupé on my visits to that hub of decadence, Dublin. The 504 Coupé however, would be entirely the preserve of the more intrepid European motor-tourist.

      We attempted to cover the whole coupé as social signifier/archetype some years back. By way of reminder….

    2. Eóin’s piece on 1970’s Ireland referenced above is a delightful read, and almost painfully insightful for those of who lived through those dismal times. After 35 years living in England, present day Ireland is a strange and unfamiliar country to me. Certainly, it has plenty of the problems now common in first-world countries, but it is an infinitely kinder and more humane place, and much more tolerant of difference and diversity than the uptight, self-righteous and suffocating country of my childhood. My partner and I driving around Dublin top-down in my Boxster back in July attracted barely a glance, and certainly no abuse!

      Apologies if I have contravened DTW’s unwritten constitution regarding political comment with the above.

    3. Ah, but Daniel you need to bear in mind that cars like this were very much beyond the pale for Ireland at the time. They were foreign for a start in a manner that the Capri was not, and even more to the point they had what would have been called high horsepower engines which was a bad thing when you are taxed on engine size. The Capri which came a little later was sold with 1.3 and 1.6 engines which were much more suited to the Irish market. A person buying a 2 litre car from a foreign and unfamiliar maker would have been very much outside the norm for the time age and would have had notions about himself.

  2. On the subject of rare and exotic coupés in 1970’s Ireland, didn’t the eponymous chief executive of P.J. Carroll and Company, the Irish cigarette manufacturer, drive a Jensen Interceptor? I remember seeing it around the more salubrious parts of Dublin (i.e. the low even-numbered postal districts) back in the day.

  3. There was one exception to the unwritten rules spoken about here by Eoin and Daniel. There were high ranking members of the Catholic Church who could drive a coupe in the ’70s without fear of social opprobrium. I hope the below link works. This bishop (who fathered a child while denouncing adultery from the pulpit) drove many sporty cars during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and according to contemporaneous accounts “didn’t hang about” whilst visiting the various parishes in his diocese.

    1. Ah yes, Bishop Casey. Even the early 70’s there were many rumours about his undue fondness for worldly pleasures, but of course everyone turned a blind eye back then.

    2. There are a good many stories surrounding ‘his grace’. Some of them are even true…

  4. Everyone knows, of course, that the 504 is the lion of Africa (sic). But the word ‘coupe’ doesn’t often feature as part of that description. When I was based in Kigali for a while some years back, there was a magnificent 504 coupe used as a daily by someone who – I believe – worked at the Dutch embassy there. I saw it on a number of occasions and it never provided anything less than spiritual uplift. A touch of 124 Coupe influence above the beltline, to be sure, but rather more sophisticated in its handling of the DLO details, as was appropriate for the price. It would have made a nice pair with the Vel Satis I saw in the city centre, once.

    My phone reminds me that the last time I spied a 504 convertible was outside the Milan Motorvillage in mid-2016, having picked up my rental car and become hopelessly lost amongst the stream of roundabouts and ZTL signs that populate that particular part of Lombardy. As a rule of thumb I tend to prefer coupes to convertibles, but the 504 is one of the few exceptions – it really is a stunner, even with the top up the proportions are just about spot-on. The rear view on these is especially lovely – slim chrome bumpers, tail-lights strangely reminiscent of Fiat’s later parallelogram emblem, and a single, discreet, beautifully-detailed ‘injection’ badge.

    I have often found that, surprisingly, I find it relatively easy to subscribe to the notion of “One shall not covet thy neighbour’s wheels”. This has nothing whatsoever to do with diktats from on high, and rather a lot to do with the fact that the Stradale current account runs a persistent-enough deficit as it is without extra burden. As such, I am more than happy to look while other people touch, and spend. But just occasionally, a car will come along that causes me to waver in my faith. Some years ago, I knew of a beautifully-kept dark green 2000 Coupe in Sydney, and always thought it would be a wonderful thing to have. What should pop up this week…

    What a wonderful piece of art-deco door trim that is! And if a man ever stops appreciating pea soup green carpet, what, truly, is there to live for? It’s just as well the price is out of my reach, otherwise I might be tempted to do something sensible, by which I mean idiotic.

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