As the crisis-torn Lybra programme came under microscopic scrutiny, longstanding Lancia engineer Bruno Cena took responsibility for its salvation.
Cena, a talented engineer who came to mainstream attention for his work on the dynamic setup of the Alfa Romeo 156, was a self-described ‘Uomo Lancia’ from way back. Joining Fiat in the early 1970s, he had moved to Lancia in 1978, working under Ing. Camuffo on the initial stages of the Type Four project.
Appointed head of four-wheel drive development for the marque in 1984, he was promoted to head of Lancia development two years later, and given responsibility for vehicle testing across Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo in 1991. In October 1996, he was made Fiat Auto’s ‘D-platform’ director – just in time to be handed the task of rescuing Lancia’s new sedan from market oblivion.
Initially, Lancia had planned for the car to take advantage of the suspension development already undertaken for the 156, on a third-generation development of the Tipo platform dubbed ‘Type 2 revision 3’. However, part of the car’s development pause saw the decision taken to develop an all-new rear suspension in just 14 months, aimed at providing superior ride comfort.
Engineers devised what was termed a ‘bracci longitudinali guidati’ (BLG), or guided longitudinal arm, rear suspension. This consisted of a transverse beam fixed to the floor, to which attached jointed transverse arms. These were mounted near the car’s longitudinal axis, reducing camber change compared to a traditional strut setup. Forward of these were broad trailing arms made of aluminium, connecting fore and aft to the floorplan and hub carriers. Non-co-axial spring and damper units and an anti-roll bar completed the expensively-developed picture.
Characterised by Lancia as a new-generation multi-link system, its geometry allowed for an element of (then-in-vogue) passive steering, while carefully-calibrated bushings enabled an enhanced element of compliance. It also provided the additional benefit of compactness. Unlike the related 156, the Lybra’s front suspension employed struts, but again, the use of more elaborate bushings and mountings allowed for a more sophisticated, more compliant setup.
However, there was a problem. Unlike in the case of the Alfa GTV/Spider, which had seen the basic Tipo trailing arms ditched in development in favour of an alternative multi-link arrangement, there was no simple way to mount the new rear setup (the axle in the Alfa sporties’ case had been designed to fix to the chassis via an aluminium subframe, attached via expedient use of the existing Tipo suspension pick-up points).
Said Cena: “[The new rear suspension impacted] the entire structural part of the car, forcing us to redesign the floor and body in the rear area and also the front end, which was to house modified MacPherson [struts] to put them in tune with the rear BLGs.”
Why struts for the front end, rather than the Alfa’s double-A-arms? “The front suspension with [wishbones] is the most suitable for a model of sporting vocation and particularly aggressive steering like the 156,” Cena observed. “For the Lybra, characterised by a higher balance between performance and comfort, the MacPherson is certainly better.”
“We have also perfected this scheme in the specific implementation for the Lancia. As in the rear suspension, we also took care of the comfort in the front by giving the wheel a controlled backward movement when the tyre hits [a bump] and, let’s say, ‘climbs’ on a rough road: [in so doing it] softens the jolt and the vertical forces transmitted to the body are attenuated. The slight retreat of the wheel is permitted by the lower arm of the MacPherson, thanks to its articulation on a bush that is not only elastic but also hydraulically damped, as if it were a tiny spring-shock absorber accessory itself. We have also moved the wheel centre forward, thus increasing the angle of incidence, or castor, up to a value of 3.5 degrees: in this way the entire multi-shock absorber system, inclined forward in-line with the upright, helps to dampen the wheel back on the obstacle.”
Cena emphasised that the Lybra was developed to focus on ‘balanced’ performance in the Lancia tradition, not the overtly-soft character it was sometimes portrayed as retaining.
“Due to the very characteristics of the MacPherson, the steering of the Lybra certainly has a not-so-immediate response to small steering wheel inputs as the ‘sporty’ one of the 156: it is deliberately more traditional, progressive, for less challenging and more comfortable driving. However, it is still ready, precise, and compared to the competition, it is more direct: it has a ratio of 60 mm / revolution, against an average of 50, and the system is 2.5 turns lock-to-lock (compared to 2.25 for the 156).”
(In the third and final part, we examine the stylistic somersaults the Lybra underwent en route to production, and surmise upon its commercial fate.)
Credits and sources – see part 3.