Fontana a Tre Vie

Lancia’s idiosyncratic Beta Tre Volumi turns 40.

Image: Ran When Parked
Image: (c) Ran When Parked

This article first appeared on 3 February 2017.

The Lancia Trevi is an unusual car, not simply because it was and remains an intriguing one to behold. For one thing it may well be the only car that began life as a fastback saloon (with a separate boot compartment), and ended it as a three-volume version. There have been innumerable saloon from hatchback conversions (and vice-versa), but a saloon from a saloon?

It’s clear that the Trevi was a stopgap. By right, Lancia should have readied an all-new replacement by then, but that failed to materialise. Of course lengthy production runs were by no means unusual either for Lancia or within the sprawling Fiat Auto grouping they had become an unwilling hostage to. Couple this with a crisis both of confidence and managerial competence which afflicted the entire Fiat Auto group in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo, to say nothing of Fiat’s inability to absorb the Lancia business and it’s easy to see why the Beta series was allowed to soldier on so long.

Nevertheless it’s interesting that Fiat were prepared to sanction such an extensive reworking of the car for this, it’s third and final iteration. The Beta had been in production since 1972 and had been very thoroughly revised both technically and stylistically some three years later, but some argued that what a revised version really needed was the hatchback its body style appeared to suggest.

However, one has to look at Lancia’s customer base who undoubtedly favoured a more traditional line (not that they entirely got that). Regardless, by the close of the decade most manufacturers were moving away from the two volume silhouette which had proved so popular for a time, back to a three volume template. This could be read as a rejection of ’70s modernism, so to an extent the Zeitgeist was with them.

Yet by retaining the fastback berlina alongside, Lancia were also hedging their bets. A more pragmatic decision might have been to have abandoned the older design along with its troubled back-story. Although the Trevi was closely related to the Beta, it shared few external body pressings with the exception of doors, bonnet and front wings, so it represented both a break with recent past but also a reforging of links with the patrician Lancia saloons of old.

Perhaps another reason for the retention of the Berlina was to allow for the range to be tiered, with the cheaper fastback model allowing the upmarket and more executive tre-volumi to appeal to customers who baulked at the larger Gamma’s appearance and mechanical fragility. Certainly, with the Trevi, Lancia moved the model line considerably closer to its larger stablemate both in prestige and pricing, especially given the flagship 2.5 litre Gamma was essentially taxed out of its native market.

Pininfarina was retained as styling consultant for the third series Beta, having (it’s believed) previously re-worked the second series car. However, third series revisions to the existing berlina exterior were purely cosmetic. No mention is made of direct involvement with the Trevi. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest there may have been.

Speaking to Motor magazine’s Philip Turner in 1984, former Lancia styling chief, Mario Maioli stated that when he joined in 1977, there was no Lancia styling function, work being entirely subcontracted to outside consultants. Maioli went on to say that Pininfarina was commissioned to design the restyled shield grille which was adopted across the range, first seen on the third series Beta.

But if Pininfarina had no involvement with the Trevi’s exterior style, would Maioli had sufficient time to muster a cohesive styling team, develop the theme and still allow sufficient lead times for tooling and production engineering? Of course it could have been carried out by centro stile Fiat, but why split the workload?

In RHD markets, the Trevi effectively replaced the Beta berlina, and while the latter remained on the pricelists until spring 1983, very few were sold. The Beta name was irreparably tainted by the rather sensationalist reporting of the corrosion issues that affected some first and second series models. History states that this factor alone was responsible for the model’s subsequent sales slide, but contemporary evidence suggests this might be somewhat one dimensional.

Lancia posted a sobering 56.6 % sales fall over the first seven months of 1980, which many viewed as being a direct result of the Beta scandal. However, delving further we find that during the summer of 1979, Lancia’s UK importers were hit by the combined effects of two successive price rises and a massive VAT increase thereby making an already dated (and tainted) model 20% more expensive. Couple this with the autumn announcement of the 1980 model year Beta/Trevi models and the position takes on a somewhat different countenance.

With domestic and LHD markets being given priority, it wasn’t until the autumn of 1981 that the RHD Trevi (and Delta) actually landed in what had once been Lancia’s biggest export market. It’s little wonder that sales never recovered, notwithstanding any subsequent buyer resistance to the tre volumi. Added to this was a palpable sense that the UK press expected something more from Lancia by then – the Beta having had its day, to some extent.

Nevertheless, it didn’t prevent around 40,000 being sold over the model’s relatively brief lifespan. By autumn 1984 the Trevi was gone, cleared to make way for the Thema – the car which was intended to replace both it (in 2.0 litre form at least) and the unloved Gamma berlina. The lower end of the Trevi lineup was subsequently represented by the Delta-derived Prisma, a product derived from a model a class below.

There’s little doubt that by 1984 the Trevi was a dated proposition, but it doesn’t change the fact that once again, UK Lancia dealers were left with nothing to sell in the lucrative 2.0 litre executive sector until the Thema arrived in RHD form a good twelve months later.

There’s reason to suspect that the UK press may have been prejudiced against the car. Re-reading contemporary reports illustrates that their conclusions were largely formed by an inability to see beyond the polarising appearance and radical interior. What isn’t as clear is whether those views were reflected in other European markets, or indeed its homeland.

(c) wheelsage

What was the Trevi then? A quixotic attempt to recapture a lost market, a futile stab at reconnecting with a disenchanted customer base, or a well engineered, thoughtfully specified and bravely idiosyncratic act of expediency – the best Lancia could summon, given their plight?

Dismissed from day one as a wilfully odd aberration, maybe it’s possible now to understand its left of centre charm. A car whose rectitude and sobriety was matched only by its defiant otherness. Flawed and wildly uneven in so may many ways it may be, but the Lancia casts a compelling spell across the decades. Perhaps it’s time the Trevi came in from the cold.

Not enough Lancia in your life? Read more here.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

51 thoughts on “Fontana a Tre Vie”

  1. Your article makes it really clear the Prisma was not a worthy successor to the Trevi nor the Thema quite right either. I see the Trevi in the BMW 3-series range and the Thema more 5-sized. While I like the Thema in isolation it seems clear that the elan of the Beta and Trevi had been snuffed out.
    It’s a sign of the times that a pristine Prisma is a bit enticing.

    1. It’s probably not a clear-cut as that. As I pointed out in the Gamma saga, the Beta was an odd size – probably a legacy of its origins. Too big really to directly replace the Fulvia, and too small to replace the Flavia series, it was neither fish nor fowl dimensionally speaking. Realistically, the Prisma was probably closer in size to an E30 3-Series – Lancia’s contemporary advertising in fact made an overt comparison. The second series Prisma was a notably better car than its predecessor, especially once power steering was made available – it was according to the gentlemen of the press an essential option. However, it was never a terribly sophisticated vehicle – a Trevi by comparison felt a more expensively wrought car. As regards the Thema, it was intended as a direct replacement for the Gamma, but if it mopped up residual Trevi owners who hadn’t by then switched to the similarly sized and equally arresting Alfa 75, then all to the good.

      Nevertheless, I always felt the Beta/Trevi size was very much a sweet spot for Lancia. Compact, yet spacious. I remember the interior of a second series Beta feeling vast. Okay, I was a little smaller in the late 1970’s but still…

      If I have by the way inadvertently sowed the seeds for another Lancia-related obsession on your part Richard, I can only apologise. Both to you and to our readership – but especially to the latter.

  2. The decline in UK sales prior to the Daily Mirror getting involved is noteworthy, but I wouldn’t underplay the lingering effects of the rust story in influencing press perceptions, and public attitudes as a result. There’s a momentum and groupthink that builds around these things – and a willingness to chase blood in the water. Once you’re in a downward spiral it takes a lot to pull yourself out, since without very active and prominent pushback, the narrative quickly perpetuates itself. Getting out of such a death spiral is not impossible, but it takes bold moves and committed management. (So in hindsight, we can say that Lancia was inevitably and definitively doomed in the UK.)

    Maioli’s statement about there not being a separate Lancia design department is interesting – I hadn’t read that. I wonder how much is fact and how much is a question of interpretation – the presence of designers not necessarily organised within a formal department, for instance. But it’s worth noting that the initial Beta berlina was attributed to Gianpaolo Boano at Fiat Centro Stile.

    1. The rust business is such a drag. Yes, Lancia made a single mistake (bad steel) into a serious disaster. The subsequenct cars returned to class competitive thereafter. The public, I like to think has only a limited space for knowledge. Collectively it seems as if: Austria – dodgy wine; Ireland – terrorists (or alcoholics), Lancia – rust; Italy – rust; America – Cadillac. And so on. This is not my view but what I think the general view is based on a sort of generalised cretinous public. I´d rather not keep linking the two things. People have got over Skoda´s tricky period. I´d like to talk about the rest of the car´s character. And when I think Thema I think “torsional rigidity problems” and “torque steer”. The Trevi is a more solid car (like the equivalent BMW 316).

  3. In 1982 Motor gave a particularly good review of the Trevi´s ride and handling. The comments about the ride were especially shining. Naturally, they hated the dashboard.

    I´ve had a thought that the only real problem with the IP is that fit from the main part to the part at the radio. If Bellini had been allowed to make a one-piece mask it could have been positioned to cover the fascia before the steering wheel went on. Small clips would have done the securing. We´ll never know though I could try writing to him to ask if he considered it. My view is that if you hate the dashboard you are probably not very attuned to what design is about: it is not only about coming up with a neat version of what went before but also pushing boundaries.

  4. The latest article on GM in Britain in the 80’s reminded me of another example of a 4 door saloon that went from fastback to three box: the Buick Century; I remember Motor magazine doing a road test of the fastback around about the late 70’s or very early 80’s.

    1. The adjudicator might not allow that. For 1978-1981 the Century range consisted of a 3-door fastback, a 4-door saloon and an estate…. no… stop… there was a 4- door fastback. Goodness. How odd.
      Well done!
      These were nasty cars. By 1984 they had recovered some appeal though. I had an ’84 Century and in retrospect it was a useful, likeable car. I’d have another if I had the space and money.

  5. Hi Eoin,

    Thank you for this reissue. I hope you’re well.

    The name Trevi always had bad connotations for me because I had an Italian friend, Stefania, who once told me, without referring to the car, that there were 2 kind of farts: one that sounded like ‘Trevi’ and the other one I can’t remember. So you understand why that car’s name always bothered me.
    I’am sorry to lower the tone, but maybe some Italian readers can confirm this.

    1. Redesigning is not the same as designing from scratch. It´s much more contingent for a start. And your redesigns are at a disadvantage in that we have had time to get used to the “imperfect” originals. If we hadn´t then the objective redesigns are (as far as I can recall) always better.

      This raises the interesting point about how we come to accept less-lovely designs and hold two views in our minds at the same time a) this is not what you´d do if given a free hand and b) I like it anyway. The XJ-S is a monument to this ambiguity. The design process seeks to eliminate the kinds of oddities the Trevi, 240 and XJ-S represent.

      In a similar way, the idealisation of architecture sought to “rectify” the “failures” of the pre-modern era and it´s safe to say the 20th century as whole was a disaster. The use of rational managment processes has been, in part, the reason the vast bulk of the 20th and 21st century urbanised landscape is such a wasteland. Who likes link-roads, retail parks, office parks, out-of-town shoppng centres and the infrastructure of mass private transport?

    2. Hi NRJ,

      I suspect there may have been some misunderstanding between you and your friend: to my knowledge in Italian there is no equivalent or similar word to “Trevi”, also taking into account the many vernacular versions of the categorised types of fart.
      The most relevant would appear to be be “troddo/u”in southern Sardinian dialect because of the initial TR-, which appears however to be quite different from Trevi.
      So from now on I suppose you can look at the car in a more relaxed way….
      I think the name is what they considered a clever wordplay, as Trevi stands for “Tre Vi”, i. e. “Three Volumes”, “Vi” being the way the consonant “V” is pronounced as such in Italian, and at the same time they wanted to tap the prestige resources of the notorious Trevi fountain in Rome.

    3. Hi Anastasio,

      Many thanks for these precious details. I’am already warming to the Trevi.

      It’s an interesting car to look at, I never paid much attention to it before because it wasn’t my generation. I find the front especially appealing, the inside of the headlamp has a lot of character and the grille fits nicely in my opinion.

  6. I loved the concept of the Trevi, a formal three-box saloon in the tradition of the Fulvia and Appia Berlina models, but the execution was never quite right for me and was, I think, compromised by the decision to use the Beta’s doors unmodified. The problem is most evident in the side profile:

    That C-pillar treatment just looks clumsy to my eyes. Would it have worked better with a third light instead of the filler panel with the vent? The rear deck looks slightly too low in comparison to the height of the DLO, an effect exacerbated by the uptick in the roofline above the rear window, presumably for aerodynamic reasons.

    The tre-volumi conversion was also tried on the Gamma Berlina, this time retaining a third light, but the side profile still looked unbalanced. The slim tail looks insubstantial compared to the heavy front end:

    It might be time to get out my paintbox…

    1. Like the XJ-S, the Trevi is endearingly wierd. Around 1990 when I first noticed them they suggested a steam iron to me. The effect is in the C-pillar. One would never make a car like this from the start. I am glad it exists though. It´s much more interesting than the fast-back version. It´s quite hard to think anyone really liked it at the time but apparently a reasonable number of people stumped up for this over a CX or Saab 900 or BMW 318. I won´t tire of looking at the Trevi.

    2. Good morning Richard. I couldn’t agree more that it is interesting, even if imperfect.

      If I get out my paintbox and “fix” it, I bet I’ll end up with an objectively better (or, at least, more ‘normal’) looking car but, like the Volvo 240 estate I ‘improved’ a few days ago, a less interesting too. That’s why I’m not a car designer!

    3. I readily confess to have been the one who liked the Trevi when it was new. I always preferred it over the Quadimodo-like Berlina and the Gruyère-cheese dashboard is wonderful.
      As the short term owner of a beta Spider I can confirm that these cars are fun to drive.

    4. Davw: you´ve stumbled on the internet´s most concentrated nest of Trevi likers. There are four cars which stand out for as fine drives. One, the Citroen CX. Two, the Ford Focus Mk1. Three, the Peugeot 205. Four is the Trevi. The Citroen and Trevi vie for first place in my estimations. Not one single modern car I´ve driven has held a candle to the CX and Trevi. The Thesis might be cheap and lovely; it doesn´t offer the same engagement as the Trevi. And yes, the dashboard is fantastic. The press got that one completely wrong.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      I much preferred the Solara, the fastback never did anything for me. The 1310s were everywhere when I grew up and they were not appealing, usually driven by dads that struggled to make ends meet. That’s the image I have of it anyway.

      Regarding Fastback to saloon conversion the Rover 800 (née SD1) was well executed I thought at the time. I already liked the fastback version but the saloon had a character of its own I thought. A bit classier than the fastback and I liked its rectilinear DLO.

    2. Hi NRJ. The XX/800 actually went the other way: it began life as a three-box saloon in 1986 and the fastback model was added in 1988. The early design for the fastback, before it received its little ‘bustle’ at the rear, was uncannily similar to the SD1:

    3. Ok I thought it started with the Fastback SD1 that they turned into a saloon but you’re correct. Thanks for the info.

    4. Interesting that both the Alpine-Solara design and that of the 800 saloon-fastback were overseen by Roy Axe, and I believe one can see the linkage.

  7. The Trevi horse has bolted. A decade ago a good one cost a grand. Today a good one is north of 5000 euros. So, I suggest you turn to the Thesis. Used one are about a 1000 euros. It´s the last proper Lancia and is more of a Lancia than the Kappa which was designed with an AR sister in mind, and more than the Thema which was a co-op car. The Thesis seems to share almost nothing but some engine blocks with other Fiat Group cars. The rest is bespoke. The Thesis is very different from the Trevi -a polite butler of a car compared to the Trevi´s agile sport-saloon.
    The Trevi is now recognised as a decent car, as the price suggest. A dark blue metallic one is on sale in Monaco at the moment, for 5000 euros. It´s a 1600 and has a “historic plate” from Monaco´s motor authority.

    1. I love the Thesis. It’s front end is unique and, from a high enough vantage point (higher than in the photo below) the headlamps are the shape of the Lancia badge. Lovely!

      Some have called the side profile bland, but I think it’s highly distinctive, upright and formal like a Lancia Berlina should be:

    1. If you look at the Thesis in an unfocussed way (place your eye point just above the A-pillar) and try to see the car as a whole you can see more of what might have been the desired effect. If you scan it partially it seems to lack a clear signal. The centre section´s definitely generic. You could put quite a few fronts and ends on that. Still – it is a lovely car. I don´t care the middle bit is bland. You don´t buy just the middle bit of a car, do you?

  8. Here goes. Original Lancia Trevi and ‘normalised’ one:

    I thought the C/D-pillar treatment was too angular and the rear screen too flat to sit easily with the rest of the design, so I’ve added a quarter light and put some curvature into the rear screen. I’ve also raised the roof slightly towards the rear and taken away the little uptick at its trailing edge. I’ve carried the rain gutter down the pillar aft of the new quarter light, which now allows the pillar to flow smoothly into the roof (There’s already provision for a capped seam at the base of the pillar.)

    Better, worse, or merely different?

    1. Worse! (hehe!) – but to be fair I always really liked the parts of Trevi that you have changed. I also like very much the XJ-S flying buttresses so that probably says more about me than your adjustments. Just out of interest (should you have the time and inclination) what would it look like with the original roofline and just the addition of a third light instead of the trim panel?

    2. I’ll get to work on that straight away, Adrian. (I so won’t!!!)

    3. Daniel: the normalised one is plausible. I might suggest you try to keep the rear radius on the DLO a bit sharper though. I feel that would be a more contemporary solution for 1980. Still, I wonder why they did not do something 99% like your proposal. Did the urge for novelty really mean that odd off C-pillar they went for? I am glad they did but is neither an inevitable solution or the most immediate novelty imaginable. I would love to have the audio transcripts for the decision-making process. The drawings probably don´t even exist now.

    4. Daniel: the semi-estate works. If you are not careful these will float free and become Trevi myths (“Lancia´s rejected proposal for Beta saloon”).

    5. Daniel, I think what this illustrates is that familiarity tends to skew one’s perception. Because while the changes you have enacted to the Trevi are fine in themselves, they have in my view normalised the car to such an extent that it suffers from a certain lack of character, which like or not, the car’s designers imbued it with in abundance. Is it better to be remembered for being odd, rather than being bland? I think the Trevi so modified would have received even more of a kicking in some quarters. On the other hand, your hatch proposal is quite plausible. And rather attractive, I might add, although I think it would benefit from the retention of the roof trailing edge ‘upkick’.

      The XJ-S analogies mentioned above are quite well observed, since both cars suffered from similar issues around the resolution of a rear three-quarter window/vent. Neither car quite got this entirely right, despite a number of attempts. In my view, the very late-era vertical vent treatment on the Trevi is preferable to the earlier horizonal version, but I do wonder whether something more akin to how Mercedes handled the same area of the 1971 SLC would have proven to have been a more successful overall compromise? After all, the late-era Lancia 2000 berlinas employed rear curtains.

      It’s interesting how one’s views shift. When the Trevi was announced, I preferred the styling of the fastback Berlina (a car I admired at the time). I didn’t dislike the tre volumi (I loved the dash), but I was less than smitten. Forty years on and I take the opposite view.

    6. That’s not bad at all Daniel. At least until we consider this…

    7. Thanks, Eoin and Richard (and even Adrian!) for your comments. I do these alternative versions partly to try and understand why the ‘obvious’ (to me) solutions weren’t pursued. My Trevi proposal would have required a reshaped rear door window frame, but should otherwise have cost no more to engineer than the production model. Granted, mine is possibly a bit bland, but would it have sold better than the rather polarizing production car? Likewise, my more conventionally attractive Gamma Berlina proposal. (I assume that Lancia actually wanted to sell cars!)

    8. Ah yes, Eoin, the Gamma Opera. I’ve never been a huge fan of it, or the coupe on which it’s based. It’s the indent in the sides which makes it look somewhat insubstantial (like an Austin Montego!) and the placement of that rubbing strip…what were they thinking?

      If we’re talking Opera, then this is the one to have:

    9. I always thought the Trevy looked perfect the way it was and it also fitted in with the Lancia tradition.
      Italian more formal saloons always provided some means for the back seat passengers to exclude the outside world, think of the Flavia/2000 curtians or the Alfa Sei’S pillows on the C posts. The Trevi’s wide C post provided a good sense of privacy in this tradition.

      A beta half estate looks like this:

  9. I rather like these Beta-based, low volume models from Michelotti and Felber.

    Re the rust issue, it’s odd what the public will forgive. I think that the Volkswagen Group and others have been forgiven their emissions-based indiscretions, based on their continued sales success. Perhaps it’s because engines falling out of cars is tangible, whereas invisible pollution is far less so. That said, other manufacturers have had serious problems (vehicle fires, etc) and they’ve also been forgotten.

    1. The rust thing is odd, because Japanese (and British) cars of the era had worse, and longer lasting issues with rapid rusting, but no one seems to associate them with rust. The only thing that saved British cars of that era from rusting even faster was their automatic rust-preventative delivery system as they re-purposed used engine oil 😉

  10. I would imagine that Trevi sales in Ireland were microscopic, but I actually knew, indirectly, someone who owned one. The father of a work colleague of mine bought one, in silver with a blue velour interior, when his W123 Mercedes-Benz was stolen and written off. I remember thinking even then that it was an esoteric choice.

    1. I can think of three in an around D2: a blue one in Trinity College, a white one near St Stephen´s Green and a red one somewhere else in D2. They weren´t so rare that they stunned me. But not exactly common either. I´d dearly love to own one now I´ve been reminded about them. Curses, Eoin!

  11. I can’t say I knew anyone who owned a Trevi, but I was in one once: there was somebody in Galway running one as a taxi. My mother and I caught it once for a shot journey. I was agog at this exotic device with the strange dashboard but I don’t think she was particularly impressed….

    1. Presumably it was simply a cheap car to run into the ground. The last taxi I got in Dublin was a Jaguar XF. Rather nice. It was a pleasant change from the usually inevitable Skoda Octavia.

    1. That uptick is worth at least 0.02 off the Cd, Simon!

    2. I do like the estate. How does one place an order Mr O’Callaghan?

    3. First, we all have to raid our piggybanks, then club together to make PSA an offer they can’t refuse (€10 or thereabouts should do it) for Lancia. We appoint as CEO a highly respected person of impeccable character who happens to be a Lancia aficionado. (That would be Mr Herriott.) Then, trading on his reputation, we find a bank willing to lend us about €5bn, the bulk of which we channel into our own salaries and gold-plated pensions. We then sell the rights to the Ypsilon to the Chinese for another €1bn.

      Sorry, I’ve lost my train of thought. What was the question again?

    4. Nice work Daniel, there’s a bit of Peugeot Estates in the window treatment.

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