A totally new kind of Lancia.
From a six-decade perspective, it is not easy to gain a definitive sense of where the carmaking firm of Automobili Lancia & Compagni was positioned in the marketplace, or indeed an accurate breakdown of a typical Lancia owner. Hailing from the fringes of nobility to the more recent emerging middle classes, they tended to be affluent, cultured individuals who prized the finer things, but were not inclined to make a statement of it.
Despite appreciating tradition and craftsmanship, they were not averse to bracing modernity either. But more to the point, they were prepared to pay a premium for an exclusive car built to a high standard of engineering rigour and build integrity.
Technically sophisticated, stylistically advanced, yet compact and discrete, the 1960 Flavia would embody Lancia’s direction of travel for the coming decade. Intended to transform Lancia’s fortunes, it was a model line which took the carmaker into potentially the most lucrative section of the market, where the bulk of the action would take place as the Sixties unfolded.
Dr. Antonio Fessia was hired by Lancia as an engineering consultant in 1955, following technical director Vittorio Jano’s departure for Maranello. A gifted theoretician, Fessia had been inculcated under Gaudenzio Bono at FIAT, but gained a reputation for dogmatism and intransigence. Technically speaking, Jano was a classicist, whereas Fessia was a revolutionary, wedded to the concept of front wheel drive. Having been the lynchpin for the advanced CEMSA F11 project in 1947, he clearly saw his position at Lancia as a springboard, not only to further his muse, but also to reimagine the storied carmaker’s range along broadly similar lines.
Schemed as Lancia’s mainstream offering, the Flavia was not intended as a replacement for any contemporary model, nor to compete with anything then available within the Italian market – certainly not Fiat, whose offerings were a good deal cheaper, nor Alfa Romeo, who at the time had nothing directly comparable. Perhaps closest in concept would be BMW’s New Class 1500 saloon introduced the following year.
The first Italian front-wheel drive production car, the Flavia was a progressive statement, sharing no componentry, nor indeed much by way of orthodoxy with previous Lancias. The oversquare OHV 1488 cc all-aluminium flat-four with a single camshaft for each bank was mounted longitudinally; both engine and gearbox bolted to a substantial steel subframe, attached to the body with six flexible rubber mountings, the power unit cantilevered over the front axle line.
Also attached to the front subframe were double wishbones and a stout transverse leaf spring, while an anti-roll bar kept everything in check. At the rear, a rigid axle employing an anti-roll bar and Panhard rod was fitted, located on longitudinal half-elliptic leaf springs. De Carbon telescopic dampers were fitted all round as were powerful Dunlop disc brakes – the latter another Italian production first.
But while the technical specification might have sounded a reactionary note in places, it all worked remarkably well, and there can be little doubt that while Fessia might have adopted a more advanced suspension layout had he not be constrained by cost considerations, Lancia engineers were rather adept at using what seemed to be prosaic componentry in quite inspired ways.
Clothing all this was a medium sized formal saloon body, designed in-house under longstanding Lancia designer, Piero Castagnero, designer of the first two Appia series and later the Fulvia series. It has been suggested that Pininfarina had a hand in the design, and while one can discern an influence in the shaping of the canopy and aspects of the nose treatment, it remains conjecture.
The Flavia’s appearance was by 1960 standards, quite modern in style, shorn of the stylistic excesses of the previous decade, with an almost austere formality to its sheer-sided flanks. The only stylistic flourishes being the downward sloping swage line which ran from the tail, fading out over the rear wheelarch, and the assertive front end with its recessed grille and quadruple paired headlamps. Perhaps the most dated aspect of the design would be its canopy, particularly the almost vertically raked windscreen.
The Flavia’s unconventional line was underlined by its uncompromising proportions, dictated to a large extent by the technical package. Dominated by a long wheelbase, the combination of upright centre section, elongated front overhang, and odd nose-down stance, lent it a slightly awkward mien. Certainly at its November 1960 Turin Autosalon debut, it is said that some found its visual dissonance off-putting.
Inside however, while the cabin was not only commodious (owing to the long wheelbase and unobstructed floor), the style of fittings were of a distinctly modernist appearance. Most striking was the curved floating console mounted to the lower left of the instrument binnacle containing minor switchgear (a proto-Lanule perhaps?) Overall, it was an orderly if stark affair, but in Lancia fashion, well finished and wrought from fine materials.
Appearances aside, the Flavia drove beautifully, with excellently judged steering, sound handling, a superbly modulated ride and a high level of mechanical refinement being stand-out qualities, alongside excellent build and finish. It was also sufficiently compact and narrow to navigate Italy’s byzantine medieval streets. Very much an engineer’s car, its appeal revealed itself over lengthy acquaintance rather than instant gratification. So much for rationality – Lancia’s discrete image also ensured the Flavia enjoyed a very well-heeled clientele.
In 1962 a handsome and popular Pininfarina designed and built 2+2 coupé was introduced, as was a four-seater convertible, designed by Giovanni Michelotti and built by Vignale, which was built in small numbers. Also first shown that year was the more outré Zagato Sport model. In 1963 a larger capacity 1.8 litre (92 bhp) version was offered and two years later, Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection became an option for the 1.8, boosting power by a further 10bhp.
Over six years, the first 815-series Flavia would prove to be the most numerous, with around 28,000 leaving the Chivasso plant in Turin. But while later versions were stylistically more resolved and technically further developed, the Flavia’s competition became a good deal stronger towards the latter end of the decade.
By Lancia standards, the Flavia was a commercial success, but it proved unable to provide the storied car maker with a sufficiently robust bottom line to underpin either the company’s prosperity or ultimately fund a successor. The reasons for this however are probably as nebulous and indistinct as Lancia’s position in the marketplace.
However, one reading could lie amid the societal changes that took place in Europe, where class and position lost its previous pre-eminence. By the close of the decade, it is possible that the Flavia, fine car that it was, had become viewed as just another mid-sized offering up against other, less expensive, more modern looking (if not necessarily better engineered) rivals. As its traditional customer base faded away, Lancia failed to move with the times.
By the time the third series arrived in 1971, it was already something of an anachronism. It could be suggested that the carmaking firm of Automobili Lancia & Compagni died with it in 1974, but in truth Lancia died many times over.
 Dr. Fessia was also a professor of automotive engineering at Turin Polytechnic. Amongst his better known students was Leonardo Fioravanti, later senior engineer and designer at Pininfarina and leading light behind Berlina Aerodynamica – the precursor to the Gamma.
 In his memoir, former FIAT engineering chief, Dante Giacosa, while praising his technical skill, described Fessia’s personality in less than complimentary terms.
 The Flaminia model was a low-volume offering and very much a secondary consideration for Fessia.
 It has been suggested that Carlo Pesenti, following his acquisition of Lancia gained an audience with Fiat Auto’s Vittorio Valetta, where the two men agreed a non-compete pact. Valetta allegedly reneged upon this, Presenti later stating that he would never have invested in the Chivasso plant, had he known that Fiat would not honour its agreement.
 Fessia was also developing the Fulvia model which would have to share a good deal of componentry, while still being a cheaper car.
 One notable Flavia berlina owner was said to have been a certain former Grace Kelly, later Princess Grace of Monaco.
 The Flavia may not have funded the Gamma, but it certainly inspired it.
 The good professore’s illness and death in 1968 left no vision for the next generation of cars from Borgo san Paolo.
Editor’s note: The text has been altered in places to reflect further information and sources. Special thanks to Geoffrey Goldberg for his kind contributions.