Fessia and Issigonis. Great minds?
In 1960, outside of a few shall we say, niche carmakers (and Citroën of course), front-wheel drive was still viewed as a somewhat unproven concept. Therefore, when Lancia introduced the front-driven Flavia that year, there was bound to have been some surprise amid observers, and maybe too, an element of scepticism, especially amongst Lancistas of a more traditionalist stripe.
It was after all, a significant technical pivot from Borgo san Paolo’s engineering orthodoxy, and one that was unlikely to have occurred had Lancia’s technical dial not shifted so dramatically by the appointment as engineering chief of Antonio Fessia. The good professor, technically gifted but single-minded in approach, was a staunch proponent of front-wheel drive and there can be little doubt that the Flavia was more attuned to his own ideals and orthodoxies than to what commercially speaking, Lancia necessarily needed or wanted.
Fortunately, the Flavia was a fine motorcar, but for all its laudable qualities, whether it was the right car for Lancia remains a question which continues to vex historians and marque aficionados alike.
That it was inspired by another car from the same hand is also beyond debate. In 1947, CEMSA, a nascent carmaker affiliated to the Caproni aviation business introduced the F11, an advanced saloon design overseen by Fessia. This car, forward-looking for its day, was powered by a flat-four engine of 1250 cc, powering the front wheels, with all-round independent suspension. Very much a dry run for the Flavia in conception, only a handful were built before Caproni encountered financial difficulties and this promising motor car, despite several efforts to reanimate it, would prove stillborn.
But neither the Flavia, nor Fessia himself were unique. Uncompromised visions leading to cars which promised much on paper, yet proved to be commercial disappointments were highly prevalent during that most fecund period of the motor car’s history.
In the UK for instance, a curiously similar set of circumstances would play out. (Sir)Alec Issigonis, another highly talented dogmatist would also become synonymous with the front-drive concept. But prior to this, he developed a first-principles RWD design during the early 1950s for the small-scale firm of Alvis. However, seeing any chance of a return on their investment fading, Alvis management cancelled the programme entirely in 1955.
Five years on, Issigonis was at Longbridge, the seminal Mini had been launched and his engineering cell, led by Chris Kingham was readying a technically ambitious, front-driven medium-sized saloon, to be introduced (prematurely as it turned out) in 1964. The story of the Austin 1800 is both known and quantified, but the parallels between it and the Flavia are nonetheless intriguing.
Issigonis was a known aficionado of Lancia, so one might expect him to take a keen interest in the Flavia. Of course the eminent engineer also professed to distaste for motor shows, (other people’s work tending to confuse him, he asserted), nor did he seek out rivals, preferring to follow his own muse, so while it is possible that Fessia’s 1960 opus passed him by, it nevertheless seems unlikely.
Equally unlikely is the Flavia’s suspension design meeting with his approval, although he might have looked more enviously at its power unit – if not its orientation. More likely would have been his appreciation of its unadorned body style and austere, if well-appointed interior, despite the hint of styling here and there.
The production 1800 would bear a close relationship to Fessia’s Flavia – certainly in concept, in overall size, but particularly in terms of proportion. Moreover, both cars shared a slightly unorthodox appearance, a consequence of their respective architectures and perhaps an element of disdain on the part of either engineer for matters as frivolous as style.
Technically, although the Austin entered production with an 1800 cc engine, a 1.6 litre version had originally been anticipated. Certainly so equipped, the 1800 would have been sluggish indeed – as indeed was the original Flavia with the original 1488 cc unit under the bonnet. As launched, the Austin developed 84 bhp and 92 lb/ft of torque, whereas the smaller capacity Lancia developed 78 bhp and 82 lb/ft of torque. Perhaps a more even pairing might have been the 1963 Milleotto Flavia which put out 92 bhp, still not in the performance car stakes, but better than what BMC were offering at the time. Nevertheless, throughout its career the Flavia would always battle its weight.
Dimensionally, there wasn’t all that much in it.
Austin: length 4170 mm, width 1702 mm, wheelbase 2692 mm and height 1430 mm. Unladen weight was 1150 kg.
Flavia: Length 4580 mm, width 1610 mm, wheelbase 2650 mm and height 1510 mm. Unladen weight was 1190 kg.
The Lancia was longer overall, taller, but narrower and heavier. However, given the similarities in wheelbase as against overall length and taking into account the Austin’s minimal overhangs, it’s likely the bulk of the dimensional differences lay at the extremities – the Flavia being far more orthodox in this respect. Obviously too, this comparison ignores the large price differential between both cars.
To Fessia’s credit, the Flavia which emerged in 1960 was a considerably more developed car, largely without the teething troubles which routinely plagued all of the models Issigonis was directly responsible for – the 1800 being particularly affected in this manner, owing to the lack of meaningful proving which took place prior to its introduction in 1964. In terms of longevity, the Austin ran from 1964 until 1975, with around 387,000 built, and while the Lancia was more longlived – 1960-1974 – only slightly over 96,000 Flavia models were made.
Should we be tempted therefore to describe the Flavia as Fessia’s Landcrab, or the 1800 as Issigonis’ Flavia? Debatable, but on balance it is more likely that both engineers were simply thinking along similar lines.
But what unifies both cars more than any single factor is the fact that both were created with scant regard to their viability for the target market, nor with any serious thought as how well either programme served the business. Because it is worth underlining, these were not niche models, they were core products requiring significant investments, intended to earn their relative carmakers a serious return. That neither did is very much the responsibility of their respective creators, for they were both primarily the products of their unwavering vision.
To return to the earlier question as to whether a more conventionally engineered car might have served Lancia better, the logical answer is tied in with whether one believes that any putative buyer resistance to the Flavia was centred around its technical specification. There certainly isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest this was so.
A more conventionally proportioned car might have garnered a better initial hearing, since even the current FCA Heritage material acknowledges that the Flavia as being controversial, stating, “The overall appearance immediately transmitted the idea of solidity, while the audacious lines – initially deemed too avant-garde and mannerist – took a little while longer to be fully appreciated“.
Lancia buyers might have reasonably expected a rear-wheel drive car, since that was what they had been offered up to that point, and that layout was still held to be superior. A rear-driven Flavia, even with a similar body style might have offered a more conventional set of proportions. But whether it would have made a palpable difference to Flavia sales figures is both moot and quite impossible to quantify.
The more lasting outcome of the Flavia programme however would be Lancia’s wholesale shift to front-wheel drive. Because there is little doubt that professore Fessia was deadly serious when he enacted his technical revolution. It was very much all to the front.
 There is something of a schism within the Lancia community on this subject. Some view the Flavia as an outlier; a heavy ponderous car which lacked the nimble qualities of the earlier Jano/ De Virgilio designed models, while others see them as the last of the proper Lancias.