Everything to the Front

Fessia and Issigonis. Great minds?

Image: automotodepoca

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.[1]

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.

Here’s one he made earlier. The 1947 Cemsa F11. Image: epocauto.it

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.

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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“.

Image: Honestjohn.

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.

 

[1] 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.

 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

31 thoughts on “Everything to the Front”

  1. Good morning Eóin. An interesting and thoughtful comparison, and one that would not have occurred to me. I think Fessia managed the proportions imposed by its FWD layout considerably better than Issigonis (who just didn’t bother). The Flavia Series I’s slight oddness was caused mainly by the detailing (those ‘eyes on stalks’ headlamps, that strange slash running around the rear of the car) and the these issues were resolved in the Series II model. The 1800 by comparison was terminally odd and no tinkering with the details would make a meaningful difference.

    There was one detail of the Series I Flavia that BMC did reprise, those headlamps!

  2. Would a more conventionally designed car than the Flavia have been more succesful? For an answer to this question look no further than the competitor in Milan. The first Giulia alone sold around 115,000 in just for years, and over a comparable production run of fourteen years the Giulia sold more than half a million saloons and more than 200,000 coupés. The Giulia GT 1,300 junior alone sold more than all Flavias together – and these Alfas were considered quality products in their day and weren’t sold at giveaway prices either.

    Only after I read the numbers in this article did I realise what a relatively large car the Flavia was. In the early Seventies an ivory white one with burgundy interior always parked one or two streets away from our home but I really didn’t remember it as that large for an Italian car.

  3. It’s good to meditate on the misunderstood – though sometimes hard to comprehend – Flavia.

    The 1800 comparison makes interesting reading. If management had imposed dimensions on ADO17 which were closer to its Farina predecessors, it could have been Flavia-sized, rather than a very short big car.

    I looked for other comparisons, and found that the Flavia’s fellow citizen, the 1959 Fiat 1800, is very close in size:

    L:4464mm / W:1619mm / H:1470mm / Wb:2650mm.

    The Fiat’s a bit heavier, at 1215kg, but has two more cylinders to carry around.

    As for front wheel drive, by the late ’50s just about everyone was FWD-curious, but the big breakthrough was BMC’s sourcing of mass-produced, cost-effective (though still expensive) Rzeppa joints from Unipower.

    That’s probably part of the reason why Dante Giacosa writes of Issigonis with reverence in 40YoDwF – he opened the door to the Primula and 128. That door had been kept firmly shut by Fiat management for cost reasons until BMC demonstrated proof of concept, brought to their doorstep by Innocenti.

    There’s no such regard for Fessia in 40YoDwF. He is denounced as a philandering blowhard, and a barely competent engineer whose arrogant self-belief far exceeded his ability. Fessia ended his days in elected office in a small town 50km north of Turin. According to Italian Wikipedia:

    “After a long illness due to an abdominal tumour, assisted by his wife and three children, he died at the end of the summer of 1968 in the country house of Borgomasino, the town from which his family came and where he had held the office of Mayor.”

    Loss of syntax in translation, or did they bump him off?

  4. The proportions might have been slightly off, but one easily forgets this was in the trial and error stage of finding the definitive fwd package and design. Most front wheel drive cars had been smaller and streamlined, like the DKW, Saab, and Citroen 2CV. The Traction Avant still had 30’s proportions with a long front and short rear, the first years it didn’t even had an external luggage compartment, nor did the Saab 92. And the DS could be seen as a sort of four door coupe or at least closed coupled sedan, with its tapering and extremely short rear end. The Autobianchi Primula was fwd but Fiat took the chance to not only experiment with the technical side but with the package as well, with it’s two box hatchback. The DKW F102 that was coming to be the first Audi had a traditional three-box sedan design, but it debuted only in 1963. For being a 1960 car, could the Lancia Flavia be one of the first if not “The” first front wheel drive three box pontoon sedan? In any case they were really early, and I wouldn’t bring it against them they didn’t get the form factor exactly right on the first try.

    1. Lloyd Arabella FWD from 1959 complete with flat four engine

      Lloyd Alexander FWD from 1955

      …maybe not a full size saloon but a very seriously engineered small car

  5. Ingvar, I’ll predictably suggest the 1950 Goliath GP 700/900 and 1100, and the later Lloyd Arabella.

    Also the DKW Junior, first revealed in 1957, but not produced until 1959. That one was a considerable success, despite its two-stroke engine, and inspired both the Lloyd Arabella and the RWD Opel Kadett A.

    In fact the DKW probably brought about Borgward’s Untergang, as CFWB saw the small car from Ingolstadt as such a threat that his response, the Arabella went into production in a woefully unproven and underdeveloped state, and the company never recovered from the reputational damage which resulted.

  6. Obviously the Flavia could have been a lighter nimbler and better proportioned car, cannot really blame Lancia for embracing FWD or say that RWD would have been a better path for the Flavia since at the time front-engined Flat-Four RWD cars only included the Steyr 50, Jowett Javelin / Jupiter and Alec Issigonis’s attempts at fitting his non-sanctioned 800-2500cc Flat-Four prototype engines into the Minor, Oxford MO and more (later used in the Nuffield Gutty) despite the engine being outside of the design brief he was given.

    Perhaps the fact the Flavia was a larger car then it needed to be did not help matters and could have benefited from being slightly smaller (say Peugeot 404, BMW New Class or Vauxhall Victor FB-FC?) yet it seems it was not conceived to directly replace the Appia like the Giulia-sized Fulvia did but tap instead a new segment between the Appia / Fulvia and Flaminia.

    What was a departure for the Flavia would have to be the usage of a Flat-Four instead of a V4 engine of similar 1500-2000cc capacity to slot above the later 1100-1600cc Fulvia and further increase commonality between the two cars.

    AFAIK the only thing the Fulvia V4 received from Lancia in terms of experimental developments was VVT for motorsport use IIRC and no enlargement above 1600cc was ever considered, that said even if the Fulvia V4 could not grow any further it does not preclude the possibly of a related upscaled 1500-2000cc V4 for the Flavia had development gone down a different path.

    Would this have boosted the longevity of the Lancia V4s in place of the relatively more conventional Flavia/Gamma Flat-Fours? Cannot say yet a common V4 family would have potentially provided a suitable basis for Lancia to eventually replace the Aurelia/Flaminia 60-degree V6 with a V4-based V6 akin the narrow-angle V4/V6 family BMC were developing from the mid-50s up to the early-60s before Volkswagen introduced the VR6 a few decades later.

    1. It’s just that the development path went exactly the other way round.
      Enzo Attprio’s book on all things Fulvia gives a very good explanation on how they tried a reduced size 1,100 version of the Flavia’s boxer and found it even less satisfactory than the bigger versions. This convinced them that a new engine was needed anyway and only because of this there was room for the completely unrelated small V4. Under no circumstances was there a way to enlarge the V4 beyond 1,600cc. Even for that they had to reduce the bank angle by moving the base of the cylinder bores outwards and still only had wafer thin walls at the bottom. For a larger V4 engine there was absolutely no room which is clear when you look under the bonnet of any Fulvia and you see how tightly the bonnet fits over the camchain cover and the carburettors or how tightly the exhaust runs through the cast aluminium suspension carriers.

    2. That is unfortunate, if the Fulvia V4 itself could not grow beyond 1600cc perhaps a related or half-related Big Block / Small dynamic could have worked with a hypothetical Flavia V4? The latter being to the Fulvia V4 what the BMC B/O-Series was to the BMC A-Series or the Nissan CA was in some respects to the Nissan E OHC.

      Beyond a reduced 1100 version of the underwhelming Flavia Flat-Four being considered for the Fulvia before being ditched in favour of the Fulvia V4, am intrigued to know what other obscure tidbits are in Enzo Attprio’s book on the Lancia Fulvia as far as experiments and other stillborn developments relating to the Fulvia are concerned?

      The tidbit on the experimental Variable Valve Timing for the Fulvia V4 was from Lancia and De Virgilio: At the Centre by Geoffrey Goldberg.

    3. Maybe they could have built a bigger, Flavia related boxer and call it Gamma…

    4. Take it there is no new information which is not already known online about the Fulvia or Flavia within the book.

  7. A factor which seldom gains the currency it perhaps ought is that there were (this side of the American multinationals at least) no product planning functions worth talking about in European car businesses like Lancia. Therefore it fell to senior engineers to intuit the appropriate direction of travel in product terms. Some engineers were better than others at this. Issigonis for example knew about as much about the subject as he did about styling and had about as much interest. Fessia, akin to Issigonis, was a theoretician, so to imagine him having much grasp or appreciation of the subject would be naive at best.

    One of the questions I have never found a satisfactory answer to is what exactly Dr. Fessia was doing at Borgo san Paolo from the point that the Fulvia was developed? Yes, I accept that development took place of both it and the Flavia throughout the 1960s, but as far as I can ascertain, he seems to have laid no plans down for a new generation of cars to succeed them. Did the good professore simply sit back, his magnum opus complete? Did he (as it would appear from his positions at the Turin Polytechnic and his municipal work) simply stretch himself too thinly, or was he in fact out of ideas?

    1. Perhaps that’s another parallel with Issigonis. Fessia wanted to put the engineering ideas from the F11 in to production; Issigonis wanted to get various sizes of the Mini concept to market. Job done, in both cases. After that, no interest. It’s like David Woods, but on a larger scale.

      Lancia as a stand-alone company doesn’t appear to have done much after the early 60’s and was taken over, bankrupt, in 1969. I think there wasn’t anyone in the business with something they were burning to achieve.

    2. I think Lancia simply didn’t have any money left for r&d after the Fulvia and Flavia. The auto industry is extremely labour intensive and cash intensive, there’s a lot of money needed for infrastructure like factories and equipment, and labour costs on top of that. And just because they earned enough money to keep going doesn’t mean the company was a going business. If anyone could dig up the records, I would guess they barely broke even or was at a loss for the entire sixties. What could Fessia do if they didn’t earn any money to invest in new products? The Flaminia was more or less handmade and sold at a trickle for most of the decade with the majority of sales early in production, it was dead man walking as early as 1965 but soldiered on for another five years. The Flavia both sedan and coupe had to mend and do with only minor updates to the same body shell for its entire production into the mid-seventies. When the Fulvia range was launched it was the last hurrah and after that they had to look for an outside investor if not selling the entire company.

    3. True. I had forgotten that Lancia was independent only up to 1958, when it was taken over by a cement company (Italcementi), so that company has to share some responsibility. They got rid of Lancia to protect themselves from a takeover bid in 1969, selling to Fiat.

      I can’t help thinking that Lancia would have been better off with a wider consortium of investors, who would have focused more on ensuring they got a return and, therefore the company’s survival. On the other hand, I suppose that could have made Lancia more conservative and possibly less innovative – if there had been more outside influence. Then again, there might at least have been a proper company called ‘Lancia’ in existence, today.

  8. I’d say this is less than kind to Greek Al. From the Mosquito, through the Alvis TA175/TA350 to the XC cars, Issigonis did think in a modular manner, with each design envisaged as a building block within a wider inter-related product hierarchy.

    He was still doing it in the early ’70s, with this ‘9X and beyond’ sketch:

    Len Lord in his pomp was a brilliant product planner, spotting gaps in the market and moving fast to fill them, and also identifying competitors’ products which were weak and producing “better mousetraps” to steal their customers.

    His successor, George Harriman, was astonishingly inept in the matter of product planning. We can all be “Captain Hindsight” now, but the money and engineering effort squandered on the Vanden Plas 4 litre R, Austin 3 litre and ADO30 “Fireball XL5”, could have gone some way to paying for a next generation Mini, or a mid-60s Cortina rival.

    On the Flavia matter, it occurs to me that it filled a gap in the Lancia range left by the discontinuation of the Aprilia in 1949 [1]. Prescient compliance with the Fiat Charter, twenty years before the event?

    The Flavia seems pretty much ‘right-sized’, and that flat-four turned out to have plenty of useful stretch room. I’ll hold with my notion that they took a hint from the Fiat 1800, although the Lancia is a bit taller.

    Could Lancia have been pursuing orders from The Hierarchy by providing some extra hat-room?

    [1] When they saw the Jowett Javelin, they knew the game was up…

    1. There are some fascinating elements in Issigonis’s “9X and beyond sketch” such as the 5-speed automatic gearbox and E-Series diesel engines (provided of course the E-Series was properly developed like an S-Series meets VW EA827 and Nissan CA), less so the 1100-1300 6-cylinder 9X engines (Issigonis should have foreseen the trend for smaller engines being 3/4-cylinders instead of a return to pre-war style small 4/6-cylinder engines).

      A bit confused by the references to the new A-Series and B-Series engines alongside the E-Series, there seems to be some overlap between the latter two with the new A-Series seemingly referring to the 9X 4-cylinder engine.

    2. Another area there is perplexing in Issigonis’s sketch would be the top left part, where he appears to have conceived a family of three 9X/10X cars rather than two cars as commonly assumed.

      The first being the 750cc 4-cylinder 9X Mini replacement, the second being the new 1300 6-cylinder ADO16 10X successor with the third slotting in between them seemingly being a slightly longer 5-door version of the 9X Mini powered by 850cc 4-cylinder and/or 1100-1200cc 6-cylinder engines.

  9. Clearly this Lancia needed a decent six cylinder engine. That would have made it a reasonable performer. Ah, a narrow angle V-6. Now where have we seen those?

    1. I’ve also thought in similar paths. I have a never finished counter factual fairytale half written in my head since at least a decade ago about a late sixties shotgun marriage between Citroen/Lancia/Maserati. In that story I had imagined some fresh money for the engineers at Lancia to design a new engine for both Lancia and Citroen, a narrow angle V6 in the capacity of 2-2.7 litre. A double SOCH with the intake valve train on the one head and the exhaust on the other, with interconnecting rods between the banks. I’d reckon that engine could make it for them both up to the late 90’s or so.

      Also, an updated Fulvia flat four for the Citroen GS in 1.5 and 1.8 litre capacity. I.E. it’s the Gamma engine but in thus scenario never enlarged into 2.5, keeping a fuel injected 2.0 for the rest of the Lancia range. The engine should fit in the GS if the spare tyre was removed to the luggage compartment and the radiator mounted flat on top of the engine.

      That would make Lancia not only the first maker of V6 engines but the first maker of narrow angle V6 engines, at least 25 years before the competition in the real world. I think it would’ve given both marks just the edge they needed at the time.

      If I ever finish that story you will be the first to know, as I will happily give it to you for publication. Time will tell if it ever happens.

    2. I’ve been up all night so I’m a little bit tired. It should of course be only a single head on that narrow angle V6, a DOCH that’s not really a DOCH but a twin SOCH squeezed into one cylinder head with interconnected valve trains.

    1. You’ve got no soul.

      I’d go for a single-crankshaft vertically stacked horizontally-opposed U4 or U6, an amalgam of the Brough Superior Golden Dream and Lancia’s own single-crankshaft staggered-cylinder U4 as used in the 1950-61 Beta Autocarro:

      The drawings don’t quite demonstrate the principle; Imagine a narrow-angle V4 but with horizontal rather than angled cylinders, or an ad absurdum désaxé in-line four.

    2. Jesus Christ. Just when you thought matters couldn’t have got any more ‘Lancia’. I think I need to go and have a lie-down.

      Clearly Robertas, you’re punishing me for impugning dear Alec’s product skills.

  10. As one who was raised on a diet of Fulvia for breakfast and Flavia for dinner from a young age by a most enthusiastic Lancia owning father, I have never understood the derision attributed to the Flavia in some circles especially in comparison with the Fulvia.

    Having driven both models many kilometres in saloon/coupe/sport variants over the years I retain affection for both models equally. To use a canine analogy I see the Fulvia as an eager fox terrier – slightly frenetic, always keen to get up and go, whilst the Flavia is the older Labrador, resting in the corner but ready for a long sauntering walk whenever one is available .

    One memorable drive in my fathers Flavia 2000 coupe over forty years ago in torrential rain through a mountain pass comprising a mixture of both tight and flowing corners cemented my respect for the model. The torque of the engine coupled with the surefooted feedback being received through the chassis gave great confidence to press on, and I still rate it as the best drive of my life. I have owned an S1 Fulvia coupe for over thirty years in which I have had some great experiences yet none have got close to that delightful afternoon in 1979.

    The schism I put down to as nothing more than snobbery. Until the Flavia was introduced the V engine reigned supreme at Lancia and whilst it was an obvious departure from the status quo the Flavia has no need whatsoever to apologise for having the Lancia prefix.

  11. More drawings of that U4:

    This from the German “Lancia news” website:

    “The Beta was introduced in 1950 as a forward control or cab-over light truck. Its new four-cylinder engine used a U-configuration, the cylinders vertical but staggered for the sake of compactness, and with pushrod overhead valves for easy maintenance. The preference for a U-configuration over a Vee was conditioned by the need for these engines to work very hard very long, often at slow speed or stationary, and extensive water-jacketing could more easily surround vertical cylinders. Producing 48 bhp from 1.908 cc, it was tuned for low speed torque and drove almost four tonnes at up to 82 km/h, considered fast at the time.”

    1. While the Fulvia V4 could only be enlarged to 1600cc with little consideration for a related narrow-angle V6, the Duncan Stuart designed Lancia influenced narrow-angle 1200/1300-2000 V4 and 2500-3000 V6 engine family shows that Lancia could have gone down another path for the Flavia project involving a Bigger Block narrow-angle V4 that spawns both a related Small Block V4 for the Fulvia as well as a related narrow-angle V6 to replace the Lancia V6.

  12. We need to bear in mind that Fessia was recruited at about the same time that Lancia , having designed a wonderful new F1 racing car, were handing the racing team over to Ferrari because they had over-reached themselves – and the Lancia family were selling out. He really should have been designing a car the looked more than the sum of its’ parts, making maximum use of existing hardware.

  13. Well, look at the Flavia this way: Lancia at least managed to escape the clutches of hiring as a consultant the most single-minded FWD expositor and ruinator of the postwar French higher end car business, one J A Gregoire. By comparison to that chap, Fessia and Issigonis were pussycats.

    1. Ah yes, Jean-Albert. I had considered including him in this meditation (he was in the initial draft), but he requires an entire piece to himself (which the immodest engineer would undoubtedly have insisted upon anyway). I will do so in due course – when (if ever) I am reunited with my archive.

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