The Flavia’s final act.
Described by the UK’s Guardian newspaper as “a slow, precise and beautiful film”, Italian filmmaker, Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, starring Dirk Bogarde and set in a ravishingly filmed Venice was a sombre meditation on art, beauty, creative attainment, age and desire. Critically acclaimed, Death in Venice would come to be viewed as an arthouse cinematic masterpiece.
Slow, precise and beautiful were adjectives that could at various times have been attributed to Lancia’s 1960s mid-range offerings – although the latter two were undoubtedly the more apt descriptors, especially once the power to weight aspect of the Flavia’s performance envelope was addressed towards the latter part of the decade. In its post-1967 Milleotto evolution, the Lancia berlina offered a refined, modernist, yet utterly Italian dissertation on elegance in motion, its seemingly unprepossessing style masking a highly considered technical and aesthetic package.
Introduced in 1971, two years after FIAT Auto’s acquisition of the fiercely independent carmaker, it is tempting to buy into the perception that the third (820 series) was a hasty Fiat-sanctioned facelift to buy time until something more thorough (and cost-effective) could be contrived. However, the facts – such as they can be ascertained at least – are a good deal murkier and more opaque than that.
Clearly, the death of Technical Director, Dr. Antonio Fessia in 1968 left a sizeable creative vacuum at Lancia’s Borgo San Paolo nerve centre, with nobody to adequately fill his shoes. Of their two most senior engineers, Ettore Zaccone Mina was an engine specialist who lacked the forceful personality of a leader, while the experienced and talented Francesco de Virgilio had been shunted off the commercial vehicles division following an epic falling out with his dogmatic technical chief. So not only was it unsurprising that Fessia’s position remained vacant for some considerable time, but that no technical roadmap existed for Lancia into the 1970s.
It is of course possible that the professore believed that the Flavia concept had more to give in developmental terms, or that his illness prevented him from giving such matters due consideration – like so much from this deeply confused period of Lancia history, we may never know for certain. But prior to Fiat’s takeover, evolution of the Flavia line had proceeded in time-honoured, piecemeal Lancia fashion. In 1969 the 820 series 1991 cc engine was introduced into a heavily revised Flavia Coupé and later that year, the existing (Mileotto) berlina bodyshell. Further evolutions included a fully optioned LX version – some (very few) of these being fitted with a five-speed gearbox.
Given the arbitrary manner in which product changes took place at Lancia, it is entirely likely that a further evolution was envisaged, and work likely to have started, but how much of the resultant 1971 car was a Lancia creation and how much came within FIAT’s purview is almost impossible to quantify with anything approaching confidence.
In late 1969, FIAT appointed Pier Ugo Gobbato as Lancia’s chief executive, with Mirafiori loyalist, Sergio Camuffo as Technical Director. A thorough cost-analysis of the business was quickly enacted, and what they discovered horrified them, precipitating savage cost-cuts. Amidst copious quantities of blood on the floor, all model programmes would come under intense scrutiny, with sources suggesting that FIAT considered axing the Flavia model line entirely. But without a replacement in hand, this would not only have been commercially imprudent, it would also have cast the Torinese car giant in a less than favourable light. Nevertheless, FIAT’s accountants were not wholly unjustified in questioning the viability of the model, since sales were hardly stellar.
There was a further consideration. With the top-line Flaminia consigned to the history books, there was an imperative to provide something with at least a shadow of its scale and bearing. The Flavia’s cabin was never short on passenger space – a function of its lengthy wheelbase and unencumbered floor, but the Flavia’s evolution was perhaps viewed as an opportunity to upgrade its status to that of de facto flagship.
As the Sixties drew to its chaotic close, Italy too was changing. FIAT’s near monopoly of the domestic market was coming under attack, while both Alfa Romeo and Lancia also faced growing threats from abroad. Lancia’s ownership profile had already gravitated from the nobility towards the professional classes, and although domestic politics had yet to turn violent, there were many technocrats and industrialists who valued the subtleties and “quiet elegance” the Lancia offered. The Flavia after all spoke of discernment, but also of propriety.
The Flavia berlina was never a small car, although it perhaps looked a good deal more compact that it was in reality. However, for the revised 820 series, overall length increased by 40 mm, and given that the wheelbase remained unchanged, this additional stretch was confined to the extremities. If the nose was longer, it was by fractions, meaning that the majority of extra bodywork lay aft of the rear wheels, enlarging the boot area and creating an impression in silhouette of there being slightly too much car at either end.
At the nose, the changes were marked, with a clear imperative to signal the Flavia’s elevated position in the Lancia hierarchy. While the Milleotto’s style drew the eye downwards, the new aspect with its narrower, vertical shield grille had the opposite effect, necessitating a raised centre pressing in the bonnet to accommodate it. Otherwise, the arrangement of the lights and bumpers was competently handled, if lacking the richness of form and execution of its predecessor.
Similarly, at the rear, the tail styling was simplified considerably, with large, high-mounted integrated lamp units sited at the extremities. And while there was a reference to the Milleotto’s framing device in the rear panel stamping, both lamps and number plate were placed astride it, thereby lessening its impact. Simpler, yes and certainly more contemporary, but the changes lent the car a far more conformist appearance.
It is likely that FIAT management wished to place their stamp on the product, and certainly both the changes to the berlina (and also to the revised Pininfarina Coupé introduced at the same time) appeared to reflect an altered aesthetic sensibility. This was especially the case with the berlina, which seemed to look backwards rather than to the future; for a first post-takeover introduction, it did not particularly speak with confidence. Nor did front and rear ends speak with entirely the same dialect – the deeply patrician and formal front end contrasting noticeably with modernist, almost bland rear.
One is tempted to conclude that the revised car reflected FIAT’s idea of Lancia, more than that of Lancia themselves, but nevertheless, assuming that the stylistic changes were entirely at Mirafiori’s behest is probably stretching credulity somewhat. Saying that, some interference is likely to have taken place.
Despite these provisos however, the impression remained of a car in the traditional Lancia idiom, which placed function, ease of use and a strong sense of owner wellbeing above simple aesthetics. A beauty which resided not in style as such – which was more correct than comely – but in its essential rightness and fitness for the purpose of transporting its passengers in ease and comfort, while lending the driver the satisfaction of directing a precise, well composed vehicle. These traits were fundamental to the Flavia in all of its derivations.
Inside the cabin, the principle of quiet luxury was continued. The dashboard was redesigned; main instruments now square in shape, (with rectangular minor gauges) and set into a mahogany and ebony dash panel. The two-spoke steering wheel was also wood-rimmed. The plush seating was upholstered in velvet material (leather was an option), with integral headrests on the front seats. The velvet trim material was also continued on the door panels. Here too however, there was a sense of retrospection. Previous Flavia cabins were more contemporary in feeling.
For its introduction, the Flavia nomenclature was laid to rest. While some suggest this was intentional on Lancia’s part, to make its elevation distinct from the outgoing cars, others contend that FIAT bosses vetoed the Flavia name from continuing. Again, uncertainty rules. Either way, Lancia 2000 it was.
Technically, most of the improvements had been previewed with the 1969 Flavia 2000 and its Coupé sibling. However, in 1972, a Bosch D-jetronic fuel injection system was made available, which boosted power to 126 bhp (DIN), and made the car as rapid as it was refined. The same year would also witness an in-house rival, the more compact and smaller-engined Beta model, which was to be Lancia’s new North. In 1800 cc form, it ran the 2000 close in space and performance, even if it fell some way short on sheer presence – or build integrity for that matter. Work was in hand to directly replace the 2000, the Flavia’s engine and key dimensions providing the basis for what would become the much-delayed Gamma model.
The 2000 sold in respectable numbers, appealing primarily to those who were already converts to Lancia’s approach to refined motoring. But this was not a firm basis for the future. It was clear to FIAT that for Lancia to succeed into the new decade and beyond, a fresh approach was required, even if this necessitated blood to be spilt.
In Thomas Mann’s story, the protagonist, hitherto pragmatic and diligent, throws his innate caution to the wind, and ignores the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in pursuit of his creative and erotic muse. He contracts the disease, and his death bookends the story.
The Lancia 2000 signified an ending, a final flowering of an entire ethos of carmaking, where the pursuit of technical excellence outweighed more pragmatic commercial imperatives. It was not a set of principles which would bear exposure to the FIAT method of doing business. For Lancia to live, these too would have to die.
 The 820 series Flavia in fact made its debut in 1969 with the 2000 berlina of the same year, which retained the Milleotto bodyshell.
 To some extent it did. Ecce Gamma.
 One of the foundations FIAT Auto built its empire upon was the rigorous control of cost. Lancia’s approach, while not entirely cost no object, was diametrically opposed.
 Whatever carnage was being enacted by Gobbato and Camuffo at Borgo San Paolo, FIAT didn’t wish to be viewed publicly as ‘corporate raiders’.
 With all necessary provisos regarding the bluntness of sales figures as an evaluator. With Lancia in full Mary Celeste mode, it’s anyone’s guess as to what was happening at the time.
 A point worth noting is that the Flavia had opened Lancia to new markets, a large proportion of these customers, for instance being female drivers.
 By the time of the Pesenti family’s capitulation to the inevitable, the Flaminia had long ceased production at Borgo San Paolo. It did remain on the price lists until 1970 or so, and could nominally be ordered, but in reality, demand had dried up well before.
 Most notably, ZF power assisted steering, dubbed Hydrosteer, a remote gearchange selector and Superduplex dual circuit, servo-assisted brakes. The 1991 cc horizontally opposed engine developed 115 bhp (DIN) at 5500 rpm, and 123 lb/ft of torque at 3500 rpm. Smaller capacity engines were no longer offered.
 The rather generic looking rear lamp units looked vaguely similar to those used by Alfa Romeo (they weren’t) and somewhat unfortunately perhaps, to those fitted to the contemporary (facelifted) Volvo 144.
 The Flavia was accurately described by fellow DTW-scribe, Richard Herriott as ‘passionately rational’.
 It was to later make a less than auspicious comeback.
 Production of the 2000 berlina ceased in 1974, although new examples remained available into the following year. In total 14,311 third series 2000 berlinas were built. (2,620 Coupé 2000s were built by Pininfarina until 1973).
 FIAT’s high-handed approach at Lancia didn’t serve them particularly well. Hard lessons were learned, and their subsequent business assimilations (Alfa Romeo/ Maserati) were handled a good deal more sensitively.
My grateful thanks to Geoffrey Goldberg for his invaluable advice, assistance and guidance with this piece.