America’s Marshall Plan footed the bill for rebuilding Fiat after World War II and helped tiny Alfa Romeo become a mass-market manufacturer. But Lancia, Italy’s second-largest carmaker before the hostilities, had to fend mostly for itself. In those early days of the Cold War, the antifascist proclivities of Turin’s Lancia were perceived as signs of incipient communism.
Unfortunate it was, because the engineering-driven firm founded by Vincenzo Lancia in 1906 not only built great cars, it achieved many production firsts. The world’s first unibody, V-4 and V-6 engines, and five-speed gearboxes all came from Lancia. The company’s mission had been serving the well-off, not eliminating them.
Lancia soldiered on undaunted, surviving independently for more than two decades after the war before collapsing into Fiat’s arms in 1969. Although Lancia nearly went bankrupt twice along the way, the company’s secret for success in this final period lay in its dedication to future-forward automobiles. The Fulvia, Lancia’s all-time best-seller, carried the firm forward and all the way to the brink of insolvency. It was that brilliant.
Antonio Fessia arrived to fill the mighty shoes of the company’s famous chief engineer, Vittorio Jano, following the Lancia family’s decision to sell out in 1955. Fessia rose to the occasion in 1963 with a scaled-down derivative of his 1961 Flavia. The first Lancia Fulvia was an upscale sedan of compact dimension and microscopic displacement. With just 1091 cc at its disposal, it followed in the contrarian, luxury economy-car tradition established by Lancia’s Augusta in the 1930s. But the Fulvia was even more avant-garde, because it was, like the Flavia, driven by its front wheels.
The Fulvia sold well. It was an exceptionally smooth mechanical package, unusual, too, for its four-wheel disc brakes and transverse-leaf-spring front suspension. That might have been that, but in 1965, a handsome Fulvia coupe broke cover at the Geneva auto show. It is this model, which remained in production until 1976 and became an international rallying icon along the way, that concerns us today.
Although Lancia routinely availed itself of Italy’s famous designers, this Fulvia variant was an in-house effort, a handsome, slim-pillared coupe that was as desirable as it was practical, offering ample room, peerless visibility, and a large trunk. Coachbuilder Zagato was set loose on the platform, too, but the result, the Fulvia Sport Zagato, was less elegant than the standard coupe.
The first time you drive a Fulvia, pin-sharp controls telegraph its technical specification. This realization is joined by one’s sense that this machine-so much better than it had to be-also represented a selfless gift to humanity. This is precomputer, twentieth-century Italian engineering at its hard-core best, metallurgy at its most joyous.
Unlike the Flavia, which was burdened with a lackluster flat four, the Fulvia was given a revvy new V-4 whose narrow (13-degree) angle allowed for the use of a single, twin-cam head, a concept Volkswagen borrowed many years later for its VR6. Bumped to 1216 cc and outfitted with two carburetors, the Fulvia’s V-4 produced 80 hp (DIN) and 78 lb-ft of torque. But at 2100 pounds, even the lowliest Fulvia coupe was quick enough to reach 60 mph in about thirteen seconds. The late Bernard Cahier, the celebrated motorsport photographer, noted at the time that this placed the Fulvia’s performance “in a very favorable position among the fastest two-liter European production cars.”
There were three series of Fulvia coupes. In time, the 1.2-liter gave way to a 1.3, four-speed transmissions would be replaced by five-speeds, while later Fulvias boasted up to 1.6 liters and output ranging up to 115 hp. Each of the various engines was canted 45 degrees to reduce its height, but the cars’ personalities differ significantly. At the top of the performance heap are the various HF (High Fidelity) models, which benefited from aluminum bodywork, plexiglass windows, and other boy-racer modifications, as well as more power.
My 1966 Fulvia, the 1.2-liter, four-speed coupe you see here, is a plain vanilla first-series car that spent the better part of two decades on ice before a partial restoration in 1996-97. Since then, it’s become a favorite driver. Unlike the HF cars, which are faster, rortier, and more frenetic, the 1.2 is impossibly relaxed for something with an engine so small; it feels almost modern. It will hit 100 mph, cruise at 80 mph, and reliably return 35 mpg. The ride is exceptional, steering feel is sublime, and it corners with almost no body roll. Reliability has been excellent.
There’s no doubt about it, Lancia went down fighting
1.2-1.6L DOHC V-4, 80-115 hp, 78-113 lb-ft
4- or 5-speed manual
Control arms, leaf spring
Rigid axle, leaf springs
About 160,000 (including 7102 Fulvia Sport Zagato versions)
$5000-$20,000 (Fulvia); $15,000- $30,000 (Zagato); $20,000-$40,000 (HF); up to $60,000 (1.6 HF Fanalone)
Elegant looks, great mechanicals, and serious craftsmanship. Moderately expensive in its time, today the Fulvia is undervalued by any sensible measure, although prices are rising. Economy of operation and reasonable parts availability are both pluses. Limited availability of post-1968 Lancias in the U.S. is remedied by a supply of freshly imported cars.