It’s hardly front-page news here, but Italy’s legendary Lancia is as close to deceased today as an automotive brand can come, short of a death certificate being issued.
In a recent speech outlining Fiat Chrysler’s latest five-year plan, CEO Sergio Marchionne didn’t even mention the illustrious marque (acquired by Fiat in 1969), much less what lay ahead for it. Afterward, however, the strategy for 109-year-old Lancia trickled out. FCA would pare its feeble lineup of modified Fiats and rebadged Chryslers down to a single model, the Ypsilon, a Fiat 500 spinoff sold in Italy, and, going forward, nowhere else.
You could say it’s a placeholder—a cheap, clever way to save the brand’s name for a better day. Or you might conclude that it spells curtains for Lancia and, kind of creepily, is not unlike Norman Bates keeping his dead mother down in the fruit cellar. Either way, it’s clear Marchionne hasn’t got time for Lancia now.
But we do. Arguably the greatest Italian carmaker of all time, Lancia pioneered unibody construction, independent suspension, V-6 engines, and so much more. Where others went broke building cars that weren’t good enough, Lancia went broke, the first few times at least, building cars that were too good. How rare and worthy of celebration is that?
From left: Francesco (Frank), Venera (Vera), and Santi (Santo) Spadaro at Lime Rock with their dad’s blue Flaminia GT and Santo’s racing Alfa Giulietta Sprint
With mission-critical assistance from our friends Santo, Frank, and Vera Spadaro at Domenick European Auto of White Plains, New York, and their extensive connections in the Lancisti world, we wrangled 17 Lancias (on a Tuesday, no less) for a day of driving and remembering. Telling you something about these cars and their owners, every one drove to join us at Wilzig Racing Manor, a private track set among the rolling hills of Taghkanic, New York, about 100 miles north of New York City.
Sadly, this impromptu survey was missing the earliest cars, notably the groundbreaking Lambda of the 1920s, but we hardly felt shortchanged as we got to sample some of the best Lancias the East Coast has to offer. By kind permission, we traveled through time in 17 different expressions of Lancia’s commitment to engineering excellence, which was practiced with only minimal reference to cost or convention. In a modern industrial landscape that grows ever more cautious, it’s an ideal that may be gone forever. But it will never stop reverberating.
Aprilia and Ardea
1937-’49 (Aprilia) 1939-’53 (Ardea)
Launched in 1937, the year the company’s visionary founder, bicycle mechanic turned industrialist Vincenzo Lancia, passed away, the Aprilia was the last car the old man would have a hand in. With a reputation for innovation already established—thanks to a 1918 patent for unibody construction and another in 1921 for the independent front suspension—the Aprilia was, unsurprisingly, an impressively modern effort. A pillarless four-door, it was one of the first cars designed using a wind tunnel. Offering substantial room in a machine light enough to be powered by an innovative 1.4-liter V-4, it moves along zestily for a near octogenarian. Credit in part an overhead camshaft (a big deal back then) and hemispherical combustion chambers.
The Aprilia moved the unibody art ahead as well, with a stiff, electrically welded floorpan. An early example of independent rear suspension added sophistication to the ride and handling, taking full advantage of the rigid structure, as becomes apparent when you press into a corner and don’t kill yourself.
Early innovation: The Aprilia drop-kicked Lancia into the future before the war, with the Ardea (blue) following in its footsteps.
The smaller Ardea was one of Lancia’s many bids to rein in its engineering ambition and offers its big brother’s handsome look in a diminutive car less costly to build and buy. The body is simplified in the name of economical production, the engine is microscopic at less than a liter, and the rear axle is unashamedly live. Yet while the junior offering’s crashbox is just as crunchily unsynchronized as the Aprilia’s, there’s nothing cheap about it. In fact, the Ardea introduced the world’s first production five-speed manual transmission.
Lancia was Italy’s second-largest carmaker after Fiat in the 1930s, and like the rest of Italian industry, it came out of World War II hurting. Unfortunately, Lancia received almost no assistance from the Marshall Plan to rebuild bombed-out factories. The postwar American loan program generously allowed Fiat to resume business as a mass marketer and also enabled Alfa Romeo, a tiny boutique manufacturer before the war, to expand into volume production. It bears mention that both Alfa and Fiat had been strong supporters of Mussolini’s fascist regime, and thus ardent anti-communists. Lancia’s family ownership, though it often tussled with unions, was thought to be soft on the red menace and paid a heavy, Cold War-style price.
Stymied but exhibiting its inclination to engineer its way out of crisis, Lancia put its postwar focus on making even better cars. Its first was a doozy, the Aurelia. Featuring a V-6 engine, a production first designed by the ascendant engineer Francesco de Virgilio, the Aurelia came in sedan, coupe, and convertible versions. In recent years, they’ve all become seriously valuable, especially the drop-tops, as word of their excellence penetrates the world’s enthusiast consciousness.
The Aurelias: With steel roof or without, again brought the future to the present, but at a much higher price point.
The coupe pictured here was the end of a line for a model that set the standard for GT quality and engineering interest in the early 1950s. F1 drivers chose them as their preferred long-distance road cars, and American manufacturers had them shipped to Detroit for teardown review. An innovative rear transaxle, which harkened back to Lancia chief engineer Vittorio Jano’s 1930s Alfa race cars, with semi-trailing arms (and later a De Dion setup) along with the new engine, standard radial tires, and inboard rear brakes made the Aurelia something
really special in its day.
Its Felice Mario Boano-designed fastback shape has often been called the granddaddy of all Gran Turismo 2+2s. Better built and more mannerly than its Ferrari contemporaries, the Aurelia was a little slower but nicer to drive and favored by many of wealth and taste. Early on, Aurelias raced and rallied with distinction. They also raced successfully, winning the 1952 Targa Florio. Even by today’s standards, with its sporting exhaust note and revvy six, an Aurelia is a brisk automobile capable of being conducted quickly and securely. Built almost 60 years ago, when just about everything rattled continuously, both the coupe and convertible feel as if they were carved from single, strong metal ingots.
Though Lancia would sell almost 20,000 Aurelias, it was not a mass-market proposition. Bodies, for instance, were stitched together by artisanal hands. The company knew what went into a modern car better than anyone, but the way Lancia built it was labor-intensive and not so modern—or profitable.
For a volume model to brave the 1950s, Lancia decided to split the difference between the Aprilia and Ardea with the Appia, a 1.1-liter, V-4-powered replacement. Though it was the last use of Lancia’s famous sliding-pillar front suspension and reprised the earlier cars’ pillarless construction, it was a much more mass-producible and modern conveyance, with niceties like synchromesh on its column-shifted four-speed gearbox. The third (and final) series Appia sedan we’re driving today is a little precision sewing machine whose delicate controls make its operation a joy. If you’ve ever driven a 1950s European small car—even a good one like a Morris Minor or VW Beetle—well, this is better.
The basic Appia platform spawned numerous more costly or dramatic-looking derivatives, including station wagons, pickups, convertibles, and low-volume coupes from coachbuilders Pininfarina, Vignale, and Zagato, the latter responsible for the Appia GTE you see here. But throughout the day, we discover that these carrozzieres’ attempts at bettering the factory’s own creations were rarely as delicious to drive, although they did boast more jaw-dropping designs.
The Appia was Lancia’s all-time best-seller in its time, but even that was not enough. By 1955, Gianni Lancia, young son of founder Vincenzo, could no longer hang on and, along with his shareholding family, sold out to concrete magnate Carlo Pesenti. An infusion of new engineering talent was brought in, along with desperately needed funds, some from the government.
Shortly before the sale of the company to Pesenti, Lancia’s state-of-the-art but money-losing Formula 1 team was transferred to Ferrari. So advanced was Lancia’s technology, its D50 racing cars were run by Ferrari instead of its own. Broken by the experience, Gianni Lancia, who’d begun assuming control of the company while still a teenager, left the automobile business a young man. He’d never speak of it publicly again. He died in 2014.
Wealth of models: Lancia offered both designer and off-the-peg versions of many models. Here, the blue Flaminia and stock beige Appia meet their Zagato brethren, the GTE and SuperSport.
The Pesenti era began with the Flaminia. It was not the mass-market car the company’s balance sheet needed in 1957, but a scheduled Aurelia replacement, a variation on the rear-transaxle layout with a revised V-6, De Dion rear suspension, and more modern, Italianate design.
It’s never about raw power with Lancia, though the Flaminia is faster than the flagship it replaced. The sliding-pillar front suspension is gone in favor of control arms, so it rides better. And no rigidity is lost, making the Flaminia a very solid car in which to pass the miles. But again its build cost was high and volumes low, with on
average fewer than 1,000 completed in each of its 13 years in production.
Besides a four-door Berlina, Pininfarina and Touring coupes, and a convertible, the Flaminia was offered as the Zagato SuperSport we drove. With the Milanese coachbuilder’s trademark double-bubble roof, it’s a beautiful thing to behold that also makes a furious noise from its triple-Weber, 2.8-liter V-6. But we’re flummoxed by its convex windshield, which strongly distorts the view out from almost any angle and causes instant headaches.
Market values for the Zagato-bodied coupes are booming, but we’d take the standard coupe from Touring every time. They called its method of body construction—aluminum over a tubular steel structure—Superleggera or “super light.” But when you think of it and other car bodies so named—including the Flaminia’s natural competitors, Aston Martin DBS 4 through 6—they aren’t really so leggera after all.
Once owned by the famous Italian-American tenor Sergio Franchi, this baby blue example brought to Taghkanic by the Spadaro siblings is as original and tight an old car as any we’ve ever driven. It’s not small or light at about 3,000 pounds, but it feels wieldy and pleasant. With big, beautiful, legible gauges, the uniquely sculpted seats in red leather, the snarl of the exhaust and butter-smooth shifting, it’s unbeatable for resolved engineering and low-volume craftsmanship. It’s easy to drive fast.
Rallying spirit: Models in Lancia’s best-selling Fulvia range ran from the utilitarian Berlina to crazy coupes like the HF and most-coveted HF Fanalone, which ironically brought rally glory to Lancia as it was losing its independence.
Upon taking the helm, Pesenti installed a new technical director, Antonio Fessia. A well-regarded refugee from Fiat, Fessia recognized the company’s need to ramp up volume and streamline manufacturing processes to enjoy economies of scale. Yet, strangely, he proceeded to persuade his boss that Lancia needed two low-volume engine families.
First up was the Flavia, an up-to-the- idiosyncratic-minute 1.5-liter model with front-wheel drive and a flat-four. It was well-received in 1961 but supplemented in 1963 by a smaller Appia replacement, the Fulvia, named after the wife of ancient Roman aristocrat and politician Marc Antony. Another front-driver, the Fulvia nevertheless had a completely different engine, a 1.1-liter V-4.
Fortunately, however, the narrow-angle DOHC V-4, canted 45 degrees, was extra peachy and a wonderfully engaging device. Though the Fulvia could not right the ship, it quickly became Lancia’s best-seller with more than 300,000 units sold, proving the rightness of its original design, as well as its adaptability (as variants ran the gamut from mild to wild).
We drove the Fulvia 2C, which denoted that it was the more powerful twin-carbureted version. With a column shift and wide bucket seats, it’s remarkably spacious for something so small. Despite its entry-level stature, build quality is executive-car superb. It revs like stink, making the most of its approximately 70 hp, and corners
tenaciously. It’s convenient four-speed column shift is amusing enough to make us wonder what the big move to “four on the floor” shifting in the ’60s was all about.
The Fulvia lineup expanded to include a handsome coupe in 1965—also available in hotter HF form—and, in later years, a Zagato variant with a rear hatch. Over time, engine power ranged from the 58 hp of the original 1.1-liter to a rip-snorting 130-plus hp in the last road-going 1.6-liter HFs. The differences in character are
remarkable, and we have a distinct preference for the less rorty models.
While the smaller-engine cars glide down the road without a hint of dreaded torque steer, the larger-engine cars, especially the HF models, have quite a harsh edge. Named for a so-called High Fidelity club established in the 1960s to honor serial owners of its cars, HF-badged machines were to Lancia what M cars are to BMW and have become a ne plus ultra of Lancia collecting. Fulvia HF models went on to dominate world rallying, winning the International Championship for Manufacturers (the forerunner of the WRC) in 1972. All HF cars are special, but the most revered is the even more exclusive HF Fanalone. The appellation stood for “big lights” or, more colloquially, very large breasts. Looks great, rides rough, but lots of fun.
Beta and Scorpion
At its independent height in 1967, Lancia sold fewer than 50,000 cars, not enough to remain standing even then, when single platforms weren’t meant to underpin 5 million cars as they are today. By 1969, Fiat, with the strong encouragement of the Italian government, found itself stepping in to relieve Pesenti.
Still in the prime of life, the Fulvia soldiered on, but the first fruit of new ownership came with the Beta models of 1972. They used Fiat’s much-admired Aurelio Lampredi-designed, twin-cam inline-four, mounted transversely—a first for Lancia but old news for Fiat, which demonstrated how to do it with the 128. The Beta also spearheaded Lancia’s official return to the United States in 1975.
Many will remember them—sedan, coupe, hatch, and mid-engine targa sports car—for their tendency to rust quickly, but they were no worse than many contemporaries and continued to showcase elements of Lancia’s unique design and engineering sense. So forward-thinking was the Beta’s front-drive chassis that General Motors tore down several in the 1970s while prototyping its momentously half-baked X-cars.
Speaking of GM, because its Chevrolet Monte Carlo was already sold here, Lancia had to change the name of its new Pininfarina-designed, mid-engine Montecarlo to the Scorpion for North America. Originally arising from the program that birthed Fiat’s X1/9, it kicked around until being assigned to Lancia. Though it bore the company’s name and was called a Beta, the Scorpion had little in common with other Lancias save its engine and other shared Fiat items. It was the first unibody that Pininfarina engineered entirely in-house and, properly tuned, is plenty fun to drive.
Stratos and 037 Stradale
1974-’78 (Stratos) 1982-’85 (037 Stradale)
From the depth of assimilation desperation, Lancia’s rallying program rose phoenix-like in the 1970s. Mixing the company’s last remaining engineering spirit with a bare modicum of Fiat largesse, it kept the brand at the top of the international circuit for close to 20 years. On the heels of the Fulvia’s 1972 primacy, the Stratos appeared quickly to take over before the effort fell backward. Featuring a V-6 from Ferrari’s Dino, a pressed-steel monocoque, and a beautiful shape—one of best-looking ’70s wedges ever, rendered by Bertone’s Marcello Gandini—the Stratos’ short wheelbase, big power, and rear drive made it even more dramatic to drive than look at.
Slated for a small Fulvia V-4 in the original design conception, Lancia’s team went for the most it could get its hands on, and the Ferrari-powered result was hairier than hell. Stig Blomqvist once called the Stratos “a pussycat,” but his Nordic reindeer balls clearly ran cold. Today the thing seems a hot, uncomfortable widow-maker, offering epic danger from a twitchy chassis that makes a 427 Cobra appear as benign as a Camry. On the other hand, the Stratos bagged 18 WRC wins and three consecutive constructors’ titles from 1974 to 1976, so who are we to argue?
Before Group B regulations encouraged complete insanity, Lancia was back with the 037. A mid-engine silhouette racer loosely based on the Scorpion, it employed the reinforced tub of that car with a different front and rear suspension and Kevlar body panels allied to a supercharged inline-four that churned out as much as 350 hp in rally trim. The 200 examples built in street spec for homologation purposes, like the red one here, made do with 205 hp, still enough to make the 037 a very rapid car indeed and altogether more usable as a road car than the Stratos. It bagged Lancia a Group B constructors’ crown in 1983, with the likes of Walter Röhrl, Attilio Bettega, and Markku Alén at the wheel, but the following season the Audi Quattro abruptly ended 037’s
season in the sun (and sealed the fate of rear-wheel-drive rally cars).
The Quattro knocked the 037 off its throne in 1984, but much more rallying treasure lay ahead for Lancia. It regrouped around its all-wheel-drive Delta Turbo, which morphed into the Delta Integrale, an even more wickedly boosted and flared all-wheel-drive version of a modest, Fiat-derived four-door hatchback. Between 1987 and 1992, privateers would win six straight constructors’ titles with Integrales, the last of which won
Lancia its 10th WRC constructors’ title in 1992, more than any maker in history.
Driven today, this Evo 2, one of the last Integrales made, is easily the most modern-feeling of these rides. Yet one is in no doubt that it is deeply historic, being the very clear antecedent—not the Quattro—for the ultra-rapid, all-wheel-drive econo-racers we know and love, such as the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Evo. Though it’s fair to say that it represents the best of what Fiat knew about going fast at the time, it was a unique offering that did the Lancia name proud. Interior fittings are decidedly early ’90s Fiat, but with this astounding level of performance and tactility, after a few laps I knew that, like so many of its ancestors, this was a Lancia I could live with forever.
Keeping Domenick’s spirit alive
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2015/01/Domenico-Spadaro-2.jpg" alt="Domenico Spadaro founder of Domenick’s” class=”wp-image-815879″ />
Back in the early 1960s, when a good working knowledge of Italian was a precondition for American Lancia dealers, New York mechanic Domenico Spadaro, a recent transplant from Sicily, began taking customer orders for new Appias and Flaminias from his small garage on Ferris Avenue in White Plains, 20 miles north of New York City. Spadaro passed away almost six years ago, and there haven’t been new Lancias to sell in the longest time, but his three children—sons Frank and Santo and daughter Vera—keep the flame alive at Domenick European Auto, servicing Lancias (and other makes) from all over the world. Their honesty and warmth secure customers for life, as does their philosophy. Like their favorite marque, their business is predicated on self-reliance and an ability—along with a willingness and an almost zen eagerness—to fabricate and repair themselves what others might throw away. Like Lancia through the years, their enthusiasm is infectious.