Curbside Classic: 1970 Lancia Fulvia Berlina Series II – The State Of The Art

Italy and art go together, like England and cricket, France and wine, Germany and sausages, Sweden and pickled herring, Spain and bull fighting. And art is an endlessly varied thing – great art can be new or old, still or moving, simple or complex, silent or noisy, large or small, clearly deliberate or seemingly incidental. Such is the importance of art that the term is applied to things that are not art, but can be treated as art. Are the Citroen DS, Concorde or the Viaduc de Millau just engineering or are they also pieces of art?

Lancia so often asked this question, and the answer was often “Both”. A piece of engineering and a piece of art as well. And perhaps the last in the definitive sequence was the Fulvia. The Fulvia may, at first glance, appear to be a conventional three box four door saloon. But beneath that conventional surface, there was artistry at the finest level.

The Fulvia was a replacement for the famous Appia, and was funded by the Pesenti family, who bought Lancia in 1956 from the Lancia family. Carlo Pesenti invested heavily in production capacity at the Chivasso plant, and tasked Antonio Fessia with designing cars to build with it, replacing all the existing Lancia products. Crucially, in contrast to many takeovers, Pesenti directed that the new cars retain the innovative spirit and engineering quality that had made Lancia famous and respected over the previous 50 years. The business that introduced the monocoque (1922), the five speed gearbox (1948), the V6 engine (1950), the extensive use of the V4 engine, independent front suspension and rear transaxle was allowed to continue, not to be subsumed in some version of orthodoxy dressed up for the showroom.

The first of the new cars was the larger Flavia saloon and coupe, introduced in 1959 with a 1.5 litre four cylinder flat four boxer engine, driving the front wheels. Pesenti was clearly not going to hold Fessia on a tight conservative leash. All round disc brakes and wishbone suspension made the cut too. By 1965, this engine was 1.85 litre with fuel injection, and the Flavia was a true 100mph car. Having said that, it did cost double a Ford Corsair 2000E or a third more than a BMW 1800ti, so being technically innovative and having quality engineering clearly came at a price. Still, Fiats were the car for everyone, Alfa Romeos were for the sports enthusiasts, and Lancias were connoisseurs. The sort with the correct vintage of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in their cellars and good Parmesan in their larders.

This car was competing against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz 190 (W120) and 220 (W110), BMW Neue Klasse, Citroen DS, Alfa Romeo 1900 and perhaps the Rover 2000, Jaguar Mk2 or Peugeot 404. In certain aspects, it could trump each, though all of them had strong merits. In case you’re wondering Flavia was the Roman road from running between Trieste and Dalmatia, in modern day Croatia. The competitors were mostly named on engine size, but then they’re weren’t Italian.

The next car was the Fulvia, again named after a Roman road, in this case between Piacenza and Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. This was a more compact car, with a 97 inch wheelbase and an overall length of 162 inches. Pretty much the same size as a Hillman Hunter or Ford Cortina, a little bigger than a Vauxhall Viva.

There the similarity ends. Here was a car that truly extended and built on Lancia’s history and reputation for ingenuity and the application of different thinking. Let’s look at the major aspects.

It was front wheel drive, with a V4 engine. Lancia had been using V4 engines since 1922 and the Fulvia’s engine was the third major generation of V4 Lancia had produced. All were intriguing and had one feature that never ceases to catch attention. They may have been V4 engines, but they had one cylinder head, and the overhead camshaft (even in 1922) served both banks of cylinders. In 1922, the angle between the cylinder banks was 20 degrees; by 1963 for the Fulvia, this was just 13 degrees and the engine now had a double overhead camshaft, one for the intake and one for the exhaust valves.

Initially the engine was 1091cc and gave 59bhp, which was not to be sneezed at in 1963. By 1965, it had 85bhp from 1298cc and ultimately there was a version with 1584cc and 134bhp, and a further reduced included angle between the cylinder banks. This was no BMC A series engine. Materials used were at the upper end too, with only the compact block cast in iron. Anything else was likely to be an aluminium casting, not a pressed piece. Paul covered it here.

Of course, aside from being different and therefore very Lancia, one of the great advantages of this engine was the short length compared with an in-line engine. Lancia took full benefit of this by installing it in ahead of the front wheels, and at an angle of 45 degrees to keep the bonnet line lower, longitudinally in what we may now call an Audi fashion. The four speed gearbox was mounted behind the engine, but the combination of a short engine and a very forward engine mounting kept footwell intrusion to a minimum, and the packaging was a step better than a rear drive competitor. No wonder Sir Alec Issigonis admired it, and wanted to use a V4 for the ADO16 (BMC 1100/1300, Austin America).

You can see the impact of the forward mounted and compact engine and transmission on the interior space. Issigonis would have loved this, and the simple dash. Interesting to compare this with the Citroen DS Paul showed us last week, with very significant engine cover intrusion.

Suspension wise, the Fulvia was a combination of regular and not regular. The front suspension used wishbones and the rear a beam axle. So far, so straight forward. But then you hear that the car had a transverse front leaf spring and twin leaf springs and a Panhard rod at the rear, perhaps not so expected. The front suspension, engine and gearbox were all mounted on a subframe to reduce noise and vibration. Handing was generally accepted as being pretty good, with an acceptable amount of understeer and little or no torque steer and good grip and traction. The ride was supple too, especially when cruising on an autostrada.

Braking was by discs all round, a first in the class, but the third Lancia to be so equipped after the Flaminia and Flavia. Radial tyres were also used from the off, as were De Carbon high pressure gas dampers.

And visually, this was an Italian car. The salon was styled by Piero Castagnero at the Lancia Centro Stile, and tied in nicely with the larger Flavia. You may call it conservative; at first look it may not excite but being Italian and a Lancia, the detailing was thorough and the fit and finish were sharp. And it was produced in a factory where the quality inspectors were seemingly Alitalia stewardesses on their days off.

Panel gaps were, for the period, tight, all the chrome fittings were actually polished stainless steel. Like the contemporary Alfa Romeo Giulia, the Fulvia took the nominally ordinary saloon form to a slightly higher and more complete level, and earned the unspoken respect that is imitation. Look at the Fiat 124, 128, Autobianchi A111, Volvo 144 or Ford Zodiac Mk4 even, or Alfa Romeo Alfetta perhaps?

The interior matched the style and appeal of the exterior.

Where else could pull off these instruments other than Italy?

There was one major rejig of the saloon – in 1969, it went to series 2 with a revised rear suspension and rear roof and boot profile, offering more headroom and luggage space, and a more modern rear style. From 1970, the engine went to 1298cc with a five speed gearbox and a revised braking system. I’m calling the feature car as a 1969-70 series 2 as the smudgy photo I took of the interior appears to show a four speed gearbox. If this is your car, and you can confirm or correct, please do so.

The later cars had a slightly calmer and, to me at least, considerably less charismatic dash and interior. But the ergonomics of the radio confirm it is Italian.

Of course, we remember the Fulvia for two other variants as well, both of which have been covered on CC before. The Fulvia Coupe, with totally different styling also by Piero Castagnero came in 1965, and is now recognised as one the definitive cars of the 1960s, and one of the great post war Italian cars. It started with a 1216cc 79bhp engine that evolved to 1564cc and 113 bhp by 1974 for the 1600HF variant.

Cohort photo by Benoit

The styling remained simple, delicate, effective and pretty well timeless, even if it did cost close to Jaguar E Type money in the UK in the 1960s. It was, undoubtedly, the Coupe to beat for several years.

The Coupe was closely based on the saloon, albeit with a shortened wheelbase and some suspension tuning, including a rear anti-roll bar. Close behind came the HF, lightened by the use of Plexiglas side windows, aluminium doors, bonnet and boot, and reduced trim and equipment, including the bumpers. Still a car of huge appeal, and genuinely deserves that recognition. Lancia tweaked the engine for more power too. This car was the root of Lancia’s success in rallying – even now, Lancia is still the most successful marque in the World Rally Championship, by championship wins, with not just the Fulvia but the Stratos, Delta and 037. From 1974 to 1992, Lancia won the title 10 times.

The other is the absolute star of the Fulvia – the Sport Zagato. This was built on the Coupe platform and came with the 1.3 litre V4, and assembled by Zagato for whom the design was completed by Ercole Spada, a man with a resumé to match just about anyone.

Being innovators, Lancia and Spada had novel features in this car – the rear hatch could be opened electrically by around an inch to aid ventilation – a sort of tilt sunroof effect.

The bonnet was side hinged (on the right hand side) to aid access to the canted over engine, the spare wheel and tools were accessed on a tray that slid out from a panel behind the rear number plate and there was a strut brace between the rear suspension towers. Details like that might appeal, or might not, but when you see the car they fade into the background. The Zagato was built in aluminium, and was actually less stiff than the Coupe, as well as considerably more expensive.

Commercially, you could argue that the Fulvia and Flavia generation were not successful. Despite the investments, Pesenti had to sell to the business to Fiat for a nominal sum in 1969. Antonio Fessia had died in 1968, and the company was, engineering wise, leaderless.

The Fulvia was replaced in 1974 by the Lancia Beta, a car that many remember fondly, some remember only for the corrosion saga and others as the first Fiat Lancia. It had a Fiat engine, albeit with a bespoke Lancia designed cylinder head as well as adapting it for a front wheel drive installation. But to many it was not true Lancia.

There was one thing that the Fulvia, and indeed most pre-Fiat Lancias, was not. It was not a Brougham.  It was not luxury and comfort feature rich like a wood and leather trimmed Jaguar or Humber, or like a Ford Cortina 2000E or Zodiac Executive. It was a premium car, that earned that premium for its engineering, the materials and the manufacture, not its interior trim or eight track system. It had cast aluminium headlight bezels, not pressed shiny chrome. The curves on the wings were carefully shaped, almost sculptured, and complex to press in the 1960s. The boot and bonnet hinges were compact, effective and clearly self-supporting.

The Fulvia showed many things, apart the risks of the lack of cost control in business. It had something of everything – the ingenuity of Issigonis, some of the innovation of a Citroen DS, the difference of a SAAB 99, the quality of execution of a 1960s Mercedes-Benz, the completely engineered air of a Peugeot 404, the driver appeal of an Alfa Romeo, the conservative non-conformity of a Rover 2000, the individuality of the carrozzeria, the style of Italy. It had it all, in a compact package, with great materials and workmanship, and a price to match. Either an obvious choice, or a very tough sell, depending on the potential buyer.

One of Britain’s great motoring journalists and commentators of the post war period was John Bolster. He said a Lancia owner “is not afraid to pay for more engineering quality, and every part of the car must appeal to him for its mechanical excellence; merely functional adequacy is not enough.” That is a summary that not only applies to mechanical things; the principle also applies to pieces of art. And it sounds like a Fulvia owner to me.