Top 10: greatest-ever Lancias
December 07 2006
Ferrari, Lamborghini, De Tomaso: all venerable Italian sports car manufacturers with histories stretching back as far as the car itself. Well no actually. The oldest, Ferrari dates back to 1946, De Tomaso to 1959 and Lamborghini to 1963. Even Maserati didn’t make its first car until 1926, six years after Alfa Romeo came into being. In fact the only two Italian marques to celebrate their centenaries are Fiat, back in 1999, and now Lancia at the Bologna Motor Show which opens today.
Sadly absent from the British market since 1994, I personally have a massive soft spot for the brand. My first car was a Beta coupé, which injected a decent dose of style into my student motoring. So naturally I jumped at the chance to countdown the best of the Torinese marque’s motors, particularly as a return to the UK market is rumoured to be on the cards.
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It’s little surprise that a Lambda is the eventual winner of the dash to the south of France in the classic movie Monte Carlo or Bust. It was probably the most innovative car of its day. Inspired by ship design, Vincenzo Lancia made the body of the car part of the structure, eliminating the need for a heavy frame. The transmission tunnel provided a backbone and positioning the passengers alongside it gave a lower centre of gravity. The car also had Vincenzo Lancia’s own sliding pillar independent front suspension design, which he allegedly demonstrated to passengers by driving directly at kerbs, four-wheel brakes and a narrow angle V4 engine. More than 11,00 were made between 1922 and 1931.
Has there ever been a more stunning competition car than the Stratos HF? Wild, wedged-shaped motor show concepts rarely turn a wheel under their own power, let alone win three World Rally Championships. But when the Bertone Stratos was unveiled in Turin in 1970, Lancia competition boss Cesare Fiorio knew it was the homologation special he was looking for. The FIA had recently changed the rules, allowing rally cars to be based on a production run of just 400 road cars and the Stratos concept’s mid-engined layout, short wheelbase and wide stance would be perfect for rallying. The problem was that the Fulvia V4 that powered it wasn’t powerful enough.
However, the Dino 246, made by Lancia’s Fiat stable-mate Ferrari, was ending production which meant its 2.4-litre V6 would be available and, as luck would have it, proved a perfect fit. Tuned to produce 280bhp from the Dino’s 190bhp, the car was homologated in time for the 1974 World Rally Championship which it duly won in the hands of Sandro Munari. And then it did it again the following year. And yet again in 1976. In private hands, the car remained a points winner as late as 1981, winning the Monte Carlo rally for a fourth time in 1979, but internal politics meant factory support was withdrawn in favour of the Fiat 131 Abarths from 1977.
Juan Manuel Fangio is regarded as probably the greatest racing driver of all time and he drove an Aurelia, as did Britain’s 1958 F1 champion Mike Hawthorn. Introduced as the B10 saloon in 1950, the Aurelia, named after an ancient Roman highway, featured the world’s first production V6. In 1951 this was fitted to the beautiful Ghia designed B20 coupé and the Gran Turismo automobile was born. The rear featured a complex transaxle with gearbox, clutch, differential and inboard brakes while the front used the trademark Lancia sliding pillar suspension. Clearly the handling was impressive enough to keep F1 drivers happy and the car was in production until 1958.
Yet another Lancia rally winner, the Fulvia was triumphant in the 1972 World Rally Championship. Designed as a replacement for the Appia, the Fulvia was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1963 and featured a double overhead camshaft V4 engine which was of such a narrow angle that it only needed one cylinder head. Canting it over onto its side allowed a sleek bonnet line and very low centre of gravity for superb handling. This was helped by wishbone front suspension and all-wheel disc brakes. American magazine Road & Track tested a Fulvia in 1967 and described it as, “a precision motorcar, an engineering tour de force.” Enough said.
The Lancia Delta had quite a good start in life. It wore a sharply styled body from Giorgetto Giugiaro, had design input from Saab (it was sold as the Saab 600 in Sweden) to make it more suitable for cold climes and it was Car of the Year in 1980. But it’s what it became that makes it worthy of inclusion on this list. Firstly it spawned the monstrous turbocharged and supercharged Delta S4 with which it shared little but a name. The car was capable of 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds on gravel and in the hands of Henri Toivonen lapped the Estoril Grand Prix circuit in 1986 quick enough to have qualified sixth on that year’s Formula One grid.
Sadly it was Toivonen’s fatal crash later that year in an S4 that led to Group B being banned by the FISA. However Lancia had the Delta HF 4x4 waiting in the wings. It had taken the existing turbocharged HF road car and added four-wheel-drive plus a clever torque-sensing rear differential, previously only seen on F1 cars. This meant the Delta had maximum grip all the time and romped home to the 1987 World Rally Championship. The car adopted the now famous Integrale name in 1988 and won 10 of the 11 WRC events. Further develoments meant the Delta Integrale won the WRC constructor’s title every year from then until 1992 and the road car is a guaranteed future classic.
Plagued by strikes in the late ‘60s, Lancia became part of the Fiat empire in 1969, while Alfa Romeo had come under the aegis of the Italian state. Hoping to position Lancia as its luxury brand, Fiat commissioned Pininfarina to design a prestigious saloon and coupé aimed squarely at Mercedes and BMW. Under the bonnet was the horizontally-opposed “boxer” engine from the defunct Flavia, an unusual choice when rivals used more refined six-cylinder motors. Suspension was originally meant to be Citroen’s hydropneumatic system but the French government vetoed technology sharing with a foreign business so it was McPherson struts all round as on the contemporary Beta.
This combination of front-wheel-drive, lightweight all-alloy engine, low centre of gravity and fully independent suspension led Motor magazine to describe the handling as “astonishing”. Unfortunately the Gamma was plagued by reliability problems and the slightly bloated looks of the saloon didn’t meet with universal approval. The Pininfarina designed and built coupé however was stunner with looks akin to, but decidedly better than, the contemporary Ferrari 400. The car remained in production until 1983 and this is where my Lancia bias creeps in once again since my father owns one and has on very rare occasions trusted me enough to allow me behind the wheel.
This is the car which formed Vincenzo Lancia’s legacy. It was the last one designed and engineered under his supervision. He sadly died of a heart attack, aged 56, just months before it was presented to the public in 1937. The Aprilia again featured a monocoque body and was designed along aerodynamic principles, having an extremely good drag coefficient for its day of 0.47. It even featured a flat undertray, something that’s now de rigueur on supercars. Lancia sliding pillar at the front plus swing axles and torsion bars at the rear provided outstanding handling and roadholding. Tintin even drove one in The Land of Black Gold and an Aurelia starred in the Calculus Affair.
Who can blame Herbie the Beetle for falling in love with one of these mid-engined sports cars in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo? A stunning two-seater, the 1975 Monte Carlo was based around Beta mechanicals which meant a rorty 2.0-litre twin-cam mounted amidships and driving the rear wheels. Designed and built by Pininfarina the Monte Carlo initially suffered from prematurely locking brakes and was withdrawn from sale in 1979 and reintroduced the following year with styling tweaks and the braking problem resolved. The solution? Lancia engineers disconnected the brake servo. The Monte Carlo spawned successful Group 5 and Group C racing cars and the mighty 037 rally machine.
Parts sharing is now so commonplace that even Audi will be using Mercedes-Benz engines in the near future. Wanting a halo model for its Thema executive saloon range, Lancia naturally cast around within the Fiat empire and chanced upon the 3.0-litre V8 from the Ferrari 308 sports car. Softened slightly to suit the more sober saloon, the V8, producing 215bhp and built at the Ducati factory, was shoehorned into the Thema’s engine bay and shown at the 1986 Turin Show.
The interior was swathed in Poltrona Frau leather while external changes were limited to a coachline, Ferrari-style five-spoke alloys and a discreet spoiler that lifted out from the bootlid. The 8.32 continued in the facelifted Series II Thema from 1988 although by this time it was actually outpaced by the turbo model which used the 16-valve engine from the Integrale. A price tag of £40,000 and left-hand-drive only meant that just nine were sold in Britain. Total production for both series was just over 3,500.
Lancia may have taken engines from Ferrari but Lancia once handed the Prancing Horse an entire racing car and a World Championship. The Lancia D50 debuted at the last race of the 1954 season, the Spanish Grand Prix. It was an astonishing design by master engineer Vittorio Jano. Its quad-cam V8 was used as a stressed member in the tubular space-frame chassis and the fuel was carried in two panniers slung between the front and rear wheels, either side of the cockpit. This was intended to smooth airflow and keep weight distribution consistent as the fuel was used through a race.
In the hands of the legendary Alberto Ascari the car set the fastest lap on its debut and led the race until clutch problems forced Ascari to retire. In 1955 the Lancias were competitive but unreliable, Ascari winning just a couple of minor races. Then, just four days after he had plunged into the harbour during the Moncao Grand Prix, Ascari was killed in a sportscar race. Giovanni Lancia was devastated and handed the team, lock stock and barrel to Scuderia Ferrari. With the great Fangio behind the wheel, partnered by Englishman Peter Collins, the D50 won five of the eight races giving Fangio the title. Sadly Enzo Ferrari was unwilling to develop an alien design and by the following year the D50 was uncompetitive.
Top 10: greatest-ever Lancias
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