Celebrating 100 years of Lancia
Lancia, one of the oldest and proudest names in automobile history, is still going strong as the company celebrates its 100th birthday this year. The marque is far better known in Europe these days, where you can buy a new Lancia right off the showroom floor, and it still enjoys a tremendous reputation in rallying circles. But for good reasons, among true aficionados, Lancia carries a mystique that far outweighs the cars it produces today and its recent rallying successes. This issue of the Concorso Italiano magazine celebrates Lancia’s 100 years, with a timeline of the marque’s accomplishments starting on the next page. Beginning with the bold and innovative engineering advances that created a strong brand presence for the car, we’ll take in the pre-war years in which the designs of many of Italy’s greatest coachbuilders graced Lancia chassis. We’ll move on to revel once again in the brief period of Lancia’s stunning Formula One and sports car racing success at the same time that their open cars were the darlings of the jet set. We’ll end up with the days of international rally leadership and the present where Lancia is a part of Fiat.
1906-1921: The Alphabet Cars
One hundred years ago, in 1906, Vincenzo Lancia was Chief Inspector for Fiat, an infant Italian car manufacturer making quite a name for itself in the new and exciting sport of motor racing. Lancia was also one of their top racing drivers and a gifted engineer with innovative ideas in his own right. He and another Fiat engineer, Claudio Fogolin, broke away and formed their own Turin-based company to produce cars they called “Lancias.” It did not take long for the first Lancia to appear, and it immediately set the standards for which the company was to become known: innovative engineering aimed at practical solutions to the many design challenges facing the young industry. Along with practical engineering ideas, Lancia also came up with the marketing idea of naming his cars for consecutive letters in the Greek alphabet. Thus his first car, internally known as Tipo 51, became the “Alpha.” The same basic car carried increasingly large-capacity engines for the next several years, each new engine earning the car the badge of the next letter in the Greek alphabet, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Eta, Zeta. The Beta was a racing as well as a commercial success, taking third place in the Targa Florio in 1909. 150 Torpedos were built. Lancia afterwards frequently used the term “Torpedo” to apply to the racing car in a model line. The Theta, first offered in 1914, offered Europe’s first complete standard set of electrical components, including an electric starter (no more cranking!) and lamps. The Theta was a luxurious car popular all over the world, and it continued to be built even after the First World War.
1922-1949: Technological advances and building for others
In 1921 Lancia introduced the Lambda, a car that made a giant leap into the future of auto design and further enhanced the marque’s reputation. The Lambda was the first car in the world to have a stress-bearing body, independent front suspension, the transmission tunnel on the floor, a narrow aluminum block V4 engine, and a luggage compartment incorporated into the stress-bearing body structure. For a big—ten-foot wheelbase—car, it had extraordinary riding and handling characteristics for its day. The Lambda was produced in nine series, with the young Italian designer Giovanni Bertone becoming a particular favorite of Vincenzo Lancia. Through each of the nine series that bore that Lambda name, the car was a commercial as well as a design success, with approximately 12,000 produced.
Building for Others
During the 30s and 40s (except war years) many Lancia chassis, including most of those surviving as museum or concours models today, were fitted by bodies designed by some of Italy’s finest coachbuilders. The first was the Lancia Dilambda. The Dilambda was a step back in time in that the car was constructed with a separate chassis again for ease in fitting on custom coachwork. Bodies fitted on the chassis include a four-door saloon, four-seat and two-seater coupes, and a two-door Cabriolet. The Dilambda was fitted with an eight-cylinder engine of nearly 4 litres. Up to 1936 Lancia built the models Augusta, Astura, Arteria and Ardea.
These cars were again bodied by famous Italian bodywork specialists. The Astura was a particularly important model in Lancia’s history. Light steering, powerful brakes and excellent road-holding all contributed to the car’s performance. Soon it was fitted with some of the most handsome coachwork of the pre-war period, and was widely adopted as the official government transport for high dignitaries of the Mussolini regime. In the year 1936 the unitary bodywork structure was introduced again (14 years after the introduction of the Lancia Lambda) with the presentation of the beautiful Lancia Aprilia. The Aprilia featured independent suspension all around, drum brakes, and an engine with cross-flow hemispherical combustion chambers, all very revolutionary for the day. As was often the case with Lancias in the 30s, coupes as well as saloons and roadsters were produced and some models were trimmed for road racing. Vincenzo Lancia, Lancia’s founder, never saw the superlative Aprilia go into production; the great man died in February 1937 of a heart attack. During World War Two, most of Lancia’s facilities went into war vehicle production and most of their truly special cars into hiding places. The Aprilia continued to be produced after the War, and sported semi-modern bodies up through its final year of 1949.
1950–1960: The Racy Fifties
In 1950, another great Lancia model was launched: the Aurelia, which boasted the world’s first production V6 engine. The Aurelia went through six series, which came quickly one after another until it ceased production in 1958. As usual, several chassis were produced so that leading coachworkers could express their own design, Aurelias B-10, B-12, and B-21 were factory bodied. The early ’50s Aurelia B20 GT was the first car to be labeled, “Gran Turismo”, and it earned that title through a supreme combination of Italian amenities and vitality. The very first series Aurelias were the B10 Berlinas. They used a 1754cc version of the V6 that produced 56 hp. The B21 was released in 1951 with a larger engine; a 2-door B20 GT Coupe appeared that same year. It had a shorter wheelbase and a Ghia-designed body, which was refined and further developed by Pinin Farina. The second series Aurelia coupe pushed power up to 80 hp from the 1991cc V6. Other changes included better brakes and minor styling tweaks. A new B22 Berlina model was released in 1952 with dual Webers. The third series appeared in 1953 with a larger 2451cc version of the engine. The fourth series introduced the new de Dion rear suspension. The fifth and sixth series were more luxury-oriented. One of Pinin Farina’s (later the Pininfarina Company) most classical and appealing designs, the Aurelia Gran Turismo roadster appeared in June 1954 in a pre-production version, and made its official debut on an international stage at the Brussels Motor Show in January 1955. Although it was earmarked primarily for the U.S. market, it was a great success everywhere. After the Spider versions, the next two open versions were known as the “Convertibles” with the epithet “tipo America” to reflect the model’s great success in that country. For a few years in the late 50s, the Aurelia GT was the car of rich and famous jet-set types. 50s icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Prince Rainier of Monaco were often seen tooling around in one. More road car than racer, they achieved only modest competitive success.
Lancia racing in the 50s
1951 saw the Aurelia competing in motorsports, achieving “many successes, especially at the expense of Alfa Romeo,” notes carsfromitaly.com. That year, Lancia’s little coupe averaged 82.14 mph in the Le Mans race, winning its class. The early Aurelias were the most successful, with later versions adding weight. A 2.5-liter Lancia won its class at Le Mans, and the 1953 Liege-Rome-Liege rally. In 1954, Lancia won its class at Le Mans again. In the highly prestigious 1953 Carrera Panamericana, Fangio (averaging 105,73mph), Taruffi, and Castelloti pulled off a 1, 2, and 3 finish with Lancia’s new 2.9-liter V6 Sports racer, the D24. They beat the works teams from Ferrari and Mercedes in the process. That year they also won the Targa Florio. Back again in 1955 with 3.3-liter model, the D25, they were again successful, winning the Mille Miglia and coming in second in Sebring before the factory’s racing efforts were brought to a sudden halt. Lancia also played a significant role in Formula One for a short time, entering in 1954 with a revolutionary D50 model. This featured external oil and fuel tanks located on each side of the driver. Lancia pulled out of Formula One in 1955 after the death of driver Alberto Ascari (and donated its remaining D50s to Ferrari). While competitive, they did not win a World Championship Formula One event, although Ferrari later won several in slightly remodeled D50s. Lancia also destroyed all D24 and D25s at the same time. Racing was expensive, and despite sales and racing success, Vincenzo’s wife and son, Gianni sold the company to Italian financier Carlo Pesenti in 1955.
1960–1970: The fabulous Flavia, Flaminia, and Fulvia
The 1960 Lancia Flavia was the first Italian production car with front-wheel-drive. Styled (rather peculiarly) in-house under Dr. Antonio Fessia, the Flavia also featured a state-of-the-art braking system: split-circuit hydraulic brakes with all-around discs. It was initially offered as a four-door saloon, then as a coupe, and then Pininfarina and Vignale built sport roasters on the Fulvia chassis. Fuel injection and other engine upgrades were offered later in the decade. Altogether, 21 different recorded models of Flavias were built. The Flaminia, often referred to in its day as the “Rolls Royce of Italy”, was Lancia’s flagship model during that time. Bodies were designed by leading Italian coachbuilders, and it was available throughout its lifetime as a sedan, coupe, and cabriolet. Like the Aurelia Spider, the Flaminia was a favorite with politicians and movie stars. When in 1960 Queen Elizabeth II announced her visit to Italy, President Gronchi commissioned Pininfarina to deliver four stretched Lancia Flaminia limousines to appropriately service the visit (and also enrich his own dated presidential fleet). Among the “glitterati” who owned Flaminias were famous actors Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Brigette Bardot, and Audrey Hepburn (while she was living on the continent). Ernest Hemingway also owned a Flaminia. The Fulvia, introduced in 1964, was the last Lancia to be fully designed in-house and was the company’s greatest modern sales success. Coupes and sedan Fulvias were produced. The Fulvia again used front wheel drive and again the brakes were upgraded from the Flavia. Like the Flavia, many configurations were used, with 15 official models recorded. The Fulvia’s high-powered rally versions were very successful, including winning the World Rally Championship in 1972. In 1969, Fiat assumed control of Lancia and another era was set to begin.
The 1970s: Rallying success despite Fiat
Although the late 1960s had seen Lancia become very serious about rally racing and enjoy some success with special versions of the Fulvia, new owner Fiat forced them to discontinue the Fulvia and build new cars using Fiat engines and chassis. These new cars were the Beta, Scorpion, and Zagato, each unfortunately built on cheap Fiat 128 chassis, although Lancia engineers strengthened them by using Fulvia elements and dropped Fiat’s best 4-cyclinder engine into the cars in a mid-engine configuration. Two of the resulting models—the Beta and Zagato—were excellent performers compared to their contemporaries. The Scorpion (known as the Monte Carlo in Europe, where it had a much hotter engine) is really a big Fiat X1/9 although it was sold in the U.S. with some success. Fortunately for its reputation, Lancia also came out with the Stratos, a legendary purpose-built V-6 rally car specially designed for rallying competition. The car won the 1974, 1975, and 1976 world rally championships and also competed in Group 4 and 5 racing with some success. The 70s rallying accomplishments were to continue; by 1992 Lancia vehicles had scored eleven world rally championships. However this staggering record of success did not win them much notice outside of Europe. Late in the 70s, Lancia may have missed one of the greatest opportunities of all time when it failed to develop the world’s first minivan, the Giugiaro-designed Megagamma Concept.
The 80s to mid-90s: Economy and performance
Although launched in 1979, and voted Europe’s 1980 “Car of the Year” for its Giugiaro-designed looks alone, the Lancia Delta really came into its own as the Delta HF Integrale, a four-wheel-drive hatchback with a very powerful engine. A tweaked version of the HF dominated the World Rally Championship for years and won the Constructors Championship six times in a row from 1987 to 1992. Standard Deltas were compact family cars designed by Giugiaro. The Lancia Prisma was a midsize car built by Lancia in the mid-80s. It was basically a more sedate, sedan version of the Lancia Delta, and like its smaller hatchback “brother”, shared its chassis and engines with Fiat products. Lancia Thema came along later in the 1980s. It was one of the most spacious and comfortable European cars of its time. Its 2.0 L-shaped four-cylinder engine, available in both normally-aspirated and turbo versions, was very popular, refined, and offered good performance. The Thema re-established Lancia as a high quality luxury producer after the rust and build quality problems the marque experienced with the Lancia Beta in the 1970s. Lancia built fuel-injected, turbo, diesel, and even turbo-diesel versions of many of its models in the 80s, with an accompanying increase in performance. A decidedly Fiat-influenced and under-performing car, the economy Y10, was also produced in the 80s with mild sales success.
The mid-90s to today: hits and misses
In the latter years of the 20th century and today, Lancia has become a marque in transition, especially in the U.S. Its glorious past of international racing success and as a builder of luxury chassis for the leading coachbuilders is now long years ago, and its more recent rallying success means little here. As for exciting cars, it appears they are no longer a priority, and you will see few Lancias from later than the mid-80s at car shows, especially the Concorso Italiano. The Thema survived until 1994, when the marque withdrew from right hand drive markets (including Britain) because of poor sales. But despite little visibility in English-speaking countries, Lancia continued to be one of the most popular manufacturers on the Italian market and the Thema’s replacement, the Kappa, was reasonably successful. The Dedra, a mid-sized automobile offered both as a sedan and station wagon, was offered from 1990 to 1998. Despite good build quality, it was not a sales success. In 1996, the small, hatchback-bodied Ypsilon was launched as the successor to the Y10. The first generation was available only with small gasoline engines, and failed to create much excitement until it was re-launched in 2003 with more luxury features. The early-2000s Lybra, which replaced the Dedra, shows the company’s close relationship with Alfa Romeo, its sister company under Fiat. The Lybra is a premium mid-size car based on the Alfa Romeo 156.
The Lancia Thesis, first produced in 2001, is a more luxurious model. It is available with naturally aspirated and turbocharged engines ranging from 2.0 L to 3.2 L, in both straight-5 or V6 configurations. The newly launched (2003) Ypsilon is Lancia’s best-selling model, despite the fact that Fiat Auto is trying to market the Lancia brand as luxury and the Ypsilon (based on the Fiat Punto) is decidedly not. The Lancia Musa is a clone of the Fiat Idea. The car shares virtually every component with the Idea, and is differentiated by the typical Lancia triangular chromed grille, deluxe trimmings and extra kit. The Musa relies only on the biggest Fiat engines. Lancia competes gamely in the minivan market with the Phedra model, one of Europe’s more upscale such vehicles. The name “Lancia” still has panache in many parts of Europe. The marque will continue (depending upon the success of its owner Fiat), hoping for a return to its well deserved and once-heady reputation as a technological innovator, chassis builder for the greats, and international racing and rallying superstar.