by James Kraus
I never enjoy being coerced into selecting some favourite or best car. First off, for almost any given occasion or individual there is a vastly different car which would best warrant such a distinction.
Yet I must admit that there are a few vehicles that for me personally always seem to float to the top. The chosen few generally feature unique and technically intriguing engineering. Their uncompromising, sometimes idiosyncratic design show complete contempt for market research, study clinics or other dilutive influences. They represent what their designers thought right and proper for a motorcar and damn the torpedoes. The Fulvia is one of these.
The various Fulvias never excelled in generating flashy performance numbers in the realm of speed or acceleration; thus they were mercifully spared the attention of those enthusiasts who deign to judge cars by such simplistic criteria. Nevertheless; because of its overall competence in real-world performance, the Fulvia acquitted itself well in competition. As an example, the Fulvia 1.2 HF finished the 1966 Targa Florio 11th overall, posting an average speed less then 5 kph slower than an 1.8 litre MGB driven by rally legend Timo Mäkinen. In the 1970 Targa, a 1.6 HF driven by Cladio Maglioli and Sandro Munari finished 9th overall ahead of all production cars including a phalanx of nine Porsche 911’s. The only finishers ahead of the Fulvia were the sports-racing and sports-prototypes entered by Ferrari (the 512), Porsche (908), Alfa Romeo (Type 33) and Abarth (2000 S).
Lancias were cars designed for and driven by the cognoscente. An old Italian expression held that Fiat sold cars to the masses, Alfa to sportsmen and Lancia to connoisseurs. One Australian motoring writer compared driving a Lancia to savouring a good Shiraz, no doubt envisioning swirling a goblet of Penfolds Grange Hermitage ‘55.
The Fulvia line began in 1963 with the introduction of the 1.1 litre Berlina designed under the direction of Antonio Fessia. Hailed by many journalists as the King of Small Cars, the Fulvia was small, but by no means inexpensive to build or inexpensive to buy. The Fulvia was the second Lancia to utilize front-wheel drive, following on the heels of the Flavia introduced three years earlier. Unlike the French front-wheel drive designs that placed the engine behind the front axle for better weight distribution, or the transverse layout pioneered by the BMC Mini, Lancia located their engines ahead of the front axle, and the transmission behind. To keep front end of the car from becoming too heavy and too long, Lancia used the shortest possible engine configurations. Where the Flavia was designed around a horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, the Fulvia incorporated an exquisitely engineered narrow-angle (13 degree) V4 designed by Zaccone Mina.
Lancia was long a proponent of the vee configuration; having produced the worlds first V4 in 1922 and the first mass-produced V6 in 1950. While their V6 was a 60 degree design, all the Lancia V4 engines featured very narrow angles of between 10-20 degrees, allowing both banks of the engine to share a single common cylinder head. The Fulvia’s predecessor, the Appia, utilized a V4, but that engine had reached the limit of its development due to breathing limitations. This was due to the fact that the long ports traversing across the single cylinder head to service the far bank had to wind their way through a nest of pushrods, thus limiting their size and shape. Eliminating the pushrods in favour of overhead camshafts neatly addressed this problem in the new Fulvia engine. One of the two chain-driven overhead camshafts operated the intake valves on both banks through rocker arms, the other similarly controlled all the exhaust valves.
The mating surfaces of the block and cylinder head were machined flat to simplify manufacturing. To compensate, the tops of the pistons were slanted 6.5 degrees to properly match up to the combustion chambers. The entire engine was canted over a full 45 degrees to allow a lower hoodline.
The cylinder head and crankcase were die cast aluminium. Only the very compact cylinder block was cast of iron. There were no pressed metal parts on the engine; all major bolt-on pieces were beautifully finished aluminium castings including the cam cover, oil sump and asymmetrically staggered four-blade cooling fan. The engine was little short of a masterpiece. Its design was resurrected in the 1990’s by Volkswagen, who continue to use this narrow V configuration (VW use 10.6 and 15.0 degree versions) to create V5’s, V6’s, and cast in pairs or sets, W8’s, W12’s and the W16 of the Bugatti Veyron.
The suspension was fairly straightforward with upper and lower wishbones in front and a beam axle at the rear. In common with many German cars, the Fulvia incorporated very large rubber progressive bump stops that acted as supplementary springs. In the front, these came into play after only 45mm of jounce travel.
The real key to the Fulvia’s acclaimed ride and handling was its De Carbon high pressure monotube gas-charged dampers. Christian Bourcier de Carbon developed and patented this design in 1953. Lancia engineers were among the first to recognize the performance advantages of the gas-charged concept and fitted the De Carbon units to the Flavia and Fulvia. The De Carbon technology was later licensed to Bilstein, who popularized the principle.
Lancia also spared no expense with tires, fitting the Fulvia exclusively with either Michelin X or XAS radial ply tires. Lancia was the first automobile manufacturer to seize upon the benefits of the belted radial ply design and began phasing in the radically new Michelin tires as standard equipment beginning in May of 1950.
The braking system used discs on all four wheels, the first such application (in a tie with the Renault R8) on a small sedan, putting the Fulvia in elite company; the only sedans available at any price with four-wheel disc brakes were Daimlers, Jaguars, six-cylinder Fiats, three-litre and V8 Mercedes and Lancia’s own Flaminia and Flavia.
Lancia were never meant for the buyer that purchases cars by the kilo or believe that bigger is better, and the Fulvia was no exception. It was the most expensive 1.1 litre car on the European market. Those seeking the most size or power for their money would have to look elsewhere. What the Fulvia buyer got instead was a precision-engineered car built like a fine Swiss chronograph.
In addition to the finely crafted mechanical components, the Fulvias bodywork was built to a similarly high standard with some of the smallest and most consistent panel gaps to be found in the 1960’s. One never found a Fulvia with dull, corroded or pitted trim because the exterior brightwork was neither chromed metal or anodized aluminium. It was all polished stainless steel, even the bumpers.
Many details were incorporated to enhance the enjoyment of the discerning owner. The lids of the engine and luggage compartments were counterbalanced and both compartments illuminated. The spare tire was discretely enclosed in a vinyl cover. The edges of the doors had red warning lights that illuminated when the doors were opened. The centre panel of the dashboard hinged downward to provide for easy access to the switches, fuses and relays. Standard equipment included a dipping day/night mirror, passenger vanity mirror and fully integrated reversing lamps: all luxury items in 1963.
In 1965, Lancia introduced the Fulvia Coupé. In a break with tradition, Lancia eschewed the Italian carrozzerias and produced a model designed in-house by Piero Castagnero. The Coupé debuted with an engine enlarged to 1.2 litres, the addition of twin dual-throat carburettors and a higher 9.0:1 compression ratio. While sharing the suspension and drivetrain with the Berlina, the wheelbase was shortened by 150mm and a rear anti-roll bar was added. The latter is eminently desirable on a front-wheel drive car to extract the best ride and handling since the resulting roll stiffness at the rear will aid in attenuating understeer. Nonetheless, they would not become commonplace for another decade.
A few months following the launch of the Fulvia Coupé, Lancia introduced what would become the most illustrious and celebrated of all Fulvias; the HF. This corresponded with the debut of Lancia Squadra Corsa, managed by Cesare Fiorio, the first Lancia works competition department since 1954.
The HF was lightened through the use of aluminium for the doors and engine and luggage compartment lids, Plexiglas rear and quarter windows and deletion of much of the trim, including removal of the bumpers. All together, 170 kg was eliminated, bringing the weight down to a svelte 860 kg for the stradale version and only 790 kg for the corsa variant which did without a heater, air cleaner housing and other non-essentials. New camshafts added eight extra horsepower and an oil cooler was fitted.
Meanwhile, twin-carburettor versions of the 1.1 and 1.2 litre engines were offered in the Berlina and in accordance with a long tradition of working with the Milanese carrozzeria, Lancia offered a Zagato-bodied coupé in 1967. The new Sport Zagato was based on the shortened platform of the Coupé and coincided with the introduction of a 1.3 litre version of the V4.
The Zagato Coupé body was crafted from aluminium and had slightly lower aerodynamic drag (mostly from being 100 mm lower) than the standard coupé. The Fulvia Sport was the top-line Fulvia, being considerably pricier and rarer than the standard Coupé. The Sport was fitted with a taller final drive with the result that the lighter Sport and heavier Coupé were evenly matched in performance until speeds were reached where the lower drag of the Sport began to show to advantage.
As with most Zagato designs there were some interesting touches. Like the earlier Flavia Zagato, the rear hatch could be raised several millimetres via an electric motor to increase cabin ventilation. The engine lid was not hinged at the front or rear, but on the right-hand side. With the 45-degree canted engine lying completely to the left, this made perfect sense. The spare tire and tools were under the rear luggage floor and slid out via a fold down panel between the bumper uprights in a manner similar to many 1950’s sports cars. On the minus side, the aluminium construction and hatchback configuration of the Sport Zagato left it with less chassis rigidity than the Coupé, despite having the world’s first factory strut-bar connecting the rear suspension towers.
The 1.3 litre version of the V4 was also fitted to the Coupé and HF. The new 1.3 HF immediately proceeded to take second place honours in 1967 at the Rallye Monte-Carlo and at the Acropolis Rally. In 1969, the final driveline development of the Fulvia range was introduced for the HF: a 1.6 litre version of the V4 coupled to a new five-speed gearbox. Also new were 6” Cromadora alloy wheels and 175 mm wide tires. The 1.6 litre engine would remain an HF exclusive for four years, after which it was also available in the Sport Zagato.
The 1.6 litre HF’s won the RAC and Portugal rallies in 1970 and in 1972 were victorious in the Monte, the Moroccan and the San Remo rallies. The points from these and other wins during the season brought the Fulvia the 1972 International Rally Championship crown. That was the peak of the Fulvias competition career but it wasn’t quite finished. In 1973, a 1.6 HF helped Sandro Munari secure the European Rally Championship.
The Fulvia was the last true thoroughbred Lancia designed and produced prior to the takeover by Fiat and its passing was appropriately mourned by aficionados of engineering creativity and quality. The eminent British road tester John Bolster once declared that The 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. An Australian automotive reviewer recommended the purchase of a Fulvia as a corrective for the man who had thus far failed in all other ways to become a gentleman.
We will most likely never again see a car like the Fulvia. In an era where people choose their next car by a tenth of a second in zero-to-sixty acceleration or a few seconds difference in lap times around the Nordschleife, too few enthusiasts remain that would appreciate the subtlety and nuance embedded in the engineering and design solutions that were hallmarks of the cars of Lancia.