Thinking Outside the Box
Inconspicuous in the extreme, the Lancia Fulvia Berlina relies on the beholder’s appreciation of subtle sophistication.
Oh Lancia. Proud, progressive hotbed of engineering excellence. Aristocratic purveyor of understated class. Mutilated horse of a brand that just won’t be euthanised.
There’s very few examples of a storied marque being as misunderstood, devalued and humiliated as Vincenzo Lancia’s enterprise in later years. It could, of course, all have been very different, and the Lancia Fulvia allows a glimpse of the fate that might have awaited this particular Turinese brand, if history had taken a different turn at some point.
The strengths of the Italian automobile are usually considered to be of a bipolar nature: highly exclusive, hideously expensive and hedonistically expressive gran turismo and sports car offerings on the one, and ingenious, small, inexpensive cars on the other hand define what some consider to be the soul of l’automobile italiana. Some cars and brands stemming from the country that gave us the Renaissance cannot be pigeonholed in such simple categories. Which, more often than not, means they end up tumbling through the cracks of recollection. Which is why Lancia finds itself on the fringes of collective automotive passion these days.
This is also why a particularly successful kind of Italian car is unjustly overlooked: the compact saloon. Obviously, the Alfa Romeo Giulia’s boxiness has become the stuff of legend, but Arese's smash hit was far from a solitaire. It was, in actual fact, just one specimen of a particular category of automobile that should have established the Italian manufacturers as stalwarts in the contested medium-class market. This category comprised not just Alfa’s definitive berlina, but Fiat’s 124/125 saloosn and the Lancia Fulvia, as well.
The Fiat - a Dante Giacosa design, no less! - is nowadays best remembered as the most famous offspring of Tolyatti, Russia, whereas the Fulvia remains half-forgotten. On the surface, it’s just another product of a moribund marque that lost its way so long ago most have forgotten what it actually stood for.
However, the Fulvia berlina obviously stands for Lancia at its best. On the surface, it may be hardly different from its Italian counterparts, for it shares their boxy, upright stance and generous greenhouses. But the Lancia’s silhouette is slightly odd, in that its three-box outline doesn’t resemble a child’s impression of ‘a car’ quite as precisely as its two contemporaries. It’s almost as though the Fulvia’s axles had both been pushed back a bit in direct comparison with the Alfa and the Fiat.
This obviously is the result of its front wheel drive layout, which had been first introduced with the Flavia in 1961 and was considered a rather avant-garde engineering solution at this point. As was the Lancia’s power unit, a narrow-angle V4 engine, and its all-disc brakes.
The Fulvia berlina’s styling - courtesy of Lancia’s chief designer, Pietro Castagnero - doesn’t shout about this distinction, but is more upfront about the build quality at the core of this little saloon. In an age before panel gaps and shutlines became main indicators of superior construction and manufacturing facilities, the Lancia had to rely on the volumes and radii of its sheetmetal to convey its robust ‘premium’ nature. As a result, the Fulvia berlina’s sheetmetal appears solid, rather then elegant, substantial instead of delicate.
There is not a trace of flimsiness to be found on the Fulvia’s body. The stainless steel (rather than showy chrome) decorum is both abundant and heavy, yet without appearing heavy-handed (one could even argue that Castagnero’s skills in this area were of such importance that this capable stylist was somewhat lost once shiny metal surfaces were considered dégoûtant in the 1970s). In fact, the Fulvia’s appearance truly comes into its own as soon as its detailing is concerned. The badging, for example, is of impeccable quality, both in stylistic and manufacturing terms: the three-dimensional, hollow logo on the grille; the rich enamel ‘GT’ label right next to it; the gloriously contemporary lettering on the rear, which could still teach a great many typographers a lesson about balancing timeless formality and period verve. Not to mention the wonderfully elegant rear lights. However, these owe a great deal to the smartly placed oval welt, which prevents both the rear lights and the faint fins on the upper edges of the boot from jarring with the blocky shape of the Fulvia’s rear.
The fact that the Fulvia is a bonafide engineer’s car - that layout! that drivetrain! that quality! - is also apparent in its cabin. Lancia chief engineer, Antonio Fessia, may not have played an active role in the styling of the company’s products, but the Fulvia interior’s cabin boasts an ambience that’s informed by its engineering in a fashion that’s not to dissimilar to the highly stylised buildings of a Pier Luigi Nervi. In both cases, ingenuity and aesthetics appear in symbiotic interaction.
The dashboard, for example, isn’t so much an automotive appliance, but a device that incorporates product design, as well as almost architectural solutions. The ribbed shelf that houses the drum-type speedometer, as well as the auxiliary instruments and another delightful badge, could just as well have been a high-end stereo system. What sets this example of the breed apart from later Italian avant-garde dashboard designs (such as the Lancia Trevi’s Mario Bellini-designed cockpit, or the Fiat Ritmo’s Olivetti-inspired cabin) though is the substantial, quality feel it exudes. Despite this fashion sense, the Fulvia wasn’t an ephemeral effort - it was designed and built to last.
Like so many great modernist European car interiors of the 1960s, the Fulvia’s cabin juxtaposes the traditional with the advanced. There’s still plenty of ‘real’ materials, such as bakelite, enamel and polished metal - lots of polished metal, in fact, used for the window winder, ashtray, stalk and air vent. But the synthetic future had already arrived at Lancia, and made itself apparent in manners both discreet (part-leatherette door cards) and obvious (translucent door grab handles).
With about 189.000 Fulvia berline produced, Lancia trailed rather far behind the boxy competition from Fiat and Alfa Romeo. BMW’s Neue Klasse also sold in considerably higher numbers. All of this could be considered fair enough, given the noble Turinese marque’s rather lofty character and market positioning. But none of this explains its relative obscurity. Or why it didn’t get a straightforward successor model. Or why the Italian compact saloon in general would vanish after having played such a dominant role in the market for one brief decade.
In the case of the Lancia’s obscurity, its relatively diffuse set of qualities and the entire brand’s fall from grace combined ought to be blamed. It seems Lancia and Lancias are simply too hard to grasp. Both for prospective owners. And the owners of the brand itself. Ma che infamia!
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