Lancia – A History – Part 1

Most people around the world have heard of Lancia, right? If you walk up to a stranger in the street and ask them if they’ve heard of the Italian marque, more than a handful would mention the Delta Integrale, the Stratos, or maybe even the Fulvia. These cars, and many others, are brilliant creations with a definitive place in history, for many different reasons.

So why, today, do they only produce the Ypsilon? And why do we constantly hear about the possibility of Lancia being sold, or abandoned altogether?

Well if you know a little about Lancia, you’ll know that this is nothing new for the brand. People in the know will talk about attempts to sabotage the brand as far back as the ‘70s. Though this remains unproven.

So we at CLT decided to dive into the past and present a history of one of Italy’s greatest carmakers.

Lancia’s first car – the Alfa

Dynamic Beginnings

Lancia & C. Fabbrica Automobili, as it was originally known, was founded on 29th November, 1906 in Turin, Italy. It had been created by Vincenzo Lancia and his friend Claudio Fogolin.

Vincenzo, the son of a soup canner who later opened his own business, was impressive from a very early age and, by the age of nineteen, was both the chief inspector at Fiat and a test driver. The same year, he began racing cars for Fiat and soon gained a reputation as a fearless and exceptionally fast driver. And only a few years later, he would found the company that bears his family name.

From the very beginning, Lancia gained a reputation as pioneers. Their first car, the Type 51, was road tested just a year after Lancia first came into being, and began rolling off the production line less than twelve months later. More than one hundred were sold, which was no mean feat at the time.

Beta Beginnings – Lancia Type 54

The Type 51 name was changed to Alfa, from the Greek alphabet, and the follow-up was named the Di-Alfa, which were both followed by the Type 54, or Beta, in 1909. By 1910, they were already running a CKD (Complete Knock Down) system in the US which, if you don’t work in the car industry, means Lancia were shipping parts out for local assembly.

It’s difficult to find records of volumes, as is the mystery surrounding Lancia, but it would undoubtedly have required both considerable effort and funds to do such a thing, so you’d think the cars were popular.

The Delta, which would bring considerable fame to Lancia when the name was resurrected in the ‘80s, first arrived in 1911, along with other Greek alphabet-named vehicles including the Gamma, Eta & Epsilon, and between 1911 & 1912, 1,145 cars were built, plus another 106 military vehicles on the Tipo 12 chassis that pioneered discs in place of wooden artillery wheels.

But it was the 1913 debut of the Lancia Theta where things got interesting.

Different Class – Lancia Theta

Genetic Pioneering

In terms of appearance, the Theta wasn’t groundbreaking, except that it came with electrical lights, two wheelbases, a sporty four-seat “Torpedo” model and an even sleeker two-seater “Runabout” version that had also been seen on previous models. But the electrical lights were a hint at what was underneath, as the vehicle was the first (we believe) European manufacturer to feature electrical circuitry as standard.

It included a foot-operated electric starter, two headlights, an American Kettering generator, two driving lights, dashboard lights and a tail-lamp, all pioneering for the time. Production continued throughout WWI and, by the end of its lifecycle, 1700 vehicles had been made and sold. But, more importantly, Lancia’s reputation as being a forward-looking, innovative company had been well and truly established. 

Following the end of World War I, production resumed, and by 1919, Lancia had introduced the Kappa which would go on to sell 1810 vehicles during a four year lifespan; again, decent numbers for the time.

The Kappa was followed by Dikappa and Trikappa models which were, as the name suggests, variants of the original, although the latter was the flagship model and debuted the narrow V-shaped engine that would be the template for Lancia engines for many decades. Despite its debut in 1922, the Trikappa was overshadowed by Lancia’s other debutant, the Lambda.

Lancia Lambda – Pioneering in every sense

L is for…

True to their burgeoning reputation, the Lambda debuted in 1922 with an abundance of firsts and innovations. It was the first car to feature a load-bearing unitary body (minus a stressed roof), it pioneered both independent suspension and an early version of a shock absorber, whilst all four wheels had brakes, also rare for the time. It was also the first series produced car to feature a V4 engine which, again, became a signature for future Lancias.

In total, 11,200 Lambdas were produced during a nine year span that saw eight different production versions. Wheelbases were varied, exterior features altered and various body styles produced, all something we take for granted now. But in 1922? Unique.

Art of Possibility – 1936 Lancia Astura Cabriolet Series III

The Lambda sparked Lancia’s popularity, and by the beginning of the ‘30s, they were producing four different models simultaneously: the Dilambda, Artena, Astura and Augusta, although both the Artena and Astura were a combined attempt to replace the Lamda with different wheelbase and engine offerings.

So good was the chassis that a whole host of coachbuilders clambered to use it and it proved to be a perfect foundation: a 1936 Astura Pininfarina Cabriolet once owned by Eric Clapton won both the Best of Show award and Most Elegant Convertible award at the 2016 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, whilst two Asturas have also won awards at both the 2016 and 2019 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, two of the most highly respected and competitive events on the classic car calendar. And speaking of Pininfarina…

New Segment – The “compact” Lancia Augusta

An Influential Friend

Battista Farina and Vincenzo Lancia were long term friends and admirers of each other’s work, so when Farina, in 1928, left his brother’s coachbuilding firm to form his own company, it was Vincenzo, along with other family members, who stepped in with financial assistance. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Pininfarina’s relationship with Lancia began with the Dilambda in 1930, but some of the very best of their collaborations include the 1955 Lancia Florida, the ultra-cool Gamma Coupe of the ‘70s and of course the 037 Stradale that won the WRC Constructor’s Championship in 1983. 

So, back to the ‘30s, and Lancia’s first step into the small car market with the Augusta. Not just that, but it was also the beginning of production outside of Italy, Lancia choosing a factory in Bonneuil-sur-Marne, France. They would build 3,000 Augustas here, although they were renamed Belna for the local market. 

Silky Smooth – The aerodynamic Lancia Aprilia

Aerodynamics & the Aprilia

Another important moment for Lancia arrived shortly afterwards, in 1936, with the debut of the Aprilia, albeit in concept form. Despite its positioning as a family car, Lancia had worked closely with both Battista Farina and the Politecnico di Torino, designing the vehicle with considerable input from wind tunnel testing and feedback, the first time a production car had been produced with this level of input.

And it showed. It had a drag coefficient of 0.47, a record for the time, and was launched in February of 1937, the last vehicle to bear Vincenzo’s design influence. He would die of a heart attack on the 15th February, whilst production was ramping up. 

The Aprilia, like so many of Vincenzo’s designs before, was adventurous for the time, featuring four pillarless doors – unheard of for a family car – to go with it’s aerodynamic design, whilst the chassis was, yet again, so reliable as to be the go-to choice for many coachbuilders.

And even the Italian Army, who used it’s chassis for the heavy duty trucks transporting goods, weapons and personnel across the battlefields. Lancia had, in fact, been building military vehicles pretty much since their inception.

Lancia Corvette?! – 1951 Lancia Aprilia Gran Basso by Ghia

In total, 7,554 chassis were built for coachbuilders during the Aprilia’s lifetime and some of the best include the 1938 Aprilia Sport by Zagato, the 1949 Vignale Lancia Aprilia and the rather wacky and wonderful Aprilia Gran Gala by Boneschi.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage that, from the very beginning, Vincenzo had personally overseen the design and development of every Lancia product and their underpinnings, especially the chassis and mechanical components. They had a reputation for both impressive mechanical performance and quality. This will come up again later, so remember that.

End of an era – Lancia Ardea

War & Vs

Two years after the launch of the Aprilia, of which more than 27,000 were produced, the Ardea was born, Lancia’s last pre-WWII vehicle. And in typical Lancia fashion, it was highly innovative.

If you’re looking at the image above and thinking that the front looks very small, especially for 1939, when only rear engined vehicles like the VW Beetle were competitive in size, you’d be right. Lancia fitted the Ardea with what is believed to be the smallest V4 engine ever fitted to a series production vehicle.

The third generation that came in 1948 was the world’s first mass-produced vehicle with a five-speed transmission. Even the interior, especially the instrument panel, was impressive for the class of car, featuring a centrally-mounted speedo, fuel level and oil pressure gauges and even a clock.  Lancia was at it again.

Of course, there were many different bodies, including furgoncino (“small van”) and camioncino (“small pickup”) variants, and most vehicles they produced were right-hand drive, even for left-hand drive markets. It was an historical quirk of Lancias driven by a belief that it was more practical for the driver (and certainly less complicated to engineer than two positions).

Lancia Aurelia B10

After the war, Lancia dived straight back in with the Aurelia, which used the world’s first series-production V6 powertrain, several body styles and an exterior that was very much at the forefront of a new generation of vehicle design (see our brief history of car design series, beginning here).

It came with integrated front headlamps, ponton style fenders and doors and radial tyres, another first for the Piemontese manufacturer. Oh, and suicide doors, of course. But it also hid pioneering feats like inboard rear brakes – to reduce unsprung mass –  and a transaxle gearbox to keep everything impressively compact for a luxury vehicle of the time.

Its design is typically elegant, and very much of the Italian style, with simple feature lines and a lack of complexity, but it also gave birth to some wonderful derivatives and coachbuilt variants thanks, yet again, to the quality of what was underneath.

Derivatives – Lancia Aurelia B20 GT

Race Success

The B10 sedan debuted in 1950, but barely a year later it was joined by the B20 GT Coupé which, as you can see from above, is a real looker, showing many features and key proportions that would come to dominate the design of tourers and sports cars well into the ‘60s.

A cabriolet version, the B50, was also in production for 2 years, designed and made by none other than Pininfarina, but it’s the B24 Spider that’s a real looker, again designed by the coachbuilder from Turin and produced in limited numbers, making it a true collectible nowadays.

Proportions – The beautiful Lancia Aurelia B24 Spider

But the Aurelia wasn’t just a stunning car. It came second in the 1951 Mille Miglia, only Ferrari able to better the Turin-based marque, and won it’s class in the 24 hours of Le Mans race the same year, taking twelfth position overall. 1952 brought further success with the complete lock-out of the 1952 Targa Florio podium. Lancia were gaining a motorsport reputation.

In 1953, Umberto Maglioli won the Targa Florio at the wheel of the Lancia D20. The same year Lancia introduced the D24 sports racer, which was an evolution of the D23 model, but rebodied as a spider by Pininfarina. Its most significant victories were: the 1953 Carrera Panamericana, the 1954 Mille Miglia and the 1954 Targa Florio.

The Aurelia has also featured in several TV series and films, proliferating Lancia’s reputation globally. And even better was to come.

Competitive Climax – Lancia enter Formula 1

Though Lancia only entered Formula One briefly, they certainly made an impact.

1954 saw the team enter the D50, which had been designed by one of the great racecar designers of the age, Vittorio Jano. The Italian, of Hungarian descent, had previously designed Alfa Romeo’s first successful Formula 1 racecar, the P2, the supremely successful Scuderia Ferrari, Alfa Romeo-based P3 and the beautiful, albeit unsuccessful, Alfa Romeo 12C. Needless to say, expectations were high when he moved to Lancia. And the D50 duly delivered.

Featuring innovations that ranged from pannier fuel cells for improved weight distribution to an off-centre engine that was used as a stressed chassis member, the Lancia D50 claimed pole position in its first outing at the Spanish Grand Prix and claimed the fastest lap before retiring.

In 1955, Lancia managed a second place finish in Monaco, although Alberto Ascari, the team’s star driver, crashed into the water during the same race and died a week later in Monza at the hands of a Ferrari. Lancia withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of 1955, as did several teams following the infamous crash at Le Mans.

Short but Sweet – Lancia’s only entrance into F1, the D50

But it wasn’t finished just yet.

In fact, the Lancia D50 saw most of its success arrive after Lancia departed motor-racing, Ferrari having received the assets of Scuderia Lancia due to financial challenges that forced Lancia to leave racing.

Ferrari took the D-50, “tweaked” it and entered it alongside their own Ferrari 555. Juan Manuel Fangio won the 1956 championship in his Lancia-Ferrari D50, and though they lived on into 1957, the D50 had lost its competitive edge and soon disappeared from competition altogether.

In total, the Lancia D50 finished with two victories and ten podium finishes to its name.

Coachbuilt Gem – The Lancia Appia GTE by Zagato

Budget Beauty

Three years after the Aurelia, in 1953, came the Appia, the replacement for the Ardea and the last vehicle from Lancia to use the sliding pillar front suspension that was so lauded on the Lambda all the way back in 1922. As was now becoming typical of the Italian marque, it came with various V4 engine derivatives and multiple wheelbase and body options, plus commercial truck and van offerings, adding up to a total of 104,000 during a ten year lifecycle, so not huge.

It was a budget car from the beginning, so wasn’t particularly impressive to look at, but the C83 pickup variant had a charm of its own, and when the coachbuilders got their hands on it… well, you can see for yourself.

The highlight is almost certainly the Appia GTE from Zagato which was, for the first time, sold by Lancia dealers in Lancia dealerships as opposed to Zagato, whilst Giovanni Michelotti’s Appia Convertible is typically elegant and the Appia Giardinetta from Carrozzeria Viotti is quite different for the time.

The Roman Way – 1957 Lancia Flaminia

Flagship Offerings

1957 saw the Aurelia replaced by the Flaminia as the flagship for the Italian brand, and it didn’t disappoint. As always, there were saloon (sedan), coupe and cabriolet offerings, including several different versions from various coachbuilders, plus four presidential limousines for state occasions. 

The name, as was now becoming a tradition with Lancia, derived from a famous Roman road, the Via Flaminia that runs from Rome to Ariminum, or Rimini as it’s known today.

It was the first Lancia to carry the new front suspension setup that was becoming popular amongst premium car makers – double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, and an anti-roll bar – and other than that, it didn’t push any boundaries, but the chassis was as popular as ever with coachbuilders keen to use it as a platform to push design possibilities. And there are some stunners.

Stunning Potential – The 1955 Lancia Florida I by Pininfarina

The chassis was, in fact, an upgrade on the existing Aurelia, which allowed Pininfarina to debut two concepts of what the Flaminia could be at the Turin Auto Shows in ‘55 and ‘56, prior to the real launch in 1957.  The Florida I came first, in 1955, and showed what was possible as a saloon; and it’s a beauty. Whilst the Florida II hinted at a future Coupe and would go on to be Batista Farina’s personal car.

So when the Flaminia arrived in March ‘57, in Berlina bodystyle, it was a bit of a disappointment. No-one doubted the reliability of the impressive V6, the suspension, the solidity of the chassis or the ride quality, but from a visual standpoint it was a bit….meh. The two-tone paint scheme from the Florida I was carried over, and there are hints, but it’s nothing special. Which is perhaps why the models that followed certainly are.

After the Rain… – The breathtaking Lancia Flaminia GT

Coupes and Coachbuilders

The Flaminia Coupe debuted soon after and was built by Pininfarina, which is why it shares many similarities with the Florida II. But the GT, GTL and convertible that followed took things up several notches, thanks to the handiwork of Carrozzeria Touring. Despite the unmoved waistline, the fenders are certainly more barrelled and the rear haunches are vastly different, making for a beautifully proportioned car. And those twin headlamps… yum.

Sport and Supersport versions were built by Zagato, whilst Pininfarina built the limousines, with the assistance of GM, that would be used for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Italy in 1961. Tom Tjaarda, of De Tomaso Pantera, Fiat 124 Spider and MK1 Ford Fiesta fame, designed a one-off coupe whilst at Pininfarina in 1963 and, as you’d expect from the design legend, it’s also gorgeous. But the best Lancias were yet to come.

Marmite – Lancia Flavia Sport by Zagato

The Lancia Flavia was shown to the public at the beginning of 1960, at the customary Turin Auto Show, in saloon form, although the usual array of variants would soon follow. It’s twin headlamps were an ode to the Flaminia GT variants, despite the Flavia having been designed in house, as was usually the case with Lancia; the debut saloon was a Lancia design, but coachbuilders were free to propose variants which would be sold within the Lancia range.

The Flavia, again, didn’t stand out specifically, but the Coupe offering from Pinanfarina is very elegant, whilst Zagato’s Flavia Sport is… interesting, shall we say.

So let’s move on, and quickly, to 1963; and the Lancia Fulvia.

Building for the future – Lancia Fulvia

The Fulvia

Now things get interesting, although not in the beginning. The standard Lancia template of releasing a relatively plain, but very well engineered, Berlina (saloon / sedan) model at the Turin Auto Show was how the world came to see the Fulvia, at the Geneva Motor Show in 1963.

Once again, it was named after a Roman road, the via Fulvia between Torino & Tortona, and once again it used a V4 engine. In fact, the engineering was heavily based on the Flavia, rather than the Appia it was replacing, including its suspension and front wheel drive layout; the main difference was the engine, the Flavia using a four-cylinder boxer as opposed to a vee design.

It had a typically short front-end, thanks to the impressive V-4 engine, and a wheelbase that allowed for good cabin space, trunk storage and all the usual stuff you’d expect from a mid-range sedan. The Series II Berlina came in five different configurations during its six year cycle, the most interesting of which was the GTE, introduced in 1968 with a new brake servo, 155 SR 14 Michelin X radial tyres and the engine from the Coupé Rallye 1.3, with an output of 87 bhp (65 kW) at 6000 rpm. What Coupé I hear you cry?

That feature line… – Lancia Fulvia Coupé

Introduced two years after the launch of the Berlina, the stunning Fulvia Coupé debuted at the Turin Auto Show to, as you can imagine, widespread appreciation. “Fellas, who designed it? Was it Pininfarina again, eh? Or Zagato? Don’t tell us it was Vignale?” Nope, it was in fact designed in-house, by a chap named Piero Castagnero who deserves all the praise that gets thrown his way.

It’s wheelbase was a full 150 mm (5.9 in) shorter than the Berlina saloon, but it might as well have been triple that, so stark was the difference between the two vehicles. And, as you can imagine, it was bloomin’ popular, lasting all the way to 1977 before being replaced.

It began life with a tiny 1.2l v4 engine that grew to 1.3l in ‘67 and continued to grow in power and size throughout the seven derivatives of its first series, finishing with the most powerful and race-worthy Rallye 1.6 HF, or Fanalone as it was known thanks to “big lamps” that were installed (for rallying) on the front bumper. 

Big…ahem…lamps – Lancia Fulvia Rallye 1.6 HF

Sweeping Success

Whilst Lancia were never known for building the lightest of cars, it was brilliantly agile and perfect for rallying, hence Lancia chose the Fulvia as the perfect chance to return to racing, their first time since 1955, when they departed Formula 1. The same year as the launch, Lancia “absorbed” a Lancia enthusiasts privateer racing team, HF Squadra Corse, and entered the Fulvia into the ‘65 Tour de Corse, where it finished eighth. But that was just the beginning.

In 1967, they completely upgraded the V4 engine to a 1.6l, producing up to 132 hp (98 kW) depending on tune, and it was this version that was used by the works rally team until 1974, when it was superseded in competition by … we’ll come to that soon. Between 1965 & 1973, Lancia Fulvias won every Italian Rally Championship except the 1970 race, when they were beaten by the Fiat 124 Sport Spider of Alcide Paganelli and Ninni Russo.

I’m a fan-alone

The highlight for the works team was undoubtedly 1972, when they absolutely dominated the International Championship for Manufacturers – an FIA rally competition that ran between 1970 & ‘72 and was the precursor to the World Rally Championship – beating Porsche 911 Ss, Fiat 124 Spiders and Ford Escort RS1600s. 

The Series II Fulvia Coupé was born in 1970 and, during its lifetime, there were another seven derivatives, including the Coupé 1.3 S Montecarlo, Coupé 3 Montecarlo and Safari editions which all celebrated the Fulvia Coupé’s various rally wins.

And whilst the Coupé, rightfully, is what most people think of when someone mentions the Fulvia name, there was another variant, aside from the Berlina, that is often forgotten. And it was designed by Zagato, no less.

Ugly Duckling – The Lancia Fulvia Sport by Zagato

The Fulvia Sport was also released in 1965 as a trident of bodystyles from the beginning, and had been commissioned by Lancia as a more aerodynamic and sportier version of the coupé which could, they hoped, be used in road and track competitions. But despite the 2-seater fastback using a majority of the Coupé’s mechanicals, it would become known for a litany of design quirks rather than any racing achievements.

It began life with an all-aluminium alloy bodyshell, impressive for the time, but used the rear lamps from the NSU Prinz 4 (to save money, perhaps), had a bonnet that hinged to the right hand side, a rear hatch that could be lifted electrically a few centimetres to aid cabin ventilation and a separate compartment for the spare wheel that was only accessible from a rotating panel which held the rear number plate.

It was homologated as a two-seater, then as a 2+1, then in its second series it became a 2+2, whilst the facelift including changing the rear lamps to those from a Peugeot 204 and stamped steel wheels without hubcaps.

Popular Racer – The Fulvia Sport has a cult following

All in all, when compared to the supreme elegance and wonderful proportions of the Coupé, the Sport is a curious addition. When taken in isolation, it’s oddly handsome, and there’s some interesting design cues; it simply lacked the sophistication of the Fulvia. It wasn’t cool.

What would follow in 1973 would certainly resolve any lack of cool in the Lancia lineup. But first, a huge change in the Lancia business that would almost single-handedly dictate their future, a future that we know now is almost non-existent; The takeover of Lancia by Fiat.


But to read what happens next, you’ll have to wait for part 2 of Lancia – A History. And there’s only one way to ensure you don’t miss it; subscribe below! x

In case you were wondering – The Lancia Flavia Berlina

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