The Rise and Fall of Lancia Cars
By Simon de Burton
This time last week I was driving up and over the Mont Cenis pass, that spectacular, serpentine, vertigo-inducing 37-mile stretch of tarmac that connects Italy with France between Susa and Val-Cenis.
Ideally, I would have been at the wheel of a stripped-out Caterham Seven or tucked behind the fairing of a Ducati 998. As it was, I was driving my trusty Vauxhall van which, despite its modern, 2.5 litre turbo-diesel engine, six-speed transmission, and power-assisted brakes and steering, still demanded serious concentration in order to be in the right gear at the right time and not to be caught unawares by a tighter-than-expected corner.
Ascending this fabulous road got me thinking about the late racing driver and engineering genius Vincenzo Lancia who, precisely a century ago, took to the then-unmettled Mont Cenis pass to test the prototype of his new 'Lambda' model, the latest product from the eponymous car marque he founded in 1906 at the age of 26.
Lancia's natural affinity with the new-fangled motor car – which had led to him becoming 'chief inspector' and test driver for Fiat when he was just 19 – enabled him to make the Lambda not only one of the most advanced cars of its day, but one which would introduce design features that are still regarded as convention.
Long and elegant, the Lambda was the first car to feature 'monocoque' bodywork that did away with the traditional chassis/bolt-on body arrangement, making it stronger, more rigid, quieter and smoother; it introduced a 'sliding pillar' front suspension in place of archaic leaf springs; the propellor shaft was housed in a tunnel running the length of the car's centre, meaning it could be lower and more aerodynamic; the front and rear bench seats served as stressed members to help rigidity - and the engine's ground-breaking 'V4' arrangement (the first ever manufactured) was so compact that the gearbox could be mounted beneath the bonnet.
Despite being intended as a road car and never marketed as anything but, the Lambda's advanced features brought it success in competition at events such as the Mille Miglia - and, to reinforce just how good it was, the 2020 re-enactment of the event saw three Lambdas among the top four finishers.
By 1925, Lancia had made a dozen different car models, all with Greek alphabet names ranging from Alpha, Beta, Dialpha and Delta to Trikappa (a vast, five-litre effort) to Kappa, Theta, and Zeta.
Innovation remained a Lancia byword long after its founder's death in 1937, with one of the marque's greatest hits being the fabulous Aurelia that was launched in 1950 and quickly proved itself with a selection of wins and podium finishes at Le Mans, the Targa Florio, the Rome-Liege-Rome rally, and the Coppa della Toscana - in which Scuderia Lancia took first, second, and third places.
Back then, the Lancia name was held in high regard by Italian counterparts such as Ferrari, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo and it would have been logical to assume that it would continue to provide stiff competition for them as long as there was a demand for attractive, well-engineered, well-appointed performance cars.
But the Lancia ethos of quality, innovation, and envelope-pushing engineering - which resulted in every car being all but hand-made - was already being left behind by the more modern, mass-manufacturing methods of its rivals which offered ostensibly comparable models for less money, causing Lancia's sales to flatline and leading to its acquisition by the Pesenti family of industrialists in 1956.
'Innovation remained a Lancia byword long after its founder's death in 1937, with one of the marque's greatest hits being the fabulous Aurelia that was launched in 1950.'
By then, the fabulous Aurelia had been superseded by the less radical but potentially more profitable Flaminia (which was still undeniably gorgeous, whether in coupe or convertible form). The front-wheel-drive, two-door Fulvia arrived in 1963 to replace the Appia, and the Pesentis poured huge sums into fielding the marque in competition - a strategy that was intended to broaden the appeal of its road cars, but which simply proved to be a drain on already stretched resources.
By 1969, the Lancia name might have been consigned to the history books had Fiat not stepped in to save it in a move that undoubtedly prevented the marque's demise - although some say a post '69, Fiat-era Lancia isn't a Lancia at all. However, others (especially those of the 'baby boomer' generation) would argue that the following decade represented the modern marque's golden era, not least thanks to the arrival of one particular model: the legendary Stratos.
The genesis of the remarkable, wedge-shaped success story began at the 1970 Turin Show with the unveiling of the futuristic, Bertone-designed 'Stratos Zero'. It proved to be a one-off, but the concept gave rise to the 'actual' Stratos which laid claim to being the world's first purpose-built rally car. After entering production in 1973, it proceeded to win the World Rally Championship three years in succession in the hands of Italy's Sandro Munari and Swede Bjorn Waldegard.
Raw, claustrophobic, and designed to race without compromise (there were even crash helmet 'bins' built into its doors) the Stratos was not the ideal car in which to drop your children off at school or to go grocery shopping with, but the homologation requirements for Group 4 rallying meant that at least 500 road-legal examples had to be made. In any event, only 492 were built before production came to an end in 1975, with many unable to make the shift due to their inherent unsuitability for daily use.
Such was its capability as a racer, however, that the Stratos was still winning major international events up until 1981 and, as collectors began to realise its historical significance and rarity, values crept up and have continued to do so, to the point that a good, original 'Stradale' (or 'road') version can now command upwards of £350,000.
One of the first enthusiasts to really appreciate the importance of the Stratos was a Royal College of Art-trained car designer called Chris Hrabalek who once accumulated no fewer than 11 notable examples (and became embroiled in an unseemly ownership dispute with his father that ended up in court).
Hrabalek's love of the model inspired him to develop a concept based on the look of the original and dubbed the 'on-road, off-road' supercar. Called the Fenomenon, he unveiled it at the Geneva motor show in 2005 and then set about finding investors to finance production.
Although 10 people came forward, the plan failed to progress. However, one of the would-be backers, automotive parts tycoon Michael Stoschek, was so enthused by the idea of a 'new' Stratos that he decided to go ahead on his own and commission Italian design house Pininfarina to create a one-off car from scratch.
Stoschek subsequently made the Ferrari-based 'tribute' available in a series of 25 examples constructed by specialist, small-series builder Manifattura Automobili Torino (MAT for short) - and costing an outstanding Euros 550,000 apiece.
The success of the original Stratos, however, proved to be too little, too late for Lancia. The wild, supercharged 037 rally car introduced in 1980 enjoyed its fair share of wins, but by then the reputation of the road cars which Lancia relied upon to make itself some money was, quite literally, 'corroding'.
This was because although the range was replete with desirable models that ranged from the Beta four-door coupe and unique, supercharged 'HPE' (a beautifully proportioned 'High Performance Estate') to the low and purposeful Monte Carlo sportster and the giant, Pininfarina-designed Gamma coupe, the marque's quality control procedures had apparently fallen by the wayside.
'Raw, claustrophobic, and designed to race without compromise'
In the UK alone, Lancia was forced to buy back and scrap over 1,000 Betas after it was discovered that their front subframe mounts had rotted away, allowing the engine to drop by three inches - a PR disaster that became a hot news topic in the country where the marque enjoyed its highest sales outside of Italy.
The promise of a six-year 'corrosion prevention' warranty failed to instil confidence, and the Delta, launched in 1979, proved to be the last Lancia model ever sold in the UK.
Like the Stratos, it became a rallying sensation, with the famous, Martini-liveried cars dominating the World Rally Championship during the late 1980s and early '90s - and, thanks to homologation rules, giving rise to the superb Delta HF Integrale road cars, more than 44,000 examples of which were produced in two- and four-wheel-drive forms.
The Delta continues to enjoy a cult following among classic car and rally enthusiasts, while the best road and competition versions now command impressive sums. It's bad luck, however, if you fancy heading down to your nearest Lancia showroom today in search of a fire-breathing, adrenaline-triggering, high-performance model. The marque is now available only in Italy, and the one car in its line-up is a five-door 'supermini' called the Ypsilon.
But following the completion earlier this year of a merger between Lancia's owner Fiat Chrysler and the French PSA group, hopes are high that the marque will gradually be rebuilt with a range of electric and premium models. Just don't hold your breath for a run of 21st century versions of the gravel-spewing Stratos and Delta rally cars from the golden era. Instead, go and buy a real one - while we're still allowed to drive them...