Why I Love Nobody's Favorite Lancia
Mention of the name Lancia conjures in most enthusiasts' minds the images of awesome rally cars storming to victory, and rightfully so. But there's much more to Lancia's history, including a daring fastback sedan and glamorous coupé that few people bought in the period and hardly anyone remembers now, yet is perhaps the classic Lancia I'd most like to own: the Gamma.
A brave new era
Work on the Gamma began shortly after Fiat's takeover of an ailing Lancia in late 1969. The firm needed new models quickly, and precedence was given to the smaller Beta, which came out in 1972 and was intended as Lancia's volume seller for the Seventies.
Launched in 1976, the Gamma was to be the brand's new flagship, replacing the Flavia 2000 sedan and coupè, whose production ended two years prior.
The styling for both sedan and coupè versions of the Gamma was done by famed design house Pininfarina, whose relationship with Lancia went back to the 1930s. The great Leonardo Fioravanti penned the sedan's striking fastback look, directly inspired by his 1967 aerodynamic study for the British Motor Corporation.
Although its Cd figure of 0.37 compared favorably with the era's competitors, the Gamma's fastback design never enjoyed the near-universal admiration usually bestowed upon its coupé sibling.
A design masterpiece
Penned by the great Aldo Brovarone, the Gamma Coupé shared the same floorpan and running gear of the sedan, save for a wheelbase shortened by 115 mm.
Few, if any, automobiles possess this kind of effortless panache, regardless of price. It was, and arguably still is, one of the classiest, most elegant cars ever created.
Coupé bodies were built by Pininfarina and then transported to Lancia's historic Turinese factory of Borgo San Paolo to be completed alongside their sedan siblings.
In 1978, Pininfarina created a one-off Gamma Coupé called "T-Roof" for the Turin Motor Show, which never made production but was nevertheless fully functional and still survives in private hands.
Contrary to the Beta, which used modified Fiat engines, the larger Gamma had a bespoke powertrain, which would sadly prove the model's undoing.
The last pure-bred Lancia engine ever built, the Gamma's all-aluminum, water-cooled flat-four engine was mounted longitudinally ahead of the front axle, sending power to the front wheels via a five-speed gearbox.
Given the engine's positioning, containing its length and weight was crucial for the car's aesthetic and handling balance and became a design priority for the whole powerplant. This not only ruled out having the six cylinders engine that period buyers expected at the Gamma's price point but called for unorthodox solutions like driving the power steering pump off one of the camshafts' pulleys.
Although it wasn't as big a deal as Top Gear writers would have you believe, it sadly was just one of several weak points that caused many early Gamma engines to fail, tarnishing the model's reputation.
The Gamma suffered from a convoluted gestation period that saw an understaffed design office tackling multiple projects at a time, whose workload was further increased by the acrimonious end of Fiat's cooperation with Citroën in mid-1973 that called for the redesign of the components and systems that were to be shared with the French automaker, in which Fiat had purchased a stake in 1968.
As a result, the Gamma went on sale before all the bugs could be fully ironed out and, as disgruntled early buyers told their friends, which then told their friends, it wasn't long before people stopped buying Gammas altogether.
Which is a crying shame, as there's a lot to like about the Gamma.
A connoisseur's choice
Nearly five decades on, the few surviving Gammas make for a delightfully left-field classic that exudes charm and sophistication. The unorthodox design choices that put off many potential buyers back then now give the Gamma a unique "character," and fixes have long been developed for all its foibles.
Despite having been designed fully under Fiat ownership, in many ways, the Gamma represents the last gasp of Lancia's technical independence, and that's what prompted me to thoroughly research its story and put it into a book I'm very proud of, available worldwide through Amazon: the link is in the description.
The Gamma was initially available only with a 2.5 liter, carbureted boxer rated at 140 HP. However, since engines over two liters of displacement were heavily taxed in Italy, a smaller two liters boxer for the Italian market was made available shortly after, rated at 120 HP.
The Gamma received a mild refresh in 1980, which saw a new corporate grille appearing on the front end and a rather attractive set of 15" alloy wheels that were optional on two-liters models but fitted as standard on the cars equipped with the larger 2.5 liters engine, now smoother and more efficient thanks to the Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection replacing the carburetors.
The early 1980s also saw a couple of intriguing design experiments from Pininfarina, known as the Gamma "Scala" and "Olgiata."
The Scala was an exquisite four-door sedan derived from the much-loved Coupé but built on the sedan's longer wheelbase, while the Olgiata was a rather attractive "shooting brake:" a formula Lancia had already successfully exploited with the Beta HPE. Both cars still survive in private hands.
No matter how promising both cars looked, by then, Fiat's management had all but lost interest in the Gamma, whose sales volume remained stubbornly low. Production was terminated in 1983, even though the Gamma remained on Lancia's price list until January '85 to give dealers time to clear unsold inventory.
Its replacement was the arguably more conventional Thema. The result of a joint project between the Fiat group and Swedish automaker Saab, the Lancia Thema was presented at the Turin Motor Show in November '84 and would go on to enjoy a long and very successful production run.
But that's a story for another time...