The best small-car currently available?

Enjoyable Motoring in a Front-wheel-drive Lancia Fulvia Coupe

The latest model from Lancia of Turin, who have never made a really bad car, is the twin-cam narrow-vee-4-cylinder f.w.d. Fulvia, which has a capacity of 1,091 c.c. in 2C saloon form but the eyeable coupe version of which has an enlarged cylinder bore, giving a swept volume of 1,216 c.c., and an increase in output of eight b.h.p., its power unit developing 80 (D.I.N.) b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. Both engines have a cr. of 9.0 to I.

Having to go up to Bangor in Caernarvonshire the other day, I decided that this fairly involved journey from Hampshire, through Berkshire, Wiltshire, Worcester, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, Merioneth, and possibly other counties I have overlooked, would be facilitated by using a proper motor car. Choice as much as circumstance decided in favour of a Lancia Fulvia, which which Mr. Miller of the Alperton branch willingly put at my disposal.

It all worked out splendidly and 586 miles were disposed of between breakfast and tea on two successive days, the Fulvia not only proving very entertaining to drive but capable of averaging 36 m.p.h. overall, inclusive of halts for refuelling, luncheon and map-reading,. most of the time cruising at the Fraser-70. In the course of the journey to my destination just below the Menai Bridge (a credit to Thomas Telford which has served North Wales and Anglesey for 140 years was freed from toll fees in 1939, and manages to accommodate all but the widest modern lorries) the Fulvia attracted, like a magnet, Mini, Imp, Viva and Zephyr but contrived out in the wilds to out-corner them all.

On the outward run I came upon an Aveling & Porter steam roller, No. 9166 (Reg. No. CJ 4526) in use by Herefordshire C.C. a few miles from Stoke Lacy, where Peter Morgan’s grandfather was vicar in the days of the first Morgan 3-wheelers—it had a boiler inspection plate off and its current licence disc had been stolen by the gypsies! Proceeding through the inevitable downpours, I filled up with Regent Super on the outskirts of Welshpool, a town too congested in which to park for lunch, found no hotels operating at Llanfair, but was fed simply but quickly for half-a-guinea near Dinas-Mawiddwy, although it was the cook’s afternoon off.

Shortly after leaving Dolgellau for tile slate-mountains at Blaenau-Flestiniog I had to press hard to stay ahead of an enthusiastically-driven Mini, and apologise to its occupants if I held them up when I stopped to look at Fowler steam-roller No. 21968 (Reg. No. FF 4910) working at road-mending on this picturesque route. Later I resisted the temptation to photograph the Lancia by the old Roman bridge adjacent to A496, and shuddered to see atomic power factories going up in wild Wales. Joining A5 at Betws-y-Coed I was reminded of Bentley-owner Tom Firbank’s book “I Bought a Mountain” as the Fulvia hummed through rain-swept Capel Curig, most of the 3 1/2-thousand feet of Carnedd Llwelyn lost in the afternoon mist. I encountered the first Peugeot 204 I have seen on the road, looking like a praying mantis, and an H.R.G., screen flat, in Bangor.

Coming home, I left Bangor by way of busy Caernarvon, did a bit of stupid mis-navigation, and found myself in Sir Billy’s Pwllheli, dominated by the Holiday Camp, got to Dolgellau via the Portmadoc Embankment toll-road, and enjoyed the Lancia’s impeccable cornering and road-holding over the Machynlleth-Llanidloes mountain road, after having filled the fuel tank with best BP. in the former town. Near Rhayader Aveling & Porter steam-roller No. 11208 (Reg. No. EP3339) was at work, but apart from these steamers the only vintage encounters were a late-model Singer Junior saloon with the Nine-type of radiator near Ledbury and a girl in a very early Austin 7 Chummy coming down into Newbury. There was also the 49-c.c. D.K.W.-engined Peel Trident just-mobile bubble, near Abererch. Otherwise, I concentrated on the Fulvia, which fully lived up to its maker’s reputation.

It is difficult to know which to praise first—the splendid gearbox, which I used on the slightest provocation simply for the pleasure of slicing the long rigid lever about (a lever so rigid that its length isn’t noticed and so positioned that it might be a remote control), the excellent road-clinging habits of the Fulvia (which is aided by 5.50 in. x 14 in. Michelin “X” tyres, and front-drive which makes the car follow its nose but leaves the steering as light as that of any rear-engined car, and smooth and accurate into the bargain), or the level, comfortable ride.

Perhaps I should start with the functional interior decor, the excellent all-round visibility afforded by generous areas of glass, and the truly commendable driving position, the little woodrimmed steering wheel with its two steel spokes placed exactly right for arms-stretch fast motoring.

The fact is that the Lancia Fulvia coupe was contrived for the enthusiastic driver’s enjoyment, without any frills or unnecessary flamboyance.

Sitting on a rather hard seat cushion without enough depth to fully support my legs, I nevertheless found that the efficient squab adjustment and well-shaped upholstery of this part of the seat kept me reasonably comfortable for nearly 303 miles at a sitting—the Fulvia’s seats are a sort of compromise between the Issigonis theory that a seat must be uncomfortable to keep a driver alert and the obvious answer that the more restful the seat and driving position the more efficiently you will drive. . . .

Access to the token but fully-upholstered back seat is achieved by operating the squab-adjusting levers, when the squabs spring forward to let out dog, child or doubled-up grown-up who has come for a ride in the back, and then resume their former setting. The steering wheel, as I have said, is placed exactly right, and an eye can easily be kept on the three small dials immediately in front of one, which show a “Benzina” level falling not at all alaimingly as the miles go by (there is a warning light which shows after about 175 miles from a fill-up, but I did 209 miles on a tankful. and there appeared to be still 1 1/2-gallons or so left). “Olio” pressure at 25/50 according to engine speed, and “Acquia” temperature at 7 deg. or just over. In spite of reflections, the needles are easy to read.

Instrumentation on the unpolished wood facia; flanked by black crash-padding and surrounds, is by high-quality Veglia dials, and includes a neat little clock (accurate), with seconds’ hand. A strip of glass or Perspex below the aforesaid small dials contains all the warning lights, including those for choke in use (rather necessary as this is controlled by a non-spring-loaded lever under the facia) and central hand-brake on, and none of them dazzle, not even the turn-indicator lights. Wipers, heater fan (very noisy) and auxiliary lamps are operated by push-buttons, which I normally dislike. But as those on the Fulvia are of sensible size and located on the facia, they brought no complaints. A r.h. stalk works with precision to dip lamps brought on with a facia-mounted knob, and also controls the turn-indicators. Lamps-flashing is accomplished by the excellent Lancia system of a ring which encircles the horn button in the centre of the steering wheel.

Incidentally, the Fulvia’s equipment includes cigarette lighter sensibly adjacent to the ash-tray, vanity mirror in the n/s vizor, non-dazzle rear-view mirror, passenger’s grab-handle, dual headlamps, and safety red lamps in the trailing edges of the doors.

The tachometer is calibrated to 7,000 r.p.m., with an almost apologetic red line at 6,000/6,200 r.p.m., but in normal motoring nothing so drastic is needed, 5,000 usually sufficing, although I was told not to mind sticking the revs. well and truly round the dial, and the narrow-vee 4-cylinder engine,, which is canted over at a most remarkable angle to the n/s of the car and breathes through twin-Choke Webers, is certainly reassuringly smooth. It is started by first turning and then pushing the key in, and this key also locks the doors, with another key for the boot and the lid of the under-facia, shallow cubby-hole. Scuttle pockets are provided for maps and gloves, etc. The doors have sill locks and properly recessed internal handles, and the 1/4-vent windows in the doors are fixed, the efficient Lancia ventilation system being assisted by vent-type side windows, and aircraft-style facia vents. Two knobs, reminiscent of the old Andre Telecontrol shock-absorber knobs, only smaller, turn anti-clockwise for hot or cold air supply. Identified by red and blue spots, these knobs are right where the driver’s left hand can reach them easily.

Having inspected the bonnet-full of impressive machinery, and noted that the battery is a Scaini, the bonnet prop springs to one side and the lid can be closed. The boot-lid has a supporting prop and although the boot is rather full of spare wheel, a large case and smaller bags can be stowed easily enough.

One’s first impression of the Fulvia coupe is the eager noise from the engine, as typical of the Turin product as the entirely delightful and individualistic gear-change and the brakes, which feel spongy but are, when required, very effective and, by their nature, so progressive that wheel-locking is easily avoided. The square-tipped needles rush impressively round the speedometer and tachometer dials, 70 being easy to attain in 3rd gear, while in top this legal cruising speed doesn’t entail getting to quite 4,000 r.p.m., so comfortably is the willing little o.h.c. power unit within itself. The hum of this efficient power unit increases so far and no more, so that the Fulvia delights the enthusiast without really offending the less appreciative ears of Mr. and Mrs. Average-Car Owner, and is quite reasonably unobtrusive at touring speeds.

It is natural to drop frequently to 2nd gear in traffic, the gearbox encouraging continual use of the gear-lever—even reverse is engaged, beyond top, by giving one quick slap, the lever selecting this ratio without lost motion or hesitation. Third is a quiet gear for use in fast-running traffic, and instant overtaking. An indicated 80 m.p.h. is attained in this gear at 6,000 r.p.m., and without exceeding 5,000 r.p.m. the speedometer shows over Sixty. As to maximum speed in top gear, the maker’s modestly claim 100 m.p.h., and an indicated 95 is easy to attain along any reasonable straight.

As we entered the Snowdonia terrain I delighted in throwing the Fulvia round tight bends, which it takes impeccably, roll not even hinted at, the steering finger light, quick and responsive, while the lock is enormous, the little Lancia turning on a dime, the wheel takes four turns all told, with not a trace of lost motion and just the right amount of enthusiasm from the castor return. The car is, however, at its best on fast open curves, when the low-gearing of the steering is less obvious and it feels glued to the tarmac, wet or dry, again with no evident roll, nor excessive understeer. I was asked to feed the Webers the best petrol, which they consumed at the rate of 29.8 m.p.g.; when the car was being driven with ambition. The filler is under a lockable flap on the o/s, and as the tank holds 8-gallons the range is reasonable, if not enormous. The cold start was instantaneous.

There are snags to any car but those affecting the Lancia Fulvia are very minor affairs. The wipers are rather too slow for the torrential downpours we get in this country and on the model there is a very bad unwiped area at the driver’s side of the screen. The washers, wired independently of the ignition, are worked by pulling out a rather stiff-to-operate facia knob. This control is quite convenient but more so on l.h.d. cars than those with the driver on “our” side.. The clutch is light but somewhat harsh and can be slipped if one is casual. Third gear was apt to jump out of engagement at times.

These, however, are mere midges in the very soothing Fulvia ointment. I enjoyed my long two days’ drive with this 1.2.-litre Lancia coupe very much indeed and cannot rate it as expensive at its all-in British price of £1,664. Indeed, it seems astonishing that it is not better known here, and it deserves an enthusiastic acceptance. While I do not wish to criticise in any way the Triumph 1300, which I haven’t driven very far, surely anyone who says it stands alone as the best small car currently available is either taking price into consideration, or has not tried the Lancia Fulvia… ?—W.B.