Some Italian Cars

Never having led a very regulated or orderly life I tend to let things happen as they will and adjust myself accordingly. Consequently when everything started having an Italian flavour recently I plunged in, but took the precaution of watering down too much Italian influence by borrowing a Lotus Elan Plus Two for some varied motoring. It all started when the man from Auto-Models Ltd., of 79, Finsbury Pavement, London, E.C.2, asked me what I thought of his all-metal model racing cars, and I told him I had no idea as I was not a model-maker and anyway I was not prepared to spend £3 12s. 6d. on a model kit that I would never get around to assembling, and even if I did I'd never get as far as painting it. He is a great enthusiast for his models and was determined to get me interested and promised to send me one as a gift, and then if I did not assemble it I would not have to worry about wasting my money. This was some while ago, and I forgot all about it until one day when a parcel arrived. It was kit number 008 of a 1932 monoposto Alfa Romeo, one of my favourite racing cars. This practically coincided with Alfa Romeo (Great Britain) Ltd. opening up new premises, to be called the Alfa Romeo Centre, in Edgware Road, London, N.W.2, near Staples Corner on the North Circular Road, though I am sure there was no collusion. At the end of that particular week I set off for a V.S.C.C. meeting, joining some friends on the way, and because their vintage car was suffering from damp in its electrics they joined the party in their Alfa Romeo Giulietta coupé. While I had been preparing our "vintage" car for this outing another friend had looked in to see how things were going, and he was in an Alfa Romeo Giulia coupé. Having barely given a thought to Alfa Romeos for some time I was suddenly surrounded by them, models, catalogues, new Service Centre and proud owners.

I was so impressed with the 1/24-scale Auto-Models kit that I actually sat down with a small drill, file and Araldite, and assembled it, the instructions being very simple to follow and the cleaning up with the file being minimal and of the kitchen table order. All the little castings were so nice that I would have been happy to have bought the kit for 72s. 6d., and I even got around to painting it. The classic twin-propshaft rear axle is so faithfully reproduced that it seemed a pity to assemble it into the car. At the aforementioned V.S.C.C. meeting I met another member who had just completed a 1927 Delage 1½-litre straight-eight, from the same series of Auto-Models kits, and he was even more delighted than me for he had broken a vital part and received a new one through the post free of charge. The Delage was particularly interesting to him as he owns a similar racing Delage. As there are 17 models in the range, all to 1/24-scale, which are about six or seven inches long and not too fiddly, and they range from Bugatti through Ferrari and B.R.M. to Lotus, there is something for everyone. It was amusing to compare notes for we both thought that there would bound to be some vital small part missing, being born cynics, and were both baffled, admitting to each other that the first thing we had done was to check the great number of parts with the drawing on the instruction sheet, and we had to agree that all the little plastic bags had exactly the right parts in them. We both thought we had a trump card when it came to the tiny Perspex windscreen but sheepishly agreed that it was carefully Sellotaped on the back of the instruction sheet, along with three racing numbers!

When the publicity agents for Lancia (England) rang up and said would I like to go to Italy and try the new Flavia 2,000-c.c, coupé, as well as numerous other Lancias, and Mr. Shalson of the Kentgran Trading Co. Ltd. rang up to ask if I would like to go to Modena and try a de Tomaso Mangusta I gave up roast-beef and started eating spaghetti, and when a friend said he was going to Milan to try an Iso Rivolta Grifo and would I like to join him, I changed from beer to chianti, and let everything take its natural course.

For as long as I can remember the Lancia Company have made interesting cars, not all of them good cars, but they never followed fashion or trends set by money-makers like Ford or Chevrolet. I always felt that Lancia cars were designed by real engineers who enjoyed good mechanical things and who designed things from basic principles, rather like Porsche engineers. The range of Lancia cars today is based upon two layouts, the Fulvia series which are powered by twin-cam narrow-angle vee-four engines and the Flavia series based on a flat-four engine layout, both series have front-wheel-drive with the engine ahead of the front-axle centre-line. The Fulvia series comprise the GTE four-door, four-seater saloon, the Rally 1.3 S which is a two-seat coupé with a rather square back, the 1.3 S Zagato Sport, an unusual-looking but very neat fastback coupé, and the 1.6 HF Rally coupé with 5-speed gearbox and all the tuning goodies, including two double-choke carburetters. The push-rod flat-four Flavia engine is now of 2,000 c.c. and powers the Flavia coupé, which is a two-door fairly large two-plus-two, with the proportions of a big Fiat or Sunbeam Rapier rather than an Elan or E-type Jaguar. The nomenclature "two plus two" is a terrible misnomer and is abused as badly as Fords abuse the term GT. The range of cars of which the Lancia Fulvia is a good example is really a "sportsman's coupé"; in other words it is not a family saloon nor is it a GT coupé, but it a very useful mixture of the two. The Fulvia was very happy cruising at 90 m.p.h. on the Autostrada, and it wound up to a genuine 105 m.p.h in the pouring rain, running as straight as a die; this was 5,400 r.p.m. in top gear, while down a slight gradient or with a following wind it would show 5,700 r.p.m. (110 m.p.h.) in top gear, which is exactly 100 r.p.m. under the permitted maximum, so that one could honestly say the gearing was nearly spot-on for Autostrada motoring. This new Flavia coupé is a very smooth, well finished car with more luxury than sporting characteristics, and being small I found the driving position rather peculiar, with the steering wheel being too high; however, a colleague who is well over 6 ft. found it to his liking. This is a neat and compact two-door coupé with unobtrusive overhang at the back, but it has a truly enormous luggage compartment, thanks to the front wheel-drive allowing a simple tube axle at the rear that takes up very little space.

Much more in my style of motor car were the sporting Fulvia models, the Zagato Sport 1.3-litre being a really pleasant little car to drive, with a nice driving position, bucket seats that really grip, and a rigid gear-lever that is typical of all Lancias. The compact little Fulvia engine, which is canted over to the left at 45-degrees runs up to 6,200 r.p.m. and seems unburstable. An unusual feature on the Zagato Sport Fulvia is that the lid over the engine compartment is hinged along the right-hand edge, so that when it is lilted up sideways the access to the left-inclined engine and all the accessories is first class. The 1.3-litre Rally coupé, which is a standard version of the HF Fulvia full-blooded rally car, is a neat and tidy little coupé, and on all the normal civilised Lancias the front-wheel-drive was completely unobtrusive, except when it came into its own on snow and slippery surfaces. The "works" 1.6-litre rally car, with its greatly increased torque and horsepower, was another matter altogether, and I was conscious all the time of being dragged along by the front wheels very forcibly. Its directional control was very good indeed and it was an easy car to drive hard. The family model Flavia, the four-door, four-seat GTE saloon, was not left out of the running and had all the Lancia characteristics, cruising flat-out at around 100 m.p.h. with four people and luggage on board, its little 1.3-litre engine spinning round at the same r.p.m. as the coupé's.

In Great Britain these Lancia cars are not cheap, the desirable little Zagato Sport being about the same price as an E-type Jaguar, but they are all interesting and very satisfying cars, designed and built with an engineering integrity that is hard to find in cheaper cars, which is no doubt why Lancia owners are usually pretty discerning people.

Leaving Turin and the neighbouring mountains I visited the Iso Rivolta factory in the northern suburbs of Milan to look at a range of cars that were so different from Lancias that I felt I was in a different world. The Iso Rivolta cars are built around a boxed platform chassis, with coil-spring and wishbone i.f.s. and a de Dion rear axle layout, and a lot of the design owes much to the Gordon-Keeble. Chevrolet V8 engines and 4-speed gearboxes are used and there are three models in production, the two-door close-coupled coupé, the very low and chunky Grifo GT coupé, and the new four-door, four-seater. These are very much hand-built cars, the assembly line consisting of a half-dozen or so cars, and output is at the rate of about one a day. Needless to say these are not cheap cars and, while they are not excitingly advanced cars, they offer a rugged, reliable car with an American character but European manners, while the bodywork design and finish are essentially Italian. All the normal production Iso Rivolta cars are powered by 4.7-litre Chevrolet engines, worked on and modified internally by Rivolta, but as an experiment Piero Rivolta fitted a 7-litre Chevrolet V8 into a Grifo coupé. It was not his intention to market the car, but immediately people wanted one, and he has already built eight 7-litre Grifo Coupés and there are many more on order. Until now the Iso bodies were made outside the factory, at a well-known coach-builders, but because of delays in supplying the finished bodies Rivolta is now starting to make them in his own factory. Piero Rivolta is a pleasant young Italian, who took over the family engineering business, and enjoys making cars that amuse him and likes to know his customers as individuals rather than a series of cheques and accounts.

Moving down to Modena, the next call was at a brand new factory just to the east of the town where Alessandro de Tomaso is building his Mangusta coupés at the rate of 25 a month. For many years now de Tomaso has been living in Modena, having come from Argentina at the time of the South American influx into European racing, and he used to race Osca sports cars. I have two fond memories of de Tomaso, who rates as an old friend, one in Sweden in a sports-car race when another driver carved him up on a corner. He chased after the offender and when he went in for a pit stop de Tomaso followed him in, leapt out of his Osca, thumped the other chap on the ear, got back into his Osca and went on racing. The other memory was at Silverstone when he was driving a sports Osca in a Formula Two race some years ago; he overcooked things at Copse corner and struck the wall on the inside of the bend, sending bricks scudding across the tarmac infield. I was standing with the Editor of Motor Sport as the bricks came towards us at about 20 m.p.h. and we leapt into the air. The Editor was a bit slower in taking off than I was and he was struck a glancing blow on the foot, fortunately without damage. After that he always referred to de Tomaso as the racing driver who threw stones at him! Since de Tomaso gave up racing he has been building racing and competition cars, mostly one-off models, and while some of them have been very advanced, like his flat-eight-cylinder 1½-litre Grand Prix car, few of them really got off the ground. He built a car for Indianapolis with a Ford V8 engine in the back and later he built a racing/sports car similarly powered. This car showed good possibilities and was developed into a low, squat, mid-engined coupé which he called the Mangusta. This car really caught on, aided and abetted by the Ford GT40 in racing, for the Mangusta is similar in principle, but much more civilised as regards the bodywork, with normal seating and normal doors. Last August de Tomaso opened a new factory and since that time has got production flowing at an impressive rate for this specialised but advanced GT coupé. The chassis is basically a back-bone, dividing into two legs aft of the cockpit, and in the fork are mounted the Ford V8 engine and the 5-speed ZF gearbox. Suspension fore and aft is pure Grand Prix, with double wishbones at the front and wishbone, link and radius arms at the back, all wheels being independently sprung on coil-spring/damper units. The chassis frame goes from Modena to Turin, where Ghia build on the two-seater coupé body, constructed of steel with aluminium panels. The body is really beautifully finished to very high standards, especially for a limited production car, and the way the doors click shut would impress the most fastidious owner. The completed body/chassis unit, now all welded up as one, returns to Modena where it is put on an assembly line to have all the mechanical components fitted.

The engines come from Ford in America in two versions, 4.7-litre and 4.9-litre, the former are stripped down and modified quite considerably with improved camshaft, modified valve gear, raised compression and so on, while the latter are stripped and checked but kept standard. The 4.9-litre "cooking" engine is fitted to the cars sold on the American market as Americans are not allowed to go fast, and this standard "wuffly" 4.9-litre engine gives them a maximum of around 120 m.p.h. The tuned 4.7-litre engine, which can rev. much higher than its larger brother, gives the Mangusta a maximum speed of over 150 m.p.h. and a lot more acceleration. As the Mangusta is intended to be a road-going GT car rather than a competition coupé, a great effort was made to keep the front end clear and provide good luggage space. This has been done by mounting the spare wheel over the gearbox, the battery in the tail and the fuel rank on the right-hand side of the engine compartment. The result is a tail-heavy weight distribution, but this is counteracted by using larger section rear tyres than front ones. A car like this that will cruise at 100-120 m.p.h. effortlessly cannot be driven with the windows open, for wind noise with everything closed is very low, as is road and exhaust noise, so air-conditioning for the cockpit is fitted as standard. A brief drive in a Mangusta with the "hot" engine showed that it was a car in the modern idiom that really gets up and goes, but for personal preference I would like more direct steering and a feeling of more weight on the front wheels, while the seats, although beautifully made, are not good and do not absorb the harsh ride that the racing-type suspension gives. Last month I suggested that it was time that a big manufacturer was making the GT car of the 1970s, which must be a mid-engined coupé. Already Lotus, Ferrari, Ford, Matra and Lamborghini are offering such a layout in their range of cars, with the Europa, the Dino 206, GT40, 530, and the Miura. Automobili de Tomaso offer the mid-engined coupé as their only model and it the Mangusta sells well it must lead to further cars on the same lines.

It is planned to build a small number of Mangustas with right-hand steering for the British market and Kentgraft Trading of 407 Holloway Road, London, N.7, intend to import about 10 or 12 cars this year, at a selling price of around £8,500, which would probably include the arrangement of a personal collection trip to Modena for the customer.

The approach of Grand Prix racing in Europe called for a swift return from Modena and Italy even though there were many things still to see, but I feel certain that further opportunities will arise during the summer months.—D. S. J.