Road Impressions -- Lancia Gamma Berlina and Gran Turismo

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Good in parts, particularly chassis behaviour, but lacking refinement

The Lancia Gamma not only takes back Lancia into the prestige car market for the first time since the Flaminia, it also represents the current pinnacle of quality for the whole of the Fiat Group, discounting the specialised Ferrari arm. As such it takes over from the Fiat 130 saloon and coupé. Although production figures will be relatively low by Fiat standards, it must be an important car for the Group, aimed as it is at a rapidly expanding and usually highly profitable market sector where competition is fierce. The Berlina version is £7,136 and the Gran Turismo £9,186 (I prefer to call them “saloon” and “coupé” respectively), which tilts them against cars like the Rover SDI, the impressive new Opel Monza and Senator, top of the range Granadas, Citroën Pallas and GTi, BMW 5-series and Peugeot 604. Alas, the Gamma is put at an immediate disadvantage by the lack of an automatic gearbox option — and the bulk of demand in its price range is for automatics…

The development costs must have been colossal, for the Gamma is brand-new from stem to stern, with nothing borrowed from elsewhere in the Group. It copies the Beta only in the choice of front-wheel-drive and McPherson strut independent suspension. The most controversial part of its design is undoubtedly its flat-four engine, on the surface a strange choice to pitch against the refined smoothness of the straight and V-sixes and even a V8, which dominate in the opposing camps.

WB commented briefly in the September issue on his experiences with a Gamma saloon. I have had some experience of the saloon and considerably more of the coupé, an example of which Peter Garnier and I drove for some 1,900 miles on the Continent in the course of following the Rallye International des Voitures Anciennes. The two versions are mechanically identical, though with very different Pininfarina bodies. They don’t feel very different to drive, however, so the inevitable question is why pay £2,000 more for the more cramped, less practical, less well appointed, two-door coupé? Certainly it is no better finished than the saloon and I doubt whether it costs as much to build. It has considerable style, however, which is what it’s all about. In real terms the saloon is much better value.

The water-cooled, all-aluminium “boxer” engine is grossly oversquare at 102  X 76 mm, which gives 2,484 c.c. Single overhead camshafts per bank are driven by toothed belts. The short crankshaft runs in three main bearings. Both banks are fed from a single, twin-choke Weber carburetter. Transistorised ignition is fitted. The compression ratio is 9.0 to 1.  Maximum power is 140 b.h.p., produced at 5,400 r.p.m. and a healthy maximum torque of 153.3 lb-ft is reached at 3,000 r.p.m. Lancia investigated several other avenues before plumping for the flat-four, including a 90 degree V6. Compactness and light weight (298 lb.) and the ease of extracting abundant torque are some of the reasons cited by Lancia in vigorously trying to justify this somewhat unusual choice for a modern luxury car.

The flat-four drives the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox and a spring-assisted, mechanically operated, 8.97″, single-plate diaphragm clutch. The engine, gearbox, and differential are mounted as a unit on a subframe.

The MacPherson strut suspension has offset, helical coil springs. There are anti-roll bars front and rear. Alloy wheels of 6J x 14″ size are fitted as standard to both models, as is ZF, variable ratio, power-assisted rack and pinion steering. The brakes are 9.88″ outboard discs all round, ventilated at the front, and operated by Lancia’s Superduplex, servo-assisted, dual circuit system. The front calipers are fitted with a pad wear indicator connected to a dashboard warning light. The two-box, four-door saloon body looks like a hatchback, but isn’t. Interior space is very generous indeed, but the boot capacity is merely average, although the two-position lid, which contains a strange double glass panel to aid reversing, does at least open down to floor level for easy loading. The coupé’s three-box body sits on a 4.7″ shorter wheelbase, so rear seat space is considerably more cramped. I always regard GT cars as pretty much two-seaters anyway, at least for any sort of Grand Touring journey and the front seat passengers in the Gamma Gran Turismo have generous seating and leg-room. Garnier and I found the boot more than generous for our transcontinental sortie.

Although the facias are identical in both models, the driver’s forward aspect is quite different. I felt to sit “on” the saloon and “in” the coupé: the saloon’s seating position is loftier, forward vision easier. The coupé’s seats are too low, the vision of shorter drivers hampered by the huge rectangular cowl over the instruments; the screen lies back at a sharp angle and the roof line flow. I soon became used to the coupé’s driving position on the open road, but found it less easy to negotiate in situations like the hold of the Cross Channel Ferry. Garnier and I, very differently proportioned, both found the coupé seats comfortable for several hundred miles at a stretch, but the saloon is more comfortable overall. The coupé’s shorter wheelbase and a hundredweight less make for a choppier ride than the saloon, itself slightly harsh at low speeds in town, but on the whole the ride comfort is good.

Occasionally the automatic chokes were lazy on both test cars, but once fired up caused the engines to rev rather too vigorously in advance of oil pressure building up, as a mechanical clatter announced. Once warmed up this flat-four exudes great character by virtue of its almost flat torque curve, but there is no escaping the fact that there are only four cylinders and good though the engine may be I am not sure that it is being used in the right application — certainly not at the price.

Performance is good, but by no means in the Rover 3500 class, with 0-60 m.p.h. coming up in around 10 seconds. I found little difference in maximum speed between the saloon and the coupé, both indicated 126/127 m.p.h., round about 121 m.p.h. genuinely, which is what Lancia claim. Engine noise is pronounced when accelerating hard through the gears, the impression being one of sportiness rather than refined luxury. It mellows into a distant buzz at cruising speeds, but this “boxer” is never silent. Throttle response is crisp thanks to the flat torque curve and quite low ratios, which made this a most enjoyable car to drive over the Alps, where the flexibility and pulling power came into their own. That is until we tackled the St. Bernard Pass, where both the road-test coupé and an accompanying saloon were severely affected by fuel vaporisation, a strange malady for vehicles conceived in an Alpine country.

The long run back from Turin to the Channel brought the best out of the coupé’s character. We had intended to leave Turin early in the morning to reach the Channel the same night, but a full load of fuel taken on in the outskirts of the city had a rather generous content of water, to which the flat-four objected not unexpectedly violently. We managed to limp to the Lancia factory, where the service department had to strip the complete fuel system. It was mid-afternoon before we were on our way again and a further long delay because of an accident on the way up to the Mont Blanc tunnel set us back further. There were a couple of long fuel stops to take into account too, so we were a bit taken aback to find that our average speed for the 457 miles from the Lancia factory to our overnight stop in Beaune had been 76 m.p.h., accomplished very easily and comfortably. Three-figure averages were maintained with little difficulty on the autoroutes, the flat-four proving to be a very long-legged and the car very stable. Fuel consumption driven thus was 19.8 m.p.g., which is not at all bad in the circumstances. An unduly pessimistic fuel gauge for the 13-gallon tank enforced petrol halts every 10 gallons or so, however.

Such performance, particularly over the mountainous parts of our route, speak well for the Gamma’s chassis behaviour. Its handling and roadholding are first class in either coupé or saloon form, so beautifully balanced that most of the time there is little awareness that the front wheels are pulling the car along. Understeer is minimal and only if the right foot is used violently with the wheels on lock do any protests from the 185/70HR Michelin XASs become apparent. Roll is well controlled, a good thing for passenger comfort, but there is a tendency to pitch and squat in on/off throttle situations. Much of the credit for the enjoyable handling characteristics must go to the outstanding variable ratio, ZF power steering, which is light at manoeuvring speeds but at normal speeds gains the “weight”, precision and response of an excellent non-assisted system. Its presence also damps out front-wheel torque reaction through the steering. The brakes are well up to the standard of the rest of the chassis package, maybe a little bit over-servoed, but very efficient and fade-free. The combination of attributes makes the Gamma a surprisingly easy and enjoyable car to drive fast over twisty routes, a much more agile machine than its size would suggest.

Unfortunately the Gamma has one or two severe failings which are nothing to do with personal preferences for different engine types, price or whatever. I thought scuttle shake had gone out with the Ark, or at least with the Big Healey. But Lancia have managed to recreate it in the Gamma. The vast facia is flimsy and flexible and reacts to the slightest movement of the suspension, so that there is always a certain amount of vibration evident, particularly from the massive facia cowl. Worse, under hard acceleration the whole facia assembly flaps around violently, magnifying the movements of the notchy gear-change.

An even worse fault, because safety is at stake, is the arrangement of the Klippan inertia reel seat belts, especially in the coupé.  The belts have to operate at such an awkward angle that they inevitably snag in the guide loops, so that the reels are unable to keep the belts in tension across the chest. I am amazed that a manufacturer can offer a car with such an obvious safety defect in the face of strict 1978 legislation. These belts make a mockery of proposed compulsory seat belt laws, because more often than not the belts jam in the reeled-in position so that they cannot be pulled out for use!

Both Gammas are generally well appointed, with such luxuries as electric windows and an electrically operated door mirror. But they are lacking in other respects such as stowage space, adequate ventilation (in spite of generous-looking vents), poor instrumentation and switchgear.  A jumble of six pushbuttons on the facia control among other things the second speed for the wipers, for which the main control is on steering column.  Finding that speed button at night is almost impossible, for it is not illuminated until the second speed has been selected.  Crazy!  The fast speed is on the slow side in any case.

All in all the Gamma is a disappointing car, which deserves to be better. The chassis is first class and the engine, whilst not sufficiently refined for the job, performs well enough. But some of the detail design and execution lacks development.  — CR 

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