On Test with The Lancia Flavia
The 1½-litre Light-Alloy Flat-Four, Front-Wheel-Drive, Disc-Braked Saloon from Turin Demonstrates Impeccable Manners, Safe Handling, Great Refinement, Splendid Suspension, and a Very Smooth Engine
Flavia in Sussex.—The front-drive Lancia is seen here near Billingshurst, at the entrance to a farm-house that was occupied circa 1905. by the Locke-Kings, who subsequently built Brooklands Track. Could the gates have come from Brooklands or did they prompt the design of those used at the famous Track ?
Lancia have always made good motor cars notable for individuality and good manners and the latest 1½-litre Flavia saloon is no exception. Indeed, it is a remarkably pleasant family car and it is to Lancia’s credit that they have made such a successful job of their first front-wheel-drive car and flat-four engine.
In England the 1½-litre Flavia, which has an “over-square” engine of 82 x 71 mm. (1,500 c.c.), is a startlingly costly proposition but if price is of no importance, what a splendid proposition it represents—silent, sure-footed, capable of a top speed of 96 m.p.h., beautifully appointed and a car of definite charm and character.
There has been criticism of the Lancia Flavia on the grounds that it is primarily a Motorway car, because the recommended maximum crankshaft speed of 5,400 r.p.m. restricts indicated maxima in the gears to 25, 42 and 62 m.p.h. But what must not be lost sight of is the fact that, while in the 4.09-to-1 top gear the Flavia certainly makes light of sustained wide-throttle running, its 6.71-to-1 3rd gear is excellent for climbing steep main-road hills, whereas many cars of equivalent engine size would have to resort to a low 2nd gear and consequently go up with engine fussily turning over close to peak revs. Again, the Flavia’s acceleration has been described as not one of its good features but if the car is accepted for what it is, an extremely refined 6-seater family saloon, and if the lower gears are used freely, which the very smooth horizontally-opposed 78-b.h.p. engine encourages, there is no lack of useful performance. A s.s. ¼-mile in 22 sec. and 60 m.p.h. obtainable from rest in 18.6 sec. is surely quite acceptable? Moreover, there is little need to drive the Flavia in hectic fashion because time is running out. Its magnificently light and accurate steering, fine driving position with maximum visibility, very powerful Dunlop disc brakes on all wheels, and the front-wheel-drive characteristic of liking to enter corners modestly and then accelerate sure-footedly out of them, make for exceptional average speeds in luxurious comfort and quietness.
Let us look at this remarkable and praiseworthy 1½-litre car from Turin in greater detail.
I took it over from the rather drab Lancia depot at Alperton, conveniently on the outskirts of the congested Metropolis, where I have been taking over Press cars for more years than I care to remember—starting, I suppose, with a Lancia Aprilia in 1938, about which, as readers of very long standing and keen memories may recollect, I was exceptionally enthusiastic. I am similarly enthusiastic about today’s Flavia.
In keeping with front-wheel-drive this car has an almost flat floor which you step onto over side sills. The front seat is a generous-sized bench, upholstered on the test car in very highgrade “hand-sewn” red leather, an extra costing £112. It is a seat which, if it causes the passenger to grab the hand-grip on fast corners, never becomes hard or uncomfortable, no matter how long it is occupied, and which gives adequate back support from a squab the rake of which is adjustable down to the fully-reclining position.
The noticeably small, thin-rimmed steering wheel is splendidly positioned for the best possible driving position, set low so that the forward view is not impeded. It has small serrations to provide an adequate but unobtrusive handgrip.
Obviously this Lancia Flavia is intended to seat three on the wide front seat, as well as three on the back seat. Apart from the small steering wheel and absence of transmission tunnel, the minor controls are uniquely located as a row of press-buttons on a curved console on the driver’s right, and there is a steeringcolumn gear-lever, both features which leave the passenger space uncongested.
The fall-over buttons on this horizontal panel, going outwards away from the driver, control sidelamps, heater fan, headlamps and screen-wipers. Between the fan and headlamps’ buttons, protruding from a dummy button, is a near-vertical stalk controlling the direction-flashers, with a press-button at the top which selects full or dimmed beams in the dual headlamp clusters. If the headlamps, on full beam, are extinguished by means of the main button and not the dipper button, when next they are switched on they will be on the dimmed beam. Thus all the minor controls are immediately accessible and it is only necessary to extend the right index finger to dim the headlamps. The buttons bear no identification, so sometimes I found I was playing the wrong tune, and too impulsive an attempt to operate the headlamps’ dimmer button might tip the stalk and signal a turn when no turn was intended. But generally these controls are better located and no worse than press-buttons on many American cars, if press-buttons you must have. Outboard of the wipers’ button is a press-button for the screen-washers.
The sloping facia is covered in black leather, with firm crashpadding where it is most needed, the knees receiving protection, for example. On the left is a cubby-hole easily able to take a Rolleiflex camera and light meter with room to spare, its lid lockable from a somewhat-awkward lock in the press-button. Incidentally, one key is used for doors and ignition, a different colour key for boot and cubby-hole, which is ideal. The centre of the facia is unmolested but in front of the driver is the hooded instrument cluster, topped by a horizontal-ribbon 120-m.p.h. speedometer calibrated in figures. every 20 m.p.h. and intermediary lines every 10 m.p.h., with a neat little engine tachometer on its right, having a red line between 5,200 and 5,400 r.p.m. Below the speedometer are separate windows indicating trip with decimal and five-figure total mileages, and along the bottom of the panel four gauges, recording fuel contents (marked by lines only but with a low-level warning light), water temperature, dynamo charge. and oil pressure. The tell-tale lights for low oil pressure, headlamps main-beam and indicators-functioning are all sensibly subdued. Under file facia are small levers, one on the extreme left, like an Aprilia choke-control, for releasing the bonnet, two others, flanking the steering column, for extra ventilation, and choke. The handbrake, of the turn-and-pull variety, is well placed, also under the facia. If handbrake or choke are in use a facia light remains on as a reminder to thoughtless manipulators of such fine machinery.
Facia lightingis rheostat-cont rolled, or can be doused altogether, by a little turn-knob up under the minor-controls panel. Centrally below the main facia is a drawer-type ash-tray opened by pinching together its knobs, and, below this, two knurled knobs for ventilation and heat control, marked respectively red and blue in Continental style, with adjustable doors on the heaterbox itself.
The Flavia possesses a useful pocket in the driver’s door and big rigid map-holders on both sides of the scuttle. The usual rear-seat parcels’ shelf, well-lipped, is provided. The doors open wide, and are held by secure if rather vicious “keeps,” and have very good recessed pull-out trigger safety interior handles, a la Mercedes, plastic grab-handles, good window winders with neat rotatable knobs (4½-turns front, 8¼-turns rear, open to closed) and sill-locks, while the front doors incorporate quarter-lights which can be finely adjusted or securely locked with big knurled knobs, again as on a Mercedes-Benz. The doors shut quietly and with no sensation of “tinniness”; all, except the driver’s, possess arm-rests. There are protective metal strips at the base of the leather upholstery.
There is as much head and leg room in the spacious rear compartment as in the front, and on the back of the front-seat squab arc a useful pocket and a covered ash-tray.
At either end of the facia aircraft-type vents are provided, for demisting the side windows with warm air. An unusual innovation consists of a red warning lamp in the edge of the off-side front door: while on the subject of special Flavia characteristics I should mention that a radiator blind is provided, controlled by an under-bonnet lever, and that another lever restricts steering lock when snow-chains are fitted, to protect the from wings.
The bonnet has to be hand-propped, but its prop is springloaded to enable it to park automatically. The lockable lid of the luggage boot is balanced and remains open on its own. The boot is of very generous dimensions, with a flat floor, and although the spare wheel sits vertically on the off side, it has a protective cover over it. The boot and engine compartment both possess illumination, and additional direction-flasher amber lights are provided in the front wings. There are twin interior lamps with the usual courtesy action when the front doors are open. An electric socket is provided, for a razor or inspection lamp, etc., and there are padded, swivelling anti-dazzle vizors, with vanity mirror in the near-side one.
When the bonnet is opened little can be seen of the flat-four engine but the dip-stick and plugs are accessible, the former easy to replace in a sensible hole, and the marked fuse-box, with almost every circuit protected and spare fuse provided, and electrical junction boxes, etc., are neatly arranged along the near-side sill. The small Exide battery is in full view. One spanner suffices for hub caps, wheel nuts, plugs and every oil drain plug. Four nipples need grease every 2,000 miles, when sump draining is recommended, and the steering idler arm should be lubricated every 1,000 miles.
Pendant brake and clutch pedals, rather small and indifferently located, and a treadle accelerator, are used. A half-horn ring sounds delightfully Italian Fiamme horns, and depressing the steering-wheel hub flashes the headlamps with all other lamps olf, although only on dimmed beam.
The underparts of the Flavia are flat, the exhaust tail-pipe protruding centrally at the rear, and the substantial bumpers with recessed reflectors are of stainless steel. In Italy the Flavia is now well known; here it is recognisable as its name is on the boot lid. In front, the central bonnet strip terminates in the letter “L.” and the proud Lancia badge adorns the grille.
Driving the Flavia
The driver’s first impression of this latest Lancia model is of the first-class visibility provided, forward beyond the flat, wide nacelles for the dual Carello headlamps and flat bonnet, and all round as well, thanks to a big back window and deep side windows, while there is no wide shelf clumsily divorcing screen from facia. As has been said, the driving position is excellent and the pleasure of this is enhanced by the excellence of the responsive steering. It calls for 4½ turns, lock-to-lock, with some sponge, and gives a turning circle of only 36½ feet, but once in action there is no particular sensation of abnormally low gearing. Moreover, once the Flavia is in motion all trace of heaviness vanishes, the action being that elusive one of lightness combined with smoothness, while no lost-motion is evident, the sense of control being absolutely sure and positive, with the ability to dodge ambling pedestrians and animals with impunity. There is splendid castoraction to overcome the big lock, the wheel spinning quickly, yet smoothly and gently, through the fingers after a corner. No vibration is transmitted and there is but very slight kick-back, as if to recall Lambda and Aprilia steering, only at speeds around 65 m.p.h. Even on full-lock the steering does not snatch and it conveys nothing of the fact that this is a front-wheel-drive car.
The gear-lever is a slender but rigid l.h. steering-column stalk which moves with precision, lightly spring-loaded to the bottom of the gate, and which functions quite easily once the oil is warm. It is good of its kind without quite verging on perfection, stiffness very slightly slowing the speed of gear-changing. Top and 3rd gears are below 1st and 2nd, with reverse safely away below top, easy to select and bringing in a useful reversing light.
The Fichtel-Sachs clutch is light but had a tendency to slip and a low metallic noise emanated from it, while. occasionally the lower gears were difficult to engage.
The engine is started by turning the two-position ignition key and then pressing it in, a nice action in keeping with the mechanical demeanour of this outstanding car. The main services are selected by partly turning the key, these including the aforesaid underbonnet lights. The engine is responsive and extremely smooth right up to and beyond its recommended maximum of 5,400 r.p.m., which can be exceeded somewhat without suggestion of distress. There is some extra noise, naturally, when accelerating, but this is generally a very quiet engine, and one that picks up in a manner which gives the Flavia a delightfully eager feel. Incidentally, when stationary the ribbon speedometer read “5 m.p.h.” and the tachometer indicated 500 r.p.m., as if the Lancia was impatient to be off!
One of the most significant qualities of the Lancia Flavia, along with safe responsive control, is its quiet running. Although Michelin “X” tyres are fitted as a contribution to the good road holding, practically no road noise intrudes and, which I consider highly creditable with a front-mounted engine and gearbox close to the floor; there is not a trace of noise from gears or final drive. As a result, to travel in the Flavia is to taste luxury and ease not normally associated with a 1½-litre high-performance car. Body noise is confined to some creaks from the region of the seats, and so generally silent is this Lancia that wind-noise round the screen pillars becomes irritating where in so many cars it would pass unnoticed.
Another commendable aspect of this splendid Italian saloon is the ride. The suspension is unusual, double wishbones and a transverse leaf-spring being used in front, ½-elliptic leaf-springs and a dead axle beam at the back, with De Carbon telescopic dampers and anti-roll bars front and back. A level, very comfort able ride results over all types of surface, with very mild up-and down motion, extremely well damped. The car floats over really bad roads in a manner that contributes to the effortless, secure and comfortable travel that is the Flavia’s main purpose in life. Over a local rough test road the Lancia rode smoothly at 8o m.p.h., the equal of the Citroen DS with its more complicated suspension; it was possible to steer hands-off, and so good is the damping, that even rear-seat passengers hardly left the seat over vicious hump-backs. The ,½-elliptic back springs certainly belie early doubts! When cornered fast—and using front-drive technique to the full a Flavia corners very fast—there is some roll, hut it is predictable and consistent. An oversteer tendency changes to mild understeer when throttle is backed off. The back-end feels light and has some tendency to break-away with no-one occupying the back seat. This is all that limits full use of the exceptionally powerful II-in. Dunlop disc brakes, that give enormous powers of retardation at light pedal pressures, aided by a vacuum servo. The only clue to the fact that this is a f.w.d. car lies in sudden transmission take-up when starting briskly from rest, due to absence of propeller-shaft damping.
No opportunity came to check fuel range, but the tank, its detachable filler cap under a locked flap in the off-side rear wing, holds 10½ gallons and a warning light comes on when it is 1 to 1½ gallons off empty. The test car had a Solex C32 PAIA3 carburetter. Using 100-octane petrol the overall consumption for 677 miles came out to 25.8 m.p.g.; this included every type of driving and more stopping and restarting, while plotting the route of the “Boxing Night Informal,” than would normally occur on a long-distance journey. In this distance no oil was required.
No serious troubles intruded, but a fault developed in the headlamps’ selector button, leaving us temporarily lightless and baffled, the screen-wipers were none too effective, and the engine never got really warm, judging by the low reading of the unealibrated thermometer, the radiator blind refusing to stay in the closed position. The dual headlamps could have provided a longer beam and the cut-off was far too drastic when they were dimmed. but no doubt they required adjustment. There was evidence of chaffing of the brake-booster lines and some rust in the channels round the boot lid, in a car that had been in use for only 12,000 miles. A screen demister pipe detached itself, as it does on my Mini-Minor (but that didn’t cost over £2,000), and, as recorded, the clutch was suspect. An anti-dazzle rear-view mirror is provided but this defeated its object by being too loosely mounted.
To sum up, the Flavia is that rare vehicle, so often asked for on paper, a luxury 1½-litre 6-seater saloon: It is capable of a top speed of 96 m.p.h., reaches 60 in 3rd gear without over-revving, accelerates well, is essentially safe to steer, corner and stop, and does everything with the essence of smooth, quiet superiority. The Lancia Flavia is not a status symbol, but it is a very fine proposition for those who want individuality and refinement from a not-too-big car. At present the price in this country is inflated to £2,187 12s. and even on the Common Market the basic price of £1,500 is high but, disregarding sordid finance, this is one of the World’s outstanding family cars.—W. B.