Introducing the Lancia "Lambda"

[These interesting notes on a very famous Lancia model have been compiled entirely from memory by Geoffrey Robson, who mentions some maintenance matters and gives a few tuning notes, besides very effectively introducing a classic car to hitherto unappreciative persons. – Ed.]

Some considerable time ago I was almost spurred into action to defend the Lancia “Lambda” by Cecil Clutton’s rather distressing and inaccurate remarks on the subject in his amusing article on the “Vintage Sports Car,” but owing to pressure of business, laziness and other forces mojeures it has till now remained undefended. My own authority for writing on the subject is very small, being based on the ownership of a Fifth Series and two Eighth Series cars and a practically unqualified admiration for a car which remains, after 20 years, one of the finest fast touring cars ever designed.

The essential characteristic of the “Lambda,” and that which makes it such an extraordinarily satisfactory machine to drive, lies in the unity of its design, the fact that it was designed as a complete car from start to finish and was not merely the result of a successful cornpromise between the designers of an engine, a chassis and a body, as are so many of even the finest vintage sports cars. The conventional sports car of the period, generally having a high (and probably unknown) factor of safety throughout its design and with superfluous weight and strength in unnecessary places, frequently lends itself as a basis for cutting about, lightening, tuning and considerable improvement in all directions; whilst it is noteworthy that 90 per cent. of the amateur attempts to play about with the “Lambda” chassis have merely succeeded in ruining its road-holding characteristics or, as Mr. West once said of a particularly nasty example, making it go round in something great circles.

Its performance and reliability were obtained by a good power-weight ratio, using a fairly easy-going engine with large bearing surfaces, gaining its efficiency from sensible port and manifold design to give an easy gas flow to and from the cylinders, rather than from high r.p.m., high compression ratio, or undue lightness in essential parts, and mounting it in a light, rigid chassis, with superlative brakes and road-holding, to the strength of which the steel body was an asset and not merely a useless load. The “Lambda” started life in (I believe) 1921 as a completely unconventional sports tourer with an engine of just over 2 litres capacity (75 x 120), rated in this country at 13.9 h.p., and in principle and general layout remained unchanged until the type went out of production 10 years later. The engine was unconventional in layout, but undoubtedly the chassis was the more important departure from normal design. The side members were of light gauge steel channel section, approximately 11 1/2″ with narrow flanges, between which were welded other channels where required, dimpled for increased rigidity, to form a sort of flanged box-section. The scuttle and bulkhead, the bulkhead behind the front seats and the luggage compartment “ump” on the back, were integral with the chassis frame and braced them, in addition to the box-section cross members which ran between the side members. Taking the weight of the body into account, it must be one of the lightest, toughest and most rigid chassis of its size ever produced. Attached to the front ends of the chassis frame was a channel-section frame conforming to the shape of the radiator, and a tubular steel “trapezoidal” frame, braced to the channel frame and diagonally back to the side members, to resist brake reaction, carrying independent coil-spring “oleo-legs ” for the front wheels. These units, which are, of course, still used on the “Aprilia” and “Astura,” consist of a long hollow “king-pin” pivoting and sliding in guide tubes at the top and bottom, and integral with the stub axle. Two coil springs in compression bear on a thrust race above the stub axle, and a short snubber spring in the bottom guide socket prevents the “king-pin” from “bottoming.” The interior of the pin forms a hydraulic shook absorber and, as the whole concern is enclosed and full of oil, it seems to go on indefinitely without any sign of wear. Steering is extremely light and stiffness can only be due to misalignment of the guide tubes, a bent “king-pin” (as the result of an accident) or lack of oil. This system gives a practically irreducible minimum of unsprung weight i.e., wheels, stub axles, brake drums, and track rod, and considering both its durability and the high degree of stability it gives, is about the most satisfactory system incorporated in any production car.

The rear axle was underslung on half-elliptics and was a comparatively conventional piece of design, with semi-floating half shafts splined into the differential cage and carried at the outboard ends on a deep single-row ball bearing, taking both radial and thrust loads. The disintegration of one of these bearings has been the only trouble I have had in over two years with my Eighth Series car, either from the chassis or engine. The differential and shafts are so tough that they never give any trouble. The final drive was through 50-12 spiral bevel crown wheel and pinion, which is rarely absolutely quiet, but sings in a pleasant and subdued manner. An open two-piece tubular transmission shaft was used, with a Lancia-made universal, the front portion held in a steady bearing and attached at front and rear to the gearbox and axle by triple fabric disc couplings. A worn universal naturally sets up transmission vibration, as the shaft is heavy and of small diameter, and it is an improvement to fit a lighter shaft of larger diameter with Hardy Spicer couplings, if the original joints wear out; mine have never given any trouble so far on either long or short-chassis cars.

The components described above remained practically unchanged, with only detail alterations, throughout the Eight Series, even the final drive ratio of 4.17 to 1 remaining, despite increased power output, without increase of weight. The engine was mounted on tubular bearers, which also carried the gearbox and separate starter motor, and were attached to the front cross member and the first box-section bulkhead. The narrow V arrangement of cylinders in one block was patented by Lancia’s on the introduction of the “Lambda” and has been used by them ever since in all their engines, except for commercial vehicles. This arrangement makes for a compact engine and a short, stiff crankshaft, though raising difficulties with the valve gear and drive, and balancing, and, the possible snag of excessive width was not encountered, as the manifolds ran above the cylinders and did not increase the overall width of the engine. According to the handbook it “allows a regular series of explosions,” and it certainly succeeds in bringing the inlet ports as close together as possible. The block and crankcase was a one-piece aluminium casting, with east-iron dry liners, producing a very rigid crankcase, a feature which is noticeably lacking in several otherwise excellent cars of the period. The massive three-bearing crankshaft was originally non-counterbalanced; the rods were tubular, with forced lubrication to big-ends and fully-floating little-ends. A split spring-loaded skew gear drove a vertical shaft in the port forward corner of the block, driving the single overhead camshaft and the conventional in-line arrangement of water pump, dynamo and magneto through two other pairs of skew gears. The camshaft operated rather long, heavy valves via rocker arms with rollerbearing followers, in two rows on the centre lines of the two pairs of combustion chambers, the inlet and two exhaust passages running parallel inside the cylinder head water jacket, the carburetter and two-branch manifold being attached to the rear face of the head. This had the complementary advantages of cooling the exhaust gases immediately after leaving the cylinders and heating the inlet manifold, which makes for rapid warming up to full efficiency. The carburetter used was the Zenith triple diffuser, which was retained throughout. The head was attached to the block by only six half-inch studs, which, owing to the position of the inlet and exhaust passages, was an unavoidable weakness in the design. The arrangements for filtering the oil were normal and rather inadequate, the pump drawing its supply through a triple gauze filter at the filler neck, supplemented at the Fifth Series by a small gauze filter in the pressure line to the valve gear. An exceedingly smooth and satisfactory dry multiplate clutch transmitted the power to the separate three-speed gearbox, which was operated by a long remote control and a short stiff central lever, on a ball-joint.

Ignition and electrical equipment was originally Marelli of which I have no experience, but believe it was not entirely satisfactory. The general layout of both engine and chassis remained unchanged throughout the type and development was confined to eliminating snags and improving performance. These alterations are detailed below:—

Engine. – The tubular connecting rods were apt to snap above the big-end if “maximum” r.p.m. were exceeded too frequently; they were replaced at the Seventh Series (chassis 15,501) by H-section nickel-chrome steel rods, which display no such tendency. To improve the smoothness of the engine a very fine counterbalanced crankshaft was introduced at the same time, and alloy pistons replaced the original cast-iron ones. The stroke remained 120 mm. throughout, but at the Seventh Series the bore was increased from 75 to 79.37 mm., thus increasing the capacity from 2.12 to 2.38 litres. The brake-horse-power increased from 50 to 58, an increase of only about 4 per cent. per unit of capacity, but the essential improvement was the raising of the safe limit from 3,000 to 3,650 r.p.m. by the use of lighter pistons, stronger rods and the balanced crank. A spring-loaded camshaft vibration damper was also introduced in an attempt to cut down chatter in the skew gears of the auxiliary drives, in which it was not frightfully successful, though the chatter is only annoying when the engine is idling. Also at the Seventh Series a large pressure oil filter, consisting of four columns of brass discs, through which the oil was forced, was fitted on the offside of the cylinder block, external copper pipes leading to the oil pump and the main oilway in the crankcase. Incidentally, this filter has a small pressure relief valve of its own, and in the event of oil pressure disappearing it should be examined as well as the main relief valve on the offside of the crankcase.

The Marelli electrical equipment was given up at the Fifth Series and replaced by Bosch dynamo and Magneto unit, starter, etc.; this is magnificent stuff and has never given me the slightest trouble. I believe it was optional before this date and, in any case, most of the early cars have by now been converted to Bosch equipment. (My early Fifth Series car had a Bosch magneto and starter, Zeiss headlamps and a Marelli ignition key.) The vernier coupling to the dynamo-magneto unit was not quite up to the load of this massive affair, probably because it was so easy to get it slightly out of alignment in its mounting straps; it was replaced at the Seventh Series by a large rubber coupling, which is quite unbreakable, but does not allow for adjustment; the simplest method of very fine adjustment is to twist the whole unit slightly in the mounting straps.

In the 75-mm. bore engines the combustion space was formed, and the plugs fitted, in the block itself, the head being unrecessed and the valves flush with the joint face. In the Seventh and Eighth Series engines the combustion space and plugs were in the more normal position in the head, which simplified cooling arrangements round the plugs. Cooling of the head was also improved at the Seventh Series by carrying two water pipes away from the head, from deeply dished cast-aluminium water plates on either side, considerably improving cooling immediately round the exhaust passages. The carburetter was moved about 4″ away from the rear face of the head on an aluminium stub, presumably because it was too close to the exhaust branches. An auxiliary oil tank was added, holding two-thirds of a gallon, feeding to the sump by means of a small plunger pump driven off the rear end of the camshaft, to enable long distances to be covered without stops for oil. This tank was mounted under the scuttle in the same casing as the Weymann exhauster, on the Seventh Series cars, and a large drain tap was incorporated in the sump, with an easily accessible handle, at the same time.

The Eighth Series engine (chassis 18,601 onwards) had no radical alterations, but the bore was increased to 82.55 mm., giving a capacity of 2.58 litres and a slightly more than proportionate increase in power to 65 b.h.p., the r.p.m. limit remaining the same. A rev.-counter drive was fitted on the rear end of the camshaft, separate autovac and auxiliary oil tanks were used, and a Zenith air cleaner and silencer was fitted on the air intake. A minor distinguishing point is that the two water outlets from the head run to a single aperture in the header tank through a branched water pipe, whilst in the Seventh Series engine two pipes led up to two separate unions in the tank, and on the earlier cars a single outlet pipe led away from the front face of the head.

Gearbox. – Up to the Fourth Series a three-speed box was fitted, giving speeds of approximately 22, 39 and 70 m.p.h. at peak r.p.m., thus leaving a very awkward gap between second and top gear. At the Fifth Series a third gear was introduced between second and top gear, giving about 52 m.p.h., after which the box remained unchanged. First to second gear is a slow change and third to top gear slowish, as no clutch stop is used, but second to third gear is a “straight through” change without double-de-clutching. A higher third gear might have been advantageous on the earlier cars, though with the higher engine speed of the Seventh and Eighth Series engines approximately 45 and 60 m.p.h. respectively on second and third gears is fairly satisfactory.

Chassis. – The tubular front frame is interchangeable on all series, but the chassis frame was altered at the Seventh Series to make it suitable for carrying Weymann saloon bodies, the body sides and bulkhead behind the front seat being dispensed with, though the “ump” was retained at the back. The “ump” must have been a sore point with the coachbuilders, and was removed at the Eighth Series to allow greater freedom in the design of the body; the rear end of the chassis was stiffened up to compensate for this. The open “torpedo” body remained practically unchanged, the main alterations being the enlarging of the doors at the Sixth Series, lengthening the scuttle at the Seventh Series to bring the windscreen closer to the driver and making the lines of the “ump” and rear wings rather less gawky. Prior to the Seventh Series the saloon body was produced by attaching a lid to the normal “torpedo” body, a delightfully simple scheme, but aesthetically somewhat unsatisfactory. The lids have mostly been thrown away in the course of time, though I was delighted to see a Fourth (or earlier) Series car, with the original “lid,” towing a trailer loaded with vegetables in Tewkesbury recently. The general shape of the engine was only just discernible inside a mound of mud, hay and oil under the bonnet and one door was absolutely elsewhere, but it was still a very pleasant sight. Cecil Clutton’s statement that the Fifth Series car was the “only true sports car” is so much stuff and nonsense, and was presumably based on the fact that most of the early cars have by now been converted permanently to open tourers and that Seventh and Eighth Series tourers (actually 1″ shorter in wheelbase than the earlier cars) are comparatively scarce. There is no question, however, about the Seventh and Eighth Series short tourers being far more potent than the standard Fifth Series tourer.

Up to the Sixth Series small diameter brake drums were used, which gave very powerful braking, but required rather too much attention to adjustment. Also the wire wheels incorporated a brake drum cover, to which the inner row of spokes were fixed, which did not assist in the dissipation of heat. The Seventh and Eighth Series cars had 16″ steel disc brake drums with aluminium fins shrunk on, giving superb braking with much less frequent need for adjustment. The knock-on hubs were of the more normal type, which increased the track by 3″ to 4′ 7 1/2″, allowing slightly more steering lock to be used. A long-chassis car on full lock gives one the feeling that the front end is moving in a circle with its centre at the differential. “Bibendum” rims, of the semi-well-base type, replaced the rather perilous beaded-edge rims at the same period. Up to 1925, 105-mm. high-pressure tyres were used, with a high-geared steering box, but with the advent of 775 x 145-mm. balloon tyres on the late Fifth and Sixth Series cars, steering became rather heavy. Consequently a lower-geared box was introduced on the Seventh Series cars; this requires 24 turns from lock to lock, but as only a small part of the immense lock is normally used, the steering was still high geared according to normal standards.

The radiator was originally fitted tightly inside the channel frame, sitting on two metal “chairs” at the base and clamped to the frame at the top by a ring nut round the filler neck. This frame was a trifle weak on the earlier cars and any distortion sets up chafing between the frame and the radiator block and generally makes it extremely difficult to remove and replace. On the Eighth Series cars the radiator block was mounted on studs projecting from the front face of the frame, with a separate shell attached in the same way.

Minor alterations at the Eighth Series were the grouping of instruments (including a rev-counter) on a rather tinny-looking panel in the dashboard with internal illumination, replacing the old cast-aluminium dashboard with its instruments scattered around in a rather haphazard way; the increase in the height of the radiator by about 3″, which detracts from the rakish appearance of the car, and the fitting of the battery beneath the driver’s seat instead of in a box on the nearside front wing.

When considering the performance of the “Lambda” it should be realised that it is more a fast touring car than a sports car, its main qualities being excellent and effortless control, comfortable suspension, a high cruising speed without startling acceleration and absolute reliability over an enormous mileage. The early 13.9-h.p. cars can be cruised at 50-53 m.p.h., or, with lightened flywheel and alloy pistons, about 55 m.p.h. The Seventh and Eighth Series cars, with their higher r.p.m. limit, can be safely cruised at a little over 60 m.p.h. and appear to do this indefinitely without any sign of fatigue or drop in oil pressure. The Eighth Series engine is just about unbreakable if kept in reasonable trim, and people have been known to cruise these cars at 70 plus. This Is unwise, as it tends to set up troubles such as loose cylinder liners, warped heads and blown gaskets. These troubles, which are commonly attributed to the “Lambda,” do not occur if it is reasonably driven, is not allowed to overheat owing to lack of water, and if the cylinder head joint face is plane. Owing to the width between the lines of holding-down bolts, Serious and consistent overheating causes the head to warp between the lines of bolts, after which gaskets blow between the cylinders and the water passages, particularly at the front two cylinders.

The Eighth Series car, with 30 per cent more power than the earlier 2.12-litre type and a total weight, fully equipped, in short-chassis tourer form of only 21 1/2 cwt., could with advantage pull a higher axle ratio, say 3.75 to 1. to give a higher cruising speed or, preferably, an overdrive top gear. The early cars had a maximum in standard form of about 70 m.p.h., and with light pistons and a lightened flywheel (a very desirable modification) about 74-75 m.p.h., though the rods are liable to become skittish if this is attempted frequently. A sound Eighth Series car will do a bit over 80 m.p.h. on the level and has greatly superior aceeleration. Over rough or twisty roads, or in heavy main road traffic, an Eighth Series “Lambda” will beat up a normal 3-litre Bentley fairly consistently, by virtue of its superior road-holding and brakes, infinitely greater ease of control and better acceleration up to about 50 m.p.h., though the Bentley will get away on a clear road. In spite of the long wheelbase (10′ 1 1/2″ and 11′ 1 1/2″ on the early short and long chassis and 10′ 0 1/2″ on the Seventh and Eighth short chassis), the “Lambda” is an effortless car to drive in town, owing to the excellent all-round visibility, taxi-like turning-circle and light steering, and the great flexibility of the engine, which absolutely refuses to pink under any circumstances. An important point in connection with the steering (which applies to any car with really light, accurate steering) is that the front wheels and tyres must be carefully balanced and absolutely true, otherwise a rapid steering wobble will set in at some particular speed. This does not appear to affect control, but is very tiring owing to the kick transmitted to the steering wheel. Numerous people have attributed this high-speed steering kick to the front suspension and track rod layout; steering kick from this cause only occurs at low speeds on very bumpy surfaces and is not annoying, giving one the “feel” of the road without affecting control.

Tuning a “Lambda” for serious competition work is definitely not a sparetime job for the impecunious amateur, the only simple modifications which are really worth while being the lightening of the flywheel, raising the compression slightly by means of h.c. pistons (it is not practicable to machine the head to any great extent), port polishing and attention to carburation. I find that 115 and 120 compensating and main jets in the triple-diffuser Zenith give quite startling results in the way of acceleration high up (though petrol consumption drops from about 20 to 16 m.p.g.), whilst the horizontal V-type Zenith is a great improvement for performance low down and gives better starting and petrol consumption. The standard valve gear is safe for a shade over 4,000 r.p.m., but as the earlier tubular con.-rods are liable to disintegrate at anything over 3,200 r.p.m. this is not the limiting factor. These rods can, however, be played with to great effect by anyone with very great skill and patience with a file, and a lot of unnecessary weight can be removed around the bigend; and, curiously enough, most of the successfully tuned “Lambdas” have been Fifth Series cars with lightened and balanced rods, counterbalanced crankshafts, modified valve gear and raised compression ratio. West and Chittenden, who were to the “Lambda” what Mackenzie was to the Vintage Bentley, before the war used modified rocker arms, enabling shorter valves to be fitted and persuaded several Fifth Series engines to run reliably at over 5,000 r.p.m., though the imagination definitely rather boggles at the piston speed at this rate. It will be remembered also that an Eighth Series tourer modified by this firm was driven very successfully by Fotheringham Parker at the V.S.C.C. meeting just before the war and was particularly noticed for its extraordinary stability over the bumps.

The “Lambda” has only occasionally been used with any success in trials, though good ground clearance, excellent lock and plenty of power low down are points in its favour. The main snag, I imagine, is the forward placing of the engine in the long chassis, as rear wheel adhesion is none too good. This, for some curious reason, is much improved by dropping the rear springs about 4″ on blocks below the axle, but there is little point otherwise in lowering the rear end. The prevalent idea that such modifications as underslinging furiously in all directions, raking the steering column, lowering the driving seat so that one can barely peer over the scuttle and cutting lumps out of the middle of the chassis will automatically improve road-holding cannot be relied upon to work with the “Lambda.” Apart from the front suspension layout and low centre of gravity, the most important factor contributing to its excellent road-holding and cornering is the disposition of the short engine close to the front axle, and of the next largest lump of sprung weight – the two spare wheels and petrol tank – behind the back axle, with more or less uniform and low weight in between.

Having had four years’ motoring all over Great Britain and a considerable part of the Continent in my Fifth Series tourer and Eighth Series drophead coupé, I have come to the conclusion that, for anyone who is, like myself, a fairly lazy driver of only moderate skill, who wishes to go places rapidly, comfortably and reliably with a minimum of mental strain, and to have immense enjoyment from doing so, there are few, if any, more suitable cars, and certainly none which can be bought at anything like the same price. I expect that this will arouse a spot of disagreement, and I may add that I insist on a car large enough to carry five people and luggage, and that a Type 49 or 57 Bugatti, or a Lancia “Astura” or “Dilambda,” would be quite acceptable apart from the excessive taxation. However, some of the more acute readers of this journal may have noticed certain restrictions on the use of petrol recently and, under the circumstances, if anyone would like to offer me a late type “Aprilla” for abut £20….