Italian cars – when it all began.
Other kids had more interest. As a teenager I wasn’t really that interested in cars, well no more than the minimum necessary to hold a male teenage conversation. Obviously I was aware of Ferrari and Lamborghini, but Italian cars weren’t my first love. No, that was reserved for the Porsche 911 turbo. Why the Porsche? I didn’t really like the look of it that much, thought it was a bit stubby looking actually. It was when I saw the performance figures that I changed my mind. And many years later I saw a demonstration of the usefulness of that turn of speed and of its stubbiness. Driving North on the A34 up to Birmingham I saw a 911 overtake five cars in a row and then neatly tuck in just in time to navigate a roundabout. On the A34 – a mainly single lane road (but pre the M40 motorway the only way to get up to Birmingham from Oxford, where I lived) – being able to overtake slower cars, trucks and caravans made for a much quicker journey.
Apart from the exotics, I wasn’t really aware of the other Italian marques. Fiat was just a little runaround and Alfa and Lancia weren’t even on my radar. That all changed when my father brought home his new company car – a Lancia Beta HPE. Not the coupe, the HPE – High Performance Executive. I later found out all the reasons it was a great car, but my first impressions were “how come my dad gets a sports car like this?” All his company cars until then had been pretty boring. I felt a bit cheesed off he’d be driving around in such a cool car It was only a lot later I’d come to find out about some of the failings of the model (although not with this particular example).
A couple of years later it was time for a new car and dad chose the new model of the same car, this time a metallic blue HPE 2.0i. It was a squat car, low roof, with a cutting edge aluminium block engine. Injection was also an innovation at the time. The Lancia had a great turn of speed and in fifth gear was very fast. It stuck to the road like a limpet. How do I know? When dad left the company he bought the company car and then not much later got himself a Jaguar XJS, and I got the Lancia. I was eighteen years old and danced around the house when I realised I was inheriting the Lancia. With warnings to ‘take it easy’ I set off on a 60 mile trip to see my girlfriend and show off (not sure that bit worked). I loved the Lancia. And later it was a good job I did, as I ended up paying quite a lot of money for that love.
The first issue was that it started overheating in traffic. I took it to the local Lancia dealership who, it turned out, didn’t have a clue about what was happening. They replaced the head gasket (which swallowed all my income for the month, but I was living at home), but that didn’t fix it. Eventually I found a young mechanic who had a lot of experience with Lancias, and he knew what the problem was right away. It turned out there was a design fault on the car – the thermostat which governed the fan was positioned badly and was easily affected by (ironically) heat from the engine and would often fail, so the fan would not turn on when it should and the engine would overheat.
If you got stuck in traffic it was just a matter of time before the engine would overheat. The solution suggested by my resident Lancia expert – and implemented – was simply to put a manual fan switch in the car. As soon as I saw the temp gauge going up I just flicked the fan on. Not perfect, but it fixed the problem. Ultimately though, the car succumbed to the other major problem of the marque – rust. Although Lancia had been aware of the rust problem, and the underside of the car was sealed with a rubbery coating to prevent rust, other parts of the car were vulnerable. In my car it was a major rust problem in the boot that finally claimed it. It couldn’t be fixed and that was that. I was sorry to have to sell the car for scrap, but there was no (affordable) alternative.
But I still have very fond memories of the Lancia. I’ve driven a couple of fancy cars since, but the thing that impressed me most about the Lancia was how it held the road. It had hard suspension and if you pushed it a little, it wouldn’t roll, it would just skid (it did happen once) – it was flat as a tack. I’ve only since felt that degree of roadholding in a Ferrari 360. And it was pretty fast. Before speed cameras proliferated on UK roads I could make ‘good time’ in the Lancia.
Late one night motorway driving in the Lancia I was holding a steady 90mph in the inside lane of a deserted motorway. A car came up pretty fast behind me and overtook at I’d estimate a relative 30mph faster so doing 120mph. It was a new Peugeot 205GTI. And then I saw that car overtaken by another car at the same relative speed ie 150mph. That was a Porsche 928. Then I saw the police car parked on the hard shoulder ahead turn on his flashing lights. We all slowed down pronto, but the cop car didn’t give chase – it was just a warning.
So there we have it – my first Italian car love, a Lancia. Funnily enough I was flicking through the latest Jeremy Clarkson tome in a bookshop the other day and he offered an update to the Top Gear claim that you can’t be a real petrolhead unless you’ve owned an Alfa. He was talking about the Lancia Delta Integrale in particular, and concluded that to be a real car lunatic, ownership of a Lancia was the real test. I concur.
NB1 When writing this article I looked high and low for photos of my Lancia, but couldn’t find them (I know I have some grainy photos somewhere). The photos here are from the site – the first shows the right colour, but an earlier model than the one I had. The second shows the right model with the updated grille, but mine was the mid metallic blue colour of the first car pictured. There you go.
NB2 The word Lancia sounds much better pronounced the Italian way – it actually makes the car sound sexy. Try it. Instead of ‘laan-cee-a’ say ‘lan-cha’. Better?