The List An Aston owner eschews brawn for delicacy with a Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF drive
Joe Kitney’s dream drive list is driven by a love of design. Will this wild rally-spec Lancia Fulvia 1600 HF prove to be more than just one mean looking Coupé?
Hear ye, hear ye! V8 Vantage X-pack owner forgoes
410bhp to step into an Italian tiddler’ should go the cry around Autointegrale’s Berkshire-based workshop. Surely this month’s dream drive is the recipe for the ultimate anti-climax?
But this is no ordinary Italian four-pot. It’s a homage – built on a later 1600 HF – to the 1972 International Championship for Manufacturers-winning works car driven by Harry Källström, Simo Lampinen and Amilcare Ballestrieri. Now owned by Autointegrale proprietor Keith Turner – who rebuilt the car’s engine – it’s a feast of monstrously large headlights, lightweight bodywork, a stripped-out interior and decals-a-plenty.
‘If I’m honest I’ve always been more interested in the design of cars,’ says this month’s reader Joe Kitney. ‘Certainly more so than the mechanicals or even the way they drive.’ Before I can reply ‘sacrilege’ to the latter, he qualifies this. ‘The Fulvia has always been high on my list. As an ex-design engineer, to me it’s so well balanced and the detail so well executed – understated, yet pretty as you like.’
If that’s the case, then does the visual element of this particular example spoil the aesthetic? ‘Not at all, the flared arches and those spotlights make it look like it means business. From the front the quad headlights make it appear wider and more masculine than the standard car does. The neat cabin design, with large glass area and thin pillars, allows your eye to be drawn to the flowing lines of the main body, and lines that terminate in a neat, pinched off tail. The rear panel itself is really nicely done, and yet as feminine in form as the front is masculine.’
The smile elicited by the discreet ‘Grumpy Club’ sticker on the rear numberplate completes Joe’s visual analysis. Keith pops the alloy bonnet to show us his handiwork, explaining that it’s a V4. ‘To be honest I know very little about them,’ comes Joe’s reply.
We spend a further half hour taking in the builder of this car’s dedication to weight saving. Motor sport-inspired slots and holes abound – even the front sub-frame, jack and fan housing have been munched. Alloy boot, bonnet and doors came from a Series 1 ‘Fanalone’ and all glass has been replaced with Perspex. Joe takes his time savouring the finest details of every element.
Having taken longer than normal poring over our chosen steed today, I suggest that perhaps simply being in the presence of the Fulvia has sated his dream and we should now go our separate ways. Joe shoots me a fine ‘as if’ look and begins clambering over the roll cage and down into the lightweight bucket seat. It’s a race in slow motion as I do the same on the passenger side and we begin adjusting our harnesses. Rally cars don’t lend themselves to particularly quick getaways for the novice.
‘I was expecting it to be twitchy and pretty uncomfortable, but it’s an absolute joy to drive’
After what seems like an eternity of fiddling, Joe switches the electrics on, turns the ignition and fires the V4 on the starter button. It catches instantly and he blips the throttle several times, filling the cabin with induction roar and the workshop with exhaust crackle from that bulbous trumpet of a tailpipe. ‘With no soundproofing at all, it’s L-O-U-D indeed in here,’ he says.
He depresses the clutch, ‘that’s quite heavy,’ and engages first on the five-speed dogleg gearbox; we’re off. ‘The gears click nicely into place,’ he says finding second. ‘I’ve no problems with this ’box layout because my X-pack has the same set-up – it really does make that second to third and back shift nice and slick.’
Pootling off the industrial estate it’s clear this Fulvia isn’t the happiest of bunnies at low revs. Joe pulls out onto the A4 and boots it, changing up barely past the 3000rpm mark. ‘It doesn’t feel that quick, if I’m honest. My big heavy Astons feel quicker off the mark.’ This continues for around 15 minutes, and only when the oil and water are up to temperature do I give him Keith’s only instruction, ‘you have to drive it hard.’
The difference is explosively immediate. Bang, shift, bang, shift, bang, as Joe uses his right foot to negate the slovenly lack of low down pull. ‘That noise is intoxicating,’ he bellows, as the velocity stacks dump yet another series of deep staccato barks in quick succession. ‘No wonder I wasn’t getting anywhere, the engine only comes alive at 3200rpm – now it feels properly fast!’
He’s in full HF mode now, learning the vagaries of the beast, revving hard to get the rally-spec camshafts on song and revelling in the 140bhp V4’s sweet spot between 4500 and 6000rpm. ‘There’s no point talking to you, or listening to heavy rock – if it even had a stereo. Who cares, though? This is wonderful…’
For a company renowned for the precision of its engineering, Lancia’s 1963 release of the Fulvia saw it follow in a long line of superlative automobiles that harked back to the pre-war Theta, Lambda, Ardea and Aprilia, and included an impressive lineage of Aurelia, Appia, Flaminia and Flavia. The new junior Lancia featured an all-new V4 driving the front wheels, transverse-leaf independent front suspension and an all-synchromesh gearbox.
The handsome in-house-styled Coupé arrived two years later, sitting on a significantly shortened floor-pan but with identical mechanicals. The Rallye and Rallye S followed, with the heavily tuned 1.2, 1.3 and from 1968, 1.6 HF models the basis for an all-out pre-stratos attack on the rally arena. In the UK, all Fulvia HFS were prohibitively expensive – the 1.6HF cost more than a Jaguar E-type – making them the true connoisseur’s sporting choice.
That’s something I feel my driver is already becoming. ‘As a rally-prepared car, I was expecting it to be twitchy on the throttle and pretty uncomfortable. But it’s neither – in fact, it’s an absolute joy to drive. The suspension set-up is firm, but not bone-jarringly so. In many ways it feels almost modern, but for the noise!’
There’s a lot of love for the colour, rally look and sheer presence of the little Fulvia – oh, and Joe’s right, that noise, as it reverberates off the surrounding buildings and cannonades down Oxford Street. Multiple thumbs up from pedestrians abound, while white van men stop to let us out at junctions. It’s a proper little charmer.
Despite this it’s time to ditch this urban jungle, so we head north on the A339. Joe engages fifth gear, staying sub-3000rpm and instantly civilising the cabin. ‘It’s so easy to imagine myself ripping through a forest rally stage, revving the heck out of the engine and seeing the next bend coming up at an unfeasibly rapid rate. And yet here it is happily cruising at speed.’ I concentrate on the former remark. What the man wanteth, we giveth…
Directing Joe to take the next exit, we turn off and head towards the village of Curridge. Hermitage, Marlston Hermitage and Buckleberry are dispatched in quick succession and then it’s flat out along the tree-lined Broad Lane, sunlight furiously dappling the Marlboro-branded bonnet, as we speed towards Chapel Row. There’s no need to travel too far today, not with this car’s natural habitat at such close quarters.
On tight country lanes the Fulvia is in its element – front wheels gripping for traction, engine pounding to an un-burstable beat. Joe’s Astons would devour it on a straight, but get big dogs out into this territory and this little terrier would have the better of them.
‘On public roads it’d be downright illegal to explore the handling to the full, but driving as now with a degree of gusto on these twisty back roads is great. It’s so balanced and beautifully poised at all times; the steering is nicely weighted and direct, while the smooth brakes are more than able to stop such a light car quickly, adding to the feeling of being fully in control.’
We park up to gather Joe’s impressions. ‘You know, the heaviest thing in this car is probably me. It’s completely devoid of any creature comforts, but as a stripped-out rally car, any additions would be out of place.
‘You read about Italian cars having a compromised driving position, but for me the controls are nicely placed – the steering wheel is a decent size and ideally positioned, pedals not too close together and with no awkward offset, and the gearstick is within natural reach. It could be made to measure. Thanks to the amount of
glazing, the driver has a superb all-round view. The seats really are quite comfortable, and even getting in and out over the roll cage side member isn’t really too difficult.’ He hops out to demonstrate.
As he does, a semi-restored Land Rover Series 3 stops beside us. The owner disembarks, pulls out his camera and asks, ‘You don’t mind, do you? My friend has just bought a standard one, and he’d love to see a picture of this.’ We grant permission and as soon as it arrived, the Series 3 is off again. Chuckles Joe, ‘I’m used to people turning heads at the X-pack, but I’ve never had them pull over for a look. Dressed in its war paint, the HF is difficult to resist though.’
He’s right. But the interesting thing is that even that standard one would give that same essential essence of Fulvia – poised handling and jewel-like engine – albeit in a more demure visual package. It’s just that here we have both turned up to 11. If ever a car demonstrated Lancia’s famed High Fidelity, then it’s ours.
Our reader has a ferry home to catch so we head back to base. Our journey there is a circuitous, bruising and pulsating blast. Joe stays in lower gears marginally longer than necessary and changes down more often than he would in a more ordinary car, just to get the roar from that wonderful V4 under the bonnet.
With the HF safely returned to its owner, it’s time for Joe’s closing thoughts. ‘Even though it’s so different from the cars I normally drive, I felt at home right away. To stretch the madeto-measure analogy, I almost felt as though I was wearing it. Beautifully balanced and in no way intimidating, yet certainly no pussycat. Take all of the above, along with decent ground clearance and an engine that revs like crazy while pulling like a train, and I can see why it was such a successful rally car.’
So, would he buy one? ‘When I arrived I sent a photograph of it to my wife, who replied, “you’re not bringing it home ARE you?” I would love to if I thought I could get away with it. It’s so different from my Astons – more fun in many ways and a lot cheaper to live with. It’s everything I hoped it’d be and much more. However, as a more mature gentleman, I suppose I need to act my age and not pretend that I am, or ever could’ve been, a rally driver.’
Just time for one last glance and comment, as he climbs back into his DB7 Vantage Volante. ‘What a technically and aesthetically beautiful machine – I really did have a blast. Can we do it again?’
Anti-climax? Perish the thought. Thanks to Keith Turner at Auto Integrale (beenhammotcentre. co.uk), where this car is currently for sale; Lancia Motor Club
Ross shows Joe where the radio would’ve been Joe is pleasantly surprised by the driving position
Our reader found the HF offered a more visceral experience than his Astons. If only his wife would let him have one...