The Flavia, produced by Lancia after its acquisition by the Pesenti family, is the offspring of the innovative ideas of the brand’s new technical director, the Engineer Antonio Fessia, which would go on to profoundly influence world car production in the following years. The Lancia Flavia was the first Italian car with a boxer engine and front-wheel drive.
In the mid-1950s, important managerial and technical changes took place in Lancia, when the Lancia family sold the reins of the company to the cement industrialist Carlo Pesenti. Simultaneously, the technical direction passed from Vittorio Jano – the technical director responsible for the company's competitive successes – to the concrete and rational Antonio Fessia, mechanical engineer and professor at the Turin Polytechnic.
1960 was a crucial year for post-World War II Italy: the Olympic Games in Rome boosted the international visibility of a country undergoing great demographic and economic growth, while the inauguration of Rome’s Fiumicino International airport brought Italy closer to the rest of the world. Turin contributed one of its sons to the Olympics – Livio Berruti, the heroic winner of the gold medal in the 200 metres race – but it was also about to contribute a revolutionary car capable of influencing future motorcar production worldwide.
At that time, nearly all the cars, with a very few exceptions, were historically based on the same architecture: an engine positioned at the front providing traction to the rear wheels. The engineer Antonio Fessia, however, had long believed that a better solution existed, capable of improving safety and numerous other motoring aspects. His innovative concept involved the use of an engine positioned at the front, combined with front-wheel drive: the "everything at the front" revolution, fitted for the first time on an Italian car.
As technical director in Lancia, he was able to finally put his theories to good use. His first “commission” was to design a car for the "medium" segment, where Lancia had not been present for nearly a decade, i.e. since the Aprilia went out of production. Fessia’s design established that traction was provided by the front wheels and that the compact engine with four opposed horizontal cylinders (the so-called "boxer" architecture) was positioned cantilevered in front of the front axle, while the gearbox was placed just behind the differential, which was aligned with the wheel axis.
The entire mechanical structure - engine, gearbox, differential, suspension and steering - was firmly fixed to a small frame anchored to the bodywork by elastic supports. This solution offered two advantages: one technical and one industrial. It increased comfort by isolating the passenger compartment from mechanical vibrations, on the one hand, and on the other it enabled assembly line rationalisation, reducing production times and costs. For the first time in Italy, the technical refinement of the project also introduced the presence of standard disc brakes on the four wheels, assisted by brake boosters, to providing faster and safer braking.
The car body was entrusted to Piero Castagnero, who had previously distinguished himself in Lancia by creating the last two Appia series. Castagnero designed a square-shaped sedan with rounded corners, with futuristic lines far removed from the standard stylistic features of the period. Eye-catching features of the front part included the trapezoid motif repeated on the grille and on the two headlight groups, which incorporated the indicators and side lights. Fessia’s innovative mechanics made it possible to keep the engine hood lower than the long fenders, which ended with a double pair of headlights.
The benefits of Fessia's technical innovation also involved the interiors, made notably more spacious and comfortable by the absence of the central transmission tunnel. The passenger compartment was especially bright due to its extensive glass surfaces and its two rows of back seats... customary for the time, enabling the car to comfortably seat up to six people. The luggage boot also benefited notably from the absence of mechanical parts in the rear, providing an exceptional capacity.
The Lancia Flavia, a sober and at the same time elegant sedan, made its debut at the Turin Motor Show on November 3, 1960. The overall appearance immediately transmitted the idea of solidity, while the audacious lines – initially deemed too avant-garde and mannerist – took a little while longer to be fully appreciated.
The Flavia was initially powered by a 1500 cc engine, but in 1966 the displacement rose to 1.8 litres for 92 horsepower, which became 102 in the version fitted with the Kugelfischer mechanical injection system. This boosted performance, and top speed rose to 165 and 170 km / h respectively. While not flaunting a sporty nature, the Flavia was immediately effective and was safer than most of its competitors, especially in the rain and in other conditions of poor road grip... above all in the snow.
The composed mood of the sedan was soon joined by coupé and convertible versions: still elegant but with a sportier personality, created by the best Italian coachbuilders.
The coachbuilders added just the right amount of spice to the serene Lancia sedan. Firstly came Pininfarina, who presented the Flavia Coupé in 1961: the stylistic features of the sedan were maintained but the base was shortened and the lines were lowered, more streamlined and softer, as this great Turin designer usually preferred. Thanks to the typical elegant sportiness of previous Lancia models, plus shapes that echoed the contemporary Ferrari 250 GTE – also designed by Pininfarina – the Flavia Coupé immediately met with public success.
Meanwhile, Vignale created an original convertible version based on a chassis with a shortened floor. Its front resembled that of the coupé, but the rear echoed the same headlight groups and the boot of the sedan, while softening its lines. This highly elegant and extremely exclusive version remained in production until 1967, further enhanced by the 1.8 engine in its injection version.
But the most original of all the Flavia versions was designed by Zagato, in 1962. As this coachbuilder from Milan did with all his Lancia versions, he added the word Sport to the name. And like all Zagato creations, the Flavia Sport also boasted highly original lines, in part conceived for aerodynamic reasons. The front part was especially unconventional and dominating, featuring a "dihedral" grille and two sinuously extended mudguards that partially covered the subtly offset double headlights. Even its windows were strikingly original: from the wraparound windshield to the second side window rising partly to the roof, and a rear window made of concave glass. With its steel structure and aluminium cladding, the Lancia Flavia Sport weighed only 1060 kg and reached 188 km / h with the 1.8 injection engine. In 1968, in order to guarantee a wider selection of variants, the Zagato bodywork company built two exemplars of a Flavia Super Sport prototype... this constituted a further evolution of the audacious design of the Sport: both models conjured up by the design flair of Ercole Spada.
The brilliant Pininfarina Coupé and the speedy Zagato were the first models that Cesare Fiorio entrusted to the drivers of the HF Scuderia, which was established on the margins of the main company, because Fessia's rational technical approach was not conducive to the development of competition cars. The victory at the Rally dei Fiori (which would later become the Sanremo Rally) on 24 February 1963 featured the first six places being taken by the Flavia models of the newborn HF Squadra Corse racing team: a clamorously auspicious beginning for the great Lancia Rally era. With the Fulvia HF, the Stratos, the Rally 037 and the Delta HF, Lancia would go on to write the history of Rally competitions, with countless unforgettable victories at World Championship levels from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
In 1967 the second Flavia series was launched, with more contemporary squared lines that, in part, echoed the stylistic features of its “younger sister”, the Fulvia. The interiors were further enhanced through the use of precious materials including, for example, the dashboard enriched by the use of precious wood. Even richer trims followed in the LX versions, while the engine reached two litre displacement in the Flavia 2000. In 1969, the Flavia 2000 was joined by the Flavia 2000 Coupé, also made by Pininfarina.
In the years following the birth of the Flavia and its evident technical strengths, many manufacturers followed Fessia’s innovative engine architecture and switched to designing front-wheel drive cars. The phenomenon spread increasingly widely, first involving more compact cars, then including almost all categories. Today, front-wheel drive cars make up the vast majority of the cars produced worldwide. Fessia’s revolution has triumphed everywhere... and despite his lack of passion for automotive competition, his visionary technical approach launched Lancia towards astonishing sporting results, including firstly the Flavia Coupé’s rally successes and then, above all, those of the Fulvia HF.