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17th November 2023
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Lancia Lambda

Vincenzo Lancia’s masterpiece

Vincenzo Lancia condensed highly sophisticated innovations and technology into a single car, his brilliant ideas translated by loyal designer Battista Falchetto into a vehicle that Lancia himself insisted on testing personally: this is the story behind a masterpiece of technology and elegance that became a milestone in motoring history.

The official presentation of the Lancia Lambda took place in October 1922 at the Paris Motor Show, but the genesis of the car that is widely regarded as Vincenzo Lancia’s greatest masterpiece dates back to the end of the First World War. On 7 December 1918, a patent application was filed for an innovative car, leading to the official registration of Lancia patent number 171922 on 28 March 1919.

The accompanying drawing depicted a low, streamlined automobile, devoid of the conventional ladder frame with side members and cross members. It was equipped with a compact, front-mounted engine that connected to the rear wheels via a driveshaft housed in a tunnel that ran along the floor of the passenger compartment. The two traditional bench seats were divided into pairs of slightly offset single seats. The car’s sporty appearance and significantly lowered centre of gravity were due partly to the absence of the ladder frame and partly to the transmission tunnel being located beside the seats, rather than above them.

It was the first car built without the conventional rigid chassis evolved directly from horse-drawn carriages; instead the car’s weight and load were borne by a unitary bodyshell inspired by ship designs. Pinin Farina, who in those years was an up-and-coming coachbuilder, subsequently recounted that Vincenzo Lancia's inspiration for this new structural concept came from the robust hull of the ships on which he often travelled to the United States.

In addition to the load-bearing body, another innovation that Lancia introduced on the new car was independent front suspension. This breakthrough is splendidly evidenced by the drawings of Vincenzo Lancia's trusted lead engineer, Battista Falchetto, who was able to put the entrepreneur's brilliant concepts down on paper and then into practice. The extremely rough Italian roads of the time had previously caused a leaf spring to break on the front axle of the Lancia Kappa driven by Vincenzo Lancia himself, who was an accomplished and experienced racing driver, en route to visiting his mother in Valsesia. With that incident in mind, Lancia asked Falchetto to design the new car with front suspension that could absorb impacts from bumpy terrain better than a rigid axle, by allowing each wheel to rise and fall on their own without affecting the opposite wheel. Falchetto promptly submitted a sketch of 14 alternative designs for independent wheel suspension.

To further improve the car's dynamic behaviour, it was necessary to make the front mechanical section, consisting of the engine, clutch and gearbox, as short as possible. Accordingly, Lancia opted for a compact, narrow-angle four-cylinder engine in a V configuration that allowed for more power without affecting reliability. The first version of the 2.1-litre V4 delivered 49 HP at 3,250 rpm.

The first Lancia Lambda prototype was personally tested by Vincenzo Lancia on 1 September 1921 in the company of trusted test driver Luigi Gismondi. The legendary trial run followed an ascending route from Turin to the Moncenisio pass. The date has rightly gone down in motoring history and even today, a century later, admirers of the car and brand annually meet at the old "La Giaconera" tavern in Val di Susa, where Lancia and Gismondi stopped to savour the positive result of the test before returning to Turin.

But not all innovations on the Lancia Lambda were the brainchild of the brand's founder: Battista Falchetto himself proposed some of them, such as the use of front brakes. Although initially doubtful of this solution, Lancia was won over by tests that he meticulously conducted himself. Clearly, Lancia's experience as a driver was combined with an entrepreneurial knack for picking excellent collaborators, as well as the intelligence to know when to change his mind.

Lancia Lambda 1st series - 1922
Lancia Lambda 1st series - 1922
V4 narrow-angle (13°6"), front, longitudinal, SOHC, 2119 cm³
49 HP @ 3250 rpm
110 km/h
1225 kg

In less than nine years, the Lancia Lambda evolved into nine series as a result of continuous updates and improvements. It was popular with famous celebrities such as the actress Greta Garbo and, despite not have been conceived as a racing car, its excellent technical qualities made it a serious contender in several editions of the 1000 Miglia.

The definitive design for the first Lancia Lambda was completed in 1922 and incorporated all the best ideas implemented and trialled during tests. Following the innovation of the load-bearing body, the luggage boot was integrated into the unibody structure rather than being added separately, as was customary for the period. This meant that the boot infrastructure, together with the firewall separating the engine from the passenger compartment and the bulkhead supporting the seats, became transverse structural elements that acted like the ribs of a ship's hull, further improving the car's torsional rigidity.

The first series of the Lancia Lambda presented a torpedo body which, due to its unitary structure, left coachbuilders less room for customisation compared with conventional rigid chassis. Lancia himself actually created an original saloon version known as the "Ballon Smontabile", featuring an innovative detachable hard top in artificial leather with a wooden structure. In addition to the many top-notch technical aspects, the elegance of the car's sleek, low profile compared with its direct competitors immediately became a distinctive selling point that resonated perfectly with the euphoria of the Roaring Twenties. The Lancia Lambda conceived by Vincenzo Lancia was also very popular abroad, where it was even preferred by famous personalities and movie stars. They included "The Divine Woman" herself, actress Greta Garbo, who was photographed behind the wheel of her gleaming Lancia Lambda Torpedo.

Over the years, nine series of the Lancia Lambda were produced, with the displacement and engine power increasing to 69 HP with a top speed of 120 km/h. The gearbox was also upgraded with the fourth series, increasing from three to four speeds. The sixth series introduced an extended wheelbase and a third row of seats, paving the way for six-seater versions. In total, around 13,000 Lancia Lambdas were produced from late 1922 to 1931.

Although not created purely as a sports car, the Lancia Lambda was lightweight and powerful, with an excellent chassis and setup, and demonstrated its excellent dynamic qualities in some of the toughest competitions. It was entered numerous times in the 1000 Miglia, starting with the inaugural edition in 1927.

Racing driver Ermenegildo Strazza was dubbed "King of the Lambdas". A Lancia dealer in Como and a friend of Vincenzo himself, Strazza fine-tuned the car that went on to win the Gallarate race in 1926, before taking part in the inaugural edition of the 1000 Miglia the following year. On that occasion, paired with Attilio Varallo in a Lancia Lambda Torpedo, he came fourth overall, winning the 3000cc class ahead of Pugno/Bergia, who finished fifth overall and second in class, also in a Lambda. For the 1928 edition of the 1000 Miglia, Vincenzo Lancia personally approved the upgrading and lightening of several Lambda cars, including a number of short-wheelbase Torpedo models with spider bodywork by Turin-based coachbuilder Casaro, They were fitted with special "Pirrotta" cylinder heads that boosted output to around 80 HP.  Strazza/Varallo once again crossed the finish line in Brescia as winners of the 3000cc class, besides clinching third place in the overall ranking. One less fortunate competitor in that race was Lancia test driver Luigi Gismondi who—despite spending most of the route in second place overall behind the eventual outright winner Giuseppe Campari in his Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 SS—was forced to retire near Rovigo, just as he was readying to overtake the legendary Lombard. In the 1929 edition, Strazza and Varallo replicated their class victory of 1927, finishing fourth overall.

Thanks to the brilliant ideas of Vincenzo Lancia, sketched into reality and perfected with consummate skill by Battista Falchetto, the Lancia Lambda became a milestone of automotive history, cementing Lancia's reputation for making innovative, fast and safe cars that also combined sophistication and elegance.

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