The Lancia Gamma came into being despite some not inconsiderable setbacks. It was the first Lancia produced under Fiat’s ownership and was developed in conjunction with Citroen and the CX. The car was to comprise the best of what both companies could offer including amongst other things, Citroen’s trademark hydraulic suspension. Two models were designed by Pininfarina, the Berlina (saloon) and the Coupe.
Once the relationship with Citroen predictably disintegrated, Lancia had to come up with a drivetrain and suspension. The Fiat V6 engine was proposed but for some bizarre reason, a four-cylinder engine was decided upon. This decision put the Gamma at a distinct disadvantage on paper compared to its competitors from BMW and Mercedes, who were all packing 6 or 8 cylinder engines for their executive expresses.
The Coupe was produced at the Pininfarina facility alongside the Ferrari 400, and the Berlina model was built by Lancia. Released to unsuspecting owners in 1976, from the word go the car quickly developed a reputation for mechanical fragility. The decision to run the power steering pump from one of the timing belts proved to be the principal cause of an early death. A cold morning combined with a dose of full lock on startup was enough to cause the timing belt to slip with the results being terminal for the engine. Cam shafts wore prematurely due to lack of lubrication, auto gearboxes failed due to blocked galleries, cylinder liner gaskets were made out of paper which failed easily and allowed to coolant to mix with oil, which main bearings do not like at all apparently! Front wishbones were made out of tin foil and……well you get the idea.
Lancia released a Series 2 car in the early 80s which fixed some of the weaknesses. The S2 cars had Bosch Fuel Injection (hurrah, a reliable component at last), larger 15″ wheels and a smart Ermenegildo Zegnainterior. It was a case of too little too late though and the car ended production in 1984 with a total of 6,789 S1 and S2 Coupes produced.
My interest in Gammas started early 1979 when my dad who was due to change his Ford Granada and possibly, experiencing the symptoms of a mid life crisis and/or terminal boredom with the Granada, announced he wanted something ‘a little bit different’. I shoved a copy of a Gamma road test under his nose and said ‘Well get one of those then!’. So in late 1979, we took ownership of LGO 201V, a late series 1 Gamma Coupe. My dad had the car for three years and around 60,000 miles and we went on many family holidays in it, including an epic trip to the South of France. The car was completely reliable in the time we had it and always looked exotic on the daily school run.
The Gamma always stood out in my mind as the most interesting ‘family’ car we had and in 2002 I decided to try Gamma ownership for myself. After a bit of research, I had come to the conclusion that there were no cars left in the country worth owning, as most of the ones available seemed to be either bodily or mechanically past help. Then out of the blue, I spotted an advert in Autotrader and one Saturday made the 250 mile round trip from my home in Chichester to Bishop’s Stortford to investigate further. It turned out that the car was owned by a gentleman who was a lecturer in Engineering and was a very active member on the Gamma scene in the UK. He had carried out a number of modifications to the car in an attempt to finish what Lancia did not. An Audi power steering pump had been installed on the front of the engine and run from one of the ancillary belts. A relatively easy modification, and at a single stroke fixing the biggest design flaw on the car.
The car was a low mileage 1982 Series 2 Coupe, converted from its long departed auto gearbox to the reliable manual. It was coated in Waxoyl and largely rust free as well as sensitively modified to improve its chances of making it to the end of the driveway without catastrophic mechanical failure – I bought it.
Since I have had the car, my efforts have been mainly concentrated on improving its cosmetic appearance. I stripped the car back to the shell and had it resprayed in original metallic blue. I replaced the DIY quad headlight conversion with the original headlamps and repaired the fragile Zegna cloth interior. The car was not pretty when I got it – nothing lined up and the paintwork was shot.
Getting the car to run cleanly has been a challenge and one which finally came to a head in 2013. After an extended lay-up (I had fallen out of love with the car due its stubbornness to run properly), I decided to get it running at least well enough to sell it. After trips to two separate garages, I was no further forward and the running issues were getting worse, with the car barely managing a stable idle, let alone any demand for power or forward motion. I finally diagnosed a corroded fuel tank that had progressively blocked the outlet pipe and starved the engine of fuel. Having lost faith in garages, I decided the DIY route was best and stripped out the tank and related pipes, pumps and filters. After treating the corrosion and replacing the ancillaries, the car now runs very well and certainly the best it has in the time of my ownership. I have fallen back in love with it now that it runs and will be keeping it, at least until the next mechanical tantrum.
A fit Gamma Coupe is a wonderous machine, the 2.5 litre boxer engine throbs menacingly at idle but delivers a heroically broad spread of torque, starting just above idle and giving the car effortless performance and driveability. At 80mph/4000 rpm it is smooth and vibration free and feels at its happiest. The flat four engine enabled the designers to maximize the benefit of a low center of gravity (in the Coupe at least) and the car has outstanding handling compared to many modern cars – it must have been a revelation at launch. Staying flat through corners, the balance is magical and especially when you consider the suspension is compliant and soaks up bumps with contempt.
When I look at the ashes of Lancia today, a once proud, engineering-led company reduced to re-badged Chryslers, it’s easy to see the roots of their demise in the Gamma. A brilliantly designed car starved of development and constructed from low quality materials.
Gamma ownership is a challenge and nowadays supported by a small, enthusiastic and loyal group of people without whose help, I would have thrown in the towel long ago. When everything is working well though, it’s an absolute blast and for now, me and the Gamma are very happy together.