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Road versus Rally - Lancia Fulvias

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How similar is a works-spec rally car of the late '60s to its cooking, showroom sister? John Simister, former owner of the standard Lancia Fulvia 1.6HF featured here, was keen to find out.

Jekyll and Hyde. Clark Kent and Superman. Janus, the two-faced mythical figure. You get the idea. This is a tale of two cars which are different manifestations of the same car. How are they different? And where’s the common ground?
 
The relatively gentle-looking Lancia Fulvia 1600HF you see here was, until recently, my own road car. I’m glad it’s red because that’s the base colour of the rally cars that won rallies and championships across Europe, concluding the run of FWD prowess that began with the Saab 96 and continued with the Mini. I bought it because I wanted to bask in some of that rallying glory, to hear the rasp of that narrow-angle V4 and discover how such a nose-heavy car could flick through corners with such zeal.

Fine. I did all that, having a particularly fantastic time on one Goodwood trackday to which the HF proved rather more suited than I thought it would, given that it’s really a creature of the forest. The measured, forgiving way it came back from a major lift-off oversteer moment as I braked too late into a wet Woodcote corner will stay with me forever. But what would a proper Fulvia rally car really be like? Would it resemble mine in its feel, just tweaked-up a bit, or would it be another automotive universe, as a modern WRC car is compared with its notional starting point?

So we arrive at the Bruntingthorpe test track one cloudy day: me, my Fulvia and a fine rally car built by Vere Lancia in Holland as a replica of Simo Lampinen’s 1972 RAC Rally car (the original one finished fifth). If you know your Lancias you’ll spot that the rally car is a Series One Fulvia with the deep front grille, whereas mine is a shallow-grilled Series Two, albeit with the prettier European-spec low headlights. But the Series Two was launched at the end of 1970. What’s going on, then?

In Fulvia-lore the Holy Grail is the Series One 1.6HF, the car known as the Fanalone on account of its ample inner headlights thought by some salacious Italians to resemble something excitingly female. It was a homologation special, like all the Series One HFs, and was the first Fulvia with the 1584cc version of the V4. It was quite a re-engineering feat, with a new block, a new head, a new crankshaft and special 42mm sidedraught Solexes. It also had the first Fulvia five-speed gearbox, with fifth added on at the back in its own casing and a new remote lever.

This was the base for the most successful Fulvia rally cars. Given the work that went into preparing the team machines, it’s no surprise that Lancia continued to use them right up to 1974 and the arrival of the Stratos. And look at the roll call of Fulvia drivers: Ove Andersson, Sandro Munari, Vic Elford, Pauli Toivonen, Pat Moss, Rene Trautmann, Harry Källström, Leo Cella, Rauno Aaltonen and Simo Lampinen are the highlights of one of the most illustrious lists in rallying history.

Today, Fanalones are rare and very valuable. But creating a replica, itself eligible for historic rallies, is not too hard. The Series Two 1600 engine is virtually the same, especially if it’s an early one built before Fiat started to cheapen it, so you just need a good Series One shell. Our replica here started out as a standard 1967 Fulvia coupe, and reveals its origins by the little chrome-edged, triangular air intakes between the front grille and the inner headlamps. A real Fanalone has no holes here.

Apart from that, and the fact that the carburettors aren’t quite exotic enough, it looks extremely pukka. The first Fanalones – the number is unclear – were known as variante 1016, which meant the engines had hotter camshafts and the Solexes’ bodies were bored out to 45mm. Thus modified, the Solexes weren’t very good and the factory soon moved to Weber 45DCOEs on a manifold broadened such that every inlet tract ended up being a different length. Not that it seemed to matter much.

This car retains the 42DDHF Solexes found also in our Series Two road HF, but otherwise the engine is a fair representation of the Group Four specification of a Lancia works car. That means a compression ratio increased beyond the already high 10.5:1 of the standard car, competition valves opened by a Kent Cams improvement of the original Group Four camshafts, a flywheel of half the original weight, gasflowed ports and a reproduction of the original four-into-one Bosato exhaust manifold. This leads into a straight exhaust pipe with but one silencer, missing out the standard car’s transverse-silencer diversion.

In their final form, running on 48DCOEs, the works rally cars made 158bhp and revved to 7800rpm. A variant 1016 Fanalone was rated at 132bhp, a regular 1.6-litre HF at 115. Our replica’s output has not been measured but is likely to be restricted by its carburettors to 135bhp or so. Given the stripped-out interior and gearing shortened by smaller-diameter tyres, it should still be a whole lot friskier than our road car.

In fact I can’t wait to try it. Just looking at it is enough to bring on the lust; I love the way a demure little Fulvia coupe, all delicacy and artful concavity, has mutated into its evil twin. Look at the tough wheelarch extensions over the four-spoke BWA wheels, in gold of course. Look at the giant rear mudflaps, the equally giant fuel filler, the potential for candlepower up front. Yet it’s still broadly a standard car’s body, with the four opening panels in aluminum, as was the way with the better versions of the Series One.

Under the bonnet it doesn’t really look much different from standard, variations between Series One and Two aside. The blue stripe on the yellow cam cover is the obvious contrast, a Fanalone-specific identifier. Underneath, too, our two cars are again similar apart from the exhaust system; the rally car’s brakes have been modernised from the Series One’s troublesome Dunlop system to the Series Two’s Girling, complete with four-pot front calipers, while our road car’s engine has a Fanalone’s large-capacity sump.

This road car also has strengthening gussets on its inner front wings mimicking those of the works rally cars – and purportedly done by the works, along with various engine tweaks, when it was young. The rally replica lacks the gussets. Ha! Vere Lancia missed that one.

In the boot we find a hefty fuel tank in the rally car, although the original, rather small tank remains in situ. It’s in the cabin, though, that the scene is most strongly set. The road HF is quite purposeful in here with its no-frills bucket seats and ribbed rubber matting, but the rally car has no floor covering bar its black paint, no soundproofing, basic quilted door trims, no back seat and a rollcage. The gear lever and its remote extension pokes through the bulkhead hump from which a long, spindly lever once emerged. Lever base and ball pivot are exposed; they’re under rubber and inside an extended hump on the Series Two.

I could almost be lining up for an RAC Rally stage, strapped into my 1970s rally seat, holding the two-spoke steering wheel that the works rally cars invariably had. The dashboard has lost its wood and lower padding, replaced by a sheet of black-painted aluminum containing the defiantly unstyled gauges and switches a rally car should have. The after-thought speedometer hangs below, a Halda confronts my notional navigator, the tachometer is turned so that 6000rpm is straight up.

I’ve always thought my Fulvia a crisp, rorty thing, planted and precise once set up for a fast corner but maybe a touch sluggish in the steering around the straight-ahead. That’ll be the fact it has a steering box rather than a rack, I’ve lazily assumed, even though there’s barely any play and the linkage is resolutely rigid. Time to vaporise that cosy status quo, then.

I fire up the rally car. The exhaust rasps and crackles to my right foot’s movement, its throttle response even snappier than that of my car, itself always a challenge when trickling owing to the Solexes’ hyperactive nature. It’s loud in here, and it’s about to get louder as I click into first and head off down the straight.

Click? Unlike my car’s, this gearshift is genuinely crisp if demanding of more effort. That’s down to stronger, less-worn detents, a tighter linkage and a worrying lack of lubrication on the exposed parts of that linkage.

And, good grief, it’s a noisy ’box without the soundproofed enclosure to cover it. Gear-chatter and zizz shoot straight into the cabin, competing with the exhaust’s dirty, granular V4 rasp and the sound of suspension at work. I’m bounding along through third, fourth, fifth; the car’s owner says he regularly uses 7500rpm but today it’s unwilling to go much past 5500rpm. Something isn’t quite right.

End of the straight, time to brake hard and blip down the gears before turning hard right. The brakes are magnificent, with the bite and power of a good modern system and all the action right at the top of the pedal travel. Why can’t mine be like this? They should be.

Now for the best bit. The little red beast turns in like a true racer, sharp and level and instant as if all the nose weight has been magicked away. How can it do this? It flicks through the fast left-hander then clings on through the long right, front wheels stuck to the track, rear wheels ready to step out a little when I ease the power.

Has someone invisibly converted this Fulvia to a rack-and-pinion? That’s what it feels like, so precise yet progressive is the steering. But no; it’s all in the dampers, which are firm enough to inhibit the rate of body roll and to load up the outside rear wheel quickly, and the tyres which are 185/60 R14 Toyo Roadpro. Their low profile means a stiff sidewall and a much sharper Fulvia.

Trouble is, if you used this tyre size on a road car, the drastic reduction in rolling radius would undergear it so much it would drive you mad, given the HF isn’t exactly long-legged as standard. But that doesn’t matter for a rally car, where instant punch is more important. On some rallies the works cars, using special final-drive ratios, would not even reach 100mph at maximum revs in fifth gear.

Right now, though, this is far and away the sharpest, keenest, best-handling Fulvia I have driven, and one of the best front-wheel-drive cars, period. The way it gets its power down with no hint of fight or torque-steer is extraordinary, and the result of Lancia’s careful design of its double-wishbone front suspension. The solid rear axle, simply located by supple leaf springs and a Panhard rod, plays a part in the handling’s predictable, progressive, intuitive nature, too, because there are no toe or camber changes as long as the road is smooth.

But the rally car’s ride is very fidgety and that, like the short gearing, would wear you down on the road. I get back into my car and suddenly it seems the epitome of civility and refinement it has certainly never seemed before, proving that the relative is often more powerful than the absolute. It also feels more wallowy and springy, thanks to softer damping and deep-sidewalled 175/80 R14 tyres. It’s amazing what a difference they make.

And the engine? Well, it starts to lose interest past its 6000rpm power peak, but it’s very keen to that point and has the mid-range punch to pull its longer gearing convincingly. And the exhaust note is just something you hear and enjoy, rather than something which permeates your entire being.
 
What I am not expecting is that my car is substantially quicker. Clearly that can’t be right, and later investigation of the rally car reveals closed-up points. That’s a shame, but I’ve learnt enough to know that a well-sorted Fulvia is an amazing piece of chassis engineering for its time. No wonder it won the 1972 Rally Manufacturers’ Championship for Lancia and Drivers’ World Championships for Harry Kallstrom (1969) and Sandro Munari (’73).

And the best bit is this. You can buy a road version and, with not too much effort, you could make it feel remarkably similar. You couldn’t say that of a modern WRC car.

Thanks to Gareth Williams of Sweep Motorsport (www.asga51.dsl.pipex.com), who looks after the rally Fulvia, and to its trusting owner.

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