Back in the 1970’s, buying a Lancia was no more extraordinary than enjoying a nice cup of tea – in Britain alone over 40,000 people did it every year. But by the 1990’s sales of Lancia vehicles had tanked, and the flailing car company ended up pulling out of the British market all together.
For Jeremy Clarkson this was incredibly sad – because he could remember a time where they made cars like this…
The Fulvia, in Clarkson’s own words, epitomised everything that was good about cars in the 1960’s. It had a rather sophisticated suspension setup, an unusual V4 engine and disc brakes on all four wheels – and while it may not have been incredibly fast, through the bends it handled like nothing else.
And then you had the Lancia Monte Carlo – a pretty two-door, two-seater, mid engined coupe that was sort of scaled-down Ferrari.
“The Monte Carlo was a lovely car to drive too,” Clarkson said on Top Gear back in 1994. “Nimble, fast and flowing. But it was not so lovely when you wanted to stop.”
That was because the Monte Carlo had a habit of locking the front wheels far too easily, and Lancia ended up withdrawing the car from sale for two years while they fixed it. Later models had the brake servo deleted from the car all together, meaning it barely stopped at all.
But the Monte Carlo’s faults were small news compared to the debacle that was the Lancia Beta – the biggest seller in Lancia’s range, and unfortunately the most rust-prone too.
A widely circulated rumour stated that the cars used Soviet steel supplied to Fiat in return for building the Lada factory. The steel problems are more likely due to poor rustproofing techniques as well as the prolonged strikes that plagued Italy at that time rather than the metal’s origin.
“Most Beta’s were bought back by the company and crushed,” Clarkson said at the time. “But a few slipped through the net – and you should avoid them very vigorously.”
This is an odd thing for him to say, when you consider that he personally selected a 1981 Lancia Beta Coupe to take on one of the toughest Top Gear specials ever filmed – the Botswana Special.
But Clarkson has a history of buying knackered old cars on the show and then falling in love with them. I mean he could have purchased an old Toyota or Subaru and it would have been utterly reliable and continued running until the end of time, but where’d the fun be in that?
You see, the real reason Jeremy loves old cars from unreliable marques such as Lancia and Alfa Romeo is they’re so full of character that it is literally streaming out of the radiator hoses and seeping out between every gasket.
As humans we cannot and will never ever be perfect – and thus it is extremely difficult to love something that is so close to being perfect.
“If you’re going to form a relationship with a car, if you’re going to develop a bond, it’s got to have human qualities, and if it’s got human qualities it’s got to have faults.” – Jeremy Clarkson
Take the Lancia Stratos for example – which is one of Clarkson’s most favourite cars. It was difficult to get into, difficult to see out off, and difficult to drive due to poor visibility and a strange scissor-style driving position that meant your legs were pointing slightly towards the centre of the car. It also weighed only 980kg and had a 190bhp V6 engine from a Ferrari Dino.
“It felt like you were going sideways even before you’d turned the key,” Clarkson says. “Then, after you’d turned the key, and located the throttle pedal, which was behind the passenger sun visor, you would have an enormous accident, because the Stratos had a wheelbase of about one inch. And the brake pedal was usually still in the factory.”
“If I were James May, I’d say now that it made the root of my penis fizz.”