Here we are, on the Italian side of the Col de Larche, on the Western Alps in the province of Cuneo with a lovely stretch of road running ahead of us. This is the kind of road that it seems to have been designed by somebody who really loves driving. It’s a constant alternation of long and fast section through the mountains which will eventually turn into a tasty series of steep uphill twists and turns. It’s the kind of place that encourages you to use all your experience to keep up the pace in order not to loose speed through the corners. If you’d like to choose a car here, you’ll be surely want a GT with plenty of power, like an Aston Martin DB9 or a classic Ferrari 458. Yet, if you like the thrill of proper, old school driving, you’ll be driving something light and with some degree of tuning roa… like an old Fulvia 1.6 HF, prepared to Gr.4 specification.
“Why a Fulvia?” you would ask: “why not?” we would reply. We hadn’t had the chance to drive a properly sorted example yet, so as soon as the opportunity came, we grabbed it and we went straight towards Cuneo for a proper test before the car will pass on to another enthusiast. After all, the last drive in such a car should be as memorable as ever and with the Fulvia we concluded our full on test of all the street legal versions of all Lancia’s rally cars. Perhaps, of all the models which cemented Lancia’s image as a rallying icon, the Fulvia is always the most controversial. People always wonder how good it is to drive and always admit a bit of skepticism regarding the car’s sophisticated “full forward” layout, with the engine and transmission way over the front axle and the light and overly outdated leaf-sprung rear end.
The Fulvia is like a reverse Porsche 911 of some sort, and both cars are very similar in many aspects: one has all the weight out front and the other out back, and both are remarkably balanced to drive. Yet, before you drive fast in either one of them, you have to learn your tricks and get everything figured out: the Fulvia is friendly at first, but once you’re up to speed you’ll need time to adjust to its behavior. Whoever dubbed front wheel drive “wrong wheel drive” surely never drove a Fulvia: it’s a fine little jewel that was able to etch the name Lancia into the legend. If this tiny GT was good for Munari, why shouldn’t it be any good to drive?
A 1970 1.6 HF prepared to Gr.4 spec is a good example while the Fulvia is such an excellent driver’s car. A 1st series example with big head-lamps known as the “Fanalone” among the Lancia-speaking crowd, this example has the full rally party tricks: the classic 1.6 V4 has been upgraded with high-compression pistons, open trumpet carbs, free-flow exhaust and the car features flared wheel arches with magnesium wheels and additional Carello lights. The interior is bare bones with a full welded roll cage and the classic two-spoke Ferrero steering wheel and a pair of Fusina bucket seats with four point Sabelt racing harness. A functioning trip-master and co-driver light complete this race-ready Lancia: a true dream for any rally fan.
Also, this Fulvia is equipped with the rare and desirable 5 speed “Testone” gearbox with a dogleg first gear. No wonders, this is the perfect car for the road we’re heading to. Right from the first meters, the Fulvia is incredibly easy to drive and remarkably not as loud as you might imagine at cruising speeds. Even in its most powerful derivative, the Fulvia is a momentum car: here skill is more important than horsepower and with this Lancia life starts at 4.500 rpm. The long throw makes it hard for you to keep the flow going and even if this car has some poke at low revs, you still need to press hard to keep the car dancing between the corners. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction you feel when you hear the intake noise of a classic racing engine. The suction of the air inside the trumpets and the snarl of the engine resonating inside a bare-bones cabin is a treat that is now lost in these days. Although it won’t press you violently against your seat, the 1.6 litre V4 is more than enough to turn your face into a large 32-teeth smile.
The first serious corners are quite a shock: after the town of Argentera the proper climb towards the top starts with a series of fast left and right bends. Here you’ll have to work hard with the heavy steering and the tricky handling: lift-off oversteer is a constant threat and with the high-shoulder tires you have to adapt to the car movements. No, this car never understeers, but it requires you to find the point of balance for each corner and modulate the throttle to keep the revs up and accelerate past the apex. It’s not intuitive but the reward is high, as you experience what rally drivers of the 70ies experienced back in their day. Yes, and this is the magic of the Fulvia: it lets you live memories you never lived and see things you didn’t see. The essential interior and the smell of gasoline mixed with the sound of the V4 is enough for a mere mortal to feel like those heroes of the Squadra Corse Lancia. As the road climbs to the top, it’s easy to imagine yourself competing in the Rallye de Montecarlo, charging through the elements and fighting for victory.
The engineers who made the Fulvia surely know how to make things right: after all, this is a Lancia and it’s absolutely fabulous.