The story of Vincenzo Lancia in the US
Time to zoom in on Lancia in our La Grande Storia-series. It’s a rather remarkable story this. In a manner that ‘The American Dream’ once nearly became reality for Lancia, but that that very same dream now might be fatal to the Turin brand. The formation of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has been a huge turning point for Fiat of course. They missed the boat to globalization some twenty years ago, but fortunately the tireless Sergio Marchionne has come in charge and has managed to avoid disaster. But what about Lancia? The CEO himself claims to own a Delta HF Integrale and therefore knows what an impressive and versatile history this ancient Italian brand has gone through.
The sole explanation of Marchionne as to why Lancia will become a one-model-only brand for the Italian market (and none other), is that the make from Chivasso does not possess the charisma to break through on an international level. Even with the best of intentions the CEO claims it is an unattainable goal. Recent attempts with transformed Chrysler-models are the proof that it would take much more (billions) to turn it into a profitable business. Billions that simply aren’t there right now and won’t be for some time to come. The only thing we – and all other brand enthusiasts – can cling onto is that no member of the management has yet said Lancia might be over with someday. We still hope they will bring back what has been the most amazing department of Lancia (HF), their rally history, but that’s all based on rumors unfortunately.
FCA is now travelling to the United States with Alfa Romeo as their most suitable (premium) brand, but Vincenzo Lancia, too, once wound up on the shores of America with his very own make. As a typical Piedmont businessman, who hadn’t seen much South of the Alps yet, he first went to New York. We say first, but in fact the man had already been there for other purposes; he’d competed in the Vanderbilt Cup of 1905 and 1906 (picture above) as a Fiat-driver. Those were the days during which he was already working on his own brand, being a talented engineer as he was. The ever-smiling Lancia was a businessman at heart and a true adventurer as well, even though he could also enjoy the occasional night out in Turin with a game of ‘bocce’ (pétanque). It was his entrepreneurship that got him his international prestige though, especially with the fabulous Lambda which was ordered by wealthy people from all over the globe.
In the second half of the twenties, Lancia came to own a large production location at the Corso Peschiera (picture on top) and had the elegant Dilambda manufactured there. He was selling quite a few cars in the US by then and therefore thought it a good idea to start producing across the pond as well. The modern and comfortable Lancias were much appreciated by the Americans. The Swedish Hollywood-star Greta Garbo gladly had her photographed in a Lambda, for example (picture above). Frank M. Ferrari (not related) started ‘Lancia Motor Sales Corporation’ in 1925. Garbo and many other famous Americans bought their Lancias from him. Ferrari was COO of a concern called ‘City Trust’ together with other Italo-Americans such as Victor Rocca and Michael M. Longo. Together they owned some fifty companies.
The fact that these businessmen all wore Italian names did not immediately bare Lancia any trouble. As a Piedmont industrial himself, he too was an example of Italian entrepreneurship. He therefore entrusted these men the production of his high-end automobiles. One Antony Flocker, son of an Italian mother, is said to have persuaded Vincenzo and make him go for it. Lancia was excited about the idea of an American plant and – as was often the case – made the decision all by himself to make it happen. He didn’t consult anyone in Turin at the time (in 1926 to be exact). The Tipo 220 Dilambda , by then nearly entirely developed, was the perfect car for the job with its high comfort-degree. The only thing left to do was develop an engine with more cylinders, and so Lancia did; a 3960cc V8 with a 24 degree-angle.
The new model was to be presented on an American motor show in 1928. The New York Auto Saloon was the biggest one worldwide at the time. It was also agreed that other versions would be making their debut at the National Automobile Show in the Grand Central Palace on January 5th 1929. In anticipation of this important launch, Lancia immediately set his people to work and told them to make a definite version of the chassis. As a shareholder of the coachbuilder (Pinin)Farina, he had the transformation of the bodywork covered. Viotti and Boneschi (two other coachbuilders) would also work on the project. On September 29th of 1927, meanwhile, ‘Lancia Motor of America’ was brought to life. Flocker, Ferrari and Lancia himself were in charge of this company. The old Fiat-plant in New York was bought and the operating cash was a total of three million dollars, most of which came from Lancia’s equity.
Flocker more and more often spent his time in the design department of Lancia in Turin (picture above and below), but wasn’t exactly cheered upon for doing so. The co-owner of the newly formed company in the US apparently made numerous requests in terms of development. The technical staff of Lancia claimed many of them were completely absurd. Despite these struggles though, 12 prototypes were made. All of them were fitted with most luxurious bodyworks, some of them even with gilded details. These had more to do with the American sense of glamour than with the Italian touch of finesse and exquisite design. It would later become clear why Flocker had constantly been slowing down the project with his requests, resulting in the planned introduction in New York not being achieved.
The cars eventually got transported to the States and Vincenzo Lancia travelled there as well on January 3rd. He wanted to contact his American partners while on the way, but in those days that wasn’t an easy task. Vincenzo couldn’t reach them at all, in fact. What happened exactly at that stage is not entirely clear, but Vincenzo did get to a point during his travels where he realized that he had been ripped off. Flocker confessed everything in a hotel and told Lancia the true intentions of the City Trust shareholders. It is said that Vincenzo was so shocked by what he had been told, that he left the hotel through a backdoor and took the first boat back to Italy. By doing so, he actually somewhat avoided being dragged into an adventure that would have ended even more badly. It became clear that he had been the victim of a cover-up for the American mafia. A mafia that was mainly led by former countrymen of his, in fact. They were an entirely different breed of entrepreneurs compared to the sincere – and probably slightly naive – Vincenzo. He luckily managed to get away and blew the entire thing off. Frank M. Ferrari had been forced by the mobsters to open a fictitious Lancia-factory in order to trade in false shares. ‘Lancia Motors of America’ and therefore Vincenzo Lancia himself were the scapegoat. After closer investigation it turned out that no factory had ever been paid off and the entire ‘City Trust’-group fell to pieces once this scandal came to light. Flocker stood up for Lancia in the end and spared the Italian from even more grief. Some retrieved money and 12 Dilambdas were given back to Lancia.
This black page in Lancia’s career was a subject the talented pioneer – understandably – didn’t like talking about. The Dilambda went into production in Turin and was built over 700 times in several versions up to 1938. All of them were fitted with the 3956cc V8 with cast iron cylinder heads (picture above). While the Dilambda had many different technical characteristics from the Lambda, the extra rigid chassis (though now divided from the bodywork), the independent suspension up front, the thermostat in the radiator and the liquid pump were all staggering inventions. Other typical details were the rear lights in the shape of the Lancia-logo and an anti-theft system with which the gear shift could be blocked. The latter might be an unofficial consequence of Vincenzo’s short-lived and traumatic experiences in the criminal New York. Gianni Lancia, Vincenzo’s son, later took the successful Aurelia overseas; a saving grace for his father who had already passed away by that time. Lancia wound up in the US when it was in the hands of Fiat as well, but again without much success. No American will probably remember the Beta berlina. Perhaps one or two would the Scorpion, but the Beta Montecarlo is likely to be the most famous one… The Italian female sports car which Hollywood VW ‘Herbie’ fell in love with. Still, there is an actual fan club in the US, and that says a lot about the power and passion of this brand.
We wish Marchionne all the success with Alfa Romeo, but we especially hope he won’t give up on Lancia. That it doesn’t belong in America is something we can live with.