1971 Lancia Fulvia 1.3S
There are certain things that vintage, small-displacement Italian sports cars are ideal for. A Sunday morning drive through the twisties. An inspiring late night blast with the windows down and the sound of the engine reverberating through the cockpit. Even profiling to the local “Cars & Coffee.” But when you absolutely have to get somewhere far away – when you really need to cover a ton of ground as comfortably and reliably as you possibly can, they are not, shall we say, everyone's first choice. It's a question of trust. You can trust a good 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE to get you all the way across Spain in a hurry, but can you trust a 1971 Lancia Fulvia?
So it was with some trepidation that I found myself in precisely this situation. I had expected to pick the car up in Sevilla the previous day and make my way home slow and easy, enjoying myself as much as possible, but tax and paperwork issues had backed us up and now I found myself in a time crunch. I woke up in a strange city, far from home, my wife was back in Javea, angry about the delay and trying to get my two young boys ready for their end-of-school performance that same afternoon. It was their first such performance ever, and I couldn't miss it. I absolutely HAD to get back to Javea, and that meant I had a lot of ground to cover in a big, big hurry, and an entirely unknown Lancia Fulvia in which to cover it.
Cue dramatic music.
I had left Javea for Sevilla two days earlier, but not alone. My good friend John was visiting from the USA, and his wife and two boys felt like tagging along, so we piled in their rented Hyundai i20 diesel and set off for points west, across Spain via the southerly route.
After a stop in Lorca for a traditional lunch at the typically magnificent Parador, we continued on to Granada and stopped for the night. Granada is one of the more historic cities in this hugely historic peninsula, and home to “Alhambra,” the mountaintop complex of Moorish palaces and fortresses built over several centuries, and used by a succession of Muslim rulers from the middle to late stages of Moorish rule in Spain. I love the history of Alhambra. Such a fascinating and varied place. Known as “a pearl set among emeralds,” in reference to its location inside a dense forest, it was also a place where artists and intellectuals took refuge when the Reconquista by Spanish Christians began to sweep across Spain in earnest. In fact, it was Alhambra that served as one of the last strongholds of Muslim leadership in Iberia, and when the Christians finally dealt them the backbreaking defeat that would drive the Moors out of Spain once and for all, the last Moorish King, Boabdil, was admonished by his mother for the loss.
“Do not cry like a child,” she said to him, as he stood weeping, watching the last of his armies retreat towards Africa, “for what you were unable to defend like a man.”
Unfortunately, unlike the Christians so many centuries ago, we couldn't get in. Tickets sell out months in advance, but we walked around the grounds a bit and after spending some time shopping in the old town and watching flamenco dancers perform in the street, we were back in the Hyundai and heading west again for Sevilla.
Bureaucracy And Siesta
Few things go together as poorly as bureaucracy and siesta. With most offices and shops in Spain closing between (roughly) the hours of 2:00pm and 4:30pm, it seems every time I really need to get something done I glance at my watch and it's 2:10. For an American reared on the “go, go, go” style of life, siesta can be a difficult adjustment.
We rolled into Sevilla around 2:00pm, and found the office of the tax manager for our Canary Island shipping line. This particular Lancia had come from the Canary Islands, a cluster of Spanish islands far to the south, off the western coast of Africa, and closer to Dakar than Javea. Unfortunately, the shipping line we use for most of our work doesn't ship from the Canary Islands, so it meant using a different company to ship the car by boat all the way north, past Casablanca, to the Iberian Peninsula, then picking it up in Sevilla and driving it all the way back across Spain to the eastern port of Valencia, before putting it on a different boat, with a different shipping line, and sending it all the way back, through the straits of Gibraltar, to the USA.
That's what exporting cars to the USA means sometimes, and it also means red tape. A lot of it.
To make matters worse, the Canary Islands are a tax haven – status granted to the islands long ago as a way of encouraging Spaniards to settle and live there. So when the car arrived at the mainland, we got hit with a tax of several thousand euros, even though the car would be ultimately leaving Spain for the United States. This tax would be held as a bond, and refunded to us when the car left for the USA, but we had to pay it up front before Spanish customs would release the Lancia to me in Sevilla.
And of course, at 2:00pm, when I rolled into Sevilla, Juan Manuel's office, the office of our tax manager, was closed for siesta.
So I waited. And waited. At 4:30pm on the dot the door opened, and I went in and paid my tax bond. “Okay,” Juan Manuel said, stamping the paperwork authoritatively, “You can pick the car up at the port tomorrow.”
“TOMORROW?” I said, “No, no. The port is open until 7:30 this evening. I need to pick the car up today. I have to be back in Javea tomorrow.”
“I'm sorry,” he said, shaking his head sadly, “the government tax offices close at 2:00pm. I can't get the paperwork to release the car until they open again tomorrow morning at 9:00.”
My heart sank. My kids were performing the following afternoon. I wouldn't make it. I'm a relatively new father, and this was their first big performance. Was I going to be that guy? Juan Manuel promised me he would do everything he could to get me on the road as early in the morning as possible, and we shook hands as I left.
Sympathetic but also tired after two full days of driving, John and his family needed to return to Javea, so they dropped me at a hotel and headed back in the Hyundai. He wished me luck with a handshake and a rueful smile, saying: “Man, I really hope you make it back in time.”
“At least I have the right car,” I replied.
“Yeah," he laughed back, "but for the wrong roads.” And he was right. A Fulvia is a canyon carver, and not built for high speed drones on modern superhighways. It would be interesting to see how it handled it.
I checked in to my room, threw my bag on the bed, and started doing the math. Six hours from Sevilla to Javea. Tax office opens at 9:00am. Port opens at 8:00am. If I got to the port before 9 o'clock and waited, Juan Manuel assured me he would fax the release to the port and I should be able to leave pretty early. If I got the paperwork and could retrieve the Lancia early enough, I might just make it. But how early? “No one can tell.” Juan Manuel had offered sadly. “It depends on how busy the tax office is.”
East Bound And Down
Early the next morning, my taxi dropped me off at the port of Sevilla, an inland port on the Guadalquivir river. Like all big ports, it is a rather intimidating environment. Massive cranes move massive containers, often directly above you, which appear to be held aloft only by the smallest possible connections and are bouncing around like the 30-ton death traps they most certainly are. The environment is heavily industrial, dirty, loud and not “user friendly.” I constantly find myself feeling exposed, like an interloper, and I always worry I am standing in the wrong place, or crossing the wrong line, with consequences that could perhaps get me killed. Port workers tend to be a scruffy bunch, the burliest, toughest looking chaps from all over the world, and you hear different languages being barked around, sometimes at others, sometimes at you (you know, for standing on the wrong side of a line or something.) A busy port is not an environment for the faint of heart.
That said, even in this roughest of environments, the people of Andalucia are unfailingly warm. Sevilla is the only port I have ever been to where rough and tumble looking dock workers smile kindly at you and greet you with a cheerful “Buenas dias!” It is easily one of Spain's friendliest provinces, and even inside the intimidating workings of the Port of Sevilla, that politeness continues unabated.
Juan Manuel didn't let me down. By 10:00am the fax had arrived, clearing the vehicle, I had my release paperwork, and a port worker handed me the keys and pointed past a huge row of shipping containers , saying quickly: “El coche esta alli.”
Walking through the port I dodged trucks and cranes, and eventually found a small, secure grass parking lot in the back reaches of the dock area. Inside sat the Lancia. A little dusty from the trip, maybe, but the car was exactly as I expected. Stunning in dark green metallic over a blood red interior, with the stance and details of a Fanalone competition car, it looked like the Fulvias I had always lusted after as a child. Lithe, lean, and purposeful.
I got in and looked around. Everything was lovely and well kept. I turned the ignition the key to the accessory position and flipped the switch for the auxiliary fuel pump, waiting for the humming to abate once the big Dell'Ortos had primed correctly. A few cranks and the V4 burst into life with a nasty snarl that sent a chill up my spine and turned every head within earshot. I flipped off the auxiliary fuel pump and let the car idle and warm itself, and once the temperatures came up a bit, picked my way out of the port and set off for the outskirts of Sevilla and the Autovias that would take me home.
Lancia Fulvias are famous for several things, but first among them is driving dynamics, and this car didn't disappoint. A little finicky (like all old Italian sports cars, it seems) when cold, but after five or six minutes with everything up to temperature, it all comes together. The carburetion is spot on, allowing perfectly tractable pulls from low RPM, the gearchange in the dogleg box is light and positive, and the steering is nothing short of sublime. And the sound… oh, my, the sound! It is the sound of childhood dreams, and although the little 1.3 isn't particularly potent in a modern sense, with an extremely quick revving nature coupled with a feathery curb weight it moves the Fulvia along very nicely indeed. Besides, with an aural symphony like this one it's hard to care. I found myself just running through the gears again and again to hear it. Just to hear it. It's a different sound, and a deeply inspiring one.
Short gearing makes for busy highway cruises, but it is perfectly capable of bombing happily along at 110-120kp/h, with more in reserve, and it's a remarkably comfortable car to drive. I'm a pretty big guy at 6'1” and 200lbs, but I fit inside the car just fine, with tons of legroom and enough headroom to wear a cap without hitting the roof. The ergonomics are typically vintage Italian, with pedals closer and steering wheel more of a stretch, but a long time ago I learned to drive old Italian cars the way the Italians do, with hands not at “ten and two” but rather at “four and eight,” shuffling the bottom edge of the wheel between my hands with as little crossing over as possible. Once you get this technique down, it feels so natural you don't even notice it.
Before I knew it I was through Antequera and bearing down on Granada again, and all of a sudden the stress started to lift. The napkin math in my brain told me I was actually looking good on time so I broke off North onto the smaller “Nacional” roadways and found my way to the A-308 heading east out of La Nava. On these flowing, serpentine twisties the little Fulvia runs like a 1:1 scale Scalextric car, cornering flat and roaring out of bends with a feisty feel and that scintillating exhaust note filling the cockpit. The brakes are powerful and turn-in is instantaneous. INSTANTANEOUS. Arrive at a corner and bend into it and the Lancia dives to the apex like a demon, exhaust poppling wonderfully on the overrun. It corners perfectly flat and neutral on constant throttle, with no hint of understeer at any point, and is easy to modulate with the gas pedal. Get it all right and on the other side, as your reward, you get to hear it power out onto the straight, up through the gears toward the next bend where you do it all over again. And again, and again, and again. I found myself laughing, literally laughing out loud and slapping my thigh on the short straights, living my own private Targa Florio fantasy through the mountains of Spain.
More surprisingly, the car feels incredibly solid. For such a light sports coupe designed and built more than four decades ago, the feel is tight and solid as hell. I don't know why, but I was expecting it to feel flimsy and fragile somehow, and it just… doesn't. The door locks snick up and down with precision. Switches move with fine tolerances, and the interior trim is straight and durable looking. There is nothing junky about a Lancia Fulvia. It feels like a finely engineered beast that has been properly put together by people who actually give a damn.
Stop for fuel in the car and something else happens. People come from everywhere to stand around and ogle it. Men and women both seem to adore the Fulvia and people of all ages, genders, cultures and classes instantly understand the appeal. Filling up the smallish 38 liter tank (more on that later) takes longer than it should, because even here in Europe where these cars are not entirely unknown, everyone and their hermano has a question or a comment. On the road, people hang out of the windows of passing cars with cell phones in their hands, grinning and honking and taking your photo, and I was on the receiving end of more “thumbs up” and appreciative waves than in anything I have ever driven. You aren't going to sneak anywhere in a Fulvia.
But there was business to attend to, and that meant getting home, so I picked my way back over to the A-7 superhighway and settled in for the final part of the drive. It appeared I would be home with at least 30 minutes to spare. I was cruising.
The Best Laid Plans
Somewhere north of Benidorm, just when I was feeling like I had it made, the car coughed. Just once, but significantly. It had been forever since it had happened to me, but you never forget that cough. I was running out of fuel.
I immediately started looking for an exit, but the engine sputtered again and quit entirely. Twin sidedrafts don't give you much warning, and apparently the fuel gauge, still pointing resolutely to a little less than a quarter of a tank, works perfectly only down to that level. With traffic streaming past at 130 kp/h and more, I coasted to a silent stop on the frighteningly narrow strip of tarmac that functions as a breakdown lane on Spanish highways.
I looked around. Nothing. No exits. No buildings. Just traffic blasting past at high speed, rocky outcroppings of mountains, and the smell of the sea. I sat down on the Armco, just for a moment, to think. My half hour cushion, and more, would be eaten up in the snap of my fingers unless I could find a gas station in a hurry, but I didn't even know in which direction to start walking. Calling for breakdown assistance would take too long, and my friends, in Javea, were too far away to rescue me in time. So I just sat for a moment, thinking.
I decided to walk towards the sea, figuring the coast roads will always be heavily developed and the odds of finding fuel there would be higher than walking inland. As I set off, with the sun beating down on my shoulders, I wasn't optimistic. I had blown it. I would miss my kids' first performance. I was going to be that guy.
After 100 meters I turned around, just to look back at the Lancia, and as I did I saw a Guardia Civil patrol car pulling up behind it, lights flashing. Hope! I ran back to the car and explained to the officers what had happened. After a few moments they set up emergency triangles around the Lancia, helped me into the squad car, and the three of us set off for a local gas station. We talked about running out of fuel, about police work, and about the differences between Spain and the USA. They were terribly curious about what their counterparts were like in the USA, and we laughed about how the impressions of others is often not borne out by the truth, when you eventually encounter it.
The local station was actually quite close (but inland, not towards the sea) so I bought a can and some gas, and within minutes we were back at the Lancia. I poured in the five liters and cranked the car (now incredibly thankful for the auxiliary fuel pump) and the engine fired willingly. I shook hands with the officers, thanked them both profusely, and was off again, barely 25 minutes after the engine first coughed. “To Protect And Serve.” The Spanish police really live it.
After a quick fill up it was back on the highway, this time with a vengeance. It would be close, but the last of the run into Javea was as trouble free as the first six hours, and I slipped into town with about eight minutes to spare. My wife and kids had already left for the performance, but I would meet them at the school. A little tired, a little sweaty, and a little stressed, maybe, but massively relieved to have made it. This time, at least, I would not be that guy.
So can you trust a Lancia Fulvia to get you across the country in a hurry? Can you actually drive one comfortably, use it to cover serious ground, and arrive when and where you said you would?
Yes. Yes, you can. And you'll have the time of your life, believe me. Every drive in a Fulvia is the realization of a little fantasy. Every time the engine sings through the gears and you hear those big Dell'Ortos sucking in air, and every time it popples and snaps on the overrun, and every time you match revs on the downshifts and snick that spindly gear lever into another cog and get it all just right, you'll smile. Maybe outwardly, like me, or maybe inwardly. But you can't drive this car without having the time of your life, and properly cared for, in proper condition, it will be more trustworthy and more substantial than you would ever believe. It's a heck of a motorcar. One of my all-time favorites.
Just make sure you have fuel in the tank.
(CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY)