John Simister: A love/hate relationship with the Lancia Fulvia HF

20th February 2017
john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_04.jpg John Simister

Our relationship with our classic cars can be complex. So complex that it merits its own branch of psychiatry. I come nowhere near understanding my own mind when old cars are in it, never mind anyone else's.


Why, for example, have I several times bought a car to satisfy a longing, gone off it, and then bought another of the same type, only to sell it again? Is it a refusal to accept, against all evidence, that the dream is just that, a dream? Reality can be so inconvenient sometimes.

In the mid-noughties, I discovered I wanted a Lancia Fulvia 1600HF. 'Where did that suddenly come from?' asked my baffled daughter Alona, then aged 19. I'd been reading about the breed's many rally wins, its crazy V4 engine with a tiny vee-angle, its intriguing mix of leaf springs and an old-fashioned steering box in unlikely combination with front-wheel drive. And seeing that neat coupé body, so glassy and compact, its horizontal surfaces with their concave upward flicks at their outer edges, its flared-out arches over fat magnesium Cromodoras, caused my heart to be lost.

I went to see a tamer, more affordable, 1.3 Fulvia coupé, but as expected it didn't match the dream. There were HFs within fiscal reach in Italy, but exporting a car from there was full of tripwires and would it really be as good as the advertisements claimed? Then I stumbled upon one for sale in Surrey, bright red, supplied new in Vienna, restored twice, and cheap. It was part of the liquidated stock of a failed classic car hire company. Alarm bells? What alarm bells?

There was plenty wrong with it but I bought it anyway. I bounced home on the collapsing front and rock-hard rear suspension and hopelessly aged tyres, savouring the impossibly rorty exhaust, ignoring the backache induced by the collapsed seat. I had a Fulvia HF! I was Sandro Munari, Ove Andersson, Simo Lampinen and more, all rolled into one. I was in a drug-induced heaven, the drug our own brains manufacture when car-love takes over.


Reality bit, quite hard. The restorations had not been painstaking: filler everywhere, a bodged subframe, Ford Escort sills, the discovery that it had originally been orange. It needed a total front suspension rebuild, new rear springs, a brake overhaul and quite a lot more welding. Meanwhile, the engine started mixing oil and water with a major misfire. Four new pistons and clever laser-welding of the groove in a cylinder helped put that right, and eventually, it became very enjoyable to drive just as long as the roads were smooth.

In one year it covered over 7000 miles, a lot for a classic. It went to France and Belgium, and most memorably it was the car in which Alona and I did the 2007 Tour Britannia. We came fourth in the regularity category, a navigational feat on Alona's part very impressive for someone who, two years earlier, couldn't remember which way to turn out of our driveway when driving to school for the first time. I took it on a Goodwood track day with the Lancia Motor Club, and it hurtled round with hilarious enthusiasm.

But I was getting annoyed with the still-jittery ride, and that bodged body nibbled away at me. It just wasn't quite the right shape, nor would it ever be without a very expensive re-restoration, and my total outlay on the Lancia was already well past twice what I'd paid for it. There was also the matter of a Lotus Elan which wanted me to buy it, a car I really had dreamed of owning for many years. So I did, and the Lancia went after two years and three months of ownership.

I'll tell you about the Lotus another time. Let's just say for now that it, too, didn't measure up. Via a short-lived, tax-bill-induced detour into Mazda MX-5 ownership, I found myself contemplating another Fulvia HF, a silver one for sale in Brussels. An easy Eurostar train ride later, I met a car with bodywork far, far better than my old red HF's thanks to a proper restoration and a steel-friendlier past life in Italy, but a very noisy gearbox.


I bought it, of course, and fitted a rebuilt gearbox shortly afterwards. Wife Deborah and I took it on a grand expedition through Belgium and France down to Dijon, organised by the very friendly Dutch Lancia club, but it never went as well as the previous HF and was yet more turbulent over bumpy roads.

Short-sightedly I lost heart with it and put it up for sale, when what I should have done is refresh the engine and replace the front suspension's leaf spring and upper ball joints. I let a potential Lancia gem go after just a year and two months, and now it's in Japan and beyond reach. 

Do I have commitment issues, or just a short memory, obliterated by a blind spot or two in the face of dazzling temptation? I have, however, now owned the faithful two-stroke Saab for nearly 16 years, so at least that relationship has worked out. Driving the Saab always makes me happy. And that, in the end, is the whole point.

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