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Italian 'Porsche' vs. the real thing: comparing Lancia Fulvia and 912

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Article by Rob Sass
912 photos by Porsche unless noted. Fulvia photos by Rob Sass

I recently had the opportunity to sample a Lancia Fulvia, a little-known-to-Americans 1960s Porsche competitor.  Sold in North America for barely one model year (1967), they were built all the way through 1975, and a few have found their way here as private imports. Because of their competition success, clever engineering, and markedly un-Italian reliability, they’re sometimes referred to by in-the-know Europeans as Italian Porsches. But how does the car actually compare to its nearest Swabian competitor, the Porsche 912? Here are my thoughts.

Style

We’ll start with the most subjective first. The 912 shares its bodyshell with the 911, and the early short wheelbase cars are very pretty. Butzi Porsche indeed got it right. The Lancia eschews the Porsche’s flowing curves in favor of a more conventional three-box coupe with a 230SL-like pagoda-style roof that is handsome in its own right. It’s almost like a lower, lighter, and much prettier BMW 2002, just as you would expect from the Italians, but because we’re Porsche partisans, and the 901 is a design for the ages, we’ll score this one for the home team, even though Jeremy Clarkson called the Fulvia as pretty as a fine sunset.

Mechanicals

Both cars are unconventional yet surprisingly similar in an opposites sort of way. Whereas the 912 has a 1.6-liter pushrod flat-four hanging out in back of the rear axle, the Lancia has an all-aluminum, 1.3-liter (or 1.6-liter) narrow-angle V4, located in front of the opposite axle. Both use twin Solex carburetors. Somewhat heretically for a performance car, the Lancia is front-wheel drive, but it gets the rare MK 1 Golf GTI/Mini Cooper dispensation from enthusiasts. A five-speed manual was optional on the 912 and standard on Series 2 and 3 Fulvias. Both cars make about 90 horsepower, but the similarities end there.  The 912 redlines at 6,000 rpm and the Lancia at 6,500 rpm, and max power is made for both at around 5,800 rpm, but not surprisingly, it’s the Italian car that is happier at that end of the rev range and feels like it could safely eke out another 1,000 rpm. 0-60 miles per hour is around 11 seconds for both cars. From a looks standpoint, there’s no comparison between the Lancia’s delicious-looking aluminum V4 and the Porsche flat-four. Both five-speeds have a dogleg pattern but the linkage and the shifter feel on the Fulvia are far superior to the 901 box. The internals are another story. The ratios on the Lancia are close to keep up the revs, but inexplicably, 5th isn’t an overdrive, and at 60 mph, you’re pulling almost 4,000 RPMs. The 912 is far more relaxed at around 3,000 RPMs at the same speed. We’d call this one roughly even.

Brakes

Both cars use four-wheel discs with a vacuum booster, but this is a clear win for the Porsche. The 912’s pedal feel is firmer and more confidence-inspiring, the pedal is easier to modulate, and in spite of what looks like a real attempt at mechanical front-rear proportioning with a rod-actuated brake proportioning valve on the Lancia, the 912’s brakes are far better balanced. Brake bias issues would plague Lancias through the 1970s.

Interior


Video screenshot by Damon Lowney

Both interiors are impressively put together. Some might argue that the Tuetonic gloom factor is a bit high on the 912, but the materials are high quality. The gauges are more comprehensive on the Lancia, it has an oil pressure gauge that most 912s lack and a comprehensive set of idiot lights, including one to remind you that the choke is engaged. But I prefer the individual VDOs set into the instrument panel to the one-piece gauge cluster in the Lancia. The piece of solid teak covering the Fulvia’s dash is, however, a nice touch. Neither car uses an excess of plastic, and little things like the polished metal seat hinges and interior door handles on the Fulvia were good enough to find their way into various Ferraris. Seats are a mixed bag. The Lancia’s look better and the backs are more heavily bolstered, but they’re spoiled by short cushions. Because of the Italian long arm/short leg driving position that seems to favor chimps over people, overall 912s are more comfortable for long drives. The rear sunshades in the Lancia are a weird but upmarket touch. Again, it’s pretty even on the inside.

Handling

Both cars develop an amount of grip that is disproportionate to their 165-mm wide tires. One understeers at the limit and one oversteers, but everything in between is nicely neutral for both cars. The Porsche’s quicker rack and pinion steering gives it the edge over the Lancia’s worm and sector setup. For the record, Porsche ace Vic Elford spent a ton of time rallying and competing in Fulvias and claims that he could get the Lancia to rotate in a corner in much the same way as a 911.

Competition

This one really isn’t fair. Porsche had the 911 and put most of its production racing eggs in that basket. Lancia relied heavily on the 1.6-liter Fulvia HF, taking the 1972 World Rally Championship and competing in small-bore classes in iconic road races like the Targa Florio.

Quality

At first glance, this one seems obvious, right? Italian cars are notoriously flimsy and fickle. Not in this case. The Fulvia was the last “real” Lancia, and it’s rumored that they lost money on each one, ultimately driving the company into the arms of Fiat and to its sad end of building crappy badge-engineered Chryslers. The Fulvia’s rally-bred powertrains were robust, and unlike the fickle Marelli electronics found in Alfas and Fiats, Lancia shopped around for the best, rather than the cheapest, components available. Some bright trim is polished stainless steel, and panels fit with very Porsche-like precision. Jewel-like is a cliché often applied to Lancias. But for all of the fine workmanship, the Fulvia was an assembly-line car and an exceedingly light one — it simply can’t match the hand-built fit and finish and vault-like structure of the Porsche, which just feels safer and more solid. 

Overall

The Porsche 912 is probably a better car in most respects. It was more expensive when new ($4,700 vs. $3,500, nearly a $10,000 difference in today’s money). A 912 is about twice as valuable today, around $48,000 for a nice one, versus $25,000 for a nice Fulvia. Still, it was fun to see what the competition was doing back in the day, and how close the Italians came to building a less-expensive Porsche alternative.

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