Meet The Car With An Engine You Could Destroy By Turning The Steering Wheel

Meet The Car With An Engine You Could Destroy By Turning The Steering Wheel

I think one of my favourite states of mind is something I call appreciative bafflement: A state of confusion so deep and profound that you’re genuinely impressed and appreciate the efforts taken to make such confusing, deeply fucked decisions. The Lancia Gamma, especially the fastback Berlina version, is a car full of this sort of bafflement. Let’s talk about this lovely weirdo.

The Lancia Gamma was built from 1976 to 1984, was Lancia’s new top-of-the-line flagship car, and came in two Pininfarina-styled versions: an imposing yet sleek five-door fastback, the Berlina, and a handsome, crisp two-door coupé.

The coupé really is a lovely car. Just look at it:

Image: Lancia

That’s great, right? I think the Berlina is pretty fantastic-looking, too:

Image: Lancia

The looks weren’t the baffling thing, here. I want to talk about the engine. These were FWD cars, using flat-four engines designed just for this car. Lancia was building plenty of flat-fours, but these were new, bigger ones, with a just-under 2-litre one (for Italian tax reasons) making 90 kW, and a 2.5-litre one making 100 kW.

These weren’t amazing power numbers, but they really weren’t that bad for the era, and the engines themselves were pretty good, save for the one ridiculous Achilles’ heel that is the initial source of my gleeful bafflement: They decided to drive the power steering fluid pump off of one of the two camshafts — you know, the things that open and close the cylinder valves.

Normally, ancillaries like the alternator or A/C compressor or power steering pump are driven off the crankshaft pulley. I can’t think of any other car that drives a pump off the camshaft and has a cam belt setup like this, and here’s why, according to the Gamma mavens over at Lancia Gamma Consortium:

Gammas have an unenviable reputation when it comes to their toothed camshaft drive belt, and not without reason! The camshaft serving the nearside (left- hand) pair of cylinders also drives the power steering pump. A lack of development, in early cars in particular, showed itself when unsuspecting owners would start their Gammas on a cold morning with the steering on full lock. This would cause the cambelt to break / jump with the load from the steering pump, resulting in one pair of cylinders firing-up whilst the other pair tried to destroy themselves, at the least causing bent valves. Later models have revised belt tensioners, but are still known to suffer from this problem.

Did you get that? If you start up your cold engine with your steering wheel turned all the way to one side or the other, the load from the power steering pump could be enough to break the camshaft/timing belt, which would make the left bank of cylinders completely lunch the top end of the engine, leaving you stranded and soon to be broke.

Image: Lancia

So, imagine parking on a hill one night, and then going out to your car on a brisk morning. You’ve turned your wheels all the way to the curb, like you’re supposed to do, and then you start it up and hear a miserable symphony of noise that features your valves getting bent into pretzels, and you’re not going anywhere.

It didn’t even have to be when you first start the car — though it is suggested that if you have one, only start it with the steering wheel nice and straight — if you pulled out of a parking spot with the engine cold and cranked the wheel enough, you could pop that belt just as easy.

Holy crap, how does a car company let that happen? I can’t think of another car where you can literally destroy your own engine just by cranking the steering wheel at the wrong time. Well, I mean, other than by cranking the wheel to drive into something.

If you’re wondering what the hell Lancia’s engineers were doing while not noticing this hilariously terrible design decision, I think I may have an answer: They were busy developing history’s most overcomplicated and useless rear window setup.

Here’s what you need to know: That lovely fastback Berlina? It’s not a hatchback, which would make sense. No, because of some weird reasoning from Pininfarina that rear seat passengers might, heaven forbid, get drafty while the hatch was open and luggage was loaded, it’s just a trunk.

Now, a fastback with a trunk instead of a hatch is something we’ve seen before. That’s not that weird. But look inside the trunk here:

Image: Lancia

So, we have a decently roomy fastback trunk and a bunch of leather suitcases full of 1970s Italian stuff like black bikini briefs and cigarettes and boots and shit, but look at the part of the trunk lid I’ve called out with the popular letter and vowel, A.

That’s a window. In the trunk lid. it’s a window into the trunk.

And now look at callout B: That’s another window. It looks like it’s on the rear package shelf area, just below the actual, normal, full-sized rear window.

What the hell is going on here? Let’s look at the outside of the car:

Image: Lancia, Wikimedia Commons

OK, see those louvers just below the not-at-all-small rear window? They kind of look like this car would be rear-engined, but no, those are not air intake louvers. They cover that second rear window on the trunk lid.

In fact, those louvers even lift up, so you can clean that rear window:

Image: Lancia

What the fuck are you doing, 1970s Lancia? Look at all this effort! Look at all the extra engineering that had to be done to inset two extra rear windows, then cover one with louvers, then make those louvers lift up in a little hatch that you didn’t want to bother to make for the whole rear of the car, and for what?

In the interior shots of the car, I can’t even see where you’d look out of that ridiculous thing. Here, look:

Image: Lancia

I think that inside window that looks through the trunk to the outside window is back there, somewhere?

Image: Lancia

This diagram seems to show the inner window location. It’s a narrow little strip of glass there. If this was done to improve rearward visibility, why is the lower window so small, and while is the outer window covered with louvers? How much visibility would you possibly get out of this ridiculous setup? Why not just make the rear window like three inches longer?

I just can’t with any of this. It’s absolutely mad. Especially when you remember that all of this baffling, expensive effort — two more pieces of glass, rubber grommets, a whole hinged louver setup all for something that would be blocked by any luggage you have in the stupid trunk — all of this ridiculous bullshit on a car with a huge, crippling, terrible mechanical design decision.

If it was just the awful choice to drive the power steering pump off the cam like this, well, that’d be just bad, lazy engineering, and we could dismiss the car as just garbage.

But couple that with the mind-scrambling expense and effort put into this wildly overcomplicated and nearly useless rear window design, well, then it all just becomes tragic, and, as a result, fascinating.

I feel like Daddy Lancia left the kids in charge for the weekend and told them not to touch anything on his Gamma project and then when he came home he saw all this insane shit and just screamed what the fuck is wrong with you? in Italian to the design and engineering teams, but by then it was too late and the manufacturing guys were coming to take it to the factory to build them just like this for the next eight years.

Oh, it’s all just so wonderfully baffling. These really deeply questionable decisions, all packed into one lovely car, making a glorious combination of over-engineering and under-engineering, all ending up at the same spot, the grand Temple of Failure.

So good.

(thanks for showing me this, Hans!)