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European Car of the Year for 1975, the CX 2000/2200 was a low-drag, transverse-engined DS successor: slightly shorter, slightly more conventional – if only by Citroën’s exceptional standards.
It would enjoy an 18-year career and one million-plus sales in its various saloon, limousine and estate incarnations.
The Gamma, built to appease Lancia purists who feared for the marque’s individualism under Fiat ownership, was launched in 1976 as a connoisseur’s model to take over where the Flavia/2000 had left off.
It certainly was exclusive, but fewer than 15,000 sales of the Berlina over its eight years was more of a commentary on buyer resistance to a car with engine problems than restricted supply.
Yet had political winds blown in a different direction, we could have ended up with two technically related cars combining the best bits of both.
Between December 1970 and June 1973, Fiat and Citroën co-operated by means of a holding company formed with Michelin, which had owned Citroën since 1934.
The mutual benefits were obvious.
The French firm, haemorrhaging money, needed cash to develop its new saloon.
Commercially booming Fiat, keen to share in Citroën’s high-tech secrets, saw the prospect of a full takeover.
On this point the French political classes already had the Italian’s card marked, limiting it to a 15% stake on the say-so of president de Gaulle when word of the deal first aired in ’68.
It was a relationship that the Fiat-owning Agnellis would never have embarked upon had they realised that the Michelin family had no intention of selling a controlling interest to a foreign company in what was perhaps France’s most proudly treasured car maker.
But, behind this short-lived liaison, the CX (the last car designed by Citroën as an independent manufacturer) and the Gamma (the last Lancia with a non-Fiat-designed engine) inevitably felt some influences of the co-operation.
Beyond the observation that the Gamma and CX are both roomy saloons with sleek profiles, and front-driven by unfashionably large four-cylinder engines, you do not have to dig very far to find other clues to their shared origins.
That the two cars looked superficially similar was probably coincidental, but it’s difficult to be sure.
There are striking similarities between Robert Opron’s CX design and the BMC 1800 Aerodinamica Pininfarina show car of 1967 – the latter designed by Leonardo Fioravanti, who also authored the Gamma Berlina.
The Lancia, codenamed Y2, and Citroën’s ‘Projet L’ had been in the planning stages since 1970
Through the tie-up the CX would use the Italian flat-four, while the Gamma would inherit hydropneumatic rear suspension and high-pressure hydraulics were considered for its brakes.
Certain floorpan elements were to be shared, and several prototypes were built – all this amid barely disguised reluctance on the part of engineers in both Paris and Turin.
Meanwhile, Fiat bosses were beginning to realise that the PARDEVI arrangement (Participation et Développement Industriel) was becoming something of a one-way street in Citroën’s favour.
Once Gianni Agnelli had voiced his frustrations (including in a speech at the 1972 Turin show), it was only a matter of time: Michelin bought Fiat’s shares in June 1973 as a prelude to a full Peugeot takeover in ’75.
Given the subsequent fragile reputation of the Gamma’s flat-four engine, Citroën had probably dodged a bullet by sticking with a development of its old in-line ‘four’ in the new car.
It didn’t have much choice in the matter: plans for a rotary-engined CX, dropped at quite a late stage, had dictated the compact engine bay.
A Wankel CX would have been something very special, but also something very thirsty and, in a post-Fuel Crisis Europe, probably as unsaleable as the doomed GS Birotor.
Equally, the Lancia engineers, headed by Sergio Camuffo, were relieved at not having to commit to what they perceived as the weight and complication of Citroën’s suspension.
But they had just three years to re-engineer the Gamma to take MacPherson struts and massive coil springs all round, adapted from the Beta, plus a cleverly conceived and widely imitated rear axle using parallel lower links.
The brilliant Camuffo had famously created the Beta in just two years, so he was used to working under pressure.
Even so, you can't help wondering if the co-operative’s delays sowed the seeds of disaster for the Gamma.
After Fiat’s takeover in 1969, Camuffo had taken charge of a demoralised and depleted engineering team at Lancia, with no future projects in the pipeline and no new engines.
He was open to suggestions, but plans for a wide-angle V6 and V4 probably did not leave the drawing board before he settled on the light-alloy flat-four designed by Ettore Zaccone Mina, also known for the Fulvia’s V4.
The compact boxer engine was a natural solution on several fronts, not only because of its synergy with the outgoing Flavia/2000’s horizontally-opposed unit.
The choice of this all-new and compact single-overhead-camshaft design, with timing belts rather than chains, was mainly dictated by the layout – shared with the CX – that put the engine well forward of the front wheels.
This, in turn, dictated the space-saving, camshaft-driven power-steering pump that could, in certain circumstances, cause the cambelt to jump teeth with sad but not unexpected results.
At 2484cc, the Gamma’s oversquare boxer engine was the world’s largest production four-cylinder.
Its low-slung position in the nose allowed for a 0.37 coefficient of drag that was just 0.01Cd behind the CX.
Its modest weight (2910lb) helped the Gamma’s exceptional handling and, had it been reliable from the start, buyers might even have been willing to accept its throbby, offbeat character compared to its smooth six- and eight-cylinder rivals.
After all, four cylinders didn’t hold CX sales back: Citroën had built more than 100,000 of them by the time the Gamma was announced.
Then again, it was not chasing the same buyers, at least not at first.
As launched in 1974, the CX was only available with the weakest of the carburetted DS engines.
The svelte, futuristic shape looks even better today than it did almost 40 years ago.
More striking but less familiar than the Gamma, it is also, arguably, more conventionally beautiful than the DS, with a road presence that asserts itself even among overblown moderns.
Being a GTi, it has alloys and an amount of then-fashionable matt-black trim but, like the Gamma, it has a conventional bootlid rather than the hatchback its outline suggests.
It still makes a capable daily driver – as the owner of this smart 1978 GTi, Richard James, can attest.
Since buying the CX in France last year, Richard has gone through the suspension, steering, brakes and electrics to make it into something he can drive to work in every day: “It’s modern enough to use, but quirky enough to be interesting.”
With little more than 1000 miles under its wheels, ‘our’ Gamma Berlina must be one of the lowest-mileage examples in existence.
It was discovered in a Turin Lancia dealership with just 16 miles on the clock, having been ordered in right-hand drive by an Englishman working in the city who planned to take it home when his contract finished. The trouble was, he never collected the car, so it sat for 37 years until its previous owner rescued it in 2014.
More formal than the CX, the Gamma has a chunky elegance that is lifted by brilliant details such as a flush-fitting fuel-cap cover in the fat C-pillar and distinctive headlights with vacuum-actuated self-levelling.
Its double-hinged bootlid features slats and an additional reversing window above the rear parcel shelf to aid rear vision, and reveals a huge luggage area.
Being an unofficial ‘Series 1.5’ (Lancia tweaked the design regularly, but with little fanfare), this Gamma has the ‘L’ cloth trim supplied by designer Ermenegildo Zegna.
Leather was optional, as was air conditioning, but generally there was one standard luxury specification (including rear sunblinds and electric windows), and a standard of fit and finish comparable to the Flavia and Fulvia.
Both have elegant interior details, but the Lancia's looming, boxy dashboard – complete with wacky pushbutton vacuum controls for heating and ventilation – is as drab as the CX’s ‘floating’ binnacle is sculptural and striking – although not everyone gets on with the Citroën’s fingertip rocker switches for lights, wipers and other major functions.
With its long induction tracts, the CX’s Bosch-injected engine looks quite handsome under the bonnet compared to the Lancia’s flat-four, which is hidden under the giant pancake air cleaner of its big twin-choke Weber carburettor.
Quiet at tickover, Citroën’s pushrod motor is smooth and flexible on the road, while the narrowed ratios in the GTi gearbox provide a crisp edge to the acceleration.
On paper the cars are very evenly matched, but the Gamma leaves a greater impression of liveliness thanks to a torque curve that has almost peaked at 2000rpm and blends into a sharp uptake in acceleration when the last half of the throttle engages the secondary chokes.
Where the French car tails off beyond 4000rpm, the Gamma remains strong well into three-figure speeds, and its high-rev silkiness never seems to run out of breath.
Ideally spaced gearing helps keep interest levels high, although the clutch is fairly heavy and the change itself lacks charm, being clunky when cold and rubbery even when warmed up.
If not exactly a jewel, the engine is both the Gamma’s Achilles’ heel and part of its intriguing personality.
The other is its steering – highly geared, accurate, lots of feel – and the overall composure on the road.
The lack of tyre squeal, a near absence of understeer and the modest amount of roll make it feel more like a giant Alfasud than an executive barge.
With its super-sharp brakes, linear rotating dials and that twitchy, high-geared, self-centring ‘DIRAVI’ steering, the CX requires acclimatisation to drive smoothly.
All of the controls ask for a light touch – brutal inputs result in lurching progress – and, while it is certainly capable of generating high levels of grip, the softly sprung, nose-heavy CX is not a prime candidate for being thrown around (even with beefed-up damping and anti-roll bars in GTi form).
It feels stable and planted in long, fast corners but slightly ponderous in tighter, slower ones where the Lancia nips through like something half the size.
The vague gearchange doesn’t help, but, once you are into top on a dual carriageway, the CX gets into its stride nicely with low levels of wind and road noise.
It is generally more refined than the Gamma, although at high speed the differences are less marked.
Like the CX, the Italian car is also very stable and its firm but acceptable low-speed ride smooths out to a level of comfort that can be compared with the Citroën, even if the Gamma falls well short of its sumptuously majestic deportment on almost any kind of surface.
A great ride was the least buyers expected from a new big Citroën for the 1970s and ’80s.
Perhaps the Gamma’s problem, apart from the fact that its parents appeared to adopt a ‘not invented here’ policy almost immediately, was that nobody seemed to know what was expected of a ’70s Lancia flagship.
Not quite a replacement for the more substantial Fiat 130, yet somehow not really a natural follow-up to the Flavia, the Gamma was a talented machine that displayed moments of brilliance.
It got some of the easy bits spectacularly wrong (I’m certain Citroën would never have signed off on a car with the dashboard wobbles and scuttle shake the Gamma suffered from), yet got tricky stuff, such as the handling, amazingly right.
Unlike the CX, the Lancia never quite evolved into a credible option in the big-car world.
A beautiful coupé variant added gloss to the car’s image, but not much profit; ditto the tax-busting Italian-market 2-litre model and the improved S2 versions from 1980 with fuel injection and optional automatic gearboxes.
If the Italians lacked the staying power or enthusiasm to sort the Gamma properly, the French, with so much riding on the success of the car, made sure the CX got the basics right.
Conversely, you get the feeling that the failure of the Gamma didn’t matter so much to Fiat.
If anything, its problems strengthened the argument for the rationalised, totally Fiat-based Lancias of the future.
Great to drive but too often a nightmare to own, the fascinating but underdeveloped Gamma, as others have sagely observed, was an inspired design but a poor commercial product.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: Richard Carp of HC Classics for providing the Lancia
Citroën CX 2400 GTi
- Sold/number built 1977-’84/88,231
- Construction steel unitary
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 2347cc ‘four’, Bosch fuel injection
- Max power 128bhp @ 4800rpm
- Max torque 145lb ft @ 3600rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by equal-length parallel transverse links rear trailing arms; hydropneumatic self-levelling springs, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering variable-ratio power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes powered discs
- Length 15ft 3⁶⁄₈in (4666mm)
- Width 5ft 8⅛in (1730mm)
- Height 4ft 5½in (1359mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 4in (2845mm)
- Weight 3031lb (1375kg)
- Mpg 20
- 0-60mph 10.1 secs
- Top speed 114mph
- Price new £6350
- Price now £10-12,000*
Lancia Gamma Berlina
- Sold/number built 1976-’83/14,554
- Construction steel unitary
- Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 2484cc flat-four, twin-choke Weber carburettor
- Max power 140bhp @ 5400rpm
- Max torque 153lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear struts, twin lower transverse links, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 15ft ⅓in (4580mm)
- Width 5ft 8⅛in (1730mm)
- Height 4ft 7½in (1410mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 9⅛in (2670mm)
- Weight 2910lb (1320kg)
- Mpg 19
- 0-60mph 9.6 secs
- Top speed 118mph
- Price new £7136
- Price now £8-10,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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