1956 Lancia Florida

2016 / 2017 Drive-My

Lancia Florida concept car that shaped the future. ‘The Florida ushered in the three-box approach to saloon cars as we know it’ Pinin Farina’s four-door foresight. The Lancia Florida was more than just a 1950s dream car. Its influence on design lived on for decades Words Richard Heseltine. Photography: Mark Dixon.

Think outside the box: four words that when strung together are guaranteed to make any sentient human being want to bludgeon whoever uttered them. Such secondhand corporate pronouncements are enough to make your teeth itch. Same too for the more bar-room orientated version: if you do what you always do, you get what you always get. Very Descartesian. Yet the central tenet to both philosophies’ rings true: think for yourself and move things forward or linger and be damned.

And rarely is this outlook more apposite than in the capricious world of design, where forecasting future trends and exploiting existing ones in new and inventive ways is everything. The car you see here is a case in point. In many ways, the Lancia Florida is the most important concept car – or dream car, to use 1950s parlance – to have emerged during that decade. This isn’t mere journalistic hyperbole. The Florida’s significance in Lancia lore cannot be overestimated.

It was an important way station on the road towards the Flaminia production car, and worth veneration for that fact alone. But the Florida’s influence was such that it was still being cribbed the better part of two decades after the initial prototype broke cover at the 1955 Turin Salon.

Admittedly, much of this borrowing’ was down to Pininfarina, which copied and pasted the outline ad infinitum. But then it had every right to. Company principal Battista Pinin’ Farina was not a designer in the artistic sense but he was a supreme manager, master of detail and setter and getter of goals. He had an innate understanding of what worked and what didn’t, refusing to signoff any new car until he’d walked past it going to or from his office for months on end. That way he’d have time to get used to it – or otherwise. He was also an astute businessman, with shareholders to answer to.

 Among them was Lancia, which, by the mid-’50s, was haemorrhaging. The cash-strapped Turin marque’s ambitious motor sport bids, with the innovative D50 grand prix car and the D24 sports racer, had hurt it deeply. As is so often the way, a competition programme had served only to help pauperise a manufacturer that had hardly factored in the whole profit-making concept to begin with. The technically accomplished, if leftfield, Aurelia had proved too costly to produce from the outset, and the delightful little Appia saloon wasn’t selling in the sort of numbers once envisaged. Lancia wasn’t just on the ropes; it was on the floor outside the ring. A new model appeared to be the answer, even if few were sure exactly what form the question should take.

1956 Lancia Florida

In many ways, the Lancia Florida is the most important concept car to have emerged during the 1950s. Its significance in Lancia lore cannot be overestimated’

Which is where the Florida – or rather Floridas – came in. The maiden prototype, a two-door four-seater based on an Aurelia B55 platform, caused a furore on its Turin unveiling. Road & Track, a magazine not renowned for purple gush, was moved to dub it a most interesting and outstanding design’. And it was. Resplendent in vivid blue and white two-tone, this extraordinary device eschewed Lancia’s corporate grille, bringing in its place a wide, gaping maw – home to a pair of large spotlights. The car’s extravagant, steeply arced wheelarches, pillarless roofline and chrome-bedecked wraparound front screen all conspired towards a compelling outline. It undoubtedly drew upon Stateside influences, but they had clearly been filtered through Italian sensibilities. And this was no mere show queen, but a runner – one that aroused interest from Carlo Pesenti, who had taken a controlling interest in Lancia and faced the Herculean task of turning around its flagging fortunes.

Pesenti charged Farina with developing the theme for an Aurelia replacement. Three further prototypes, all in four-door configurations and differing in detail, were then constructed on B56 platforms and presented in 1956. These in turn formed the basis for the 1957 Florida II coupe, the final and ultimate variation that was close to the definitive Flaminia production car; one that Farina retained for his own personal use until his death in 1966. He proclaimed in his autobiography that it was his firm’s greatest ever design, his son Sergio echoing the sentiment many years later. It was an important car because of its new styling elements, which really influenced the design of cars worldwide, and because of the evolution that followed,’ he said in the late ’90s.

And who are we to argue? The Florida ushered in the three-ox approach to saloon cars as we know it. Pininfarina (one word from 1961) subsequently reinterpreted the basic outline on humble fare such as the Austin Cambridge and Peugeot 404, with individual details being transposed onto more highfalutin exotica. And that’s before you factor in the many copyists that trailed in its wake. The Florida project undeniably cast a long shadow. What’s more, while show cars traditionally faced a life of stasis under dustsheets or a quick visit to the knacker’s yard – at least, before shrewd collectors cottoned on to their inherent worth – all four Florida prototypes still exist. This particular car, the sole left-hand-drive example, currently forms part of a 50-strong cache of rare or unique Italian classics and concept cars belonging to Milan’s Corrado Lopresto. This connoisseur of the curious has an almost evangelical appreciation of automotive design history. Always keen to share the wealth, he routinely uses and displays his cars on more than one continent, so the Florida is no trailer queen.

The car’s early history is a mite shadowy, although it’s believed to have been displayed at the 1956 New York Motor Show. It subsequently passed to Norwegian-American motor mogul Kjell Ovale (pronounced Shell Kev-all-ee), the man behind all manner of enterprises, from satisfying West Coast demand for European marques to fielding Hydragas-suspended Champ Cars at Indy, via saving land later sinking) Jensen Motors. The Florida remained near Qvale’s San Francisco base for many years, and was bought at some point in the 1960s by an elderly couple who retained it until the mid-’70s. The car was later owned by a Pebble Beach concours chairman before being acquired by Dutchman Paul Koot Ithe man behind Zagato’s sublime Lancia Hyena) in the late ’90s.

1956 Lancia Florida

Photographed in the breathtaking environs of Villa Erba on Italy’s Lake Como, the Florida is far from upstaged by the locale. It’s dazzling for sure, but the appeal goes beyond mere titillation. It’s oddly attractive, in the best way, while the Flaminia references are obvious.

Initially it’s hard to take in the scale. It seems enormous although by modern standards its 161 in length is almost dainty – a point brought home when we make room for an Alfa 159, which seems elephantine by comparison.

Nor is it overly bulky in appearance. The black and turquoise colour scheme helps disguise its heft, as does the considered use of brightwork. There is plenty of chrome on show here but it’s area-specific rather than ladled on excessively. The flanks in particular are largely unadorned, the lack of B-pillars and those suicide doors sadly not making the transition intact to the Flaminia, which was perhaps for the best. The rear flying buttresses are particularly distinctive. While keeping with Pininfarina’s tradition of not attributing credit to any one individual, the car has chief designer Franco Martinengo’s dabs all over it. This styling treatment featured on his one-off Ferrari 375 America design for Gianni Agnelli and other penny-number Maranello confections. There are so many seemingly disparate elements here but they all work as a mighty whole.

The same is true inside, though style trumps functionality. Having opened the hefty driver’s door and heaved yourself aboard, you’re initially struck by the dearth of ornamentation. The Florida epitomises Lancia’s minimalistic style of cabin decor, a sense that is heightened by the lack of a transmission tunnel lit has a four-speed transaxle set-up]. The body-coloured dashboard is fronted by a suitably vast Nardi wood-rim wheel and is the home of an attractive, cowled Veglia speedo/rev counter, assorted unmarked switches, and a tautly spring-loaded ashtray.

However, there is a flipside. This is very much a prototype and all that entails. Headroom is surprisingly lacking, despite what the expansive glasshouse might have you believe, while the pedals are a reach away. It’s nothing you can’t attune to, but somehow you suspect ergonomics didn’t really factor much during the prototyping stage.

Press in the ignition key, turn it a quarter and the single-Webered, 2266cc V6 fires in an instant, emitting a low, bass burble through the sizable tailpipes. Depress the smooth-acting, if heavy, clutch, lean forward to select first gear, and the majestic Florida gently eases off the line. It’s far from rapid, which is to be expected considering its vintage. And somehow you imagine that a fair degree of lead loading was used during the build phase.

 But this is of no consequence. It sounds glorious, there’s plenty of lowdown torque and even under load it never feels strained. The long-throw gearchange is a delight, being smooth and positive in old-school Lancia tradition, while the steering requires a degree of wheel-twirling at pottering speeds but progressively tightens as you gain momentum.

Prior experience of the car informs you that it isn’t a B-road demon but then you wouldn’t expect otherwise. Body roll is well contained and, despite this being a show car, it still feels reassuringly solid: a sturdy steel hoop installed behind the front armchairs provides extra bracing. It also rides well, with genuine suppleness, but negotiating the congested and narrowvillage streets of northern Italy really isn’t its thing, so play is soon ended.

Concept cars, dream cars, teasers – call them what you will – are meant to foretell the future. Except the vast majority do so with blunderbuss subtlety, their designers reaching for the stars without first grounding their feet. Unlike period rivals such as Ghia, Boano and Viotti, Pinin Farina rarely did OTT. Or at least not with such conviction.

There was a lot at stake here for both Lancia and its styling partner so the Florida is a rational design for all the glamour. Old man Farina and his team pulled it off, distinguishing themselves as original thinkers among bandwagon-chasers, even if the brilliance of their creation isn’t widely acknowledged. But then enduring influence trumps the fickleness of fame any day.

‘Press in the ignition key, turn it a quarter and the single-Webered, 2266cc V6 fires in an instant, emitting a low, bass burble through the sizable tailpipes’

Below Interior owes much to 1950s American cars, but is more subtle in execution. Crossbar behind front seats aids pillartess body’s rigidity.

Left Corrado Lopresto at the wheel of his Florida, one of three built after the first 1955 Turin Salon prototype, below.

Below Florida looks at home in the formal gardens of Lake Como’s Villa Erba. Its restrained style translated into the Flaminia saloon.

‘The Florida ushered in the three-box approach to saloon cars as we know it. Pininrarina subsequently reinterpreted the basic outline on humble fare such as the Austin Cambridge and Peugeot 404’

TECHNICAL DATA 1956 Lancia Florida

ENGINE 2266CC V6, OHV, single Weber carburettor

POWER 87bhp @ 4800rpm

TORQUE 127lb ft  @ 3500rpm

TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual transaxle, rear-wheel drive

STEERING Rack and pinion

SUSPENSION Front: Lancia patent sliding pillar, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: de Dion axle, Panhard rod, semi-trailing arms, leaf springs, telescopic dampers

BRAKES Drums front and rear


PERFORMANCE Top speed 100mph (est). 0-60mph 14sec (est)

Below and left Don’t be deceived by the American influenced styling: the Florida is very European in its compactness.

In many ways, the Lancia Florida is the most important concept car to have emerged during the 1950s. Its significance in Lancia lore cannot be overestimated’

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