Abandoned Lancia Flaminia project restored. Epic Restoration… The Lancia Flaminia GT which languished, rusting, for two decades before a marque specialist worked its magic to resurrect it. Resurrecting a rare Touringbodied Lancia after 20 years of rot and neglect. ‘We had to skin it like a rabbit to get it done properly’ Lancia only made a dozen right-hand-drive Flaminia GTs, so Martin Clife snapped up this stripped, corroded example as a rarity. Two decades on, the restoration finally began. Words Nigel Boothman. Photography Charlie Magee.
I knew this car way back in the Seventies and Eighties when it lived in Norwich,’ says Martin Clife. In 1981 he and wife Elizabeth started Omicron Engineering, now one of the best-known names on the classic Lancia scene. ‘It was red and black then, not its original colour scheme. Eventually it moved to Oxfordshire where a restoration began. By the time I heard it was for sale and bought it, the owner had stripped the paint of and lost the bumpers.’ The Clifes rescued it with a view to restoring it for themselves, storing it first in a hangar with Elizabeth’s aeroplane and then in a barn. But with full lives and plenty of other cars to keep them busy, the only attention the Flaminia received was an engine rebuild, during a rare period of between jobs.
They never really marketed the car, but then fate took a hand. Omicron was invited to inspect a right-hand-drive Flaminia GT for a client, but the request came too late and the car was sold. Martin, of course, knew where another one might be found. ‘I mentioned that I had one awaiting restoration. Sure enough, the client was interested and came to see it’ he says. It wasn’t a done deal, but the list of positives that came with Omicron’s Flaminia tipped the balance. Bar the bumpers, the car was gratifyingly complete – parts for these hand-made cars are a challenge so having most of what you need to start with is a huge advantage. The one major worry was the delicate aluminium body and the unknown steel sub-structure.
This right-hand-drive Flaminia GT is rare, but every example is unique thanks to its hand-built nature – correct-looking spare parts can easily be wrong.
Under the skin
This Carrozzeria Touring GT is based on a steel floorpan supplied by Lancia, with its strength in the sills, transmission tunnel and bulkhead. Apart from inner wings, there’s not much else to it – the front suspension and engine is carried on a large subframe. Onto this basis, Touring added its patented Superleggera blend of spidery steel tubes and lowing aluminium bodywork. With this car, as with so many other Superleggera creations, the aluminium hid serious corrosion in the steel underneath.
‘An inspection underneath showed us that localised repairs wouldn’t be enough,’ says Martin. ‘Not only that, we’d be unable to discover the extent of the rot unless we took more drastic action.’ In theory, you can peel back suspect areas, repair the tubing beneath and persuade the aluminium back into place. But for a thorough, long-lasting job the whole car must be skinned like a rabbit. Explains Martin, ‘The body is bent round the tubes, clenched and riveted. We have to undo all of that, which means removing it in large sections where possible, but it’s necessary to cut here and there to inish the job.’ A slice across both A- and B-pillars at the base allowed the roof section to come of, but because the team was already aware of some work required to the aluminium, they took a clever precaution before removing any more – see ‘My Favourite Tool’ on page.
Revealing the problem
‘We stripped out the interior and glass and removed the rotten doors,’ says Martin. ‘The large front and rear sections could then be peeled at their edges and gently parted from the car.’ As suspected, rust was present from nose to tail, with the rear valance, sills, floor and toeboard the worst. With the front subframe removed and the rear suspension assembly dropped, the remains went to the shotblaster.
Nigel learns about the Omicron approach to perfecting wing lines.
On return, Omicron’s team mounted the car on a body roller and began work. ‘We stiffen the floorpan as necessary for these major repairs; it’s important to keep it totally square,’ says bodyman Will Stringer. ‘We welded in box-sections across the door apertures and diagonally across the cabin before it even went for blasting because you never know how much strength that will take out.’ Surprisingly, very few of the Superleggera tubes needed replacing, despite Touring’s protection only going as far as a coat of primer and some sack-cloth wrapping. Those at the base of the B-pillars had rusted, however, along with some damage to the pieces behind the rear valance.
Plenty of the sheet steel had suffered. The rear inner wings and corners were attached to the car only by the odd spot weld to the tubes, so Omicron’s team fabricated complete new inner wheelarches (no such panels can be bought) and new corners met the fresh sections of repaired valance. At the front, there’s a complex meeting of tubes and flat sections where the grille surround and bumper irons join the front chassis legs, all of which were made from scratch. New inner sills and sill ribs, floor repairs and sections of the bulkhead completed the list.
The dilapidated Lancia had been relieved of its bumpers and most of its paint.
Hot metal machine
With all the steel repairs to the floorpan and tubing completed, it was time for the bare substructure to undergo a special process. One more trip to the blaster ensured bare, rough-textured steel all over, which is vital for proper bonding with the protective zinc layer. Ordinary galvanizing, as on a conventional chassis, involves dipping in a bath of molten zinc. Finer tubes and sheet steel surfaces risk heat distortion if treated in the same way, so another approach is needed. Hot zinc spraying is the method Omicron chose. Barry Trainor of T&B Blasting in Thetford, Norfolk, explains the process he used.
‘Zinc wire is fed from a drum into a gun that looks like a large MIG welder, but it has feeds of oxygen, propane and compressed air. The first two gases burn to melt the zinc wire and the compressed air blows it out in a fine spray, almost like a pressure washer. It keys into the surface by about five microns and gives a smooth finish.’ This, together with the use of closed-cell foam to keep the tubes out of contact with the aluminium skin, should result in a Superleggera car that needs no more attention for many decades. Work then began on repairing the doors and the front subframe.
Cabin has an honest feeling to it; rubber flooring is the only new item used in here.
Omicron’s bodyshop team de-skinned the doors and rebuilt the frames around what little was worth saving of the steel pressings. They would remain bare until the body was back on, allowing the skin to be formed and cut to the right it. The front subframe is vast; picture a seven-foot long steel model of someone’s fingers forming the V-sign. The long box sections rot out above and below, so further blasting and MIG surgery was needed to replace the strength in this vital load-bearing part.
Aluminium skin – to TIG or gas weld?
Corrosion had weakened the skin in certain areas and elderly aluminium can be difficult to handle, especially if it’s had to endure some heating and softening to unwrap it from body tubes. Will Stringer finds that TIG welding the join can cause distortion from the very localised and sudden heating it creates, and worse still it can make the metal rather brittle.
‘If you need to hammer the area to shape it after welding, it can crack,’ says Will. ‘Gas welding doesn’t produce this cracking and crumbling. You have to use a lux with gas which is corrosive, so it does need very careful cleaning before you paint it.’
Thanks to the GRP moulds taken before the body was removed, the team was able to let in repair pieces to the large front and rear sections and check the contours were right before anything went back on. So confident were they of the shape that they were able to paint some inside surfaces of the finished aluminium sections while they could still get at them easily.
Rear glass was retained but the seals were perished and needed replacing. Cylinder liners needed shimming up to once again sit proud of the deck. Original crankshaft and pistons were salvageable.. ...but some parts of the doors were beyond repair.
If in doubt, don’t start
Martin doesn’t believe in throwing a battery and some fresh fuel at a long-dormant engine to see what happens. ‘It’s sometimes a mistake to run an old engine in these circumstances – you can do a lot of damage if there are one or two broken piston rings or other issues. It was always going to need rebuilding anyway, we made a start on it a few years ago when we had rare lull in the workshop schedule.’
Julian Peirson stripped the engine. ‘We were able to keep the original crankshaft and pistons, but obviously all the bearings were all renewed,’ he says. ‘These engines are a wet-liner design and the cylinder liners can sink over time. These needed shimming up a little because they’re supposed to sit slightly proud of the deck.’
Julian checked those long cylinder-head studs and concluded they were fine to re-it (‘I’ll always put back original parts if I can – they’re just better made,’ he says) before treating the cylinder heads to new valve seats, guides and springs. With fresh gaskets all round and a new vibration damper to keep the 2.5-litre V6 spinning smoothly, he capped of the finished engine with correct black crackle finish rocker covers and its row of three Weber 35 DCNL carburettors. ‘The DCNLs are hardly used on anything else so parts can be tricky,’ says Julian. ‘Luckily the ones that came with the car were good enough to rebuild.’
Luckily the rare and tricky-to-source Weber carburettors could be rebuilt.
Adding some Chantilly shimmer
Reuniting the aluminium skin with the steel structure was a major step forward, but one that involved painstaking minor adjustments before wrapping and riveting could be completed. Fitting the rebuilt door frames and skinning the doors to achieve the correct contour was the last step before the car was handed over to Wayne Riches for preparation and paint.
‘I began by going over the whole body to look for lows and highs,’ he says. ‘I then started on thin skims of filler, sanding with progressively finer papers: 80 grit for the first ill, 120 for the second, then 180, at which point I’d be setting the door gaps. After the fourth skim I’d block it back by hand.’
Wayne used a neat approach for body-lines such as those creases on the wing tops. He taped one side, placing the edge of the tape precisely on the line he wanted to keep. Sanding gently up to the tape finished one side of the line, and that tape was then removed and a new piece laid on the freshly sanded side, so the other side could be finished in the same way.
When the shape was finalised, Wayne applied three coats of Max Meyer high-build primer, blocked with 240-grit at first and then 320-grit, each one guide-coated (sprayed with a semi-gloss black paint) to show up imperfections. Two layers of white primer acted as a sealer and also suited the top coat colour; four coats of the car’s original shade, known as Ivorio Chantilly.
By the late summer of 2016, Julian Peirson began the long task of reassembling the Flaminia from the shelves of rebuilt and refinished components. The car was placed back on its wheels via fitment of the freshly painted front subframe and immaculate suspension castings, large bits of aluminium mounting the damper towers and upper wishbones. Every single piece in the suspension was hardness tested when new and is still marked with the tester’s initials. Next came the fuel lines, brake lines, and the loom, which offered an unusual challenge.
‘On both sides it’s routed through a hole in the inner wing and then into a tube in the sill,’ says Julian. ‘It’s a bundle of tight wires and the only way to get it in is to leave some welding wire in the tube when you remove the loom, and use it to pull them back through when you’re building up the car.’ Almost all the wires are black and are identified only with small aluminium tags, which has proved puzzling enough to bale Lancia’s own workers – Omicron has previously found cars with fuse boxes clearly connected up wrongly from the factory.
Front subframe required plenty of shotblasting and MIG work. Front end needed Omicron to create new inner arches and complex construction behind the bumper irons. Almost every wire in a Flaminia loom is black, hence the tags to keep track of what’s what.
Heater boxes were the next task, because they’re a huge challenge to get at on a fully-built car. With the steering box, brake servo and its remote reservoir installed, in went the engine. Martin left the transaxle alone bar new oil, seals and a clutch plate. ‘They’re tough but also time-consuming to rebuild so it was worth giving this one a chance. It’s been fine,’ he says.
The long-lost bumpers meant two new ones had to be found. ‘They came from Vietnam, via France for a bit of extra hand-finishing,’ says Martin. ‘American chrome is better than ours these days because they aren’t so restricted on the chemicals they can use. These are stainless steel, which is more durable, but perhaps without quite so much sparkle.’
The instrument bezels they’d sourced were right for the dials but somehow wrong for the dash, with each hole 2-3mm out. It illustrates how hard it is sourcing spares for Lancias of this era. ‘The door handles are 2mm shorter than those on a Flaminia Supersport, but otherwise identical,’ says Elizabeth Clife. ‘If you don’t know every dimension, you don’t know whether anything will be right when it all goes back together.’
In perfect trim – albeit 50 years old
‘The owner was keen to keep as much of the interior as possible,’ says Martin, ‘and luckily the seats, which are leather with vinyl to the back and sides, were not too damaged to re-use.’
With new springs and packing on the seat frames, plus some careful restorative work to the elderly leather, the covers look smart but age-appropriate. Even the door card vinyl has been re-used following patient un-clipping from the wobbly old backing surface, then re-application to new bits of hardboard. The rubber mats, which look entirely original for the early Sixties, are in fact the only new bit.
It’s a fitting way to finish of a car that’s waited a long time to return. What Omicron’s team has achieved is a thorough, future-proof restoration that is sensitive as well – no wholesale re-skinning in new aluminium, no squeaky fresh leather seats, but hidden protection of a kind Carrozzeria Touring and Lancia would never have dreamed of. As a car to enjoy either in the damp air of the UK or the dry heat of the owner’s native Australia, it’s a terrific all-rounder. Such dedication has saved a rare example of an all-time great, to boot.
‘When it came back from the first trip to the blaster. Seeing how much rust there had been in the steel after the panels were off made us realise how much work we had left to do’
‘I enjoy the first day the electrics are finished and the battery’s in. Switch on and the patient wakes up from a long rest to find everything’s working again’
MY FAVOURITE TOOL
‘When working on hand-built cars you can’t just mirror the measurements taken from the other side, so we create a GRP wing mould,’ says Andrew Clife. ‘Lights sometimes left the factory mounted at different heights on one side from the other, so we prepare the surface of the panel we want to mould, then build up the layers of GRP and resin. It’s invaluable for checking the contours as you knock out dents or let in new aluminium to repair corrosion.’