Lancia Lambda: the innovator

The 1922 Lancia Lamba is a true connoisseur’s car: it doesn’t look flashy or even particularly special. But it featured several design innovations which spawned millions of imitators.

The Lancia Lamba was the first monocoque unibody car designed without a separate chassis. It also had independent front suspension, four-wheel brakes and a narrow-angle V- 4 aluminium engine.

A white Lancia Lamba car with the engine compartment lid open revealing the V-4 engine.
The Lancia Lamba had a V-4 engine

The Lambda’s designer was Vincenzo Lancia, a hugely courageous racing driver. But it was his mother’s fear of a broken car suspension spring which drove him to create this unique and forward-looking car. How did that come about? Read on…

Vincenzo Lancia was that rare beast: a racing driver and also a car designer. He raced Fiat cars and led the first lap of the very first French Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1906. As a result he had insights that we lesser mortals might be unaware of.

Early cars were built on a heavy chassis frame made of two parallel steel girders connected with cross pieces: a ladder frame. The wheels and engine were attached to this and the body was built on top.

The underside of the Lancia Lamba, showing the lack of an old fashioned girder chassis.
The underside of the Lancia Lamba, showing the absence of an old-fashioned girder chassis.

During a stormy ocean voyage Vincenzo Lancia had a stunning realisation: he could dispense with the car chassis altogether! He saw that the rigidity of a steel-hulled liner gave the vessel a superior ride through the waves: there was none of the twisting and racking of large wooden vessels.

All motor cars up to that point had timber-framed bodies mounted on the whippy steel chassis. On rough roads the chassis would flex, doors would burst open and the passenger’s teeth would be rattled out of their sockets.

In his seminal 1922 Lancia Lambda, Vincenzo Lancia produced the world’s first car with a load-bearing unitary body. It was an open car, but it had deep frames welded to the body in the manner of an open-topped steel box.

Not content with that, the Lambda also featured a sliding-pillar independent front suspension, a unique narrow-angle V 4 engine and an elegant body. So the Lamba was the first car to have a load-bearing unitary body (source: Wikipedia).

The interior of the Lancia Lamba showing a steering wheel on the right.
The Lancia Lamba had a steering wheel on the right, as did most Italian cars of the time

The rigidity of Lancia’s body enabled the car to suspend its front wheels independently. This gave the car a smooth ride and tenacious road holding. As a result the Lambda could race around corners faster than any other car and it scored a stunning 1-2-3 class victory in the first staging of Italy’s 1000-mile Mille Miglia road race in 1927. How could this be?

When thinking about car suspension it helps to imagine the car body floating serenely along, a foot above the ground, with the wheels bouncing up and down silently, accommodating the bumps. That is the ideal.

Before the Lancia, motor cars used heavy beam axles inherited from their horse-drawn ancestors. These were also steel girders with a wheel at either end. If they also contained the differential gears and shafts necessary to drive the rear wheels they are referred to as live axles: the Hotchkiss system.

Beam axles were usually suspended from the chassis by semi-elliptic leaf springs, examples of which you may admire on the truck next to you while waiting at traffic lights. These had the double duty of locating the beam axle to the chassis and providing the springy compliance necessary for a comfortable ride.

An image of the Lambda's sump, also made of aluminium alloy.
The Lambda’s sump was also made of aluminium alloy.

As they were composed of bundles of leaf springs fastened together, the friction between the leaves provided a measure of damping. Without this, the car would continue bouncing uncontrollably for half a mile after every bump. Beam axles also kept the wheels perpendicular to the road, which was good for tyre adhesion.

Beam axles and leaf springs were a cheap and cheerful solution to the suspension engineer’s design problems, and that’s why you can still see them on pick-up trucks and lorries today.

They have many disadvantages. The considerable weight of beam axles form part of the unsprung mass of the vehicle. The sprung mass of a car is that which is isolated from the bumps of the road by the springs: the body, engine, passengers etc. The unsprung mass is that which comes before the springs: the tyres, wheels, brakes, axles etc.

Reducing the unsprung mass is a good thing because it reduces the vertical load variations that the tyre experiences as it rolls along an uneven road surface. This increases the tyre’s ability to grip.

The ratio between sprung and unsprung mass is important because a large unsprung mass increases the vertical acceleration of the sprung mass. A big, heavy axle leaping around under the car makes for a short, choppy ride for the passengers, as anyone who has driven an early Range Rover will testify.

Also, there is a little-known evil characteristic of semi-elliptic cart springs. As they are made in a bow shape, when the car rolls onto its outer cart spring this lengthens. Meanwhile, the unloaded inner cart spring has shortened. The result is to steer the axle tighter into the corner: the dreaded roll-oversteer.

This can catch out the novice driver as they have to back off the steering to compensate. The alternative is an ever-tightening turn, the loss of rear adhesion and the inevitable spin backwards through the nearest hedge.

Springs on heavy axles have to be stiff to be able to control them. The wheels cannot move independently, and so when an inside wheel hits a bump on a corner, the poor overloaded outer wheel is suddenly subjected to an adverse camber angle and loses grip. 

Furthermore, the camber angle is fixed and cannot change beneficially during body roll in a corner, as it can with the cleverer forms of independent suspension.

Under hard acceleration in a powerful car, a live axle will also twist in its mounts, lifting one wheel and causing a startling hopping, squealing, tramping racket from under the rear wheel arches. This is usually accompanied by clouds of smoke from the spinning wheel. Just watch the film Bullit!

Lancia’s mother had been frightened by the breakage of a semi-elliptic spring on a previous ride with her son and so he promised to come up with something better. By having a rigid unibody instead of a whippy chassis frame Lancia was free to make the Lambda’s front wheels independent of one another.

Each was attached to a softly coil-sprung sliding pillar firmly bolted to the bodyshell and damped by a hydraulic shock absorber. The front wheels’ unsprung mass was a fraction of the old beam axle.

This innovation foreshadowed the independent strut suspension universally used by motor cars today.

This shows the unique Lancia independent sliding strut suspension.
The unique Lancia independent sliding strut suspension.

The Lambda’s narrow-angle V4, overhead camshaft engine was another brilliant innovation. There were two pairs of cylinders in a Vee shape sharing a short, stiff crankshaft, giving perfect primary balance and an absence of vibration.

The narrow angle between them enabled the cylinders to share a single cylinder block and cylinder head which were both made of aluminium- another innovation (source:

An image of the Lambda's V-4 engine.
The Lambda’s V-4 engine was made of aluminium.

This V-4 engine, the unitary body, four-wheel brakes, four-speed gearbox and independent suspension all predicated developments far in the future. The Lancia Lamba was a tour de force.

An image of the rear of the Lancia, which was the view most competitors got as it overtook on a corner.
The rear of the Lancia was the view most competitors got as it overtook around a corner.

Why Lambda?

Lambda is the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet (Λ, λ), transliterated as ‘l’. Vincenzo’s brother Giovanni was a classical scholar and it was he who suggested allocating the Lancia cars the letters of the classical Greek alphabet, starting with the Lancia Kappa of 1919. Some of you might also remember the Delta (source:

Unfortunately, the history of technical progress is not always incremental. Vincenzo Lancia’s customers demanded the option of coach-built bodies, something not possible with a unitary body. From the sixth series of the Lambda he offered the option of a bare separate chassis, and by the 1931 ninth series, only the bare chassis was offered.

And so bizarrely the last Lancia Lambda was therefore less advanced than the original version.

Exhausted by getting his aerodynamic Lancia Aprilia to market, Vincenzo Lancia died of a heart attack in February 1937 at the age of 55.

If the love of motor cars is at all like the appreciation of Scotch whisky the 1922 Lancia Lambda Torpédo is a fine, subtle Speyside malt. It’s not flashy, or powerful, or luxurious; just full of nuance and fine detail that others might miss.

An image of an information board detailing the information in this article.
The information board from the excellent Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, where this Lancia Lambda resides. Highly recommended.

How much is a Lancia Lambda worth?

The Lancia Lambda is a valuable classic much prized by connoisseurs. The lowest price seen recently was $45,380 and the highest was $518,356. The average is around $190,000. The auction houses are where you’ll buy one- these don’t turn up on too often.