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1922-1931 Lancia Lambda

The Lancia Lambda is an innovative automobile produced from 1922 through 1931. It was the first car to feature a load-bearing unitary body, (but without a stressed roof) and it also pioneered the use of an independent suspension (the front sliding pillar with coil springs). Vincenzo Lancia even invented a shock absorber for the car and it had excellent four wheel brakes. Approximately 11,200 Lambdas were produced.

Nine versions of the Lambda were built:

1st series, produced 1923, 400 built.

2nd series, produced between 1923 and 1924, 1,100 built. Minor modifications for engine.

3rd series, produced 1924, 800 built. Engine modified.

4th series, produced between 1924 and 1925, 850 built. Modified windscreen.

5th series, produced 1925, 1,050 built. 4-speed gearbox.

6th series, produced between 1925 and 1926, 1,300 built. Car is sold now with bare chassis and with two wheelbases.

7th series, produced between 1926 and 1928, 3,100 built. New bigger engine.

8th series, produced between 1928 and 1930, 3,903 built. Again bigger engine.

9th series, produced 1931, 500 built. Last series sold only bare chassis.

The Lancia Lambda was not only an Italian milestone but a global one as well. It was the first car in the world to have a monocoque chassis instead of the more common body-on-frame construction. The innovative design was patented as early as 1919 and was strongly supported by Vincenzo Lancia himself who invented a shock absorber for the car. It also pioneered the use of an independent suspension.

The 1923-1931 Lancia Lambda pioneered the unit body method of car construction which today is used by the majority of automobiles.

"No one can look at the history of motoring without seeing the Lancia Lambda as a major technical milestone," wrote the late Michael Frostick. "Leaving aside its novel engine, its independent suspension, and a whole host of other minor innovations, its unique unitary construction, in which body and chassis were one, came a good ten years before Mr. Budd succeeded in selling his idea for a monocoque to Andre Citroen."

Exactly where Vincenzo Lancia, that brilliant pioneer, got the idea of a unit body-chassis is unknown. The only tale commonly repeated is that it glimmered aboard ship on the Atlantic, possibly from the way a ship's hull holds its structure together -- which is probably about as true as the one about Isaac Newton and the apple.

No matter, for the fact is that on the last day of 1918 Lancia filed for Italian patents on a car in which the body was "a self-supporting shell without a separate chassis," and had it in production four years later. If the Lambda represented a tremendous risk on the part of his company, it also emphasized Lancia's clean-slate approach to design.

One of his objectives was an extremely low center of gravity while retaining adequate ground clearance and suspension movement. Such a layout precluded the conventional separate chassis and body as known at the time. Lancia adopted a welded and riveted steel shell with a central open-bottom tunnel for the driveshaft and another tunnel at right angles to it for the rear axle, which simultaneously strengthened the overall shell.

The tunnels in turn allowed for low-mounted seats, and footwells designed so that the seat cushions could rest even lower. The shell was made stronger by extending the sides upward -- with the smallest possible doors -- to form the body, while a removable hardtop provided weather protection and more rigidity.

The independent front suspension was a sliding pillar system with a transverse leaf spring; the engine a narrow, long-stroke V-4 of 2.1 liters developing 49 horsepower. The first Lambdas had three-speed gearboxes, but a four-speed was developed in 1925.

Displayed at the Paris Motor Show in November 1922, the 1923 Lancia Lambda was instantly recognized as a new approach to cars. "Even those with no engineering interests had only to look at it to know that it was different," wrote Lancia historian Nigel Trow. "It was low and angular, with a quality of unity, of being 'all of a piece.' It looked deliberate, something that was designed from scratch by a team that knew exactly what was wanted. The car was a total departure from all previous practice."

Of course, not everything about the car was new, but certainly nobody else clapped so many innovations onto one model. The engine, for example, was unprecedented: a V-4 banked at a tiny 13-degree angle (later 14 degrees), with a flat cylinder-head face and combustion chambers in the block. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.

The torpedo body, with pontoon or sweeping cycle fenders, looked more like a fanciful doodle than a production 1923 automobile. The brakes, to cite another attribute, operated on all four wheels. Designed by engineer Battista Falchetto, they were unorthodox in the extreme: conventional manufacture at that time tended to dictate rear brakes only.

This was, incidentally, an example of Vincenzo Lancia's standards governing the car's development -- he merely told his engineers that the brakes, whatever they were, must be capable of hauling the car down repeatedly from 100 kilometers per hour (62.5 mph). Falchetto suggested the use of front brakes by taking Lancia for a test drive in which the standard was met by a car fitted with front brakes only. Only later was it realized that front brakes do 80 percent of the work on any automobile.

The Lambda was faster over a twisty road than anything Lancia had hitherto produced, including the big Tri Kappa, an eight with twice the horsepower. It was soon being raced by privateers all over Europe. In 1924, the Lambdas of Riva and Gauderman finished 1-2 in the under 2,500-cc class in France's Routes Pavees race; another Lambda won the Indian Tourist Trophy at Simla in 1925; the Circuit of La Spezia in 1926; the Tunis-to-Tripoli race in 1927.

When Italy's famous open road race, the Mille Miglia, was instituted in 1927, a trio of Lancias took the first three places overall. The following year saw a Lambda entered by the factory, which prepared it merely by fine tuning a production model; it held second place most of the way and would have finished second to a more powerful supercharged Alfa Romeo had the engine not dropped a valve toward the finish.

Gismondi, the Lambda driver, actually held the Alfa in average speed, thanks to Lancia's superior brakes, handling, long-range fuel tank, and modified fuel supply to prevent fuel starvation when ascending the mountains.

Displacement was increased to 2.4 liters on the 1926 seventh series and to 2.6 liters on the 1928 eighth series. Also with the seventh series, Lancia parted with its revolutionary practice by offering the option of a separate chassis -- a product of necessity and the pressure of custom coachbuilders.

The body makers had a complaint that would dog every unit-bodied car from the Lambda forward: The monocoque shell was very difficult to alter, and there was only so much the specialists could do with the factory bodies. (One of the loudest complaints came from Vincenzo Lancia's good friend, Battista Farina.)

Also, some owners wanted to create more sporting bodywork for competition; this often took the form of shortening the wheelbase, which could not have been more disastrous. The alteration ruined the handling and seriously weakened the body.

So the Lambda had a problem. Simultaneous with its arrival had come a wave of prosperity in the mid- to late Twenties. There was a huge market for custom bodies, and this meant that a separate chassis option was crucial. "This is perhaps why enthusiasts lay so much store by the seventh series Lambda," wrote Frostick, "since this was the last, and most highly developed version, of the original fascinating concept."

These later custom-bodied Lambdas led in time to the factory's own luxury model, the Dilambda, with a V-8 and separate chassis, independent front suspension, servo brakes, central chassis lubrication, and twin electric fuel pumps. Lancia built 1,700 Dilambdas; they in turn fostered other notable productions, including the prewar Astura and the postwar Flaminia.