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It is a question that nudges to be asked: is it possible to die of embarrassment?
Trying to exit the Lombardi Grand Prix with even trace elements of grace and panache is impossible.
To do so would require the driver to have cat-like agility; perhaps even a hinged spine. You don’t get out of the car so much as emerge as a tangle of arms and legs, all the while cursing a blue streak.
Chances are you will end up on all fours, trying to locate your misplaced dignity. This isn’t a car, more a crimson smear on the Tarmac.
The Lombardi is rather fabulous, for all its quirks; perhaps even because of them. Little about this car is in the realm of the ordinary, if only physically.
Photographs don’t lend a sense of scale because the outline could easily be transposed intact on to a larger canvas.
It screams late-1960s Italian exotica, but it shares its underpinnings with the proletariat Fiat 850 Special.
The Grand Prix is an etceterina, a small-series Italian sports car – with all that entails.
It is also a car that suffers from an identity crisis. You see, variations on the theme were sold under a variety of different names: four to be sure, five if you are a pedant.
Accordingly, trying to identify one accurately isn’t the work of a moment. Not only that, but it was offered with different engines in varying levels of tune.
It was also available with a decidedly non-Italian unit for the UK market, but even this is open to debate.
Throw in an aviation daredevil and a Cypriot gambling magnate, and it is a story in which it’s hard to separate the actual from the apocryphal.
However, prior to forming his eponymous carrozzeria in 1947, Carlo Francesco ‘Francis’ Lombardi was garlanded for his First World War exploits as a fighter ace.
That, and for his various long-distance flying bids and record attempts (in 1934, he flew directly from Rome to Mogadishu).
In 1938, he designed the AVIA (Anonima VercelleseIndustria Aeronautica) FL.3 monoplane, which he subsequently manufactured under his own name.
Nevertheless, as Italy dug itself out of the rubble following WW2, the national aviation industry was a shadow of its former self, hence the change of direction.
His coachbuilt offerings would in time be adopted by heads of state and anointed by the Pope, the Grand Prix being unveiled at the March 1968 Geneva motor show
As for who styled the car, some sources insist it was the work of Pio Manzù, whose résumé included the Fiat 127.
However, others insist that Giuseppe Rinaldi shaped it in-house at the Francis Lombardi works in Vercelli.
Sketches by him for a car referred to simply as ‘Dream’ and dated ‘1967’ denote something that looks remarkably similar to the finished article.
Bodied in steel save the doors and engine cover (these were initially glassfibre, later steel) and some smaller panels, it was pure Fiat 850 beneath the skin.
That meant an 843cc four-cylinder unit slung out the back, allied to a four-speed ’box.
According to PR bumf of the period, it was good for 47bhp at 6400rpm and 43lb ft of torque at 3600rpm. That might not have sounded like much, but the car weighed only 625kg so 100mph was just about possible.
The front end was suspended by upper A-arms and a lower transverse leaf spring, the rear via semi-trailing arms and coil springs. Anti-roll bars were employed at both ends.
Just as night follows day, purveyors of go-faster equipment were quick to adopt the newcomer.
Giannini Automobili displayed its take on the theme at the November 1968 Turin motor show, and over time offered a variety of own-brand variants that were badged accordingly.
The Rome firm’s examples were sold with displacements of 843, 903 and 980cc, often with twin-choke Weber 30 carburetion.
In top-flight trim, power was boosted to a more useful 68bhp at 6300rpm. You could also order one with a twin-cam Tigre unit.
Arch-rival Abarth, meanwhile, produced something even more outré.
The rebranded Scorpion did away with the 850 unit, an 1197cc pushrod four-banger from the 124 being substituted. This, in turn, was bored out to 1280cc.
Predictably, various levels of spec were offered, such as the 75bhp 1300S version. The Scorpion SS, meanwhile, was equipped with a Weber 40DCOE carb, with power boosted to around 100bhp and further mods including the adoption of four-wheel Girling disc brakes (the regular Grand Prix had discs up front, drums to the rear) and coil-sprung front suspension.
An 850-engined, 52bhp Abarth model was also purportedly available, if not actively promoted.
That isn’t all, though. Enterprising dealer John Rich co-created his own take for the US market.
His home state, California, was undergoing emissions regulation changes during the period of late 1968 and ’69, and cars with a capacity of less than 819cc (50cu in) were exempt from ‘smog’ testing.
Franco Giannini, son of marque founder Domenico, collaborated with Lombardi and Rich to create the US-only OTAS (Officina Trasformazioni Automobili Sportive) 820 Grand Prix.
Powered by an 817cc Fiat 850-derived engine, the decrease in displacement was achieved by means of sleeving the block to shrink the bore from 65mm to 64.
To compensate for this, the compression ratio was raised from 9.3 to 10.1:1, while a hotter cam was installed along with an Abarth exhaust manifold and a single-barrel Solex 32 carb (some cars were equipped with a Weber 30DIC1).
This gave a power output of 52bhp, or one horsepower per cubic inch. Rich Motors Co began importing cars in 1969, and brought in as many as 100 over two years.
Just to obscure matters further, Francis Lombardi introduced a reworked Grand Prix for the 1969 Turin show.
The Monza bore a targa-style roof with a louvred rear deck and a stylised central roll-over structure.
Two were displayed at the 1970 New York Auto Show under the Siata International USA banner.
Whether there was an official link with the once-revered Siata marque remains unrecorded. Unlikely, given that it was in effect insolvent by the end of the ’60s.
But if all of this wasn’t enough to make your head spin, the British market had its own offshoot. Sort of.
Many historians have theorised why Frixos Demetriou got into the motor trade. The owner of London’s Olympic Gaming Club cultivated an air of mystery, that’s for sure.
Why, precisely, he began importing coachbuilt and limited-run Italian cars remains open to interpretation, but you could never accuse him of doing things by halves.
He ordered cars in large batches, all things being relative, and soon had a warehouse stuffed to the gunwales with ‘boutique’ Fiat-based offerings.
These included the Grand Prix, the model being displayed at Olympia in January 1969.
Demetriou was pictured on the cover of that month’s edition of Car looking as though he had come straight from Central Casting for the role of ‘gangster’.
The coverline read: ‘Meet the Racing Car Show’s Least Enthusiastic Exhibitor.’ Whatever motive lay behind the scheme, Demetriou offered the Lombardi Grand Prix in right-hand-drive form at £1426 (roughly £25,000 today) from a palatial showroom in Queensway, near Hyde Park. The romantically named Warstones Service Station acted as an agent for the Midlands.
And now for the really strange bit. Autocar reported in March 1969 that the F Demetriou Group was to not only offer Abarth-ised versions, it would also produce its own strain complete with a Paul Emery-tuned Hillman Imp ‘four’ sited in the rear.
As for the vexed question of whether this actually happened, somehow it’s doubtful. Mr Demetriou’s car-import activities didn’t last long: at some point during the 1970s he returned to his native Cyprus, where he was reportedly killed by a runaway tank.
The Grand Prix adventure finally came to a juddering halt in 1971 when Fiat refused to supply platforms directly.
Volkswagen-and NSU-powered prototypes were exhibited subsequently, plus a striking wedge-shaped device dubbed ‘FL1’ that was to have housed a 2-litre Lancia ‘four’ or a Ford V6 sited amidships, but none made the leap to series production.
The company folded in 1973, its founder dying 10 years later aged 85. As for how many cars were made in any of the Grand Prix’s many flavours, estimates vary from around 500 to many multiples of that.
Even then, identifying variants is a minefield to the point that one auction-house catalogue recently talked up a storm about an Abarth Giannini Fiat Grand Prix.
‘Our’ example is a Francis Lombardi, despite the Abarth decal. A second-series car built in 1971 (identifiable by its slight bonnet bulge and 10-slot tail panel), it arrived in the UK in 2019 and has since been used sparingly.
Which brings us to a sodden day in Hertfordshire and time spent marvelling at the car’s proportions.
Riding on optional cast-alloy Campagnolo wheels rather than steels, it looks striking but so… tiny. The Grand Prix stands just 1070mm (42in) off the deck.
Conversely, it isn’t cramped on the inside. Having threaded into the cabin, there is plenty of room for taller drivers.
That said, the half-horizontal seating position may take a little getting used to, but you cannot help but marvel at the angled dash with its Jaeger-made instruments, complete with Francis Lombardi logos.
The only real compromise concerns the footwell. The wheelarch encroaches somewhat so the pedals – and, by association, your body – are orientated towards the centre of the car.
It isn’t that much of an issue, though; certainly not when compared to many other rear-engined machines.
The pedalbox assembly here is a standard Fiat 850 set-up, albeit mounted upside down and fixed to the floor.
Given the decidedly inclement conditions, spirited driving is out of the question. However, what is abundantly clear is that the Lombardi Grand Prix feels fast, not least because you’re seated so low.
Just don’t expect centrifugal force to reshape your face and jowls because it is packing less than 50bhp.
The worm-and-roller steering works effectively, being sharp and direct, but then there is little weight up front. It’s never less than communicative.
As is to be expected, however, it isn’t exactly quiet. The compact and rev-happy Fiat 850 unit sings its little heart out at the rear, sounding decidedly rorty.
The gearchange snicks nicely between planes with a strong spring bias and, pleasingly, none of the rubbery shift action you get in some cars of this ilk.
Nor does it come as a surprise that the ride is on the firm side, but it isn’t of the bone-crunching variety.
Prior experience of the model informs that it can get a bit skittish when pushed, while some care is required when scrubbing off speed because it is easy to lock the front wheels.
Visibility isn’t great, either, not least because the door mirror gives you a commanding view of the car’s flank and not much else.
Overall, though, the Grand Prix is huge fun to drive; it makes you smile before laughing out loud.
It’s the kind of car that leaves you feeling like a hero, the sensation of speed never being far away.
For these reasons and more, it gets under your skin. It’s hard not to love.
There is something alchemical about the Lombardi; a rare combination of inventiveness and simplicity where the ordinary is somehow transformed into the stimulating.
It’s the sort of car that baffles as much as it bewitches, but then so does its backstory.
You could never accuse the Grand Prix of being boring.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Thanks to Andy Heywood