I didn’t set out to own a Lancia Trevi. And perhaps not many people do. Certainly few did when it was new in the 1980s. The Trevi is a specialist backwater of Lancia’s already specialist corner of the British classic car world. It sold in such small numbers in the UK that few recall its existence and those that do simply smile and remember ‘that dashboard.’
And what a dashboard. But first, there’s the story of how the Trevi was born.
In the early 1980s Lancia, under Fiat tutelage, was scratching around for ways to boost sales of its aging range. With no money to do much, the decision was made to offer a more conventional three box version of the Beta saloon. The resulting Trevi was a particularly sober-suited compact saloon, aimed squarely at buyers of top end Cortinas and Cavaliers. This made quite a lot of sense because some potential British buyers had been put off by the Beta’s unconventional – for the late 70s – hatchback-style design. This, after all, was a time when the hatchback was a new and avatgarde idea. Sobering up the Beta meant that traditional family saloon buyers got a conventional-looking saloon with lots of equipment and the relative sophistication of the Beta’s decent-handling chassis and willing 2 litre engine.
At this point the Lancia executives must have sat back and thought they had a winner. Conservative like a Cortina, but stylish and luxurious like a Lancia.
Except, of course, they didn’t sit back and they didn’t stop there. They went mad. They asked industrial designer Mario Bellini to create the interior. Whatever Mario’s brief was, it presumably included the words ‘go kerayzee’ because that is exactly what he did. He hid the interior door handles, he put all the electric window switches beside the handbrake and then, presumably after a particularly hearty meal involving Emental cheese, he created That Dashboard.
When the Trevi was launched Lancia blithered on about industrial design, function over form and other clever stuff that meant tap all to the middle managers it was hoping to persuade out of their Cortinas. All they saw was a remarkable slab of black plastic with a seemingly random arrangement of holes of different sizes liberally strewn right across the front of the car. And then they asked where the door handles were, because they couldn’t escape fast enough.
It’s difficult now to understand exactly what the Lancia bigwigs were thinking when they signed off the Trevi’s interior. Perhaps, having bowed to their new Fiat paymasters to dial up the conventional, they knocked back a few Morettis and decided to rebel when it came to the interior.
Today we marvel at this dashboard’s design, which nearly forty years on remains bold and controversial. We value its audacity and eccentricity. But back in the 80s there was none of that nostalgia and emotion – reviewers and buyers just saw a dashboard that challenged their very notion of what the inside of a car should look like. They couldn’t see the point of it and they didn’t like it. It’s hard now, decades later, to convoy just how gasp-inducing the Trevi’s dashboard was to early 80s car buyers. Today we’re used to car designers going mad, creating challenging designs like the Nissan Juke. In the noughties Citroen and Toyota created cars like the Picasso and Yaris with central dials. Nobody really batted an eyelid.
But back in 1982 there was none of that. Cars had flat sides, a long flat bonnet, a trapezoid central bit and a long flat boot. Or a hatchback. Or an estate. This was an era when the Allegro was avantgarde. Into this homogenous world came the Trevi, a car that pretended to play by the rules on the outside yet blew your mind on the inside. Solid, staid old Blighty had never seen anything like it. And, if sales were any guide, it wasn’t keen on seeing any more of it.
Reviewers were also unimpressed by some of the Trevi’s other qualities. Where they overlooked the stodgy staidness of the Cortina, they took issue with the Trevi’s poor packaging, short gearing and asthmatic engine. Its styling, which seemed to just take a chunk out of the Beta’s svelte lines, also came in for criticism.
So not many were sold. And now it’s hard to imagine who would have bought one. The Trevi was expensive, quirky – despite that sober suit – and built by a firm with a dismal reputation for rust and quality control.
After briefly shining brightly from the covers of a few weekly car magazines, the Trevi quickly faded from view. Few people bought them. Which is how I came to not be looking for a Trevi when I ended up buying one. Although the dashboard had genuinely astonished me when the car was new, I can’t say I gave a moment’s thought to the Trevi in the intervening 36 years.
And then, there it was – a 1982 2 litre in light blue. On Ebay. In Hull. And it stayed there for weeks, regularly winking at me through my EBay notifications, the price wavering down to somewhere near attractive. In the way of such things, I messaged the seller, not imagining it would go any further. But something about the car’s rarity and my nostalgic memories of That Dashboard captured my attention.
There are only a handful of Trevis left in the UK and yet its very rarity wasn’t enough to shift it. The seller had been struggling to sell it for months. It probably didn’t help that it there was no MOT and it was crumbly around the edges. Perhaps the car is such a footnote in motoring history that few were sufficiently bothered about the three box Lancia with the silly dashboard.
It turns out I was. So a few weeks later, in June 2018, I arrived in Hull with a trailer and a handful of cash. My first few hours of Trevi ownership were not encouraging. My tow vehicle broke down on the M6 ‘Smart’ motorway, requiring multiple lane closures. Then I endured a complicated and lengthy trip back to collect another tow vehicle, return to rescue the Lancia then return again to get the broken down vehicle.
I run a classic car hire and restoration business and, back home, the Trevi was parked up in my unit. It stayed there, unmoving, for 12 months. Occasionally I would tweet about it, my followers urging me to get it back on the road and reminiscing about that mad dashboard. I began to realise that for those in the know, the Trevi is something of a design icon. Part of this is perhaps tied up with Lancia’s currently straightened circumstances, the Trevi being a symbol of what this once-remarkable marque was capable of. In that sense it represents one of the last expressions of Lancia’s creativity and individuality.
Then, in June 2019, I was spurred into action. We needed the Trevi to make up the numbers for a corporate event. So I put it through a MOT to find out what was wrong with it. It turns out, not much. The emissions were all over the place so the carbs were sent off to be rebuilt. The brakes and exhaust were shot so they were replaced, with help from Beta Bitz. All the work was done by my workshop, the team bemused by this odd and unloved motoring orphan.
Such is the way of things that once back on the road I wasn’t the first person to drive my Trevi. That honour belonged to a group of wealth managers from London. They had no idea what it was and were born too soon to recognise the dashboard. But they loved it.
Since then I’ve driven it, but not as much as I’d like. While the interior’s quirkiness remains, for me, the Trevi’s big draw, I’m really surprised at how nicely it drives. I also own an Alfasud and it feels like that car’s big brother. The same view over a flat bonnet, the same low dashboard, the same ape-like driving position. The steering is sharp like the Sud, the engine responsive in a similar way. But boy does the Trevi roll, it’s positively Citroen-esque. Coupled with seats that lack any form of lateral support, the Trevi is an absolute hoot through the bends, a case of hanging on with your foot planted to maintain momentum.
The car elicits a curious response from visitors to my unit and also when its out and about. The less initiated just see a boxy, fairly anonymous saloon that might be a Cortina if you squint. Amongst the classics that we hire out they seem to be wondering why it’s there. The members of a much smaller group stop in their tracks. They tend to do a double take. They point and then they inevitably look inside, to check that yes, indeed, it is there.
And this, ultimately, is the Trevi’s appeal. A car of two halves – conventional with an unconventional heart. But also a car that is so much more than its reputation. It’s a hoot to drive. I may have stumbled into Trevi ownership but I’m glad I did. There’s something precious about owning a bit of motoring history, one of just a small handful of Trevis left on British roads. And a car that attracts knowing nods from people who care about cars. There are better cars out there, there are more exciting cars, but none share the Trevi’s nature – to turn left when all about are going right. The Trevi is a gentle reminder of what Lancia once was. A clever, sophisticated, engineering-led company that designed cars with passion. In today’s anonymous, anodyne motoring world of me-too, platform-sharing SUVs these feel like vital, valuable attributes. We can only hope.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk
The Trevi was restored by Classic Fixers. Find out more at www.fixclassiccars.co.uk or call 10527 893733
All photos courtesy of Chris Pollitt at the excellent Not2Grand website.