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My Lancia Fulvia 1600cc V4 HF

Tony Kovacevic acquired his very own Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF Coupe in 1996, which he has since restored (shown above).

You can always sport something obvious like a Rolex, but if you want the respect of those few who really know, you'd have a nice, quiet and classy IWC. The Lancia Fulvia was acclaimed but not very popular in its era; a step up from Fiat, a step aside from Alfa Romeo. It was a model that perpetuated Lancia's history of innovation and racing success.

The Turin marque came up with such firsts as the monocoque body, independent front suspension, five-speed manual, full production V6 and V4 engines. It persisted with right-hand-drive (then the sign of a prestige auto) into the 1950s. A Formula One fixture in that decade, the dashing Fulvia would add to Lancia's haul of world rally titles.

Yet Lancias have always remained, especially in this country, something of a cult, a marque whose merit and cachet was appreciated by such true enthusiasts as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser.

"In the old days he'd fly in his helicopter to Lancia rallies," Kovacevic says. "We have a major one every two years and that brings them in from America, Britain and New Zealand."

The allure of Lancia remains strong for those in the know. And working for Shannons Insurance, Kovacevic knows his venerable, valuable cars.

"It's not a mainstream marque. But in 1996 when the list of the 100 most influential cars was being decided to celebrate the first 100 years of motoring, there were six different models of Lancia included. That's more than any other manufacturer. That sense of innovation and history is very appealing," he explains.

With its rally breeding, Kovacevic, president of the Lancia Motor Club of NSW, considers the 1600cc V4 HF among the marque's pearls.

"The HF is a pretty rare car," he says. "They built only about 1250 HFs and the best guess is that 200 were right-hand-drive. They were a pretty hot little car when they came out, with mag wheels, fibreglass sleeves, the engine has 10.5:1 compression. Pretty potent. It was built as a homologation special that would enable Lancia to race in the European and World Rally Championship."

Fittingly, the example Kovacevic acquired in 1996 had itself been raced extensively. "I had a history of Fiats, I had more than 30 of them," he says. "I decided to move to something bit more sophisticated and interesting, but still Italian. I love Italians cars."

In 2000, Kovacevic gave the Lancia's body a major restoration. The now gleaming silver HF is a fixture on the club circuit, including the biennial rally that brings entrants from the US and the UK. "I've driven it to Castlemaine in Victoria where we have the Lancia rally. I've driven it to Queensland twice and in all the little local runs we have," he says.

"It's powerful. It's got a lot of torque, so you just put your foot down and it goes. The engine in my car's engine was modified for competition. It has bigger brakes and the windshield is the only glass in the car. The cars came from the factory with an alloy boot and doors, so they were pretty light. In its day it was quite advanced: four-wheel disc brakes, five-speed manual. And it was pretty expensive — about twice the price of a Holden at the time."

And that holds true of Holdens today, given the price at which a new Commodore Omega is flogged to fleet. "We sold a Fulvia at Shannons recently for $53,000. I see them advertised in Europe for E50,000, which is quite a bit more, but in Australia it'd be between $50,000 and $60,000."

That will be a good deal more even than the new Lancia Delta, should the marque choose to resume operations in Australia. "Delta has come out in Europe and management say they are going to make a push back into right-hand-drive markets," Kovacevic adds. "That RHD thing goes back to the Roman chariots — the driver was always on the right."