Hard as it may be to imagine now, there was a time when one car company embodied everything that BMW and Audi strived for decades to be. That company was Lancia. Technically innovative and dynamically brilliant, Lancias delivered stylish, sporting and clever in a way that the Germans could only dream of.
This isn’t simple nostalgia for a company that is currently on its knees. In the 70s and 80s Lancia gave us the Gamma, a stylish executive express with a remarkable boxer engine. And the Beta Volumex, a delicate supercharged coupe that BMW could only dream of. Then there was the Delta Integrale, a tarmac-burning hot hatch that out-GTI’d the Golf and ate Audi Quattros for breakfast. In coffee breaks between tweaking the Integrale, Lancia gave us the Y10, a premium super mini before Audi built the A1.
And the Trevi, which can lay claim to having the greatest dashboard design of any car. Ever.
It isn’t all about rose tinted glasses either. As Jeremy Clarkson recently explained on The Grand Tour, Lancia’s technical innovation enabled it to beat Audi at its own game on the rally stages – the company’s gorgeous 037 rally car beat the Quattro by being more agile and, amazingly, more reliable.
So why are we all driving anonymous Audis instead of stylish Lancias? Today Audi offers us 15 different models. Lancia has one. And you can only buy it in Italy. It’s a posh Fiat Punto. How did we get here?
It’s tempting to blame Lancia’s straightened circumstances on the reputation it gained in the late 1970s. Prior to those dark days Lancia was a byword for quality, technical excellence and aspiration. It built sophisticated cars for intelligent people. Then the Italian government stepped in and Lancia started building sophisticated cars for intelligent people very, very badly. Like Alfas of the same period, Lancia’s 70s and 80s output was plagued by rust and unreliability. In those dark days Lancia wasn’t alone in selling cars cars that rusted quickly – even BMWs rotted. But Lancia turned its back on the problem, ignoring owners and letting the problem escalate. Combine this with other reliability problems caused by shoddy build, plus an aging model line up, and it’s not hard to see why sales failed to recover. By the late 80s Lancia was making a lot of dull cars and two exciting ones – the Integrale and the Ferrari-engined Thema 8.32.
In response to falling sales and emptying coffers Fiat, Lancia’s owner, decided to make Lancias less Lancia-like. They swept away the last thing that made Lancia buyers buy Lancias – their essential Lancia-ness.
By the 90s Lancias were just rebadged Fiats with big, soft spongey seats. The Dedra was awful the Kappa dull and the Thesis, as pictured here, an exercise in out-guppying the Ford Scorpio. It would be quite hard to image an uglier and less appealing executive car, despite considerable competition.
The culprit, of course, is platform sharing, an idea pioneered by Fiat but popularised by VW. As the plethora of identikit Skodas, Seats, Audis and Volkswagens tends to show, platform sharing often leads to decisions driven by the lowest common denominator. For Fiat this meant front wheel drive Alfas when the world wanted rear wheel drive, and Lancias that eschewed innovation and style in favour of cost cutting.
Platform sharing obviously makes sense as car companies seek economies of scale. It works where the brands applying it are largely functional, mass market and anodyn. Seat, Skoda, Audi and VW buyers aren’t, in the main, looking for individuality and quirkiness. Before platform sharing, few car buyers got emotional about any of these brands in quite the same way as Italian car fans so the compromises were less obvious. Lancia and Alfa buyers, on the other hand, are. In order to deliver the compromises required by platform sharing, the Italian brands had to sacrifices too much of their DNA, one key ingredient of which is individuality.
Not surprisingly, Lancia sales dwindled as Fiat performed a Jenga-like gradual withdrawal of every reason to buy one. Over the last 20 years Lancia has been brought to its knees by a combination of boring, commonplace cars and a lack of new models. The new Delta was a decent-looking, individual car and the Ypsilon is unusual. But by the time Fiat got round to launching them nobody really cared. Buyers had migrated elsewhere.
And that’s the problem Fiat faces if it plans to rebuild Lancia. Most people under 30 have little or no idea what Lancia is. For the last 20 years the firm’s output has been so tawdry and removed from its heyday that contemporary buyers would have to be shoehorned into showrooms. And yet, all is not necessarily lost. Skoda was dead in the water when VW bought it and is now a proper driving force. Likewise, Alfa Romeo has skimmed along the margins for nearly as long as Lancia and now appears to be on its way back. There is still a lot of love out there for Lancia. So, who knows? Surely there is room for a left-of-centre, quality, luxurious, technically advanced premium brand that isn’t German?
At Great Escape Cars we hope Lancia does get a second (or third) chance. A rejuvenated brand would stoke interest in the older cars and enable us to add some to our fleet – a Fulvia, Integrale or Beta Coupe would make brilliant additions. We can only hope.
www.greatescapecars.co.uk 01527 893733