Now that we nibbled some Autobianchi and had a good slice of Iso, how about we end this three-course Italian Deadly Sins menu with something of a bittersweet flourish? Many of the marques we’ve seen so far were niche-market, usually small-time affairs – Iso being a good example. Few automotive giants have crumbled in my lifetime. I remember the long, protracted death of Rover. And of course, Saab, Pontiac and a few others went pretty recently, though those were rather quick to close shop. Lancia, one of the automotive world’s most iconic names, has been circling the drain for a long time, but now it could be for good.
Some automakers went through a torturous history. Lancia went through a series of crises, but in terms of history, things are pretty simple. After a stint as Fiat’s works racing driver, Turin-born Vincenzo Lancia founded his car company. Things didn’t kick off so well: a fire devastated the factory (including the prototype chassis) in early in 1907, delaying production until 1908.
But very soon, Lancias were reputed for the quality and innovation Vincenzo infused in his chassis. The automaker’s first hit was the Theta (1913-19), whose 5-litre sidevalve straight-4 had enough torque to propel heavy limousines with more gusto than many. The car featured an all-electric set-up: starter, headlights, taillights, horn and instrument lights were powered by a 6V battery. It was one of the first cars sold without a hole for hand-cranking the engine and was the first Lancia to be factory-bodied.
Soon, said chassis was proved to be redundant, as Lancia launched the first monocoque car, the Lambda, in 1922, which also sported independent front suspension, front brakes, a light alloy engine and the first-ever floor hump, due to the car’s markedly lower platform. Lancia cars also began to stand out for their engines, which from this point on were almost always in “V” configuration. Other Lancia products, such as the trucks and bus chassis built in Bolzano, were also making good business.
By the early ‘30s, the range went from small 1.2 litre V4 Augusta up to the huge 4.5-litre V8 Dilambda. Lancia also successfully dabbled in trucks, coaches, trolleybuses and military vehicles to increase their revenue streams.
Launched in 1931 to replace the Lambda, the 2-litre V4 Artena shared suspension and chassis components with perhaps the most iconic Lancia of the ‘30s, the glamorous Astura, whose faultless 2.6 litre (late 3 litre) SOHC V8-powered chassis was clothed with some of the most beautiful metal tailoring in automotive history.
Just as the firm was about to the launch of the new little Aprilia, the deeply influential founding father, Vincenzo Lancia, died of a heart attack at age 55. This was the first moment of real crisis at Lancia. Vincenzo’s son Gianni was still very young, but the company managed to rally behind the Lancia family and carry on. Vincenzo’s widow and Gianni’s mother, Adèle Lancia, was probably the first woman CEO in the automotive sector and very competently steered the company through the turmoil of war.
The recruitment of Alfa Romeo’s chief engineer, Vittorio Jano, ensured that Vincenzo Lancia’s emphasis on avant-garde engineering would continue to flourish, perhaps even more than before. Production switched to more utilitarian concerns even before Italy officially joined the war in the spring of 1940. The 8-cyl. cars were abandoned and normal production cars such as the Artena above were increasingly (but by no means exclusively) used for specialist coachwork, albeit now in khaki tones. Though not spared by the damages of war, Lancia managed to resume production by 1946.
Taking over from his mother as CEO, young Gianni Lancia and his wife were somehow suspected of being Communist sympathizers, so unlike what happened to Alfa Romeo or Fiat, no Marshall Plan funding came. Lancia had to pull themselves out of the rubble on their own – just ten years after Vincenzo’s untimely passing, Lancia’s future was again in jeopardy.
Crisis number two was averted thanks to the post-war boom and Lancia’s brilliant products. In 1948, the 3rd series Ardea (initially launched in 1939 with the world’s smallest (900cc) V4 engine) pioneered the 5-speed gearbox. The first-ever production V6 car, the Aurelia, came in 1950 and was a triumphant return to form from Lancia for their first entirely new car since the war. Early cars such as the B10 saloon above had a 1.8 litre 54hp version of the V6 that was soon supplanted by a 1991cc version that could provide up to 90hp. In 1953 came a 2451cc V6, followed by a completely new De Dion rear suspension set-up soon after. But this “Italian Jaguar” was carefully hand-built and therefore very expensive and exclusive: only 18,000 were made in eight years (better than the Gamma!), which was a lot for a ’50s European luxury car.
Jano imposed solutions from his racing experience, such as the greater use of aluminum, independent rear suspension and the transaxle – incredible features for a mere 2-litre car in the ‘50s. These came at a significant cost, but Lancia always had a reputation to keep as Italy’s most innovative carmaker. The Aurelia soon became the darling of the carrozzerie. So many beautiful designs were made, but there’s only room for four. Ah, the agony of image selection!
The Aurelia was a success, as was it little sister the Appia, launched in 1953. It looked like a reduced Aurelia, which it pretty much was (minus the IRS), high price tag and all. The Appia sold rather well, though Alfa Romeo was soon to become a serious competitor in this segment as well.
If the basic Appia didn’t suffice, Italy’s best coachbuilders could propose something different, like the above. For a very competitive price, Scioneri could improve the trim, custom-paint and add trendy rear fins to your Appia saloon. A one-off four-seater coupé like this 1956 PininFarina example (top left) was a far more exclusive and expensive proposition. The Appia was available as a lovely two-door convertible (bottom left) made by Vignale, or as a “pocket rocket” GT with a lightweight Zagato body. The company’s health, though not as sound as other Italian or European firms, was deemed sufficiently good for Gianni Lancia to plan Lancia’s racing programme with Jano.
The V6-powered Lancias D20, D23 (above) and D24 were campaigned in 1953-54, with some notable successes: Fangio won the 1953 Panamericana and Ascari finished 1st at the 1954 Mille Miglia. But this was just the appetizer: by late 1954, the V8-powered Lancia D50 Formula One car was ready and two-time world champion Alberto Ascari was ready to take it places. It was good enough to beat the formidable Mercedes-Benzes, which few could in 1955. But tragedy struck the team when Ascari died practicing at Monza (in a Ferrari) in May, three weeks before the disaster at Le Mans.
Dumbstruck by the loss of lives and burned out by work-related stress, Gianni Lancia also saw the costs for the F1 effort was pulling the company into the red. Lancia could not afford the D50 programme, realistically. Gianni Lancia took the decision to pull out of the F1 game, mid-season. Rather than seeing the D50 go to waste, six finished cars and a truckload of parts were simply given to Ferrari, along with Vittorio Jano, in July 1955. Ferrari simplified the design and Juan-Manuel Fangio won the 1956 World Championship in a Ferrari D50, proving the car’s potential.
It must have been galling to Gianni Lancia, but by this time, he was out of the picture. The Lancia family, who owned a controlling share of the business, decided to sell it. A deal was struck in mid-1956 with cement and finance tycoon Carlo Pesenti to buy out the Lancias and Gianni Lancia bid his factory farewell, safe in the knowledge that the Lancia name would carry on.
Indeed, one of Gianni Lancia’s last important acts had been to sign up Prof. Antonio Fessia as head of Lancia’s engineering department when Jano left in 1955. Fessia had been involved with Fiat and other big names over the years, but his stint at Lancia would be his crowning achievement. Carlo Pesenti, who came from the world of cement and finance, was happy leaving Fessia run the show and produce cars in the Lancia tradition, emphasizing quality and engineering prowess.
The Flaminia was ready to be launched in 1957 and had a tremendous impact, not least thanks to its flawless execution and design, though it was as much a Jano as a Fessia car. The berlina’s sublime PininFarina design, an evolution of the 1955 Aurelia Florida show car, made it an instant classic.
Even the Italian president agreed and had a couple of transformable limos made, which are still in use. The Flaminia was the last true 6-cyl. Lancia “made the old-fashioned way,” with quality being the number one priority. And one could still rely on Italy’s carrozzerie to provide interesting alternatives if one felt the production Flaminia was too common. But the good Professor Fessia cared little for the Flaminia, for he had an itch he’d been scratching for years: front-wheel drive.
Right after the war, Fessia had developed a revolutionary car, the CEMSA-Caproni F11. It featured a water-cooled 1.1 litre flat-4 placed ahead of the front driving wheels – a very novel (and influential) layout for the ‘40s. The F11 never got off the ground, but Fessia saw his chance when Lancia’s new directors decided to aim for a new mid-range saloon.
The Flavia was both an update of the F11 (such as the Flavia’s disc brakes) and a slight step backwards. Fessia had to resort to leaf springs for the rear suspension to keep costs acceptable. Initially, the Flavia’s flat-4 displaced 1500cc and was somewhat underpowered, but a 1.8 litre version was soon added, as well as fuel injection. Fessia then turned his attention to the Fulvia, the Appia’s replacement, which kept the outgoing model’s V4 engine but also switched to FWD. Both the Fulvia and the Flavia had a fair amount of success, at least initially.
Pesenti decided to build a completely new factory in Chivasso, which would bring Lancia’s capacity from 70 cars per day up to 300 when the plant opened in 1963. Lancia could not offset the cost of Fessia’s FWD follies with the kind of sales they had in the mid-‘60s. The bread-and-butter four-door saloons were boxy and less than appealing, especially the Flavia, whose relatively heavy body, awkward styling and high price caught up with it.
Lancia needed both their FWD cars to be a hit, but only half-succeeded. The Flavia’s slight face/butt lift in 1967 (above) improved things a bit, but the FWD Lancia saloons looked frumpy and passé. The same quandary was shared by arch-rival Alfa to an extent, but they sold a lot more sports cars than Lancia did.
The concept of a FWD sports car was starting to find its partisans, but few examples existed in the mid-‘60s. Fulvia Zagato lightweight coupés were made, but their very high price and peculiar aesthetics did not help sales all that much. Lancia eventually managed to race the handsome “standard” Fulvia coupé with some success, but this took place after yet another crisis.
The year 1969 looms large in Lancia’s history. From then on, the firm lost its independence and became part of a larger system. We are Fiat. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. Pesenti was faced with ever-diminishing returns: Chivasso had cost a lot, but it was not running to full capacity. Lancias were being made and bought – both domestically and abroad – but competition was cut-throat. The problem came from Germany: in the ‘60s, BMW and Mercedes, having disposed of Borgward, invested into modern production techniques and brought down their unit costs dramatically without sacrificing their products. VW’s new Audi range spelled yet more trouble, as the Wolfsburg titan started dipping a toe into the mid-range saloon market.
In Britain, the pressure from Germany led to a process of amalgamation. All the old firms coalesced towards the creation of British Leyland: BMC, Rover, Triumph and Jaguar were all bunched up together, which could bring future economies of scale in this segment and compete with the Germans. BL collapsed before any meaningful investment could be made, which doomed the British car industry as a whole. Lancia were in a similar predicament: unaffordable investments in more efficient production facilities meant the price of Lancias was ever more expensive in relation to other cars in its class, while yielding a lower profit margin.
This trend of diminishing returns got progressively worse, but can be traced back to the Gianni Lancia era: by investing in motor sport rather than improve output, Lancia had made a fatal strategic error. One that, even had the F1 story gone well, would probably have resulted in the same predicament down the line. The motoring press at the time was well aware of the trouble at Lancia and did not hide their concern. By 1967, this started to affect sales, as more people worried about the future of the company. Flaminia production ended in 1968, but Lancia were unable to launch a replacement, leaving the range without a top and boxy FWD saloons as the main product. This nefarious feedback loop, along with Fessia’s definitive leave of absence for health reasons, persuaded Pesenti to approach Giovanni Agnelli over at Fiat.
Agnelli had probably been waiting for this moment for a while. After all, Lancia was Turin’s only other large automaker and, unlike the State-owned (and Milanese) Alfa Romeo, could be incorporated into Fiat without too much difficulty. Pesenti and Agnelli made the deal mid-1969 and announced it soon after: Fiat took on Lancia’s operations and debts, only paying 1 Lira per Lancia stock. This was it! Lancia, having almost passed away three times already, would now be absorbed by their giant neighbour and digested, just like Panhard was eaten by Citroën (or Alvis by Rover, or Glas by BMW) throughout the ’60s. Were Lancia about to sink without a trace?
This was not Agnelli’s goal, though. He made sure to proclaim that Lancia would continue making cars (designed by their own independent structure) for many years to come. He understood that Lancia was a perfect complement to Fiat and Autobianchi, whose new A111 saloon now looked like an expensive mistake. Lancia had the brand values and reputation for sporty excellence, so Autobianchi was soon scaled back and even integrated within Lancia’s structure and range. One thing that would be on the chopping block was Lancia Veicoli Industriali (trucks and buses), which had been a big help in keeping the company alive thus far, but was too direct a competitor to Fiat’s products. Fiat eventually regrouped all its heavy vehicle production (Fiat, Lancia, Unic, OM and Magirus-Deutz) into IVECO in 1975.
The Flavia and Fulvia continued on, but Agnelli set Fiat’s all-powerful Direction of Production (bean-counters and production process engineers) on Lancia’s existing products and soon made a host of changes, with Fiat-sourced bits and bobs taking the place of Lancia-sourced ones by 1971. That year, as Fiat quietly closed Lancia’s truck line in Bolzano, the Flavia became the 2000 and grew a new nose with a chromed vertical grille — shades of Wolseley, Volvo 164 and the like?
These legacy cars, though technically still very much up-to-date, were obviously going to be replaced by a new generation. In 1972, the Lancia Beta was launched and many breathed a sigh of relief: this was not a tarted-up Fiat as feared, aside from the Lampredi straight-4. The aerodynamic looks (when Fiat were at the height of their boxy phase), the layout and suspension were still noticeably Lancia, thanks to Agnelli’s appointment of engineer Sergio Camuffo as head of Lancia’s product development. Some could also distinguish shades of Citroën, as the French automaker’s links with Fiat were getting very strong in those days. Of course, a few details here and there were Fiat – this brought the price down and profitability up. Lancia’s next big move, the Gamma, was met with similar praise, at least initially.
The Beta was a competent car and did well in the European market, though it did rust like no Lancia ever did before. The Gamma, launched in 1975, was a much tougher sell. The car’s looks were universally criticized – comparisons to the Citroën CX, Rover SD1 and even the Renault 30 were usually to the Italian car’s detriment. The decision to power the Gamma with a huge flat-4 also made many wonder what Lancia were trying to prove. The reality was lless that Agnelli wanted to protect the Fiat 130 form internal competition, but more that Fiat figured that a big 4-cyl. would sell better than a six in a post-oil-shock world. A very far cry from the Flaminia, the Gamma was basically a big Beta with fancier seats, and universally critics wondered why it only had 4-cyl. rather than a V6. The reliability of the engine and the solidity of the suspension was soon put into grave question and a typical issue started to rear its ugly head: rust.
Fiat had been using various sources for their steel, including the Soviet Union. Lancia cars began using Fiat’s dubious metals and soon developed maladies similar to other Fiat products. This damaged Lancia’s image very badly and was something the marque was unable to shake off. Sales in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK fell off a cliff during the ‘70s: a cheap rusty Fiat was one thing, but an expensive rusty Lancia was a non-starter. The Gamma coupé, designed and built by Pininfarina, was marginally better in this regard, and undoubtedly the most stylish Lancia of the ‘70s. But it remained a Gamma, i.e. a technological nightmare, so sales were quite muted.
On the other hand, Fiat’s massive resources could be put to use in motorsports and sports cars. The ‘70s saw a push by Lancia on the rally circuit that brought the sports credentials that Gianni Lancia was dreaming of 20 years earlier. The mid-engined “Beta” Montecarlo coupé (wholly unrelated to the Lancia Beta) was marketed as a Lancia to cash in on the marque’s mystique – a wise move by Agnelli, who understood that bigger cars were better suited to Lancia (or, more accurately, that big Fiats weren’t selling). The 1973-75 Stratos was the real rally car though, with its Ferrari-designed Dino V6; it was made for street use in tiny quantities – a bold and distinctive design, courtesy of Bertone, that fit Lancia’s image very well.
The Beta was turned into a notchback to follow the European trend of the times for larger cars. The 1980 Trevi consequently looked like a mash-up of Mercedes and Saab put together by blind people – the ‘90s Volga’s equally-ugly (and far more rust-prone) older sister. The Gamma lingered on, but its reputation was in tatters and few took to them, although the coupé was universally acknowledged as a supremely elegant design. PininFarina had a plan to transfer the coupé’s looks to the saloon, but the model was now poison: only 20,000 Gammas, all versions combined, were made in eight years.
The inevitable happened: starting with the 1979 Delta, only style and/or engine tuning would distinguish Lancias from Fiats. The Fiat Ritmo and the Lancia Delta were fraternal twins, and so would all Lancias from this point on. Best-forgotten Lancias of the ‘80s include the Prisma (top right), the Dedra (bottom left) and the painfully inadequate second series Delta.
Sure, there were a few bright spots: the Delta sold very well (in southern Europe, at least) and ushered Lancia’s transition to AWD sports cars with the Integrale. There was also the Thema, which shared its platform with the Saab 9000, the Alfa Romeo 164 and the Fiat Croma, but was the only marque proposing a Ferrari V8, which made up for the car’s bland looks. Other versions included the dreaded PRV Douvrin V6 and a factory stretch limo. With over 350,000 units in ten years, the Thema really was something of a return to form after the Gamma disaster. It would also be the last time Lancia outsold Alfa.
In 1986, the apple cart was upset by Alfa Romeo’s sudden intrusion into the Fiat family. Years of poor management had left the biscione in very bad shape and resuscitating Alfa became Fiat’s top priority. Alfa and Lancia were merged together within the Fiat Group, but resources all flowed towards Milan. Lancia managed to launch a new executive car, the Kappa, in the late ‘90s. Despite an interesting coupé version (above), the Kappa barely managed 110,000 units – less than a third of the Thema’s score. Lancia began to enter the realm of further financial tightening, which soon precluded the addition of Lancia’s “personal touch”.
Fiat closed the Chivasso plant in 1993, just after having closed Desio (Autobianchi) the year before. Lancia/Alfa/Autobianchi switched production back to Fiat and Alfa factories, leading to continuing quality control issues for some models and scattering Lancia production to several sites. Toyota-inspired production methods did not preclude Lancia from having a few distinctive models, but pure badge-engineering was now going to take place, almost inevitably.
The Lancia Zeta was a higher-trim Fiat Ulysse, which was a twin of the Peugeot 806 / Citroën Evasion. All these “Eurovans” were made at the Sevel Nord factory in France, as part of the Sevel JV between Fiat and PSA, from 1994 to 2002. The very existence of the Zeta was proof enough that the Lancia marque was now digested and reduced to a Fiat with a chrome grille.
Ominously, Lancia pulled out of the RHD markets (UK and Ireland, mostly) in 1994, after years of underperforming in a marketplace that regarded it as some sort of high-priced BL product made in Italy. Sales in northern Continental Europe were down to BL levels as well…
Lancia had actually turned things around in terms of rust-proofing in the ‘80s, but some reputations proved impossible to shake off. Lancia’s main export markets were now limited to the Continent, especially France, Switzerland, Benelux and Austria. The Zeta was succeeded by the Phedra, along with the 807/C8 PSA twins and Fiat’s Ulysse II. Now Lancia were using Peugeot engines – even the French V6! – in some of their line-up. Vincenzo must have been spinning in his grave. Lancia sold twice as many Phedras as they did Zetas, but still only managed about 45,000 to Peugeot/Citroën’s 250,000 units. Beyond the (lackluster) sales, slapping a Lancia grille on minivans and Autobianchis contributed greatly to the cheapening of the marque: Alfa, BMW, Volvo, Lexus or Jaguar would never have tried peddling plebeian products such as MPVs.
A renewal of Lancia’s styling did bring a ray of hope in the 2000s, as did the continuing success of the smaller cars: the Punto-based Ypsilon (or Y, top left, launched in 1995) still sold about 100,000 units per year; the notion that Lancia was done for was not yet universally accepted and new models, now standard Alfa/Fiat underneath, could still be launched. The Lybra (top right), based on the Alfa 156 and launched in 1998, followed the ‘90s retro fad. Commercially, it did not do as well as the Dedra, which seems alarming in hindsight. The 2001 Thesis certainly stood out thanks to its distinctive styling, heralding a new aggressive grille that looked like it came from a pre-war Boneschi-bodied limo, married to a Florida-esque pair of headlamps. Great fireworks, but it clearly wasn’t everybody’s cup of espresso: only 16,000 were made and Fiat pulled the plug in 2009. Despite having no major vices, the Thesis was as big a bomb as the Gamma. BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Jaguar were now completely beyond Lancia’s reach. The Fulvia name was reborn for an enticing sports car in 2003, alas never to be produced. he next year, Lancia fielded a badge-engineered mini-MPV called the Musa instead (bottom right), with reasonable success.
Now majority-owner of Chrysler, Fiat added insult to infamy in 2011 and launched the Chrysler-Dodge range (200, 300 and Voyager) as Lancias on the European market, except RHD countries, where they remained Chryslers. The cynicism of the move was quite astounding and soon backfired, as the “new Lancia line-up” was met by a quizzical public, both at home and abroad. The marque’s use of once-glorious nameplates, such as Flavia, on Detroit-designed barges only made matters worse.
Lancia sales continued to flatline; by 2015 Fiat elected to nix the marque everywhere except in Italy, where it was down to a single model, the Fiat 500-based Ypsilon 5-door hatchback, which debuted in 2011, alongside the Chrysler-based big cars. The new Ypsilon wore Chrysler badges in RHD markets for a few years, making it surely the first-ever 2-cyl. Lancia and Chrysler. This is the present situation, one that we’ve seen before with the demise of Autobianchi. Fiat-Chrysler’s other brands (Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Ferrari, Fiat and Maserati) has no use for Lancia, whose traditional role is taken up by Alfa at one end and Maserati at the other. Selling Dodges as Lancias having come to naught, FCA are now realistically left with only one option: letting Lancia die.
So who killed Lancia? Chrysler? Alfa Romeo? Fiat? BMW? Gianni Lancia’s questionable decisions? Gianni Lancia’s push for the F1 programme certainly upset the firm’s financial balance – and had little benefit to show for it. A case could also be argued pretty strongly against Pesenti, who should have realized that production costs were spiraling out of control. Had Lancia entered the ‘60s with better productivity and cost-control, competition with BMW, Mercedes, Alfa and the British automakers would have been different. Lower prices would likely have resulted in better volume of sales and enable Lancia to stay afloat longer, perhaps developing into Italy’s BMW. But Pesenti, though very wealthy and well-connected, had no Quandts to lean on and no Neue Klasse waiting in the wings. He invested all he could into the new factory, but sales never reached the volume needed for the loans to be repaid, let alone making a profit.
Were the cars Deadly Sins? Many of them did not contribute to enhancing Lancia’s reputation. The high-tech, engineer-driven nature of most Lancias made the emphasis on quality a key part of the equation. Once Fiat started toying with that, Lancia’s image began to wither. The symptomatic example was the Gamma, which was the first Lancia to be widely panned by the critics and the buying public. Definite Deadly Sin — perhaps the deadliest of them all. With the exception of the Thema, Lancia became a bit-part player in the executive car segment after that, despite their decades of experience.
Despite its success, the mk1 Delta was also a Deadly Sin, epitomizing the direction Lancia were going to take (i.e. re-bodied Fiats). This was later compounded by the badge-engineering bonanza that led to the Lancia/Autobianchi Y10 and the Zeta/Phedra/Musa. At least, those were Fiat (or semi-Fiat) products. When Lancias became re-badged Chryslers, it looked like Fiat were simultaneously engaging in bestiality, necrophilia and sadomasochism, otherwise known as flogging a dead horse. Yes, Lancia committed many Deadly Sins – even prior to Fiat’s overbearing embrace. But aside from the Gamma and the Chryslers, most of its sins had to do with the firm’s stewardship rather than its products. Once digested by Fiat, the Lancia marque, like Riley, Talbot or Mercury, found itself sitting on the pan of history, awaiting the final flush of amnesia.
Time to get off the pot, then.
That’s it for this edition of European Deadly Sins. Let’s see where the next one takes us…
My heartfelt thanks to Don “Il Dottore” Andreina for his generosity, availability and sagacity.
Car Show Classics: Lancia Rally At Castlemaine, by JohnH875
Vintage Capsule Overview: Lancia Aurelia B20 Coupe, by Robert Kim
Curbside Classic: 1966 Lancia Flaminia Super Sport – Gotta Catch ’em All, by Geraldo Solis
CC Outtake: 1996 Lancia Y10 – Grazie Luigi, by Roger Carr
Cohort Capsule: 2011-15 Lancia Thema – The Italian Badge Job, by William Stopford
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European Deadly Sins series
Italian DS 1 (Autobianchi, Iso, Lancia)