The recent hook-up of FCA and PSA has a lot of folks worried that some of the old names we hold dear are going to get the chop in due course. After all, we’re talking about an alliance of Fiat-Alfa Romeo-Maserati-Lancia-Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram and Peugeot-Opel-Vauxhall-Citroën-DS (am I forgetting anybody?), so there is cause for concern. But let’s not forget that killing off marques is a sport almost as old as the industry itself. Here’s an example from the ‘80s.
We went over the Autobianchi affair in some detail a while ago when I wrote up this chapter of my continuing European Deadly Sins series. Condensed to a sentence, Autobianchi was a collaborative effort from Fiat, Pirelli and Bianchi that was started in 1957 and began to unravel in the ‘70s, after Fiat took complete control. At the time, Autobianchi were making the very successful A112, launched in late 1969. Fiat’s answer to the Mini was largely based on the Fiat 128, but with the 850’s engine (a 900cc 4-cyl. providing 44 hp) and the Primula’s hatchback. It was a winning formula.
It so happened that 1969 was also the year that Lancia went belly up and was swallowed by Fiat as well. (This was also detailed in this other post of the same series.) Fiat found themselves with a superfluous but profitable Autobianchi and a loss-making but prestigious Lancia. Naturally, the idea of merging the two became irresistible. Lancia had a rocky time in the ‘70s – the so-so Beta, followed by the Gamma debacle, left the marque’s reputation for engineering excellence tarnished. Autobianchi abandoned their delusions of grandeur (the A111) and focused on the A112 and the Fiat 500 Giardineira, which were selling well. In the late ‘70s, Lancia and Autobianchi devised an A112 replacement, the Lambda, that might provide them with a raison d’être in the ‘80s. Alas, big momma Fiat nicked it from under their noses and renamed it Uno, leaving Lancia with a compact car-shaped gap in their production plans.
This is why the A112 lasted so long. Lancia and Autobianchi scrambled to get the Y10 to fruition, but in the meantime, the old A112 had to stay on Autobianchi’s assembly lines. Fiat were planning to phase out the Autobianchi name in due course, but took their sweet time doing it. And for whatever reason, they determined that they should start doing it on the sly and in selected markets first. When the 6th series A112 appeared in late 1982, the car became a Lancia in Sweden and Switzerland. By the 7th series (in 1984), only Italy, France, Portugal and Israel still called the A112 an Autobianchi.
Although I captured this 6th series car in France, it is a Swiss model with Geneva plates. This is the Elite version, supposedly the top of the range (alongside the Abarth, of course), with a 950cc engine, a 5-speed gearbox and power windows. Judging by the look of that interior though, I shudder to think what the base-spec A112 must have been like. I realize this is a ‘60s-designed economy car, but that cabin is about as inviting as a contemporary Trabant’s. No wonder Autobianchi was nixed and Lancia are pretty much dead nowadays: the whole purpose of Autobianchi was to provide Fiat with an upmarket alternative. There isn’t much of this primary objective left to be seen in this A112.
Lazy badge-engineering is one of the more dispiriting phenomena of the automotive world. It’s not uncommon, but in the present case, it’s so blatant that one can’t help but shake one’s head and curse. Fiat renamed the car Lancia, but they didn’t even bother putting the right badge on the grille. Come on, ragazzi, it’s not rocket science. You bothered renaming the rear of the car, but you couldn’t screw on a Lancia shield on the front at the same time? Porca miseria!
The A112 went out of production in 1986, after well over 1 million units were made. It was the most successful Autobianchi model by far, but it ended its reign in confusion. Autobianchi should have been put out of their misery there and then, but the badge carried on with the Y10 (in Italy and France) for nebulous reasons. As a car, the A112 was one of the best Mini-fighters ever devised. Peppy, modern, elegant (at least initially) and reasonably reliable, it was still produced for about five years longer than it should have. And the Lancia name should never have come near it.