No, we haven’t literally covered everything at CC. And I’m not talking about exclusive exotics or antediluvian ancestors. Even late ‘80s saloons from fairly well-known European makers haven’t all graced us with their presence. The proof is in the Prisma.
This one was just sitting right opposite my apartment block. Glimpsing at its front end from a distance, I initially mistook it for a common JDM taxi, but then I noticed the rear shape was a bit un-Cedric like and went over to investigate. Lo and behold, an old Lancia! Not the last thing I ever expected to see in Tokyo, but pretty far down the list.
Today, Lancia are nothing more than a reincarnation of Autobianchi, selling tarted-up Fiat 500s to Italian ladies. It could be worse: FCA sold more Lancias in Italy last year than they sold Alfa Romeos in the whole of the European Union. Still, it’s sad to see a great name turn into a small one. Back when the Prisma was launched though, in late 1982, Lancia was still a vigorous marque. Taken over by Fiat in 1969, they continued to have a loyal fan-base, despite having gone through a tough time during the ‘70s, with extremely damaging rust and build quality issues across the range, as well as a Gammapocalypse at the top.
Things started looking up in 1979 with the introduction of the Delta, based on the Fiat Ritmo / Strada. The Prisma was essentially a Delta with a bigger notchback rear end, both having been designed by Giugiaro. After the mid-‘70s hatch boom, notchbacks became popular again in the early ‘80s, especially for European mid-sizers. They had always been favoured by some markets, especially in southern countries, but now the pendulum really swung back their way. A number of carmakers proposed notchback versions of their latest hatchbacks to capture both ends of the market – Lancia themselves had just played that very game with the Trevi, a 1980 re-boot of the Beta, which the Prisma was slated to replace.
Just like the Delta, the Prisma initially came in three main variants (1300, 1500 and 1600), soon joined by a 1.9 litre Diesel – the first Lancia with such an engine. Now offering much better rust protection and a competitive price for its class, the Prisma became Lancia’s top seller on its home market and did pretty well across Europe.
In 1986, the car was given a mild facelift and a 4WD version joined the range for 1987. It came straight from the Delta HF 4WD and used the same 2-litre twin-cam 4-cyl. (first seen on the Thema), but the Prisma made do without the turbo, so only 113 hp were available. Lancia’s permanent 4WD technology was developed in collaboration with Steyr-Puch, who had just started producing the G-Wagen.
In 1988, the 4WD was renamed Integrale. That was one of the last modifications the Prisma was granted before the model vacated the Chivasso factory line at the end of 1989. Over 385,000 Prismas were made, but the Integrale is doubtless the rarest and most collectible of the lot. Which explains why I found one, I guess.
I have seen a couple sporty-looking Deltas around town, so there are some Lancia fans among the Japanese enthusiasts. What is unclear to me is whether Prismas were sold in Japan back in the day. The Delta and the Thema most probably were, but the Prisma was not overly endowed in the sports / glamour department, so pushing it this far eastwards would have been a risky strategy. Not quite as risky as leaving the doors open and the key in the ignition, to be sure…
The humble Prisma did have its moment in the sun – and its space in the executive parking lot. Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli had one made for his little jaunts around Turin. It was specially made to appear, at least externally, like a standard blue 1300 saloon, so as not to attract attention. The interior, however, was upholstered in Connally leather and the Integrale drivetrain was powered by a turbocharged 2-litre, massaged by Abarth, that provided Signor Agnelli with over 200hp, which he was never shy about using.
But for this extravagant one-off, the Prisma remained a model of good behaviour throughout its career. So much so that, over three decades on, it has probably faded from most people’s memories. I know it certainly never made much of an impression on me, unlike its Ritmo and Delta cousins. It’s not for lack of trying, though: like some other Lancias, the Prisma likes to advertise its logos on as many surfaces as possible (I counted seven full-colour Lancia shields and four “Integrale” scripts on this car), probably to remind the passerby that it is anything but a rear-ended Tokyo taxi.
A few years ago, I would probably have rejected this car’s looks as bland and derivative, but times have changed. The boxy ‘80s look, though still far from favoured by air-cooled streamliners like yours truly, have really started to become scarce and somewhat odd, in this day and age. I now see that this Prisma, while it still doesn’t rhyme with charisma, does have a certain appeal. Add the 2-litre and AWD to the mix, and things do start to become objectively interesting. There are other notchbacks from this era that I’d rate higher than this – but not many.