Lancia. Even now, it rolls off the tongue, sounds attractive, aspirational, stylish, innovative, luxury, indulgent, lively, maybe glamorous. Probably one of the greatest, and certainly one of the oldest and most innovative, European brands. Strong on engineering, strong on style, strong on being Italian. All you’d want in a great brand.
Dedra. Rolls off the tongue, sounds attractive, aspirational, stylish, innovative, luxury, indulgent, lively, maybe glamorous.
No. It is probably the worst example in recent years of a model name that didn’t transition from one language to another. In Italian, it means “gregarious” but in English, well, its connotations are sadly obvious and avoidable. And somehow, they define the car itself.
From the early years of the 20th century right through the 1960s, Lancia was amongst the most innovative makes, being the first to offer an electrical system, a monocoque chassis in 1922 and the first (mainstream) five-speed gearbox. V4 engines, rear mounted transmissions and independent suspension were all Lancia innovations, and the company, along with Citroen, were at the technical edge in Europe from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Cars like the Fulvia above show some of this very clearly–this is what a 1230cc V4, front wheel and attractive styling could get you in the late 1960s, alongside a mechanically similar saloon. Larger Lancias had the sort of histroy and assocation that any other brand would die for – just count the references to Lancia in this post about influential design.
Lancia had become part of Fiat in 1970, when the practically bankrupt company was rescued by the big brother in Turin. Lancia was effectively to become the Audi to the FIAT’s VW, or Triumph to FIAT’s Austin. Think of it as being a smart Italian suit to the British old school tie style of a Rover.
The first car to come after this was the 1972 Lancia Beta, which is remembered in the UK for one thing, and one thing alone: rust. The fair summary of the story is that the subframes and the box sections they mounted on corroded to such an extent that even relatively young cars were starting to fail the statutory annual inspection (known as the MoT test) required for all three year old cars. Once this was caught by the print and TV media in early 1980, it became one of the lead consumer stories of the year, and the whole saga blew right up in Lancia’s face.
It culminated with Lancia buying back almost as many Beta saloons as it could trace, anecdotally even scrapping sound cars. This, of course, was exactly what the consumer groups and press had demanded, and having done the right thing, Lancia still got beaten up in the press and in public perception. The quality reputation of mainstream Italian cars was already not that great (unfounded rumours of substandard Russian steel, electrical issues and a slightly fragile nature were often quoted) and has never really recovered. The Lancia brand was so tarnished, in the UK at least, that any subsequent recovery was barely credible.
The mainstream Lancia product offered at this time, apart for the dead in the water Beta, was the 1979 Delta hatchback, based on the Fiat Ritmo (or Strada in the UK) but with twin can engines and Guigaro styling. It offered anything a Golf did, with a bit of Italian passion and panache.
The Delta did well across most of Europe, helped by the great styling and from having found a niche in the market, as being not an Escort or an Astra(Kadett), but not a Golf either. In 1986, the Delta’s great rally career started, ultimately winning 46 world rally events, 6 team championships in 6 years and 4 drivers’ championships from 1987 to 1992. The cars that did this were the legendary, even immortal, Delta Integrale and Integrale Evoluzione.
Lancia offered a saloon version of the Delta, sold a little further upmarket, known as the Prisma. Like the earlier Beta range, the Delta and Prisma had adapted FIAT engines with Lancia-specific cylinder heads and injection systems.
In 1989, Lancia replaced the Ritmo-based Prisma with the new Dedra (above).
It was based on the then-new FIAT Tipo (above, another car I must CC when I can). The styling, penned by Ercole Spada (who’d also designed the E32 and E34 BMWs) was a significant step up from the very boxy and dated Prisma, recovering some of the gracefulness you’d expect of the Lancia brand.
The Delta, bolstered by motorsport successes, remained a strong seller until 1993, when it was replaced by the second generation car–effectively a Dedra hatchback.
Technically, it was the same story as the Prisma, with Lancia specific developments to the FIAT engine and running gear. Engines were a range of 1.6 to 2.0 4 cylinder petrol and diesel engines, some with turbocharging. The ultimate version was the Dedra Integrale, featuring a similar 170bhp 2.0 litre turbo and four wheel drive system as those found on the Delta Integrale 8V. There was also an estate version from 1996 until 2000, when the model range was replaced by the Lybra. The Tipo/Dedra also formed a basis for the first front wheel drive Alfa Romeo built in northern Italy–the Alfa 155, also styled by Spada.
The Dedra was never as premium as the BMW 3 series or Audi A4. In fact, it is only fair to consider it as a nicely trimmed, more comfortable, saloon version of the FIAT Tipo, rather than a BMW competitor. And therein lay one of the car’s main issues–FIAT offered a saloon version of the Tipo, known as the Tempra, which commanded a premium over the Tipo itself and was offered with high spec interior trim packages.
Perhaps the Dedra could be seen as a competitor to the plusher versions of the VW Jetta and Vento (the European name for the Jetta Mk3), Rover 400 series (which was never a mainstream competitor in the UK, where it valiantly tried to achieve semi-premium status) and the Volvo 460 and later S40. That’s without considering the Alfa Romeo 155–essentially the same car with an Alfa engine and distinct Alfa attitude.
The Dedra’s core market was Italy and other southern European markets, such as France, where I saw this example, as well as Switzerland. Sales in northern Europe, the traditional stronghold of German premium brands, were always slower.
In the UK, however, there was another issue–the legacy of the Beta rust saga had left the Lancia brand almost irreparably damaged and as the Dedra was aimed at a conservative and therefore older clientele, the Beta story was was still there in potential owners’ consciousness. Add to this the fact that the car was sold alongside FIATs in the same showroom, along with the brand’s limited model range compared with the likes of Audi or BMW, and slow sales can’t have been a great surprise.
In 1993, Lancia let it be known the next Delta, due in 1994, would not be offered with right hand drive and it was clear that the writing was on the wall for the Dedra. The other cars Lancia were peddling in the UK were the Y10 luxury supermini and the slow selling and by then dated Thema executive car, closely related to the FIAT Croma, Alfa Romeo 164 and SAAB 9000.
In 1994, Lancia left the UK, never to return. There is still a Lancia Delta, based now on the 2007 FIAT Bravo but with an extended wheelbase–similar to the Vauxhall Signum or Chevy Malibu Maxx–which was marketed in the UK as the Chrysler Delta from 2011 to last year, when it faded from the price lists, due to buyer apathy.
So, a great brand, laid low by a corrosion issue, then a great car, followed up by some slightly anonymous products, the last of which was called Dedra. The brand has died in the UK and remains on life support elsewhere, still seeking a real identity while having to rely on shared product with Chrysler. On The Continent, Lancia currently sells the Ypsilon, the Delta, the Flavia, better known as the Chrysler 200 convertible (soon to be discontinued), the Thema (rebadged Chrysler 300) and the Voyager, having taken over European marketing of Chrysler’s minivan.
So let me remind you of the name of that car again: Dedra, a comically accurate foreshadowing of the brand’s reputation and fortunes both in the UK and Europe in general. With a limited budget to compete with highly developed rivals in an era of increasing liberalized trade, little remains of the elegant, innovative company Lancia once had been, leaving enthusiasts of great cars today sitting quietly, shaking their heads.