Finally found one! Had to go all the way to bloody Japan, but there it is, in front of me, glaring at me with its sad eyes. I hadn’t seen one in probably ten years, but then that’s how long I’ve been out of Europe. Some call this the last Lancia and in many ways, it is. It was also a major bomb that precipitated the marque’s downfall. A true blue Deadly Sin – perfect CC fodder.
It was already evident, by the late ‘90s, that Lancia’s future appeared a lot darker than its past. Ever since Fiat had taken the firm over in 1969, the marque’s essence seemed to have gradually evaporated. Lancias, once known for their workmanship and engineering prowess, were now known for their glitches and rampant rust. Fiat decided to pair Lancia and Autobianchi together, muddying the marque’s image by associating it with city cars. The larger Lancias of the ‘80s and ‘90s were hit-and-miss, sometimes bland and often badge-engineered versions of cheaper Fiats and more interesting Alfa Romeos, always playing second fiddle to someone else.
Yet the Lancia shield still had mystique. Within the Fiat group, some saw how wasteful the conglomerate had been with the marque and sought to revive it. After all, this was the peak retro era. VW were recreating the Beetle as a chic FWD quasi-luxury car, so anything must have seemed possible. Mike Robinson, head of Fiat Centro Stile’s Lancia office, had just designed the Lybra (above), which was about to go into production on the Alfa 156 platform and usher in the look of big Lancias for the next decade – chromed retro grille, round headlamps, conservative three-box shape (albeit with very rounded edges), simple flanks, thin C-pillar, vertical taillamps.
Just as the Lybra was going into production, Lancia surprised the cognoscenti by unveiling the Dialogos at the 1998 Turin Motor Show. This was a clear foreshadowing of the new big Lancia, though it remained a show car. Several features never made it to the final Thesis, such as the swiveling front seats, wood-panelled doors and floors, or the clamshell doors sans B-pillar (an old Lancia tradition) or door handles. The Dialogos was never equipped with an engine, so it was really a pure styling and packaging exercise, but it definitely pointed its sharp grille towards the future of Lancia.
In the year 2000, even before the launch of the Thesis, Lancia made a Thesis-based special for the Vatican. The Lancia Giubileo, a 5.5m long armoured landaulet, reminded most observers of the Dialogos, but this one obviously had an engine (an Alfa 3-litre V6) and generally looked a bit different – the grille was a bit less imposing, the rear end less abrupt. The end of production of the Lancia Kappa, in the summer of 2000, made it even clearer that the time was coming for a new executive Lancia.
The Thesis was finally unveiled at the 2001 Geneva Motor Show, but it took about a year for the cars to actually get to the showrooms. Petrol engine choices included a 2.0 Turbo (185hp) and a 2.4 litre (170hp) 5-cyl., as well as Alfa’s 3-litre (215hp) “Busso” V6, augmented to 3.2 litres and 230hp from 2005. Diesel-wise, the initial proposal was the 2.4 litre JTD 5-cyl. – only good for 150hp, but that was superseded by a 20-valve multijet design that ended up providing 185hp. These drove the front wheels via a either a 6-speed manual or a 5-speed auto.
The Lancia Thesis was never going to have a bespoke engine, of course. And you could be forgiven for thinking the same of the rest of the car, but you’d be wrong. The platform and its sophisticated all-independent multilink suspension, made of aluminium and steel, were all designed and used solely for the Lancia flagship. Fiat invested over €400 million in this titanic enterprise and they were sure it would pay off.
Going by the Kappa’s modest numbers – just over 100,000 units made in eight years – and adding a dollop of optimism, Lancia figured they should be able to shift 13,000 cars per year initially and might need to increase production to 25,000 if sales really took off. After all, the Thesis’ rivals, such as the BMW 5-Series, the Jaguar S-Type or the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, were selling quite briskly in those days. Suffice to say they kind of missed the mark: just under 16,000 Thesis were made from 2002 to 2009. Reality bit, and it bit hard.
So what happened? There are several factors, it seems. One was that the Thesis’ fierce competitors were present in a number of European markets that Lancia had forgone, such as the UK, so Lancia’s flagship was not as widely offered as some. The styling, despite the Italian reputation for elegance and beauty in all things, was not to everyone’s taste either. It seems only the Italians got the point of it – foreign sales were abysmal.
Perhaps a variant or two might have helped, too. Sure, it hardly moved the needle for the Kappa – the K coupé and wagon were for connoisseurs only, in a way – but you never know, sometimes you get luckier with the derivative than the main. It happened before. The sole attempt at a special Thesis was coachbuilder Stola’s limousine, which is not exactly a recipe for volume production. Three limos were made and that was that.
Our feature car, by the way, is a late model Thesis, as evidenced by this “1∞th” symbol on the B-pillar. This series was originally launched as a limited edition in 2006 for the 100th anniversary of Lancia and as a way to peddle the latest amelioration of the Thesis, i.e. the 185hp Diesel coupled with the 5-speed sequential autobox. The only available colours were black and gray – joyful hues perfectly suited to celebrate a birthday.
Actually, the fun was all inside. I did not manage to take a photo of our feature car, but here’s what it should look like in these. The red leather coupled with the deletion of the wood veneer gives this interior a bit of a zing that might not be present in the “regular” Thesis.
For whatever reason, the leather in the Thesis I caught was black. The package also included model-specific 18’’ alloys and was available until the end of production, in 2009. It seems the last cars made in 2008-09 were all Diesels, probably because that’s what the Italian markets craved.
I’m guessing that this Thesis might be a 2007 model because I found one for sale in Japan on the web – just the one, which is saying something! – wearing the same colour and from this vintage, but with a petrol engine and no 1∞th package. It’s a shame so few of these were imported here: given how retro-obsessed Japanese car-buyers can be, the Thesis could have made a real splash here if Lancia had given it a go. But I guess this all took place before Fiat renewed their efforts at conquering Japan, after the formation of FCA: Jeeps, Fiat 500s, Maseratis and Alfas are pretty common in Tokyo traffic. Lancias are definitely not, though I have seen older ones on occasion.
As we all know, the death knell of Lancia in general and of the Thesis in particular was the aforementioned Chrysler deal. Fiat found themselves with a surfeit of platforms and bodies to amortize, so they just slapped Lancia shields on various Chryslers. For good measure, FCA also did the opposite, i.e. rebadging Lancia Ypsilons as Chryslers, for certain markets.
Whatever brand equity was still present in the Lancia name evaporated by the early 2010s. Which leaves us with the Thesis as the last big Lancia worthy of the name, a gloriously wasteful and, in the metal, not inelegant executive saloon — in the best and worst tradition of its storied maker, may it rest in peace (is it dead yet?).