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?).
Always loved the front and rear end on these cars – shame about the overall proportions though.
if they could have just gone a bit more jag XJ on the proportions it could have been a real stunner, and less like a rover 75 with a fancy face on it.
Very nice, specially the ones with with the V6 engines. These are very underrated, uniquely styled cars and personally I have never understood why they sold as badly as they did. I’m seriously considering picking one up. A good, low mileage Thesis can be had here for next to nothing and it’s a bona fide future classic.
Looks very similar to a Kia Amanti
The headlight shape – subtly imitating the grill – has unfortunate echoes of the Docker Daimlers….
Yes, the Thesis must have inspired its Korean cousin… the stubbier, uglier Kia Amanti.
You would almost be tempted to buy this for the interior alone, but then, that front end….yuck.
Even the engine choices sound interesting and with an available 6 speed manual transmission, what a car.
Agree. That front end kills it for me.
They got the proportioning right on the Dialogos; what a shame the Thesis didn’t look more like that. Or the Papal Giubileo.
But then, would it have mattered what the car looked like? Did people trust the Lancia brand any more?
If only it had rwd proportions, and maybe weren’t quite as tall. More like an Acura Legend.
An unfortunately styled but interesting car nonetheless, at least it can’t be accused of just blending in with everything else. That gray color with red leather? Yes, that’s a winner. Or even the tan or perhaps a shade darker like the shade Ferrari seems to prefer works too. Black interior seems a waste though, so no loss on you not getting pix of that.
Anyway, all the blather we hear periodically about how Japan is a “closed market” seems to be just that, you’ve demonstrated yet again that even when it comes to fairly late model vehicles, Japan seems to be extremely accommodating and its buyers seem to seek out interesting models from the world over, even some American ones such as Jeeps. Just not large pickups or other stuff that the US otherwise seems to specialize in.
A nicely done 1/43 scale promotional model of the Thesis ended up in my collection after a short trip by my wife to Italy. Of course I’d never seen a real one in my part of the American west so an odd, four door sedan Lancia does stand out a bit among models of more common subjects on an office shelf. I’m glad I have the model.
It does rather look like a bit like a conventional sedan done up by one of the Japanese retro houses.
I remember well when it came out. I liked it, for being refreshingly different. I suspect it may well have been influenced by the Rover 75, although I’m not sure if the timelines would have allowed that. It must have been in the air at the time. Sleek retro.
The styling of the Rover 75 was a development of the ideas in the earlier (1993) 600, especially if looking at Richard Woolley’s concept sketches. By coincidence that has numberplates with ‘Thesix Hundred’ on.
I think it’s actually a shame the Lancia didn’t follow the Dialogos concept more closely for the Thesis; definitely more distinctive, especially the treatment of the flanks and they way the waistline resolves at the rear. Even that rear pillar works with the other shapes.
I had actually seen a Thesis once, in 2014, parked at the Serbian Embassy in Washington, DC. I found it rather odd looking in person, and at first didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was. I haven’t thought about the Thesis much since then, so it’s good to read about its full story here. I will say this: That interior is awfully nice-looking.
Paul’s right. Especially from the side it is a conventional-looking generic sedan. The rear is trimmed nicely but that front and especially those headlights! It looks like they took the styling of the Lybra, which is itself quite generic looking, and made it different for the sake of making it different. Never mind style to match its intended market…just different. It didn’t take much effort, but by then it seemed that whatever was happening at Lancia was “phoned in.” The next step was rebadging the Chrysler 300, a car with an entirely different personality than what Lancia represented. That wasn’t even phoned in…it was texted.
The last relaunch of the brand Maybach , owned by Mercedes Benz , didn’t get lucky numbers either and the marque was dropped.
With all the prejudices for Lancia’s parenthood with Fiat, no prejudice can shadow the evidence that this rare Lancia Thesis is an exquisite piece of art design.
That limo has a Maybach look about it, to me.
I always enjoy your writing – clever and fun. This title is one of many great puns from your hand. Maybe the best.
I like the Thesis and other oddballs like the C6. I’d be happy to snag one up now, but honestly I would not have considered one when new – that free-falling depreciation trumps adorable quirkiness.
So glad you found one. These are fascinating and I had no idea they had their own bespoke platform. What a boondoggle.
Love the wheels on this one. This is a modern car that can actually pull off two-tone too.
I have a soft spot for these, even if I accept they’re everyone’s taste. A sort of Rover 95, if you like, with some of the kitsch retro Britishness replaced with a softer more contemporary style. That interior is actually pretty neat to me, and probably more to my taste than the Rover.
But isn’t the last real Lancia the Gamma? Maybe? Only Fiat’s money in that one.
I never understood the front of this car, I once read an article it was supposed to be an hommage to the Aurelia B 20 Coupe but I guess they got very, very drunk.
There was one burgundy Thesis around where I live, but I have not seen it around for a long time now.
The interiors of these cars are fantastic, in a way that nobody can make such a fine interior like an Italian can with smashing finishing, I like these cars better then a Maserati Quattroporte, the Thesis interior bears an air of understated chique.
I drove a Diesel and a petrol, I had to bring these to another dealer for my friend who is a Fiat, Alfa, Lancia dealer, they drive ok, handling is as you expect from an Italian car , the blue dials reminded me of my 75 Alfa Giulia Nuova.
Thesis is now slowly getting appreciated, like the C6 from Citroën, prices are going up but these two cars are mainly victims of the way large cars are being offered in Europe today, namely by leasing companies and these companies dominate the market and are in love with the German three, simply for reasons of accounting.
And that is probably the main reason why the French and Italian limousines have disappeared, lease companies rule the world!
Seems one was a tad previous with one’s appellation, Dr T, but still now, you’ve got your Thesis and as they say, that’s a better fate than never, so one’s congrats to one and all that, what.
400 million smackers for its own bespokery seems all a bit foolhardy. Presumably the consultants who told them the numbers were ticketty-boo graduated to doing US polling now.
“Not inelegant”, you say. Now of course, I’m not about to suggest you have just effused, but you haven’t exactly nose-wrinkled either, as the combination of snoozy blanderry and startling oddity in the pictures might suggest is necessary. Is it one of those things that is not the same when seen in the real world?
Reminds me of an International Lonestar truck.
An interesting read. I had the good fortune to test drive one of these about ten years ago. It was the petrol V6. Looking back I can´t recall anything about the car that would hint at its poor sales. While I reckon the car could have been a little lower, it is an excellent package for driver and passengers so you can see why it is tall. It drives beautifully – you can waft along if you like but if you want to press on the car handles with aplomb. The two problems with the car are that it was too big and costly – it was up against intensely well-developed rivals in the 5 and the E. And Lancia had a reputation as cars that offered sensitive and feelsome controls so you were involved in the driving. The Thesis was too reserved – ideal as a limousine but not as interesting as cars like the Mondeo Mk2 and Peugeot 406 which had well tuned controls.
What Lancia needed was a Mondeo/Passat/406 sized car and not something from the D class. And they needed driver apeal rather than well executed anasthæsia.
I think it´s a wonderful car for what it is but it was the wrong product for Lancia.
If the moderators don´t mind, here is a link to my wordy test drive article:
“A very fine job of making the wrong car” – very nice.
For all the great effort, it seems that every single element misses – the beautiful glove box that holds just a ciggy pack – and in any case should have been used in other combinations across other models (or more coherently combined in the one).
As noted above though, it must make them a killer buy presently. Old BM’s and Mercs aren’t going to be any less trouble-prone or costly by now, and freed of its competitive new-car role, it’s got to be far more interesting than them.
One other thing, I also test drove a Lancia Kappa which preceded the Thesis. Though not as finely made (it´s not bad, and it is comfy and distinctive) it is a very convincing balance of ride and handling. It is also handily sized – spacious inside but not bulky. If you don´t mind the fake wood trim and odd plastics it is in many ways a much more convincing car than the Thesis. It also looks incredibly distinctive despite its restrained looks (you´d never mistake it for anything else).
FCA also did the opposite, i.e. rebadging Lancia Ypsilons as Chryslers, for certain markets.
Especially in the United Kingdom and Ireland where Lancia was forever doomed in the 1980s for the prodigious rust manifestation. So, Lancia never recovered from the bad publicity there.
Living in Germany, it was weird seeing second-generation Chrysler 300 rebadged as Thema Executive (with better looking grille), Chrysler Town and Country as Voyager, and Chrylser 200 as Flavia.
Lancia model range has been dwindled to single model and limited to a single market today: Italy-only Ypsilon based on Fiat 500.