The tale is etched in automotive folklore, but how well do we really know the Lancia Gamma ? In this series, we unravel its difficult birth and inglorious career.
Death by a thousand Fiats:
Fiat’s stewardship of Lancia has been such a shameful series of episodes, it’s difficult now to imagine the road to perdition being paved with good intentions. Because if nothing else, the Gamma stands as an illustration of how mergers and acquisitions never quite work out. Throughout its history as an independent manufacturer, Lancia produced exquisitely engineered automobiles that garnered respect and deep admiration, but consistently cost more than the company could afford.
For decades, Lancia’s corporate culture centred round the concept of innovation and engineering depth, coupled with the finest quality. Once the preserve of an elite; customers from the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie, to Pontiffs and film stars, Lancia’s descent from the very pinnacle of grand marques contains within it an element of grand opera. The manner in which a proud nameplate became little more than a clumsily ennobled Fiat stands as amongst the shameful examples of brand mismanagement in recent automotive history.
Lancia’s ethos was aptly illustrated by the fact that their expansive Sixties car range was based upon three unique platforms, each with a model-specific engine, and little mechanical commonality. By the end of the decade, Lancia’s business collapsed largely because, as a mid-market player, it simply couldn’t cover the vast expenses incurred producing such finely wrought machinery.
As the European auto industry contracted during the late Sixties, and with debts thought to be over 100 billion lire, it became impossible for them to continue. In 1969 they fell into the hands of Fiat Auto, entering perhaps the most protracted and humiliating decline of latter-day automotive memory and it’s from this turbulent cauldron, the subject of our examination emerged, unready, in the spring of 1976.
The Gamma’s primary achievement appears to be its notoriety. Best remembered for mechanical frailty, yet there was much to admire: its technical specification, its styling and its superb road behaviour. Lancia’s Seventies flagship also contained more marque-specific engineering than any contemporary or latterday model, representing perhaps the final flowering of a noble line.
Mythology states it was Lancia’s chance to prove it could build a luxury saloon according to marque ideals; its failure ensuring Fiat would never sanction anything as expensive and individualistic again.
Certainly, if we look at the Gamma’s successor – (the 1986 Type-4 Thema) – a resolutely conventional design in style and engineering, one could be forgiven for cleaving to this view. Similarly, the primary reason for the car’s failure is well documented – namely its problematic engine. But is it possible we only know one facet of the story?
The purpose of this series is to examine whether this factor alone explains the car’s lack of commercial success or whether its failure has as much to do with Fiat’s lack of a cohesive creative vision for both Lancia marque and the Gamma itself. But before we delve into the car’s origins, we’ll first examine the economic and political background from which it emerged…
Part 2 here
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Sources, quotations & acknowledgements:
Explaining Lock-in through the Concept of Hegemony: Evidence from Fiat’s take-over of Lancia in 1969 by Giuliano Maielli – Hull University
Fiat: The gloves come off! Richard Hughes for Car Magazine: August 1978
Giant Test: Car Magazine: August 1978
Motor – Lancia Gamma Coupé group test : October 20 1979
Roger Bell – Gamma Coupé Turbo: Car Magazine: November 1981
Sunrise Industry – Gordon Kent – Car Magazine: December 1984
George Bishop – Greek Tragedy – Car Magazine: November 1987
Martin Buckley, Classic & Sports Car: July 1987
Martin Buckley – Classic Cars: December 2000
Riches to Rags – Gamma Berlina vs Peugeot 604 – Classic & Sports Car: January 2007
Classic Cars Magazine: May 2012
Russell Campbell, Classic & Sportscar online
Marco Visani, Gazoline Magazine February 2011