Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part One

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.

The 1976 Lancia Gamma Berlina. Image via ourclassiccars.
The 1976 Lancia Gamma Berlina. Image via ourclassiccars.

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

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

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
Gammaweb.nl
Russell Campbell, Classic & Sportscar online
Marco Visani, Gazoline Magazine February 2011

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

5 thoughts on “Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part One”

  1. Eóin, this sounds very promising! The Gamma has for long been one of my “secret favourites”, and I’m looking forward to learning more about it.

  2. Isn’t the Gamma a car that fascinates and scares in equal measure? I’d love to drive one to find out. How expensive/unpredictable is the cambelt problem to deal with?
    I am looking forward to seeing how this turns out.
    One point: was Lancia a middle market car in the 1960s? I thought they were quite pricey, up with Mercedes and Jaguar.

    1. Lancias were upmarket cars and were priced at a premium, but they were not priced exorbitantly. Yes they were very expensive here in the British Isles during the 1960’s, largely due to high purchase taxes levied against imported cars. This was before Britain and Ireland’s entry into the common market. It is worth remembering that Jaguars, for instance, were absurdly cheap at the time, largely due to Billy Lyon’s penny-pinching.

      Re: Cambelt issue. The Gamma enthusiast networks have largely solved this problem over the intervening years. It is worth noting however that owners should not start the car with the wheels on lock as this places undue strain on the belts.

      In terms of rust, Gammas didn’t rot any more enthusiastically than anything else of that era. They were in fact produced to a high standard. The rust issues that bedeviled the Beta was largely confined to the Beta series-1 I believe.

  3. Lancia in 70s UK was known for rust issues which had a negative impact on sales. I would think not many survived here due to corrosion plus sale numbers were always minimal compared to the competition.

  4. The Beta rust scandal was legendary. I read period reviews of the car and if you read carefully you can see small comments about superficial rust (on brand new vehicles). However, at the time it was not seen as such a killer problem. By the time the Trevi came out the matter was considered closed. I think something else did for Lancia rather than just rust. It was a poor dealer network and the fact that Lancia´s image became blurred. There was no reason to buy one even if they did not rust. The dealers were few and bad as well.
    About sales, there was point where Lancia outsold BMW. It used to be a popular imported car when such things were called imports. As recently as maybe the mid 80s they were selling something like 15,000 cars a year in the UK. The final Lancia line-up in 1992 was the Thema, Dedra and I can´t think of anything else. There was nothing to sell. These cars were a world away from the patrician and Fulvias and Flavias of the just fifteen years earlier.

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