If there was a single over-riding theme to the Gamma’s gestation, it can be summed up in one word. Politics.
As Fiat management began the process of ingesting their new acquisition, they found they were being thwarted by Lancia’s core of loyalist engineers. Like most grand marques, Lancia was engineering/manufacturing-led, so naturally all resistance to Fiat’s integration was centred here. Camuffo himself must have been viewed with suspicion, being seen as Agnelli’s man and schooled in what was probably viewed as an inferior tradition. Furthermore, Lancia’s workforce – (previously accustomed to viewing themselves as an elite) – found life as reluctant Fiat employees a somewhat downgraded reality.
For a marque historically synonymous with the Italian aristocracy to be taken over by Fiat, a company with a populist, almost socialist outlook, tensions were inevitable. Coupled to this was a political situation within Italy during the early 1970s that would ultimately degenerate into kidnap and murder. Lancia were not alone in being affected. The ‘years of lead’ saw Italy’s entire social, political and economic landscape ripped apart by this almost daily political and ideological power struggle.
Politics notwithstanding, in 1972 work began on a new car (Tipo-830) taking elements from a shelved concept, dubbed Ammiraglia (or flagship); a concept that had originally been twinned with Citroën’s nascent CX project, featuring the French manufacturer’s signature oleopneumatic suspension amidst its technical specification. Fiat had been exploring a tie-up with Citroën at the time and given both company’s backgrounds, a Citroën – Lancia marriage would have made a good deal of sense, not least from a technical perspective. This Franco-Italian hybrid however was allegedly shelved owing to objections of French President, Charles De Gaulle – who opposed the use of French technology in an Italian car. It should not be forgotten that this came at a time when serious national rivalries continued to fester despite the post-war era of collaboration; De Gaulle having also vetoed Britain’s entry to the Common Market in 1961.
As serious development of Tipo-830 got under way, the automotive industry was hammered flat by the aftermath of the 1973 oil-shock. Italy’s economy was probably more fragile than most, and certainly the massive contraction of domestic demand caused outright panic in Fiat’s Turin headquarters. Forward programmes were either cancelled or radically downgraded as the Italian car giant tried to take stock of a fundamentally altered reality. By 1974, the climate within Italy and most especially within Fiat had become hostile to the development of an expensive, luxury flagship. As auto journalist, Richard Hughes wrote in a 1978 article for Car magazine; “The social scene convinced Fiat that, in their vital home market, large cars were dead… and in Italy, large cars start further down the scale than elsewhere in Europe”. In fact, the situation in Italy became so dire, Fiat’s management, believing the car business was finished, diversified into public transport and commercial arenas outside of the auto industry.
In some respects then, it’s surprising the Tipo-830 project wasn’t cancelled entirely, but two years into its development, perhaps it was felt too much had been invested to stop it. Outlining the Gamma’s gestation to journalists some years later, Sergio Camuffo confirmed that initially at least, Tipo-830 was intended to replace the venerable mid-range Flavia model, by then in its third series and very dated in appearance against domestic and European opposition, saying; “At Lancia, we never imagined the Gamma as a replacement for the Flaminia – [Lancia’s Sixties flagship]. The specification of the 830 project was on the contrary to give a succession to the Flavia. The ambiguity explains the choice of a 4-cylinder, in the tradition of the marque”.
Prior to the oil crisis, Fiat’s plans for Lancia had been quite ambitious as demonstrated by massive investment in the Beta family – a model range that spanned saloon, 2+2 coupé, a shooting brake estate, Spider and a mid-engined two seater. Clearly, some of these variations were aimed at the North American market, but it does appear in retrospect that there was considerable product overlap. This proliferation of model variants also presented Camuffo’s engineers with a formidable workload. In addition, some Beta models began to manifest a structural corrosion problem that would later prove fatal to the marque’s prospects in certain Northern European markets. In addition, initial versions of the mid-engine Monte Carlo model proved so wayward, it was withdrawn from production until serious braking deficiencies could be addressed.
The level of disruption caused by these crises can only be guessed at, but certainly by the time the Gamma was introduced to the press at the Geneva motor show in the spring of 1976 it was already significantly late and worse, still wasn’t ready. In fact, it would be a further year before the first cars were delivered to European customers. The reasons for this further delay is unclear, but suggests that problems already existed with Lancia’s new flagship. Similarly delayed was the elegant Gamma coupé, based on a shortened Berlina platform; to be produced at Pininfarina’s Grugliasco facility in Turin.
The car’s unveiling reportedly ended in farce as Lancia PR, in an attempt to create an aura of mystique around the car, initially refused to remove the dust shrouds covering both models. With press day fading, impatient journalists and photographers took it upon themselves to rip the covers off and in the ensuing melee, the show’s organisers compelled Lancia’s PR to keep them uncovered or risk being asked to leave. Mel Nichols reported on the unveiling for Car, describing the Gammas as “two cars of elegance and bearing”. He went on to add with chilling prescience; “No-one would dare dispute Lancia’s ability to get the mechanicals right.” That would soon change.
Read part 4 here
Sources, quotations & acknowledgements: see part one.