The Gamma’s fiery descent.
From a stylistic perspective at least, 1976 was a good time to introduce an unorthodox-looking luxury saloon, the market being temporarily disposed towards difference. Two years previously, Citroen had introduced the futuristic CX model and Rover were about to début the similarly forward-looking SD-1. Both cars offered a divergence from the classic three volume saloon template and for a time at least, buyers were prepared to accept this.
Coincidentally, all three cars could trace their stylistic basis to a single influential Pininfarina design concept. With the market disposed towards innovation, the Gamma should have been well placed to pick up sales, but didn’t. Road tests lauded the car, the public found it striking to look at, and it had one of the most respected names in the business. Yet the Gamma not only didn’t fly, it crashed noisily to earth.
The major issue was one of reliability and durability. Owners found that attempting to start the car from cold with the steering on lock, the camshaft drive (which also drove the power steering) could jump or snap causing a catastrophic meeting of valves and pistons. Similarly, if the car was parked in gear and was nudged by another vehicle (a fairly common occurrence in crowded mainland European cities) the cam-belt could jump a tooth, with similarly dire consequences.
The flat four engine was a low-volume unit produced to exact tolerances and by consequence intolerant of ill-use and unsympathetic maintenance. Gammas required high-quality engine oil changed at short, regular intervals and when owners failed to adhere to this regime, they found out exactly why Lancia engines were so costly to produce – and replace.
With Fiat and Lancia in a state of near-hostility throughout this period, engineers were slow to act on these problems, by which time the model became irreparably characterised as an ownership nightmare. Sales collapsed and a re-launched and revised model in 1981 did little to turn the tide. The series-2 model was significantly improved with engine revisions aimed at curing the power unit’s fragility. Fuel injection was standard amid other refinements, but the market had its mind made up and coming on the heels of the Beta’s well publicised failings, the Gamma never recovered.
The model remained in production until 1984, with stocks available well into 1986; it’s been said that quantities of unsold Gammas were stockpiled; the cars mildewed and deteriorating, the majority being scrapped. The final sorry production total came to a paltry 15,272 Berlinas and 6790 coupés over an eight year production run. Commercially and reputationally then, the Gamma was an unmitigated disaster.
In 1984 Lancia launched the Gamma’s successor. The resulting Tipo-834 Thema was thoroughly conventional – turbocharging and engine balance shafts notwithstanding. Although well received by the UK press, it never sold in significant numbers in Britain, and with the cars now suffering from indifferent build and shoddy aftercare, it really had no chance. Fiat trudged on for another decade before pulling the marque permanently from the British Isles, its quality reputation in tatters.
That a car with as much promise and pedigree as the Gamma failed so spectacularly has been subject to repeated post-mortems since its demise. Received wisdom points the finger at Fiat’s cost-cutting and interference which prevented Lancia engineers from carrying out their usual thorough pre-launch development. But is this the sole cause? Several additional factors bear further scrutiny within the Gamma’s initiation and development, and is around these that the basis of this examination will centre.
Part 6 here
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Sources, quotations & acknowledgements: see part one.