The Gamma had the requisite appeal to compete against its European upper-medium executive rivals in most key areas – apart from one.
Previously, we looked at how Lancia’s in-house sibling Beta nibbled away at the Gamma’s market, but how did it compare to its intended rivals, each well established upper-middle class contenders? The European upper-middle class market was populated by just about every major manufacturer, but Citroën, Peugeot and Rover offered the closest competition to Lancia’s big saloon. Similar in its left-field appeal, Citroën’s CX was also front-wheel drive and powered by large-capacity four-cylinder engines, but unlike the Gamma was also available with a wider range of engine, trim levels and body styles.
A fundamental tenet in luxury saloon design is size and at the very least, a perception of a certain visual heft. The Gamma flew in the face of luxury car orthodoxy in several ways, but particularly here. The Lancia was a noticeably more compact car than its rivals and furthermore, it looked it. It’s immediately evident from reference to the enclosed table how the Gamma is eclipsed by each of its major rivals in several key dimensions, not just in length but most noticeably in terms of wheelbase.
By pegging the car’s dimensions to that of the previous generation Flavia, Lancia’s masters ensured the Gamma would struggle to match up to its more generously dimensioned rivals, especially when it came to interior space. Comparing a Gamma Berlina against a Rover 2600 and Peugeot 604 in 1978, Car magazine observed: “The sizes of these three cars are interesting: the Peugeot looks the biggest and the Rover the smallest. In fact, the Lancia is five inches shorter in both length and wheelbase than the others.” They went on to point out; “There is adequate room in the rear but the cushion is a little too low and short and the backrest is too upright for optimum comfort; it is only here that the Lancia is less than very impressive.” All of which suggests the figures weren’t misleading, the Gamma’s wheelbase was indeed too short for genuine comfort.
Lounging space aside, the Gamma provided an inviting ambiance, although the sales brochure’s description of; “An interior ravished with velvet upholstery and quality carpet” might have been overstating matters. Nevertheless, the Lancia’s cabin was tasteful and warm, the velvet finished seats and door cards lending the interior a sober but refined air. To be fair, the impressive finish of the Berlina possibly eclipsed that of the Citroën and would certainly have been in marked contrast to the austere and shoddily assembled Rover.
Car praised the Gamma’s driving position and its front seat comfort, but dismissed the instrument layout as ‘eccentric’, criticising a lack of oddment provision, the heating/ventilation, and the size of the boot. Nobody had a positive word for the Lancia’s big slab of a fascia moulding however, even marque celebrant, Martin Buckley latterly describing it as “easily the car’s greatest aesthetic crime”. In 1979, Lancia offered a revised interior, featuring more velour, more sober interior colours and darker carpets. A year later the series 2 models was announced, featuring even more subdued cabin decor.
On balance Car was rather taken with the Gamma, also praising its low speed ride quality and lack of wind noise in addition to its handling, ride and overall refinement. But in the end it ran a close second to the Peugeot 604 Ti, although the big French saloon was favoured by the narrowest of margins. The UK press, by and large were impressed by the Gamma, but such praise tended to come with a proviso regarding both the engine’s low-speed characteristics and the car’s unorthodox shape.
While the press gave the Gamma’s fastback silhouette a modest thumbs-up, Lancia’s conservative UK customer base clearly thought otherwise; the lack of a three volume version an impediment in what was Lancia’s biggest export market at the time. In fact it’s been suggested the conventionally (and attractively) styled coupé, (like the Flaminia before it), comfortably outsold the Berlina in the UK, despite being considerably more expensive. Did Camuffo and Pininfarina get it wrong, or did UK customers just prefer their big Lancias in coupé form?