Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part Nine

The Gamma had the requisite appeal to compete against its European upper-medium executive rivals in most key areas – apart from one. 

The Gamma received a mild visual facelift and considerable technical revision in 1980. Image:leroux.andre
The Gamma really could have used a few additional millimetres aft of the B-pillar. This is a Series 2 model. Image:leroux.andre

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.

Gamma table 2. Data souce: Carfolio/Lancia
Gamma table 2. Data souce: Carfolio/Lancia

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.

It looks spacious, but rivals were roomier. Image:lookautophoto
It looks spacious, but rivals were roomier. Image:lookautophoto

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.

A pleasant interior spoiled by an ugly slab of moulded plastic. Image:lanciagamma-altervista
A pleasant interior spoiled by an ugly slab of moulded plastic. Image:lanciagamma-altervista

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?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part Nine”

  1. These days we assume each generation of car is a little bigger than the last so a Fiat Punto now weighs more than a 1974 130 saloon. Could it be that Camuffo did not see it that way? He could have seen the car as conforming to a size-class defined by absolute and not relative numbers.

    1. You could see it that way of course, but Camuffo admitted he intended the Gamma to be a direct replacement for the Flavia, itself a car more in the E12 BMW 5-Series idiom. By pricing the Gamma at the same level as cars like the 604, it tempted direct comparisons; ones the Lancia wasn’t necessarily capable of answering convincingly. This happened quite a lot during this period, where the replacement to a well regarded model was priced well outside its commercial comfort zone – something that rarely ended well for the manufacturer in question.

  2. When you actually sit in a car in a showroom, you get a closer idea of its actual dimensions but, until then, it tends to be based on subjective observation. Based on that, I always think of the Gamma as a spacious car, and I’d have put it up with the CX and above the Rover, so it’s interesting to see the reality.

    I was thinking about size this morning, waiting for a Nissan dealer to open, and looking at the confusion of vehicles on the forecourt that are built on the Nissan B / B0 / V platforms, many of which share a wheelbase, but are often viewed as fitting into different categories.

    1. When I began to research and write this series, my intention was to gain a more rounded picture of why the Gamma failed so abjectly. Yes, hindsight points to its engine maladies, but these were not widely reported upon during its lifespan, so most prospective buyers would have been ignorant of them. It’s entirely possible that the Gamma’s shorter wheelbase to that of its rivals didn’t impact upon its showroom appeal to a noticeable extent – after all, both the Peugeot and Rover had bulky transmission tunnels which would have robbed rear space. Nevertheless, perceptions matter, as does size.

  3. Entirely coincidentally, I have read an academic article today which examines the role of appearance and technical innovation on sales. It took a 29 year period and examined the sales of every new car launched in Germany in the main six classes of car. They found visual and technical innovation were postitiely associated with sales success. The Gamma had technical and visual innovation on its side but it bucked the trend revealed by the quanititative study.
    We might consider the hypothesis that the market for the kind of car Lancia made had declined in size. I am assuming here that there is a person who wants a Lancia type of car and it could be there were fewer of them in 1976 than in 1966. I might also wheel out the engine range hypothesis. That is that no matter how good your car, the smaller the engine range the less of them you will sell. For specialist cars this is less likely to be true. For a mainstream hatch or saloon its critical. The car is a generalist body and needs to be matched to a specific engine for it to be well suited to its buyer. Without looking I bet I can find nearly no top selling cars with only one or two engines. Even if the buyers don´t take up the full range of engines, they need to be there to entice the customer in to look at what´s on offer. It´s my price range theory again, isn´t it? It didn´t help that the one engine Lancia offered was a stinker

    1. I don’t think the market had dwindled in size, more that there were a greater number of entrants that were, for the most part, very competitive. So in addition to the rivals mentioned above, you could also theoretically include the Renault 30, Opel Senator and Ford Granada, possibly the turbo Saab 900 at a pinch – good cars all. The potential Gamma owner therefore was offered a lot of choice.

      Speaking of engines, the Gamma was also offered with a 2-litre variant of the Tipo 830 flat-four unit in mainland Europe, although not in the UK. This may have been a marketing error – certainly at that capacity, the unit’s rough idle characteristics may have been less of an issue. Wouldn’t have been any less fragile though.

  4. Two engines is not what one could call a bewildering choice. Our other favourite also ran, the 604, also offered two choices (distinguished by fuel injection or triple carbs).

  5. Sorry to butt in but isn’t brand loyalty a significant factor when selling cars? The Gamma’s dated looking predecessor, the 2000, sold only 14,319 and there was a gap between its demise and the introduction of the Gamma. To increase sales dramatically would have required something revolutionary along with a lot of luck at a time when, as Eoin pointed out, there was plenty of quality opposition. I suspect that regardless of design faults and reliability, this car was doomed from the outset although I’m glad it existed. If I was braver and had somewhere to store it (the Cornish coastal air eats cars) I’d even consider buying one.

    1. I believe that that Lancia’s brand loyalty is now down to single figures – all of them write on this website, but none of them actually owns a Lancia. Possibly this explains Sergio’s frustration.

    2. Never stopped Archie Vicar, although towards the end I think that the Cornish coastal air had oxidised his entire being.

    3. Yes, that is also a factor. Peugeot and Citroen fell off the customer carousel with their 605 (four year gap) and C6 (five year gap?) when replacing the 604 and XM respectively. This is why the Japanese replace models on strict schedules. BMW, Audi and Mercedes are much the same. A product gap is a sales disaster.

    4. That is even more true that many new cars are being bought on balloon payment schemes. Manufacturers need new metal to keep that finance rolling over.

  6. The lack of transmission choice surely didn’t help either. If i recall correctly, the Gamma was not available with an automatic until the end of the production cycle. The automatic was also a one-off job like the engine, surely not the most economical way to build cars.

    If you compare the development that even cash-strapped Citroen was able to invest in the CX, we can see how far the abandonment of the Gamma went. From 1976 to 1985, the CX got
    – Two additional bodies (The LWB Prestige and the hugely popular Estate)
    – Diesel engines, including one of the first turbocharged ones (These were hugely successful, accounting for more than 50% of the production IIRC)
    – A fast petrol Autobahn special (The turbocharged GTI)
    – A conventional autobox (ZF 3HP22)
    – ABS integrated into the high pressure braking system

    1. There was also the replacement of the original interior at some point in the middle 80s. In retrospect it was less pleasant but at the time might have seemed appealing.

    2. The Automotive Products four-speed automatic gearbox was bought-in rather than bespoke engineered by Lancia and was said to have made up the bulk of UK Gamma orders once it became available. However, it was also reputed to be so troublesome, almost all of the surviving examples have been retro-fitted with the more durable five-speed manual.

    3. The CX was also offered with the semi-automatic C-Matic gearbox – the manual box with the first gear omitted and a torque converter and the same type of gearstick mounted microswitch as was used in the Ro80, in place of a clutch. I’ve never tried one, but it would be interesting to see if it could be driven about in top gear all the time, in the same manner as the old two speed Hondamatic.

      The Lancia AP gearbox is not strictly ‘bought-in’, but that’s a mere accident of its troubled gestation. AP chose not to build the gearbox as the numbers weren’t big enough to make it profitable. It ended up being built in the Lancia factory in Verrone, in northern Piedmont, which now builds FCA’s C635 dual dry clutch transmission.

      The AP-developed gearbox was also available for the 1500cc Delta and Prisma. Probably significantly, Fiat opted for a VAG autobox for the contemporary Ritmo with the same engine.

    4. My Dad had a Prestige C-Matic, but unfortunately he’s not around to ask. He liked the car generally, but after automatic Jags, I recollect he found the performance both disappointing and frustrating, not being a true auto – which I suppose suggests that it couldn’t be driven entirely in 3rd. I’d offer my own driving impressions but, as a company car, I wasn’t insured to drive it – at least that was what he told me at the time. Fantastic rear seat though.

  7. Why is the third and fourth sideglass not one piece? There’s a chrome pillar dividing what should be one piece of glass aft of the C-pillar. What is it for?

    1. That isn’t a piece of glass Richard, it just looks like one in the photo above. In fact, it’s an air extractor; Pininfarina/Lancia opting for a similar visual motif to that of the original XJ-S to help disguise a massive c-pillar.

  8. Ah, silly me. On some editions it was metallic. I notice there’s a peculiar chrome item on the rear corner of the car, where the chrome roof edge meets the lower edge of the sideglass.

  9. I think size was a major problem for all Italian D & E segments at the time. If you look at an Alfetta, a 132, a Beta or Gamma, they all seemed to be approximately one segment smaller than the British/German equivalents.

    Especially since cheap Ford/Opel stuff seemed to major on body size, the Italian preference for cars that fitted their old towns & winding mountain roads, might well have cost them international sales. Not to mention the Russian steel and Communist-afflicted assemblers…

    1. Hi Nick – Alfa were too poor to invest in a proper platform so the Alfa 6 had the Alfetta’s centre cell. The small town theory is interesting yet I feel German, French and British town centres are equally likely to have narrow streets. Maybe the Italians didn’t want to increase the cars’ size each generation because they thought the class dimensions were fixed or thought of them as fixed.

  10. I’d give some credit to the narrow streets theory. I spent quite a bit of time in Tuscany and Umbria in the early ’80s and was surprised at the number of Leyland Sherpas in use. It made immediate sense after negotiating hill-town streets, which would have been impassable in Euro-pallet swallowing Transit clones.

    I don’t remember seeing any Alfa Sixes, nor Gammas. The favoured transport of the Italian middle classes at the time was the Volvo 240, usually powered by the five cylinder VAG diesel.

  11. Hi Eóin, I’m bumping this old post back from the archives, because it got me thinking, and I’d really like some input from more knowledgeable people.

    What if Camuffo had opted for different engines for the Gamma? Here are a few ideas:
    1. Fulvia-derived narrow V4s in capacities of 1.8 and 2 liters, with a narrow V6 for the 2.4- and 2.8-liter displacements, all transversely mounted;
    2. The 2-liter inline-four from the Beta as the “base” engine, with a narrow V6 for the 2.4- and 2.8- liter displacements, again transversely mounted;
    3. The 2-liter inline-four from the Beta as the “base” engine, with a Fiat 130-derived V6 for the 2.4- and 2.8- liter displacements, again transversely mounted.
    Also, what if the Gamma was given a longer wheelbase? With the one it had, it was in the same league as the BMW E12 5-series, but a 10 cm increase would bring it closer to the Mercedes W123. I don’t think placing the Gamma in the same size and price bracket as the aforementioned West German offerings would be completely implausible.

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