Gamma: Signs and Portents – Part Twelve

Ultimately then, how does one encapsulate the Lancia Gamma?

Image: schlichtmeier
Image: schlichtmeier

When Fiat handed Sergio Camuffo Lancia’s flatlining cadaver and told him to administer emergency CPR, he did the best he could, but there was only so much that could be achieved. Because despite Fiat management allowing him sufficient autonomy during the immediate post-takeover period to produce cars that were (on the face of things at least) respectful of Lancia’s traditions, the Italian car giant’s locked-in prejudice against the upmarket led to a fatal ambivalence. This schizophrenic attitude to their new acquisition most likely informed the compromises that damned both the Beta family and later, the Gamma itself.

Also at odds were the ideologies of the two marques: Fiat management found themselves tied up in an acrimonious war of attrition with loyalists within Lancia’s engineering team over the identity of their crippled marque. Yet within this maelstrom, work was supposed to be progressing on new model development, so it is fairly unsurprising that attention and critical resources were diverted during the course of the Gamma’s development. Couple this with the catastrophic fallout of the oil crisis, political intrigue and the multiplicity of Lancia’s range by the mid-seventies and it becomes apparent that Fiat’s product planning function had become dysfunctional. This is particularly evident in the decision to place the mid-sized Tipo 830 concept into the luxury saloon sector.

The aspects of the Gamma’s performance envelope that were rightfully lauded were the very factors that Lancia engineers had intended to imbue the car with. Excellence in road-holding, handling and steering were all marque hallmarks, and indeed requisites for a sporting saloon, but not the foremost priority in a luxury flagship. The Gamma’s weaker aspects were the very things a luxury car buyer expected; interior space, quiet running, the snob value of a multi-cylinder engine and unsurprisingly, dependability. Pitted against 2-litre rivals, the Gamma would have been a far more compelling sales proposition than it was to become as corporate flagship, simply because it was palpably the wrong car for the job.

But even had the Gamma been a commercial success, it would have been superseded by a markedly more conventional motor car. The reason for that lies within Fiat’s corporate culture and the mentality which ultimately straitjacketed them into the lower reaches of the market. Academic, Giuliano Maielli: “After an initial attempt to shift upmarket, Fiat remained locked in the lower segments of the market (as is still the case today) while Lancia lost its brand and technical specificity along with its internationally acclaimed reputation as a manufacturer of high quality and high performance cars.”

Because even as the Gamma was launched in the UK, some keen eyed observers were viewing the car as Lancia’s swansong. Journalist, Richard Hughes proved eerily prophetic in 1978 when he wrote in Car, “…it is obvious that Lancia’s closely guarded independence cannot withstand the game plan of the next few years. In essence, Lancia as a separate marque are on the way out. It may never quite descend to the worst excesses of badge engineering, but Lancia’s technical and design independence cannot be allowed to survive in the long-term.” The period encompassing the Gamma’s development proved to be a false dawn for Lancia as an independent marque within the Fiat empire. So in addition to tragedy, it is possible to add a further layer to the Gamma’s dolorous opera: one of sheer, numbing futility.

The troublesome areas of histories usually centre on the intersections where established fact rubs shoulders with received wisdom. Established fact is straightforward enough to reconcile, but received wisdom generally requires a shared set of assumptions. It is those shared assumptions that provide a slightly skewed version of the Gamma’s failure, seeing it only through a single dimension. It is clear that the reasons for the car’s calamitous downfall are manifold and complex, encompassing the domestic fallout from the 1973 oil crisis, the charged socio-political situation in Italy throughout the Seventies, the civil war that had broken out between Fiat and Lancia as the two companies struggled to integrate, and Fiat’s fundamental inability to understand the luxury car market. As a direct replacement for the Flavia 2000, the Gamma came bitingly close to brilliance, but was fatally hobbled by a chaotic and insufficiently thorough development process and a lack of clarity in its market positioning. With these handicaps, its failure became inevitable, while the ensuing unreliability and evaporation of customer confidence can only be viewed as the fatal coup de grâce.

In summation then, the Gamma stands as a potent example of how executing the correct course poorly will invariably provide worse results than doing the wrong one well. It’s not much of an epitaph, but it somehow seems appropriate for a car that appears to have been doomed from the very beginning.

Image: lanciagamma.altervista
Image: lanciagamma.altervista

Sources, quotations & acknowledgements: See Part One.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

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

    1. Thanks. I have a few more Gamma-related pieces in the offing to compliment this and then I suppose I’ll need another waif or stray to obsess over…

    2. The Fairthorpe Atom?

      Was it the political situation at the time – the desire not to appear too decadent – that made it so impossible for Alfa Romeo and Fiat to produce credible range-toppers? I mean, it’s not as if Italy didn’t know how to make desirable, beautifully crafted luxury items, and it’s not as if the Chairman of Fiat didn’t appreciate such things. Certainly, back then, there was the feeling that the World was going in a very different direction from the way it actually did go. If shown a crystal ball with the excesses of the 80s and beyond, Fiat’s planners might well have galvanised themselves. Having been around and (more or less) adult back then, I can understand why such things were so half-hearted. I don’t think many people thought they were going anywhere.

  1. I have an awful lot of respect for Gamma owners after having read Eoin’s opus magnum. As a Jaguar owner, I get the occasional pitiful/patronising look from driver of, well, mostly German marques. Gamma owners must be at the receiving end of those glances all the time, and I cannot deny the possibility of myself being guilty on this occasion, as well.
    Even with the best of intentions, the Gamma is a flawed creation, and not in the same sense as an XJ12 apparently appears flawed in the eyes of a great many Mercedes drivers. One either has to love Lancia to death or be with the outcasts, no matter what the cost, to commit to a Gamma.

    Having started to grasp Lancias, mainly thanks to the wise men of DTW, I’d be willing to sell that remaining kidney for a Flaminia Coupé . But I commend the brave souls willing to take care of a Gamma from afar- and wish them the very best of luck.

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