The tale is etched in automotive folklore, but how well do we really know the Lancia Gamma ?
Death by a thousand Fiats:
Fiat’s stewardship of the Lancia marque has seen such a pitiful series of reversals, it is now difficult to imagine the road to perdition having ever been paved with good intentions.
Throughout its history as an independent manufacturer, Lancia produced exquisitely engineered automobiles that garnered respect and deep admiration, but consistently cost more than the company could afford. Lancia’s culture centred round the concept of innovation and engineering depth, coupled with an enviable quality. Once the preserve of an elite; customers from the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie, to Pontiffs and film stars, Lancia’s descent from the very pinnacle of grand marques contains within it an element of grand opera.
Supreme amongst the most lamentable examples of brand mismanagement in recent automotive history, the Gamma’s lurid tale vividly underlines how mergers and acquisitions never quite work out.
The Lancia ethos was aptly illustrated by the fact that their expansive Sixties car range was based upon three unique platforms, each with a model-specific engine, with little or no commonality. By the end of that decade, the Lancia business collapsed largely because management failed to realise that in order to survive it first needed to make money, not just cars. With debts believed to be over 100 billion lire, it became impossible for their patrons, the Pesenti family, to continue. In 1969 Lancia fell into the hands of FIAT Auto, entering perhaps the most protracted and humiliating decline of latter-day automotive memory and it is from this turbulent cauldron, the subject of our examination emerged, unready, in the spring of 1976.
Today, the Gamma is primarily recalled for its notoriety, yet there was much to admire: its technical specification, its styling and its critically acclaimed road behaviour. Lancia’s Seventies flagship also contained more marque-specific engineering than any contemporary or latterday model, representing the final flowering of a once noble line.
History states that the Gamma was Lancia’s opportunity to prove to its new masters that it could build a luxury saloon according to marque ideals, yet within cost constraints – its failure ensuring FIAT would never again sanction anything as expensive and individualistic. Certainly, the Gamma’s successor (the 1984 Thema), a resolutely conventional design in style and engineering, lends credence to this view. Similarly, the party line for the Gamma’s downfall (its engine design) is well documented. And while neither are untrue, they provide a very one-dimensional story.
The purpose of this essay is therefore to examine the Gamma’s commercial failure and attempt to determine whether its failure has as much to do with FIAT management’s lack of a cohesive creative vision for Lancia as much as any specific failure of the car itself. But before we delve into the Gamma’s origins, let us first Continue reading “Signs and Portents”