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 Lancia has seen such a pitiful series of reversals, it is difficult to now imagine the road to perdition having once 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.
For decades, Lancia’s corporate culture centred round the concept of innovation and engineering depth, coupled with the 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. The manner in which a proud nameplate became little more than a series of clumsily ennobled Fiats stands as amongst the lamentable examples of brand mismanagement in recent automotive history. Because if nothing else, the Gamma stands as a vivid illustration of how mergers and acquisitions never quite work out.
Lancia’s 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, and little mechanical commonality. By the end of the decade, Lancia’s business collapsed largely because its 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 them 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 remembered 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 noble line.
Received wisdom holds that Gamma was Lancia’s opportunity to prove to its new masters that it could build a luxury saloon according to marque ideals, 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) is well documented. But while neither are strictly untrue, they tell only a facet of the story.
The purpose of this piece is therefore to examine the Gamma’s commercial failure and attempt to determine whether its failure has as much to do with Fiat’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”