Gamma Bytes: Fated Symbol

In this final Gamma instalment, we examine alternate realities and the model’s shifting media perceptions.

Image: .zonderpump
Image: .zonderpump

It’s forty years since the Gamma was presented to the World’s press at Geneva and a lot has been heaped upon its shoulders in the interim. While undeniably a sales and reputational disaster, to view the Lancia flagship as simply a bad car is narrow and simplistic. To close this series, we ask whether Fiat could have chosen a different path.

A question trequently asked is what would Lancia have done had they not failed in 1969? For certain, the cost of replacing all three model lines simultaneously would quite likely have been beyond them. They would probably have been forced to develop one core model and derive as many variations off it as possible. But having lost Antonio Fessia’s engineering leadership and (arguably) talismanic qualities, Lancia lacked both figurehead and defender. Certainly, that loss was felt keenly once Fiat attempted to integrate both companies, because however well intentioned, what was done cannot be said to have been particularly well executed.

There may be good reasons why Fiat didn’t base the Lancia flagship on its thoroughly proven and well-regarded 130, although they have never really been offered. The Fiat offered a physically larger footprint, a longer wheelbase, a more orthodox rear-drive layout and a 3.2 litre V6 engine. Yes, it was overweight and the V6 underpowered, but the latter could have been easily addressed and above all, the Lampredi V6 had the requisite number of cylinders. Given the 130 Coupé appeared in 1971, the logical thing would have been to re-badge the car with Lancia’s fabled shield emblem.

Given that only around 4000 Coupé’s were built, it’s inconceivable that fewer would have been sold with a Lancia badge on its nose. Only politics and a dysfunctional product planning function could realistically have ignored such a move. But in reality, would any of this have made any difference? Considering the latter-day indignities foisted upon the marque, it doesn’t seem so awful a prospect now, does it?

The Gamma Coupe's elder sibling. Image: fiat130.nl
The Gamma Coupe’s elder sibling. Image: fiat130.nl

In the years following the Gamma’s demise, its torrid reputation began to enter automotive folklore. Serial Gamma owner and marque flagbearer, Martin Buckley wrote of his affliction in Classic Cars magazine, commenting on the nature of his fellow soulmates; “What an incestuous world this Gamma brotherhood is. Most of the people who own them, you see, are a bit mad. Not in that zany ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps, ha-ha-ha’, mad but genuinely disturbed people: war criminals, bank robbers. Weirdos and motoring journalists I should add too: Steady Barker and the late lamented George Bishop both owned up to Gammas in print”.

Bishop himself rather memorably wrote a piece for Car magazine in 1987, detailing his catastrophic Gamma ownership experience, stating: “I reckon I am the only man in England outside a mental home who owns three Gammas”. Following a twelve month period where he attempted (with characteristic ineptitude) to engineer a functioning Gamma while avoiding coronary, penury and apoplexy, he ultimately made this plea; “If there are any doctors among you, will you please come and certify me and put a stop to all this nonsense. It just can’t go on”. It was official, the Gamma had no further to fall: no longer merely infamous, now the object of ridicule.

It has taken until comparatively recently for the car to be accorded some dignity; the classic world finally awakening to the car’s charms and its rarity. Like the NSU RO80, a car whose career arc echoes that of the Gamma quite closely; it has become possible thanks to an active enthusiast base and modern technical know-how to correct or at least bypass most of the Gamma’s keenest foibles. However, running costs are said to be in exotic car territory and Gamma ownership remains perhaps only for the seriously intrepid.

But forty years on, the Gamma’s tainted allure still shines bright, and like all great disasters, it’s one we keep returning to – perhaps in the hope of a more favourable outcome – one however, fated to be forever denied.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Gamma Bytes: Fated Symbol”

  1. The Gamma Coupé should really be the better Fiat 130 Coupé. Slightly lower, with just the right hint of athleticism to make the Fiat appear slightly staid. But Brovarone didn’t top Martin in this instance, simply because the Lancia’s stance appears wrong. Why didn’t the Gamma’s chassis support this kind of shape properly, I wonder?

    Unlike Paolo Martin’s Camargue, the Gamma Coupé’s detailing is leaving nothing to be desired. It’s full of lovely ideas, very competently executed (as could be expected of someone of Brovarone’s reputation). And yet it doesn’t look right. Which is somewhat tragic.

    1. It’s a little too short and stubby for what they had in mind. The body of the car, which the greenhouse sits on, is a little too high. For a coupe of that pedigree, they should’ve sexctioned the car lengthwise and made it lower. The height of the scuttle is too high, with your usual fws proportions. Which is a little strange, as the car had a boxer engine. They tried with some optical tricks to make it look visually longer and more horizontal, the scallops going front to back makes for a rectilinear theme. And they blacked out the door sills, to make it visually lower. The problem is that it makes the car looking like it’s sitting too high on top of its wheel. The Triumph Tr7 has a similar problem, it looks like it’s raised for going rallying. On pics where the door sills are removed/color coded the cars looks visually shorter and stubbier. In all, they tried to make a Mercedes SLC out of a bag of tricks that really didn’t fit the architecture they had to work with. Perhaps if they had lowered the springs and spaced out the wheels for an even lower and wider stance? But I don’t know….

  2. To understand the Gamma’s appearance it might help to remember Lancia’s front drive package and that as the designers were steeped in Modernism they may have liked the unusual proportions, “wrong” looked “right”.

  3. Ingvar – good points about the TR7. It also has an absurdly short 85mm wheelbase (2160mm). I’ve sketched a TR7 with another 13″ (330mm) in the wheelbase and it looks a damn sight better.

    The Gamma coupe’s wheelbase is 115mm shorter than the Berlina’s, and I wonder why they bothered shortening the platform. Opel had a similar issue with the Calibra, which was meant to be on a shortened version of the Vectra A platform. After some resistance on costs grounds it was agreed to look at how the styling would look on the standard length floorpan. The model produced looked as good as the shorter wheelbase proposal, if not better.

    It could be argued that the shorter wheelbase gave the Gamma coupe more agile and sporting handling, but it wasn’t really that sort of car.

    1. Well, it seemed to be a Pininfarina trademark at the time. There’s another thing that’s been bothering me, and that is the rear sail panel/C-pillar is too far removed behind the rear wheels, or if it’s the rear wheels that tucking to much forward of the car. The same can be seen both on the 130 Coupe and the Rolls-Royce Camargue. A really interesting case for the latter can be seen in the comment section in this thread, with all the cars mentioned, and with photoshopped clarifications of the matter. Read this thread:

      http://www.curbsideclassic.com/uncategorized/cohort-sighting-rolls-royce-camarge-a-gorgeous-flop/

  4. Lancia wanted a car with good handling and acceptable performance. The “square” wheelbase should have helped that agility and indeed we find that that’s what drivers rave about with the car. I think we should remember not to project Lancia’s “comfort” vibe back in 1975 at the expense of handling. BMW were making cars with good road manners and the Gamma would have been targetting them. So the mechanical package and dynamic requirements point to this shape. Too bad customers “get it”: form followed some aspects of function but few understood the defined function.

    1. I’m very pleased you enjoyed reading it Vaujot. Researching and writing it was a fascinating learning experience.

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