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