Successful motor companies are consistent motor companies. Did Fiat miss a meeting?
Looking at those who’ve made a success of the motor business, they stand out for (amongst other things) an unswerving consistency. This isn’t however a trait one could ascribe to the mighty Fiat group over the past four decades, lurching as they have from crisis to recovery like a cadre of drunken sailors on shore leave.
What has this to do with Lancia you ask? Rather a lot as it happens because not only was the 1986 Thema 8.32 unprecedented in its ambition, positioning and rigour, the fact the concept was abandoned after a few short years and billions of lire spent illustrates the Italian car giant’s chaotic path.
The 1970’s was a catastrophe for Lancia. When the Prisma debuted in 1982 few anticipated the neatly styled, rigidly conformist car would embody not just a new direction, but an entire ethos. As the car that saved Lancia’s bacon, its immediate sales success confirmed Fiat’s rationalisation strategy, and as such, sealed its future. There would be no more semi-autonomous Lancia’s. Well, maybe just one.
As Fiat Auto’s financial position improved under the enlightened management of Vittorio Ghidella the car giant embarked upon one of their periodic sprees of optimism and expansion. Lancia engineers under Bruno Cena were given the lead in the Tipo Quattro programme, co-developing Fiat’s Croma and Lancia’s 1985 Thema around shared platforms, structures and mechanicals. (Saab went their own way as ever). So while they differed in style, mechanical detail and positioning, creatively speaking, the Thema came across as a larger, more refined Prisma. Nothing terribly wrong with that, since its appearance was broadly in harmony with customer tastes. What it did lack however, (like its smaller brother perhaps) was much in the way of personality.
That was to be remedied at the top of the Thema range however. While the collaborative 2.8 litre PRV V6 unit was in keeping with Lancia’s heritage, it was neither a high performance powerplant, nor one with a great deal of cachet. Company accountants must have been otherwise occupied at the scoping phase, because the level of engineering changes embodied into the 8.32 programme was staggering.
Having selected Ferrari’s 3-litre Quattrovalvole V8 unit, Lancia engineers demanded so many alterations as to make it virtually unrecognisable. While the 2927cc capacity was retained, the crankshaft was changed from the flat plane original to one with 90° throws. Both the valves and the firing order were also altered to bring the output from 240 to 215 bhp at 6750 rpm, all to make for a more refined, more flexible, smoother running power plant – and to salve the internals of the Thema transaxle. In fact few areas of the car were left untouched. Needless to say suspension and braking was also beefed up, the 8.32 being the first Italian production car with standard ABS. The Goodyear Eagle 205/55 VT 15 tyres were said to have been developed specifically for the car, which combined with ZF speed sensitive steering was instrumental in avoiding wheel fight, the bane of powerful FWD cars.
Perhaps the most overt manifestation of the care Lancia took over the car was the car’s electronically controlled rear air dam, which could be raised by the driver to aid handling balance and directional stability. The other of course was its interior. Lavish (if optional) Poltrona Frau leather covered every appropriate surface combined with finely finished burr walnut accents. And unlike standard Thema’s, finish was beyond reproach – all 8.32’s being hand built on a dedicated line at Lancia’s Via San Paulo factory by selected operatives at the rate of 10 per day. The cost of all this must have been huge, yet production plans were limited to no more than 2000 cars per annum and with no possibility of right hand drive conversions, its appeal in the UK market was always going to be marginal. Business case, what business case?
Car’s Ian Fraser got his hands on one in the autumn of 1987 and was full of praise for its finish, its road manners, and of course that engine. Describing it as ‘immense’ Fraser noted its ‘truly impressive’ torque, with 80% of the available 215 lbs ft available at 2500 rpm, marvelling at the car’s ability to accelerate in fourth gear from 1000 rpm without protest or judder. “The sheer guts and smoothness of the engine were fantastic”, Fraser noted, “a high percentage of the 8.32’s value must be in that Ferrari engine: be advised, its worth every penny.” Downsides were limited to a lack of steering communication at low speeds, a matter that was remedied at higher velocities – especially once the tail spoiler was activated.
Demand was strong in its native Italy, appealing to a discrete elite for whom outward shows of wealth were anathema. Needless to say Gianni Agnelli ordered an even more exclusive version – the only official 8.32 estate built. Ferrari himself is said to have given 8.32’s as gifts to Scuderia drivers, Michele Alboreto and Gerhard Berger in addition to being chauffeured in one himself. When the mainstream Thema was refreshed in 1988, the 8.32 gained further refinements, including electronic damper control. By then, owing to a lack of space in Marenello, assembly of the 8.32 engine was contracted to Ducati. Production ceased in 1992 with less than 4000 cars made.
At no time since Fiat acquired the marque was there a Lancia as fully, as thoroughly, as exquisitely realised as this. The 8.32 was a beautiful car, not so much because of its appearance – (and it was handsome) – but because of the engineering depth and obvious care Lancia engineers took to make a car worthy of its lineage. Nothing this ambitious, this crafted, this rigorous was embarked upon again. Some dismissed it as a latter day Fiat Dino, but in reality it was an attempt, perhaps the last attempt by Fiat to take Lancia seriously. But with Alfa Romeo joining the fold, it was clear there would be a conflict of hierarchy – one which Lancia could only lose.
Getting back to the subject of consistency however, it’s possible to speculate on how much Lancia’s image would have been enhanced had Fiat persisted with this template. With an Integrale-inspired 4wd system, the 8.32’s successor would have been formidable. Yet Fiat lost interest or perhaps realised it simply couldn’t justify the outlay. So why do it at all?