Could we have imagined the 1985 launch of the Y10 would mark the beginning of Lancia’s final act.
History does make for strange bedfellows. In 1969 Fiat handed control of Autobianchi to Lancia’s beleaguered management, entwining both marques. More than a physical union, their relative destinies would also become one – or at the very least, follow eerily similar pathways. History, as I’m fond of pointing out, has a way of repeating.
By the end of the 1970s, Autobianchi’s situation wasn’t altogether dissimilar to that of Lancia’s today. Reduced to a single-model, the A112 remained one of Italy’s most popular small cars. Having set the template for front-drive hatchbacks in 1969, and now well past its first flush of youth, it still sold in excess of 76,500 units in 1980.
Truth be told, there was probably a good deal of soul searching within the corridors of power in Turin over a replacement, but with numbers like this, coupled to the fact that A112 accounted for a third of Lancia’s volume, Fiat were compelled to replace it, instigating the Y10 programme around 1981. Dimensionally similar to the 1980 Fiat Panda – (there are literally only millimetres between them in most key dimensions) – Y10 shared a number of body pressings – (most likely the floorpan) – in addition to several items of mechanical hardware. In fact, the revised 1986 Panda was probably close to identical under the skin, down to the shared FIRE power unit and ‘Omega’ rear axle.
Autobianchi always sold at a slight premium to that of comparable Fiats so even badged as such was likely to have been a (moderately) profitable car. But apart from Italy and France, the name was an unknown quantity. Market research carried out in the UK suggested the car could succeed with a Lancia nameplate providing it was perceived as an upmarket car and specified accordingly. Nevertheless, it was a risky gambit, especially given the reversals the brand had suffered the previous decade. Furthermore, it was entering a sector of the market alien to Lancia’s UK importers, who were already having difficulty reversing the marque’s sales slide.
So the Y10 was a matter of expediency, a means of amortising an expensive new car programme, of making virtue from necessity. To give it added cachet, it was the first to receive Fiat Auto’s then all-new FIRE engine, although larger engined models used an older, Brazilian-sourced Fiat 1049cc unit. The car was also given a chic and highly aerodynamic exterior design (courtesy of Mario Maioli’s centro stile studios – although I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if the hand of Giugiaro wasn’t in there somewhere), an innovative minimalist interior style and a high specification to befit its upmarket aspiration. However, owing to Lancar UK’s parlous sales situation, the Y10 would end up being significantly underpriced against mainstream supermini rivals, cheapening its image and negating any luxury USP it might have had.
So should Lancia have done it? While the Y10 programme probably made its masters a decent profit, over a number of generations it gradually became Lancia’s centre of gravity, pulling their customer base downwards, and making it impossible for them to generate sufficient profits to invest in new models. The upshot being of course that today its Ypsilon descendant is Lancia’s only offering. Notably, when Mercedes attempted something similar with the 1997 A-Class a decade or so later, neither their reputation nor indeed their bottom line emerged untainted either – but then Mercedes’ Jürgen Hubbert probably thought himself immune from such reversals.
Coming full circle, and like its Autobianchi A112 forebear, the Ypsilon continues to sell, and Fiat may engineer another, since the market for it appears robust. So the wheel turns. In 1985, Autobianchi was managing around 80,000 cars (p.a.) – a figure Lancia now more or less commands annually. Whether it will it be given another lifeline or goes the way of its former stablemate remains an unfathomable mystery known only to S. Marchionne – if even to him. In fact, as one of our commenters recently pointed out – should we even refer to it as a Lancia at all?