Small Wonder : 2

Could we have imagined the 1985 launch of the Y10 would mark the beginning of Lancia’s final act.

Lancia Y10 Fire. Image: autowp-ru_
Autobianchi Y10 Fire. Image: autowp-ru_

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?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

25 thoughts on “Small Wonder : 2”

  1. I agree that, with hindsight, the Y10 was important in determining future direction; I am less sure that it was necessarily the wrong direction. It’s easy to be wise now, of course, but I think extending the Lancia range downwards was not an unreasonable move at the time. Is there a real difference between what Fiat was attempting back then, and what Mercedes/BMW are doing now?

    I don’t have exact figures to hand but Lancia’s annual production by 1989-1990 was somewhere around 300,000 – based in part around domestic sales of the Y10, but not entirely. The Thema did okay outside the UK, and Delta sales held up for a remarkably long time based off the competition success of the integrale (a big reason Fiat decided to push its replacement back to 1993). At the end of the day, there are a couple of really big points that are easy to forget – in 1985, neither Alfa nor Maserati were yet part of the group (so Lancia was Fiat’s de facto posh marque, with an implied level of support rather higher than that which is on offer today), and it still had some semblance of its own engineering department, although by this point that independence was lessening year-by-year and was basically gone by the time the Dedra launched. In that context, having a full product line from supermini to executive car is, to me, a defensible choice, especially for a manufacturer heavily dependent on a market where small cars rule. The idea that it pulled Lancia’s centre of gravity downwards, I am not sure about – I think that is more attributable to the Tipo-based stuff just not shifting in decent numbers, and chronic underinvestment from clueless management from that point onwards. (Tangential question of the day – is there a car which replaced a successful and long-lived model, that bombed more spectacularly than the Mk2 Delta?)

    For the record, the Y10 is credited to Centro Stile but depending on whom you believe, there are various traces of both ItalDesign’s and Pininfarina’s eliminated proposals in the final design.

    As it happens, it seems there was a lot of hand-wringing within Fiat about killing off the Autobianchi brand – it carried a lot of sentiment in Italy and it was considered a somewhat risky move. In fact, Fiat was unsure until the last minute before the Y10 launch what badge they were going to sell it under. At the Geneva unveil, they had an each-way bet – the cars wore Autobianchi badges but the press materials were also available with Lancia titles, on account of the geographic split across the continent.

    It’s worth noting in passing a serious what-if. A few years ago, Quattroruote published images supplied by the head of Lancia in the late 1970s, Gian Mario Rossignolo, which showed that the Uno was originally designed by Giugiaro as a Lancia. Rossignolo departed shortly afterwards and Ghidella appropriated it as the 127 replacement, virtually unchanged. Would it have made a difference if it had been the Uno, rather than Y10, on sale in Lancia dealerships?

    1. This is an endless source of fascination. First, the irony that Lancia’s last model is really rooted in a non-Lancia. Second, if a small Lancia was a good idea. Although my article focussed on the strange character of the models Lancia sold, in terms of size and price points it made more sense. So, a small Lancia isn’t anathema.

    2. I believe the received wisdom is that the base for the production Uno was originally GG’s Y10 proposal and that GG’s Uno proposal eventually ended up as the production Nissan Micra. What comes around…

    3. The Y10 always screamed Giugiaro to me, so the notion it was in fact team Maioli, seems to suggest they channeled Giorgetto very faithfully.
      If on the other hand, the Micra was indeed a rejected GG proposal, it’s either a rather poor one or Nissan’s designers finessed the life out of it.

      Looking through old copies of Car, they were highly critical of the turbo version, highlighting its torque steer and suggesting it had all the finesse of “a demented clockwork toy”. They also criticised the ride. It wasn’t as refined a turbo installation as that in the blown Uno, which again undermined its case as an upmarket choice.
      LJK Setright on the other hand was rather partial to the Fire version, which does appear to have been the sweet spot in the range. Contrarian as ever, he also stated the firmer turbo model rode better.

      The pricing issue matters I believe. It suggests a lack of faith on Lancar’s part. Mind you, given the reliability and build issues that bedevilled them, a higher price point wouldn’t have made much difference I suppose.

  2. “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.”

    The Times, September 11, 1985:

    “The standard [Y10] Touring costs £4,995 compared with £5,142 for the four speed Metro HLE. For an extra £500 Lancia throw in a luxury package which includes tachometer, oil temperature gauge, econometer, digital clock, electronic heater controls, and check control panel, electric front and rear quarter light windows, central locking, and split folding rear seats. At £5,495 that must make it the cheapest little luxury car in the business, and not surprisingly, almost all Touring buyers are going for the option package.”

    1. Although those ‘luxury package’ items would make the modern buyer wonder quite how austere a ‘basic’ car must have been back in the day. “Did they come with inflatable tyres?”

  3. “Could we have imagined the 1985 launch of the Y10 would mark the beginning of Lancia’s final act.”

    I think the beginning of Lancia’s final act came in 1986, when Fiat bought Alfa Romeo (an Italian friend told me the Italian government put all the pressure one could put in a company to do so).

    1. If we’re honest, there are probably as many final acts in Lancia’s death march as there are ‘worst ever Citroen’s’, but Eduardo’s suggestion is probably as good as anyone’s. Ford apparently came bitingly close to inking a deal with the Italian government for Alfa Romeo, but just as it proved with their attempt to buy Austin Rover the previous year, politics interfered. In fact there really wasn’t anyone Uncle Henry didn’t try to purchase during that period, Saab included. In fact, I seem to recall Georg Kacher stating they were in talks with the Quandt’s over BMW at one point. I guess by 1989 they lost patience and just flung money at John Egan’s feet for fear of being thwarted yet again.

      Question: Would Alfa Romeo even exist now had Ford been successful in 1986?

    2. Eóin, I think Alfa would exist now. And it would probably walk on Volvo’s current shoes. But I don’t know what would be the fortune of both Volvo and Jaguar.

    3. This from a Vanity Fair profile of the Agnellis in 1991 (full story is quite interesting in its own right and worth a read):

      http://www.vanityfair.com/style/1991/07/gianni-marella-agnelli-fiat

      “What Agnelli has is a brilliant political gift, the ability to use his contacts to create ideal conditions for Fiat. “He knows his way around, how much to flatter someone, how to talk to the prime minister,” said one admirer. Agnelli’s deft maneuvering has both attracted lucrative government subsidies and repelled unwanted competitors. Ford Motor Company executives still cannot figure which political levers he pulled in 1986 to override the American automaker’s bid for the state-owned Alfa Romeo company.”

      One tends to imagine that is putting a very diplomatic spin on the state of affairs in Dearborn when word filtered through about said deft manoeuvering.

  4. Pointing out about the Micra is interesting. At the time, there was a vague similarity between the Y10, Uno, Nissan Prairie and Nissan Micra, but I just assumed that it was the style of the time, one design informally influencing the other. I can now accept (citation needed) that they all originate from Italdesign, but I’m sure they didn’t approve the awful detailing of the Micra – the orange front/side upper indicators for instance are dreadful. And they’re on both sides.

  5. The Ardea and Appia were smallish cars, so it’s not as if there wasn’t a precedent in Lancia’s past. But these were really small engined cars -a more accurate president would have been a Topolino sized Lancia. Having said that, a small car definitely made sense from a taxation perspective in several mainland European markets and compact dimensions would have been an advantage amidst narrow medieval streets. In my view an Uno sized car would have been a better option, since it gets more difficult from a profitability perspective to make an upmarket car, the smaller you go.

    In the UK, Lancia had been associated with larger cars and it always felt as though the Y10 was too big a step down. Even in Ireland, where taxation has always been ruinous, a larger car would have fared better. The Irish market has never really embraced very small cars. Small engines, yes. Small cars, not so much.

    Like most decisions made out of expediency, selling the Y10 as a Lancia probably answered a need at the time for fresh product untainted by past misdeeds. The market research suggested it was worth a go, but it would be interesting to learn if the costs of converting to RHD was even covered by sales given how they were sold at such low prices. I’d contend that it’s unlikely.

    1. Generally, there is a size below which a car doesn’t need to go. SMART cars are fun, and you might find the odd parking space no-one could fit into but, for most people, if they’re objective I’d suggest that the occasional upside isn’t balanced out by the more frequent downside, when you can’t fit in unexpected packages and people. So, yes, Uno sized is really as small as you need to go. One of the luxuries that goes with additional income is additional space and, even if you’re considering the smallish premium of the Lancia, I’m sure the size put some people off. That said, to my eyes it’s a nice package.

    2. Some months before its launch I read an interview with the head of Ford’s Vignale line, who stated they were still evaluating the feasibility of a Vignale-spec Fiesta. The issue being one of finding a cost-effective way of creating a compact car with the required level of interior refinements. If margins on a current Fiesta sized car are tight, what would they be for something the Y10’s size? It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that at times Fiat were more preoccupied with answering product-related questions nobody asked than asking themselves whether they were going to make them any money.

      I don’t really know why I continually end up down these rabbit holes. All routes lead to the same morbid destination.

    3. “Did they sell them in Japan?”

      Yes, they briefly did – as Autobianchis at Autozam dealerships, along with some other Lancia models.

    4. “It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that at times Fiat were more preoccupied with answering product-related questions nobody asked than asking themselves whether they were going to make them any money.”

      Well, to some extent that is the Fiat disease. But I’m not sure it’s so applicable in this case. I think it is more accurate to say that Fiat was just very overly-focused on Italy. The Y10 made sense there and did well. It made less sense in the UK and sales reflected that.

  6. I should love the little Y10, for it possesses the kind of crisp and tidy surfacing I really appreciate. But the door handle always was clumsy, an impression that was only reinforced by the alarming speed at which its plastics aged.

    And then there’s the stance – its rear wheelbase is too short, the rear wheels would need to be positioned further back to lend the car a ‘correct’ appearance. This would in turn necessitate a slightly different angle of the rear hatch, which is just a bit too steep. Fiat’s 1991 Cinquecento was much better in this regard.

    1. Rear wheel further back: completely agree (as always…).
      Inclined hatch: please not, the abrupt end is what makes this car stand out most (besides its colour).

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