Concrete, Damsons, Obsidian: These You Shall Only Half-Recall

Yet again we return to the  Lancia Kappa. The excuse this time is that I managed to nab some photos of the interior.

1994-2000 Lancia Kappa interior (I  like the wood effect)

Not a very few of these still rattle around Denmark, not many either. Up the road from me a chap has a Kappa estate, would you believe. Let’s take a close look at the car…

This vehicle really ought not to be that captivating. It is dead plain, apparently. As the designer said at the time, Lancia wanted no visual noise. That means that in the eyes of some this car is rather uninteresting. That’s to miss the point much as it is to say the VW Bora (1999-2006) is boring. It seems frighteningly unadorned yet really every detail has been finessed. The Kappa is really subtle too, as is the Bora, though in its own way. There’s a Latin flavour in this car.

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In that sense the Kappa repeated the formula of the Thema which also had a really low-key design. It was part of a long line of understated saloons.  That is not a very popular approach today but I rather like it so long as it is correctly done. Understatingness is a good quality for people who don’t want to show off. Peugeot used to do something similar and, to some extent, Benz did as well though the three-pointed star was a bit of a giveaway.

Back to the Kappa…

Both at the front and the back, the IDEA Institute (who designed the car) chose to constrain the lamps’ width. At the front the lamp barely eats into the wing. At the rear it is the same story.

At the front I will ask you to notice the way the metal work surrounds the lamp and grille as if an aperture has been reluctantly cut for the lamps. The simplicity of the body-work allows the grille to stand prominently. More usually the headlamps might be expected to really cut into the wing to give the impression of width. They don’t do that here. There’s no need.

At the rear, like the 1989 Citroen XM, the body work frames the lamp cluster and licence plate surround, which is an arrangement analogous to the front. A small sliver of brightwork garnishes the rear. That the lamps do not extend onto the rear wings leaves the car, in side view, with very unadorned flanks. I think the designers here were knowingly attempting something tricky, a firmly conservative, clearly undecorated appearance that attracts your attention by making something of the absence. This could sound very pseud’s corner. It’s a form of minimalism if you like or reminiscent of a pause during a movement of music.

The design of the windows is, in principle, like that of the Volvo 850 or, indeed, the Mercedes 200E (W-124) – both famously unchromed. Lancia did choose to apply brightwork here and in a manner one does not see elsewhere. The brightwork is not protecting the rubber – it is embedded in it. As the image below shows, not all the joints are so nicely formed. That’s a butt joint. More succesful would have been thicker strips and neater joins at the base of the window line.

This view is rather good (below). You get a distinct sense of pointiness to the car but also strength. There is no rub-strip, just a small feature line. I can’t imagine how quickly this car would get dented in Italy. The wheels are original.

Austere good taste is my summary of this vehicle. It makes me think that perhaps Peugeot were looking for this same feeling with the 406 but didn’t quite know where to add that tiny amount of embellishment that would lift it above appearing banal (I don’t think the 406 is banal but I am sure many would not give it a second look).

1996 Lancai Kappa interior, rear

It might very well be that these are not the original seats (above). I think the blue seats were matched to black hard trim.

Leaving that doubt aside, I invite you to consider that this fabric was fitted to a car in 1995 not 1985. That’s not a point against it rather a point in the car’s favour along with the 5-cylinder 2.0 engine under the bonnet. Lancia took the road less trod with this car: a calculatedly austere exterior and a plush, lush and comfortable interior mated to creditable and refined performance and decent handling. What car fulfils that brief today?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

12 thoughts on “Concrete, Damsons, Obsidian: These You Shall Only Half-Recall”

  1. Wonderful review, thanks. I love the way you look and see things that I would not. I always rather liked this car, even though I found it’s forms a bit quirky and not so elegant as the Thema, as an example. One very rarely sees one in the UK, which kind of sums up the UK right now.

    1. The Thema went out of production a long time ago and even when on sale in the UK was probably certainly definitely a minority taste. I enjoyed looking at this car, flawed as it might be. The fact I am uncertain about it must say something yet I do also relish the chance to stare at one. It provides plenty of substance for mental mastication. Is it right? Is it wrong? Why is wrong? Am I sure? That´s great for doctoral dissertations on æsthetics but probably poison in the showroom. An acquired taste, definitely.

  2. The Kappa is emblematic of Ercole Spada’s I.DE.A (they were really ahead of the times with that punctuation thing, weren’t they?) output: nicely crisp on the one hand, but a bit too austere and proportionally challenged to be truly appealing.

    Did the Kappa share its headlights with the Dedra? They’re just too small, even if that slightly pinched expression was intended.

  3. Thanks for this review, Richard. I still like the Kappa, especially the estate. Your analysis helps me understanding why. I very much favour restraint (and even some austerity) over everything we see in today’s car design.

    I’m still not sure what I should think of the interior. While I’m very fond of the strong velour colours, I find the wood awful and too abubdant, and all the softened early 90s shapes don’t match with the clarity we see on the outside.

    1. The “wood” is a matter of preference. Was there a woodless version for those less keen? The interior forms seem saner than we see now I think.

    2. The ‘wood’ was standard. In principle, it probably seemed like a good idea, and I’m not against the concept of material imitation if it’s done sympathetically. The problem in this case is that it seems underdone because the synthetic grain pattern is hideous and not even slightly similar to the real stuff.

      I hadn’t made a direct connection between the 406 and Kappa, but there is more than a hit of it in the slightly barrelled treatment of the body below the waistline, isn’t there? The similarity is particularly evident in that front-three-quarter shot.

      A slight irony. The k SW really was an afterthought, the design of which has a great deal of charm, whereas the 406 estate presumably wasn’t an afterthought – it merely looks like one.

      I think I’ve posted these previously, but, well, they’re always worth another indulgence. These are for the Coupe and include some colours specific for that variant.

      It’s pretty depressing comparing it to the palette on offer today. Not too long ago I saw an Audi brochure with, I think, seven or eight supposedly ‘distinct’ shades of grey.

    3. Stradale: the greens are unusual. In themselves they are agreeable. It’s the trim around them that makes them look odd.
      How costly is it to have more than one colour made to the same form? I realise that perhaps if you have a black, grey and brown version of a part you might need three copies of rhe mould.

    4. It depends how it’s done but, yes, you would likely need different moulds for pieces as large as these.

  4. Nice writeup, Richard. I’d add something about the influence of this design in the 1990s Maserati Quattroporte – I see some resemblance here and there.

    1. Thanks. Agreed – the Kappa is certainly the better version of the theme though. The Gandini QP isn’t bad though. He seemed not to be under the same pressure to use conventional details. The Kappa has those and it helps.

      I agree there’s a bit of 406 in the body side and for the same reason: the designers wanted no wheel arch eyebrows/lips to disturb airflow. Now every car (it looks like) has some wheel-arch styling.

  5. On reflection, I think Lancia should have used wood-effect more carefully than they did. The actual design has period charm now. At the time of launch, lots of people should have known better. Indeed, the Thema and Thesis did not make this mistake.

  6. Am luvvin’ those pale green and sky blue leather seats! Can you imagine settling into those the morning after the night before 😉 ?

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