More than two decades ago, two proud nameplates in the process of losing their lustre joined forces to create a splendid concept car perfectly in tune with its time.
During the mid-’90s, car buyers and enthusiasts were in an unashamedly romantic mood. Roadsters and coupés were the kind of niche models devised not just to polish a marque’s image, but to actually sell and earn money. Peugeot’s splendid (Pininfarina-designed and built) 406 Coupé being a particularly resonant example of this phenomenon.
In those days, Lancia not only offered a full range of models, but the marque’s image hadn’t been tainted quite beyond repair either. The recently launched Kappa executive saloon and second-generation Delta hatchback may have constituted the first steps of Fiat Auto CEO, Paolo Cantarella’s ambition to turn Lancia into a brand offering ‘pensioners cars’, but with some goodwill, the distinguished Turinese marque could still be viewed as having the potential to become a rival to the likes of Audi.
Just like Lancia’s heyday, Bertone’s most fruitful period lay behind the carrozzeria by the mid-1990s. With former chief designers, Giorgetto Giugiaro and Marcello Gandini since having become competitors, Nuccio Bertone’s design company eventually lost its reputation as the most daring and forward looking among the independent design studios.
Efforts like the Blitz unveiled in 1992, while undoubtedly attention-grabbing, carried a whiff of shouty desperation with them, thus reinforcing the impression that Bertone’s significance was gone for good. However, the company’s contract manufacturing business at the Grugliasco factory (where most Maseratis are built today) was still flourishing, which entailed numerous contracts to turn mass-market models into convertible and coupé derivatives, ensuring Bertone’s survival for the time being.
Against this backdrop, the combination of two struggling companies shouldn’t necessarily result in a noteworthy cooperation. Yet the Kappa-based Lancia Kayak defied such expectations upon its unveiling at the Geneva Motor Show in 1995.
While by no means avant-garde, Bertone’s proposed large Lancia coupé hit exactly the right note for its time. Designed under chief designer, Luciano d’Ambrosia, the Kayak proudly wore its front-wheel drive layout on its figurative sleeve, thanks to the cab-forward proportions very much de rigueur in those days. A slight transatlantic flavour was also perceptible, thanks to the full-width grille at the front and the wide rear lights on the number plate-free boot lid.
Describing the Kayak as the being remotely reminiscent of the 1991 Lexus SC 400, 1993 Lincoln Mark VIII and the Volvo C70 that’d be unveiled in 1996 wouldn’t be completely untrue, but fall short of accurately representing it. For despite its lack of outright visual excitement, the unusual silhouette and intriguing stance lend Bertone’s coupé flair far beyond the usual generic ’90s ‘soft design’ fare. D’Ambrosio and his team clearly bestowed the Kayak’s surfaces enough definition to appear taut and sufficient graphical elements for them not to appear anonymous.
Bearing all this in mind, it appears all the more regrettable in retrospect that the Kayak remained a one-off. Instead, Lancia management decided to put a straightforward Kappa Coupé into production, whose design exacerbated the saloon’s tall, under-wheeled appearance and proved to be a tough sell, even in the coupé loving car market of the 1990s. Needless to say, it also happened to look more like a ‘pensioner’s car’ than the Kayak.
For both Lancia and Bertone, the Kayak constitutes the definition of a missed opportunity. It obviously wouldn’t have changed the fates of either company in the grand scheme of things, but at least there’d be one more pleasing Lancia coupé to remind us of ‘the good old days’ – one more elegant, dignified large two-door design to be shown alongside its glorious predecessors that did make it into production.
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