Intimations of Mortality

Fowl play at FCA.

Behold the black hen.  (c) gruppo bossoni

Throughout our culture, the colour black has long been synonymous with death. In popular culture too – take for instance William S. Burroughs’ Black Rider or indeed the black swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In keeping with the theme of fowl therefore, it may not be a coincidence that with the advent of the black hen, FCA are quietly softening us up for an impending demise.

Because the problem here appears to lie with the serial refusal of FCA’s Lancia-badged Ypsilon to do the decorous thing and shuffle off this mortal coil. Indeed, not being content to swerve death’s clammy embrace, the Tychy White Hen is still doing a decent number humiliating far more recent domestic contenders – most recently the troubled Biscione of Milan.

Given this somewhat paradoxical state of affairs, it seemed as good a time as any to at least attempt to understand the Ypsilon’s morbid appeal.

The current car can trace its lineage distantly back to the 1985 Y10 model, which was sold in some European markets as a Lancia and in others as an Autobianchi. The Y10 moniker stemmed from its original Lancia-based programme designation and in the UK at least, also lent it the ‘White Hen‘ nickname, which has since proved almost as resilient as the car itself.

As Lancia and Autobianchi were folded into one another, successive models adopted exclusive Lancia branding, gaining the Ypsilon name along the way, but with little history in minicars, the car has remained in many ways, (and as pointed out by others here on DTW) more Autobianchi than Lancia.

Nevertheless, it illustrated the appeal (especially in its native Italy) for a chic and luxuriously appointed compact citycar, as robust sales of both first and second generation Ypsilon models attested.

The current iteration, styled at centro stile and attributed to current head of Fiat exterior design, Alberto Dilillo, was first introduced in 2011, based on the platform and running gear for the current generation Fiat Panda and 500 ranges. But tradition must be honoured, so it also enjoyed a pointless half-life in the UK and Ireland as a Chrysler-badged product in one of the late Mr. Marchionne’s more toe-curling marketing gambits.

That one didn’t last long, before Chrysler (nee-Lancia) retreated from these shores once again, in if anything even more ignominious a fashion than of yore. 2015 saw the Ypsilon gain its second new nose treatment, this one being a more comprehensive rhinoplasty effort, replacing the tall, vertical grille (redolent of Lancia’s past) with a nondescript horizontal device, and there matters have broadly stood since.

Four years on, and the model range has been shrunken down to four designations, each in a signature colour: Black and Noir, Elefantino Blu (which looks a lot more like grey), Gold, and Platinum (the latter being much closer to green). Two engine choices are offered – FCA’s 1.2 litre FIRE-derived petrol unit or a dual-fuel version of the 0.9 litre Twin Air, running on compressed natural gas. And that’s pretty much one’s lot.

Marketing for the car is pretty specific as to the target customer, fasionable ladies (and men who are confident about their masculinity one imagines) being very much the leitmotif here. Pricing appears to have been a key component to the White Hen’s continued success – FCA offering generous rebates and incentives to purchase/finance. In addition, a lack of realistic four-door domestic rivals and maybe (just maybe?) some tiny residual affection for the threadworn Shield and Flag.

But as Fiat now moves to ready its forthcoming-generation 500 (and Centoventi-derived Panda) models for production, the Ypsilon’s miraculous survival must be drawing to a close. If reports are accurate, a five-door 500 will remove a lot of the Ypsilon’s raison d’être and while it’s likely that FCA will squeeze every last drop from the model line, it’s very difficult to see it maintaining viability beyond 2020 at the latest.

With it will go the last vestiges of brand-Lancia – or at least would do if it hadn’t truly passed on years ago. Frankly, the official death notice is well overdue. As indeed is the black hen.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Intimations of Mortality”

  1. What an inglorious way for a great marque to die. The Ypsilon may have an enduring appeal to a specific demographic, but it’s not a good car and certainly a bad Lancia. It’s little better than the lamentable MiTo, and should have remained an Autobianchi.

    Given the apparent failure of the expensively developed Alfa Romeo Giulia to garner enough conquest sales from the German premium trio to sustain the marque’s future, there is no hope for a future revival of Lancia, certainly not in FCA’s hands. One can only hope it is allowed a dignified passing and is not resurrected as some Chinese manufactured SUV.

  2. If I was in the market for a small car like the Ypsilon, it’s easy to see why it would be a strong contender still. Styling a small but practical car is not as easy as a large coupé and I think it is still far more stylish than anything else in its segment; have you seen the Kia Picanto, Hyundai i10, Ford Ka, Smart ForFour or VW Up? Equipment levels are good for the class, there’s an option of a large opening sunroof, and interior trim is more pleasant to behold than the wheelie bin ambience of its competitors. The car’s biggest downfall is probably its engines, one underpowered, the other, thirsty and vibratory. I think it’s a pity that they didn’t offer the option of swathing the dashboard and doors in Alcantara as in previous models but plushness seems to be out of fashion at the moment. Incidentally, I’m a straight man and would have no misgivings about being seen driving one.
    Lancia died years ago, I’m one of their biggest fans but the pure concept of a Lancia can’t and won’t exist in today’s world of huge volumes and short term capitalism.

  3. The Ypsilon is arguably the most quintessentially Italian car on the market.

    Having driven around the country a bit, I can report that nothing beats a small car there – unless one has to do a lot of commuting on the Autostrade. So as much as I theoretically enjoy the idea of roaming through Italy in something like a Quattroporte V, the reality is that most towns come with the tiniest of streets, where only a Piaggio Ape feels truly at home and even a Citroen C1 appears huge. A small footprint matters.

    In that context, the Ypsilon matches important domestic criteria like no other car: It’s small, but comes with a fair bit of style. And unlike the 500, it’s quite a bit more versatile and, at least these days, much better value for money.

    An Ypsilon sub-brand would be one of the few occasions when I’d welcome this kind of diversification. It would only need to be marketed in Southern Europe (and, in electrified form, China), with a range consisting of small, chic cars.

    1. Christopher,

      the idea to position a separate Y / Ypsilon sub-brand, is very interesting, courageous and possibly a very plausible one indeed.
      We shall not forget, however, that there are certain rumours about
      another Y-brand being considered for resurrection (the logo of Yugo
      was actually a stylised letter “Y”…), so it complicates matters somewhat.

      But an eventual FCA foray into low-cost market territories would definitely
      be an interesting development, what with their heritage-rich background.

      It could certainly make for a rather emotional basic motoring alternative.

    2. Hmmm, if Y(psilon) becomes a sub-brand and there’s nothing else left at Lancia, is it really a sub-brand then? Or rather just a re-branding?

    3. The Ypsilon is no Lancia, as, I think, most can agree on.

      These days, the Lancia brand carries peculiar connotations with it – #savelancia and the irritating #makelanciagreatagain campaigns tainting the name in their own ways. If it was merely dormant, it’d be easier to resurrect Lancia – the sense of anger and desperation inherent in these slogans/hashtags (not to mention the Trump association) would make any attempt at relaunching Lancia the subject of unsurmountable public/internet scrutiny. Compared with Lancia, the Alfa brand was in cracking shape, before the Giulia launch.

      For these reasons, I’d officially end Lancia’s undignified coma and focus on Ypsilon as a brand focussing on style and a bit of luxury on a small footprint. The Musa, for example, is a car that’s still quite visible in Italy and would deserve another, possibly more thoroughly developed iteration.

      Ypsilon wouldn’t consist just of one model, but a handful of them. If/when this kind of car becomes popular again, it could also spawn a small roadster. All based on Fiat hardware, obviously, which wouldn’t be much of an issue, as Ypsilon isn’t pretending to be a cutting-edge high-tech brand, but purveyors of sensible style. If some vegan upholstery and an EV drivetrain were offered, it might even become popular with hipsters.

    1. You’re not alone Padraig, I have only today been enlightened too!

  4. Can the patient last, doctor? We’ve cared and nurtured the best we can for a good while. In the teams, there’s a soft spot for the little critter.

    Depends, nurse. (Cash) injections, intensive changes to the metabolism, albumen issues and we believe an inbuilt fear concerning it siblings; these all weigh heavily. We’ve done all we can though mercy has a funny way of showing itself, sometimes. Mind you, so has indignity. Is there a Do Not Resuscitate order here, nurse? Nurse?

  5. It would lessen us all a little if the former Aberdeen car saleman saw fit to wring the neck of the ageing, but still fecund White Hen.

    I have some faith in that clause of The Fiat Charter which allowed products to live on in the domestic market for years after being dropped from the price lists everywhere else; Nuova 500, 128, first-generation Panda and Tychy Seicento come to mind.

    Of course the Ypsilon is really an Autobianchi, descended from the extraordinary A112, which will be fifty years old this November. That was a masterpiece, oddly overlooked despite being the work of Dante Giacosa, Ettore Cordiano, Severino Nutarelli, and Marcello Gandini. Other distinctions were remaining in production for over sixteen years, and having the biggest capacity production version of the 100 engine.

    The four generations which followed never matched the ingenuity and minimalism of the first A112, but the present White Hen – which G*d preserve – is a pretty good effort, pure-blooded and blessedly free of GM DNA.

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