Euro Standard

The 1989 Dedra brought Latin style and a more competent package to the compact executive segment. Sadly, it left behind a few more pressing concerns.

(c) carsfromitaly

Italians have never needed to be convinced that a luxury car could also be a compact car. With a land and cityscape which militated against corpulence and a taxation system which proscribed large-capacity engines, Italian carmakers made something of an art out of geographical and fiscal necessity.

As artforms went however, it wasn’t the most expressive, the post-war Italian upmarket berlina conforming to a degree of visual rectitude that was almost flamboyant in its subtlety. Foremost amongst its exponents was Lancia. From the Ardea, its Appia successor, to the seminal Fulvia, these saloons gave the upwardly mobile a refined, well engineered and reassuringly patrician vehicle – one which could be operated, parked and afforded – within the often narrow confines of Italian society.

It could be argued that the bloodline paused with the advent of 1972’s Beta, a larger and from a stylistic perspective, a more expressive car. A more direct replacement would arrive seven years later with the hatchback Delta, regaining both compact dimensions and a more sober style. But it wasn’t until the advent of 1982’s Prisma that the line was truly reanimated. By adding a third volume to the Delta’s silhouette (along with revised nose styling), Ital Design created a compact berlina which quickly became Lancia’s best seller.

The Prisma’s combination of sobriety and size proved a winning formula, proving not only a useful adjunct to the concurrent Delta, but also occupying the lower foothills of the Trevi range, following the latter’s demise in 1984.

For the Prisma’s eventual replacement, Fiat looked, not to Ital Design as before, but to the design consultancy shaping the pivotal Type Two programme, estimated at the time to have cost Fiat in the region of £1bn to develop. The Institute of Development in Automotive Engineering (I.D.E.A) was founded by Franco Mantegazza, a mechanical engineer and avowed non-stylist. Situated in an 18th century hunting lodge high in the hills of Moncalieri on the outskirts of Turin, IDEA brought a less romantic, more pragmatic approach to the design of motor cars.

Twinned with the Fiat Tempra, the Dedra’s design team, led by Ercole Spada, (reporting to Mantegazza) were briefed to create a car which  Mantegazza described as, “not very modern, traditional, a car with discreet elegance.” The resulting shape was one with the kind of studied discipline of line and form, attention to detail and visual restraint that perhaps approached that of contemporary Mercedes’, but fell somewhat short in proportional terms – appearing overly tall and slab-sided from some aspects.

Reviewed in Car Magazine by veteran freelancer, Roger Bell, the former Motor staffer praised the Dedra’s cabin, describing its architecture as “soft, clean and integrated”. The check-cloth seat facings were also noted, “why pay more for suede?”, Bell regarding the interior as being “generally well finished”, there being “nothing low-brow or vulgar to deter the discerning.” Roomy too, with generous accommodation for five and their luggage in the “huge, flat-floored boot”.

The Dedra arrived to UK/ROI shores with a choice of a 1.6l 90bhp single-cam Fiat motor lifted straight from the Tipo. Median-range was a 1.8l twin cam with contra-rotating balance-shafts producing 110 bhp. Rounding out the choices was a 2.0l version of the same unit with another 10bhp and in Bell’s estimation, little else to commend it. Stick with the 1.8, he reckoned. Later in the car’s lifespan, turbocharged versions of the two-litre were offered to European customers in HF and Integrale (4WD) versions. Diesels too became available.

Bell enjoyed the 1.8, saying it “pulls hard, revs sweetly to its six-five limit and feels livelier than stopwatch figures suggest,” describing it as the “starring value for money” choice. However, there was a caveat. “Shut your eyes and it sounds and feels a bit like a Fiat; that is not in itself a bad thing, but perhaps not what buyers at this level seek.” Also on the demerit side was a soft-feeling brake pedal, an imprecise if accurate gearchange, cheap-feeling column stalks and a rhapsody of creaks and rattles on rough surfaces which “collectively tend to undermine the Dedra’s quality aspirations.”

Better news awaited when the Dedra’s chassis was discussed, Bell praising the Lancia’s traction in all conditions, the lack of torque-steer under power and its stability at speed. “The Dedra corners with an even-keel composure that encourages elan; the ability to tighten line on sharp corners when you expect understeer plough never fails to impress.” The ride quality “on the stiff and thunky side of supple” was not deemed “an impediment to comfort”, the firm, supportive seats, excellent driving position, low noise levels and “excellent” heating/ventilation all gaining approval.

The Dedra extends no frontiers, sets no benchmarks, but is an agreeable, friendly, spirited car that’s not short on character”, is how his report concluded. But while Lancia were undergoing something of a sales renaissance in Europe (and especially Italy) at the time, they were on the edge of extinction in the UK. The Dedra therefore was pivotal to reverse Lancia’s fortunes, aiming to take a chunk out of the lucrative UK compact executive saloon market, with keen prices, sharp contemporary Italian style and generous equipment.

But in an addendum to the review, Car’s editor added: “After Roger Bell had passed the car on to our other testers, it broke down three times.

Confidence is everything when it comes to the purchase of an expensive consumer durable and given Lancia’s already torrid reputation in the UK, this was probably the last thing the concessionaires wanted to see in print. Because whatever the truth of the matter, it underlined Fiat’s inability to get the fundamentals right. And in retrospect, it was probably this fear-factor, combined with a dealer network who was either unwilling or unable to satisfy the customer that finished Lancia in RHD markets.

(c) automotive manuals

That and a throw-away comment by the reviewer. Describing the Lancia as “a new sort of Euro-standard car”, Roger Bell, perhaps inadvertently, damned the Dedra more succinctly than any 500-word article could.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “Euro Standard”

  1. Good piece about an almost forgotten car (and unfortunately, brand).

    I still have that copy of Car Magazine around, with that fatal phrase “After Roger Bell had passed the car on to our other testers, it broke down three times.”. I always thought Car should have told the reasons. A blown fuse or relay isn´t the same as a seized engine, although in a brand new car even a trivial trouble is serious.

    I suppose breakdowns on press cars weren´t rare, remembering when a spanish magazine´s Audi 100 2.8E got a snapped driveshaft on 0-60 tests, or when the british press reported serious problems testing in 1994 the new Aston Martin DB7 (even a fire). Amusing stuff.

  2. All ´tipo due‘ cars had wheels that looked too small, a narrow track and too much tinwork in the flanks because they were so tall.
    On the Tipo/Tempra and Alfa 155 it just wasn’t that obvious because the clamshell bonnet somehow structured the large painted area above the front wheels. The Tempra also didn’t look so hump backed as the other saloons because of its window in the C post and the Alfa’s sides looked structured because of the crease running the length of the car.
    Only the Lancias had to make do without these things and the Dedra looked particularly strange.
    The only one of all those cars which didn’t look like its track was far too narrow was the late model 155 with its much widened front track and bulging wings to accommodate it.

    1. Dave,

      Yes, the 155 is that rare example of an unambiguously successful mid life facelift (DtW passim).

      You are right about all these IDEA cars though – the base FIAT models were ok (if a bit dull) but the more expensive Lancia and Alfa derivatives really were starting to stretch credibility.

      Frankly, it is not hard to see why the German big three started to pull away from the pack at this point.

      One final point about the Lancia Dedra – I remember at the time that it seemed conservative to the point of anonymity on the outside, but generally the cabin was well received. But that interior shot shows just how narrow it was! The centre console is narrow but still has to dive below the seats. Oh, and hopeless ergonomics too. Modern touchscreens are a distraction, but imagine trying to change the radio station in this.

  3. That rear 1/4 view of the 155 looks utterly ridulous, even by modern standards that looks like a big bloated whale on castors.

  4. The Dedra is not an ugly design, but it certainly does look rather frumpy because of its tall and narrow stance. Not so its predecessor, the Prisma, which I always thought was a quietly elegant saloon in the best Lancia tradition:

    The only very minor criticism I might make is that, like the Mk1 Delta, it had traditionally installed windscreen and rear window, using rubber seals that necessitated rounded corners, and a slightly heavy-handed chrome insert. A bonded-in screen with angled corners would have been more in keeping with the overall design theme. On the Prisma, the outboard corners of the rear light units were radiused, I think to be in keeping with the rear screen and soften the angularity somewhat:

  5. The Dedra has grown on me in recent years. Unlike other correspondents, I don´t see notice proportion problems. The detailing is so pleasing and clean without being formless. It is a shame the drive seemed to be so anodyne. What is a Lancia about but a satisfying mix of ride quality and well-weighted controls? Values of clean examples are rising.

  6. The Prisma is a great example of two things that are extinct in motoring now: an “Executive” car with plastic wheel trims and a subtly aspirational middle class car.
    In the 80’s and early 90’s visible plastic was socially acceptable- the MB 190E is probably the best example of this.
    The Dedra belongs to an era when people dressed smart to dine out, for example. Today people still dress up but they don’t do smart; they do “Designer” t-shirts and jeans. Last weekend we ate out and the right-on granny sat at the next table was wearing a crop top, low rise jeans, a bare midriff and what looked like mens boxer shorts with a logo’d waistband. Embarrassing but well spoken grandparent would not drive a Lancia or a Rover, they’d mean nothing to her now, she might settle for a recent Mercedes maybe with black alloys but a 190E? Vulgarity rocks and I’d say that’s why Rover, Buick, SAAB and Lancia* are extinct. Poor build quality doesn’t come into it- we still have Fiat and Alfa to prove that it isn’t any impediment to selling cars.

    *Whilst you can still buy a Lancia on the Italian market I still class it as extinct because even if you are still alive if you have no one to reproduce with then your species is extinct.

    1. Argh, where I’ve said Prisma above, read Dedra. I was getting my Lancia generations mixed up.

  7. At the time, I liked these Tipo 2 cars. They were, at times, ill proportioned and I had forgotten how humpy the boots looked on all of them. However, there was something very distinctively modern about them when they each emerged.

    Looked through the context of today’s cars they look quite odd and even amateurish. They do also appeal though with their sheer flanks and simpler (if still busy, at times) surfaces.

    The 155 was awful at launch, but much better post facelift, with its wider stance, especially at the front. The Tipo itself was a car I always liked, and still do. Haven’t seen one for years though, even having holidayed in Rome recently.

  8. This is said to be Giugiaro’s proposal for the Dedra. People have noted some similarities with the Renault 21 which I think the designer worked on too. Note the positioning of the ‘T3’ badge on the C-pillar which is where the Renault 21 displayed its trim level in its production version.

    1. Thanks for this NRJ, I wasn’t aware of it before. I don’t particularly see the R21 reference, (well, maybe the rear wheelarch treatment), but to my eyes there is a stronger reflection to GG’s 1984 Marlin concept in the relationship of the volumes and the treatment of the glasshouse. However, it puts me in mind of something else as well, which I am presently unable to put my finger upon. While IDEA’s Dedra was a little slab-sided, I think it was on balance a superior Lancia, from a visual perspective.

    2. Thanks for sharing those images, NRJ. The Giugiaro design is certainly more distinctive than the production Dedra (for good or bad). It might have been a Citröen, had that marque built a conventional four-door saloon in the 1990’s. Eóin, the DLO reminds me of two cars, the R8 Rover 400 saloon:

      And the Saturn S-Series sedan:

    3. I see a bit of Renault 21 in the back, maybe also in the flat surfaces. The stance is very different, however. In the side view, the front part reminded me of the first Seat Toledo from around 1990. Nut sure why this is, in the other views it’s gone. Overall it’s not a very convincing Lancia, without the grille it could be everything.

    4. While I have no firm proof, I’m quite convinced that this Lancia proposal was done at Bertone, rather than ItalDesign. It certainly bears more hallmarks of early Deschamps-era Bertone than Giugiaro – in fact, the Lancia looks, to quite some extent, like a shorter, taller Daewoo Espero. The rear wheel arch treatment does echo the R21’s, but these cut-off designs were very much du jour everywhere in those days (see Deschamps’ Bertone Ramarro for reference, also regarding the lower body’s graphics).

    5. Hi Simon,

      Yesterday I was thinking that the front wing looks a lot like the Toledo 1st generation too! And guess who was behind it ? Giugiaro. If you look at the front wing of the Toledo, the renault 21 and this prototype they bear some ressemblance and they’re all Giugiaro designs. I see some other resemblance with the 21, like the tail lamp and the way the boot is sculpted, the A-pillar, etc…. I think Giugiaro’s Marlin concept is also very similar to his Dedra proposal.

    6. Personally I don’t really like this Dedra proposal, it reminds me of some old Lada projects. I prefer the production Dedra.

  9. The Italian market’s architecturally conditioned requirements for a restrained width, were not the only reasons behind the weird proportioning of the Tipo Due generation. We must not forget their ambitious motorsport goals that the Alfa 155 had to bear on its
    shoulders. Much of its success owes exactly to the sheer
    aerodynamic drag advantages a narrow body yields.

    Where Spada shines, to my eyes, is in his brave decision not to conceal the innate disproportionate character of the Dedra’s shape. Most of the detailing actually works in favour of underlining the relative height / narrowness. The Dedra can be viewed as a textbook example of how to make an unavoidable disadvantage ‘work for you’.

    Of course, viewed in isolation from the above restraint, it’s far from a perfect design – proportion is paramount, we all know that. But as a struggle to come up with a likeable, timeless visual identity, it’s
    a remarkable one.

    There is another aspect, often overlooked, where a narrow car can be advantageous from a styling point of view: it’s how the bonnet width relates to its length. Most of todays’ cars sport a wide short bonnet, which is subconsciously comprehended as a ‘static’ item by the observer. For a car to be substantially appealing, the bonnet must
    suggest movement, and only a narrow long bonnet can achieve
    that crucial, subliminal criterion.

    An interesting example, in this regard, is the underrated GLK (x203).
    Legacy of its very basic, upright and militant windscreen & A-pillar layout, the bonnet is not only absolutely longitudinally laid out, but its convergent creases further underline the subliminal notion
    of ‘movement’, making it appeal instantly, in spite of its
    other styling shortcomings (most notably the comically
    unsuitable door handles, lifted straight of its platform sibling W203).

    The Dedra is, therefore, a design with an extremely, dangerously high content of self-consciousness. It wears its shortcomings with such pride they turn into pure, almost irresistible character.

    1. Alex: rather good analysis. I have not heard the point about width-height ratios expressed in that way. It´s a subtle but important point. I am also pleased to see this level of thought applied to the Dedra which deserves it.
      About the ItalDesign proposal: the door frame around the A-pillar is nasty and I don´t find the glazed C-pillar to be anything other than forced. Oldsmobile and Ford cracked this approach in much better ways.

  10. Thank you, Richard.

    On the ItalDesign (or was it Bertone?) “Dedra” proposal, I agree this proposal looks partly Citroenic, mostly due to the radical difference in the shape and size of Front vs. Rear wheelarch – The rear, in particular,
    loses the ‘arch’ part of its name rather convincingly.

    Still, to me it is a rather dubious looking object, at least in the form it appears on these renderings/photos. The attempt to visually increase the optical length by fitting a blackened lower cladding, generates a dissonance with the height of the DLO vs. the sides. It generally gains very little for a very high
    ‘net cost’ (looks like a distorted, de-proportioned Audi 100 C3, with its riskiest features exaggerated / boosted). Had that blackened lower cladding been deleted, it might be a different story. It’s anyway fascinating, though, just how literally its DLO solution (rear windscreen, most notably) was ‘lifted’ by GM for the Saturn S-series.

    Rover 400 solution is far neater, and, as far as Sedan ‘thinking’ goes,
    disposing with the C- / D- pillar altogether, in the way Rover did it, is actually
    very convincing, particularly in what is a relatively short car. I think this method of DLO-masked pillars has still something to offer, it does not seem
    completely ‘overplayed’ yet. It actually puts the emphasis of the general proportion of cabin vs. lower body, which demands a true
    geometric excellence in order to really work.

    1. If you look at the Ital/Bertone proposal’s (very Skoda Octavia I-like) front, you can see that the lights and grille have been superimposed in some way.

      As we all know, this design didn’t end up as a Lancia, and I’d guess it wasn’t conceived as such initially either.

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