Tilting the Scales : (1)

Fables of the reconstruction: Another inglorious tale of Lancia.

(c) autodata1

It would hardly be inaccurate to suggest that under Fiat Auto’s purview, Lancia was never Job #1. In fact, it has been an awfully long time since the presence of Lancia earned more than a grudging acknowledgment and a, “Huh, is that still around?” grimace from Elkann’s crew. Would that we knew it at the time, but the restructuring of the marque’s residual engineering independence into the Fiat Group morass towards the end of the 1980s was, in hindsight, the harbinger for the extinguishing of Lancia’s brief revival in the ‘executive set’ ranks under Fiat ownership.

Certainly, within a decade, matters had reversed dramatically, Lancia’s record levels of production at the beginning of the nineties an already-distant memory. With sales of its larger models having almost entirely collapsed outside its native Italy, the brand was carried then – as now – by the indefatigable Y.

Complicating matters, both from Lancia’s perspective and that of its parent, was Fiat’s acquisition of the loss-making Alfa Romeo in 1986. Having secured its position as Fiat’s upmarket brand with a barrage of investment over the first half of the 1980s, Lancia now found itself fighting for increasingly scarce resources with a far needier and resource-hungry rival. This being so, it was felt that Lancia must change course to avoid inevitable conflict.

Fiat management, notably managing director Paolo Cantarella – generally understood not to be overly-simpatico towards the Lancia brand – decreed it should henceforth follow an altogether sybaritic ‘comfort and luxury’ path. To listen to Fiat executives, this was to re-locate Lancia upon its traditional bearings. And, indeed, it is true that the profile of a traditional Lancia buyer was historically often not quite that of an Alfa purchaser.

True, and irrelevant. For within this branding revamp, Fiat management ignored the primary rule of image definition – it doesn’t matter what one’s PowerPoint slides think the brand should stand for, if it doesn’t align with what your customers have determined that it does stand for. During the 1980s, Lancia had attracted customers on the basis of a hard-won sporting image, blended with high-tech offerings and attractive pricing.

Yet under the new dictum, overt performance models became a rarity and all motorsport activities ceased entirely. That much is well-known to denizens of DTW. But some decisions, such as management’s preference for the Kappa coupe over a new-generation Delta Integrale, can only be viewed as folly, and not just with hindsight.

Such was the environment into which the Lybra midliner was born in 1999, replacing the already-decade-old Dedra. Not a lifetime in Lancia terms, mayhaps, but the ‘Dead Rat’, for all its virtues, was not a Lancia for the ages, and one that felt aged before its time.

It isn’t intended as a cruel swipe to say that the Lybra’s gestation happened rather like a bankruptcy – relatively slowly, and then all of a sudden, in a rush. Initially proposed to sit on the same platform as the replacement Croma, the ‘new Large’, the axing of the Fiat project in 1992 saw ‘progetto 839’ shifted onto the Tipo platform which, as Italians joked, underpinned everything from Alfas to Zetas; Tempras to trains; Cinquecentos to Eurocargos; family cars to F355s.

(c) carscoops

But in the second half of 1996, with the design ostensibly signed off and the car well on its way to the marketplace – initial phases of pilot production were already underway – a crisis was precipitated when the car was shown to dealers, who clamoured for changes when the penny dropped that they would be charged with selling it.

Initially, Fiat management remained committed to the original launch schedule. But shortly afterwards, Fiat chief Roberto Testore reversed course and ordered a redesign of the new car’s front and rear aspects, as well as a comprehensive interior revamp. Initially, no technical changes were planned, but the initial exclusively-aesthetic reconsideration grew to encompass a full re-evaluation of the car’s mechanical setup under newly-appointed Fiat D-platform head Bruno Cena.

(In Part 2 we will examine the Lybra’s protracted gestation from a technical perspective.)

Sources / credits – see part three.

27 thoughts on “Tilting the Scales : (1)”

  1. Will await Part 2 before replying fully.
    For now, just these:
    Kappa coupé performed well, and 2.4 and 2.0 turbo had useful Viscodrive. Looked like a slug, inexcusable. Turbo still fastest production Lancia ever made (I think): 243kph.

    No sporting Lybra ever attempted.

    Musa aimed at female customers, when they were already catered for with Y. So, as you say, sales largely confined to Italy. Owners I see here in N France absolutely love them — retired, careful drivers, both sexes. Again no sports version. The Fiat Idea, essentially the same car without the interior flattery, is no cheaper on the s/h market now.

    Thesis preferred by Mr Big in Italy: no Alfa could fill that slot.

    1. Having driven a Lybra, I can declare it a top-nice car as it is. If the styling had been more modernist than classical it might have done even better. The fundamental mistake with Lancia has been to assume that comfort and quality must be mated to classicism. The Ypsilon, Lybra, Phaedra and Thesis were all good products poorly marketed. The story of Lancia is a hidden tale of social networks and accidents of personel more than the products or their market position. It is not hard to believe that a different set of managers and decision makers could have guided Lancia in a much better way. There´s nothing inherent in the brand that guarenteed the brand´s current sorry and terminal state.

    2. Rover made exactly the same make with the 75: assuming a comfort orientated car needed a “traditional” style. Imagine, in an alternative reality, the company had styled it like, for example, the Rolls-Royce Ghost.

    3. Daniel: they had to go down that path once the established poles were “sporty-modern” and “comfy-classic”. Oh, goodness me. You could excuse them because the data was not in. It is now. You can mix qualities in lots more ways than they seem to do now. I think the car guys need a course in creativity. Not being imaginative is not paying off.
      I am not suggesting no planning, no thinking – but better planning and more incisive, creative thinking.

    4. Thinking further about a formal, style that isn’t “retro”, I’m reminded of this Russian Gaz/Volga prototype from 2003:

      Ignoring the old fashioned DLO, which betrays the car’s underlying antiquity, the body has a pleasing quiet simplicity that would have made a good replacement for the Rover 75, or a new Lancia Trevi.

    5. Daniel, with the greatest respect, but no. The sad thing about both Rover and Lancia was that not only were both carmakers (as independents) in possession of some very fine engineering minds, but also had a resolutely forward-looking outlook towards design, including visual design. Even the Trevi, for all its perceived eccentricity, was a modernist shape (and that’s before we get to the cabin). How both were forced to become the automotive equivalent of a box of Highland Shortbread is not only deeply sad, but a total failure to fundamentally understand what their brands originally stood for.

      Other views of course are available, but I believe that both Rover and Lancia needed to take a determinedly modernist approach. Sadly, retro was fashionable at the time. I’m not saying what we have now is better (it isn’t) but I’m very pleased to see the back of retro. (Weak pun not intended).

    6. Fair enough, Eóin. This is the Lancia I had in mind when I suggested the style above as (a very approximate) update:

      Was the Trevi really a “modernist”, design? The Beta on which it was based was certainly styled in a contemporary manner when introduced in 1972 but, eight years later when the Trevi debuted, it’s slight oddness was, I think, more a function of necessity rather than intention. Anyway, we’ll agree to differ in this regard!

    7. Just to clarify the point being made about the Kappa coupe – the point there isn’t that they are bad cars (they aren’t – quite the contrary in fact, I like ’em), but it was a bad strategic decision to approve and produce it all the same. Even back then, in that market segment, unless your name began with Mercedes and ended with Benz, you were on a hiding to nothing – and largely for reasons that are unrelated to the qualities or otherwise of any given car competing in that segment. Sure, Volvo did okay with the C70 – for a while – but they had a global distribution network (meaning, in practical terms, presence in the US), an improving image at the time – and the C70 made sense in terms of working as a halo car for the rest of the range that the Kappa coupe never could for Lancia. And even Volvo gave up with the C70 idea after the second generation. Journalists at the time reported at the time that the k Coupe was preferred in strategic/branding terms to a genuine four-wheel drive Integrale successor (not the HPE HF that emerged). Forget the argument over branding – the point is that, in sheer commercial logic terms, it was madness to simply throw that (incredibly loyal and strong) customer base away. And for what?

    8. Lancias (Lance?) don’t have to look like old fashioned retro pastiches:

      Wonderful interior,. too:

    9. Maybe not pastiche, but definitely retro. I like it though.

    10. The Trevi had a blindingly modern interior. The exterior, with its saloon profile, was idiosyncratic in its detailing and classical in its overall form. The Beta has the beta claim to be modern and modernist. I like the Trevi for what it is – a jolly agile and refined saloon which didn´t look much like anything else.
      The Lybra is clearly classical inside and out. While I´d have liked something more cutting edge, the car as it turned out is nothing but lovely apart from the silly glove box lid. If you haven´t sat in a Lybra you won´t realise how jolly well made it is.

    11. The Lybra had a very attractive interior with unusual materials in the best Lancia tradition. Alcantara seats and cast magnesium panels for the centre console were very interesting touches.
      The biggest fault with the external design was that the saloon version looked a lot smaller than it actually was and nearly appeared like a car from a class below, a problem the similarly sized Alfa 156 didn’t have. The Lybra Station Wagon looked a lot more grown up size-wise.

  2. While Lancia would have also needed to rebuild its reputation in the UK, would it (and Alfa Romeo for that matter) have been better off if another company had instead acquired Alfa Romeo?

    Am sort of remained of the perception how Volkswagen in recent years sought to handicap Skoda for the benefit of SEAT, with Skoda arguably being Volkswagen’s near equivalent to Lancia in terms of treatment.

    1. Yes, Lancia and Alfa ought to have been under separate roofs. There is some overlap in products (a car is a car, after all). Lancia needed its own basic components and factories. But who, counterfactually, would ever want a high-minded loss-maker like Lancia? PSA? Ford? GM?
      You have to consider Fiat´s own awful role in all of this, more so after the 1990s when it turned into a corporate flesheating zombi.

    2. Seem to recall Ford being interested in Alfa Romeo, perhaps a few others as well. In retrospect Fiat and Citroen should have swapped Lancia and Maserati respectively.

      Lancia under Volkswagen might have possibly worked in place of SEAT, on the basis Volkswagen developed the VR6 (plus VR5 and W8/etc) engines (that were said to have been derived from the EA827) with Volkswagen logically seeking to capitalize on Lancia’s heritage through use of a V4 version of the VR6 unit and making the narrow-angle and related W8 engines the alternate Lancia’s USP (like inline-5s were for Audi).

  3. The driver of the red car looks like they almost swerved off the road, so surprised were they to spot another Lybra.

    How Fiat ever thought this brand engineering would pay off is a mystery.

  4. I blame the one-dimensional nature of ‘branding’ on the growing influence of marketing.

    Taking the original Jaguar XJ as an example, I’d argue that there’s no way a low-slung, fast, ergonomically compromised (hence ‘sporty’) car with a strong focus on superior comfort (hence ‘old man’s car’) would’ve gotten the green light at any point over the past three decades.

    During that period, most car owners/drivers have been led to believe that what they really want is a BMW – something fast, ‘dynamic’, Nürburgring-ready. Hence the BMW-fication of most upmarket brands. In reality though, many drivers of such vehicles would truly want something a bit more cosy, somewhat more comfortable. But they wouldn’t want to be seen in some grampa barge.

    Old-school Jaguars (to return to that one example close to my own heart) combined the kind of desirable appearance/image with quite a few of the qualities that have been discredited over the past decades.

    To today’s marketers/product planners, the XJ would be hilariously ‘inconsistent’ and therefore unfit for purpose.

    1. Brand management has clearly failed at this point. It´s a zombie idea that deserves to die. Like post-war urban planning, the idea of managing something spontaneous killed the thing it was supposed to enhance.
      In academia the equivalent idea is research strategy.

    2. I think what this once more demonstrates (and it’s worth repeating until the industry gets the memo) is that firstly, mergers and acquisitions never work out well for either party and secondly, that attempting to straitjacket a product or brand into a rigidly specific offer is a direct route to irrelevance and failure.

      Are you listening Mr Tavares? Hello, Carlos?

    3. “…mergers and acquisitions never work out well for either party…”

      I’m not sure Audi and Skoda would be good examples to offer in proof of your universal rule, Eóin!

    4. Putting together this piece, I was put in mind of the vagaries of the distinction between what we now refer to as a ‘brand’, and hitherto what would have been termed a ‘marque’. Without actually researching this in detail, my impression is that the major shift in this direction happened in the 1980s – notwithstanding Mad Men, arguably this was the first full decade where marketing came into its own as a ‘proper’ discipline for many companies, rather than an afterthought to be worried about after the ‘real’ professions (design, engineering, production, quality control) had done their ‘grown-up’ jobs. Informed observers would laugh if you referred to Lancia – or any of the brands under the Fiat umbrella, or in fact, virtually any individual manufacturer on sale today – as a ‘marque’ nowadays, but why? Part of it is to do with the abolition of individual engineering departments or GM-style divisions. But the case could also be made that there has been a normalisation of top-down megacorp control and a growing awareness among the public, at least in a general sense, that manufacturers’ product lines represent a rotisserie of self-images to choose from; the customer then makes their choice of what suits them (their self-perception) best, most especially in an industry laden with such emotive consumer preferences as carmaking. In that context, the progression away from ‘marques’ and towards ‘brands’ – and thus, with depressingly inevitable logic, the loathsome term ‘self-branding’ – in fact entirely makes sense taken on its own terms, for what is branding other than a form of representation to the outside or other? Once the underlying bits have become largely harmonised and homogenised, it becomes the primary method of distinction to – and for – the outside world. A take that is too cynical by half, I hear you scoff. Perhaps. But as Lily Tomlin used to say: No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.

      Characteristically, Marchionne used to speak with a forked tongue on this very subject. Looking at the corporate structure of the modern-day Fiat Group, with brands coming out of every orifice, you’d get the impression that individual brand values are an integral part of the company’s overall, er, ‘strategy’, if one can characterise whatever Fiat’s plans for the next 48-72 hours are as such. And yet the execution of the whole shebang would lead one to conclude that brand values, historical traits, identity and so on are almost completely meaningless; that product (regardless of what it is, be it a sports sedan, a supermini or a truck) almost seems to be designed with a view to exploiting margins in whatever sector of the market is currently flavour of the month, and then shoved in the dealers of whichever sales channel is deemed most likely to be able to shift them in any given market. Perhaps the fact that FCA appears to be completely stuffed as a feasible long-term proposition and without any discernible viable strategy is not unrelated to this observation.

      As for Rover… the decline and fall of BL/ARG etc is a source of endless fascination to me, especially when located within the political economy of both the UK and the EEC/EU over a prolonged period that happens to dovetail quite closely with my own research interests. And there is probably a PhD waiting to be written on the pathology of BMC > Rover Group’s branding decisions over the course of 40 years. But at least specifically in the case of the 75, I have always been somewhat cautious of adopting the seemingly-widespread line that the retro-classical theme was pressured upon them in terms of becoming ‘the opposite of’ BMW. I always had the impression that Rover management – and, it must be said, the designers there too – made a conscious choice to go in that direction, which is supported if you look at the evolution of the sketches and design models on R40. In a lot of ways I tend to feel this was a significantly more egregious planning mistake than was the case with Lancia, already reduced by that stage to something of a third pillar within the group structure at Fiat.

  5. Re mergers, about two thirds aren’t worth the effort, according to a wide range of studies. I think you have to have a really good reason to take over another company, especially if it’s similar to yours (horizontal versus vertical integration). As the management consultant, Tom Peters, once said ‘Two turkeys don’t make an eagle’.

  6. Is it ok to like the image of the comfy-snoby Lancia over the sporty ones? Not as if I’d have anything against sporty cars, but I don’t want to ever see a Lancia key in the hands of a street racer or amateur tuner. No, that should absolutely never happen and to a certain degree I think the Lancia motorsport-image age was a mistake. A glorious mistake, but still a mistake. If they could have established themselves as the ‘Italian Volvo’ or an early ‘the Lexus of Turin’ then maybe all would be fine. By the way – those alcantara interiors are still a dream of mine.

    1. I have an entire alcantara interior from a Kappa SW if you want to collect it from Normandy.
      A Kappa is hardly “snobby”. It’s so unobtrusive no one notices it.
      Until the 3.0 V6 in Sport mode has left all the MB diesels and BMW ditto behind on a long autoroute climb into the mountains up at the 180 mark.

      I didn’t mind the Delta motorsport era, but prefer the quality end. A Lexus rival would have worked, but the Thesis wasn’t really that. It just looked silly.

      Just wish the Lybra, another lovely car, had a version with a bit more performance.

    2. I have to say, when compiling this piece, it gave me a new appreciation for the Lybra, and not just aesthetically. Perhaps life marches on and I am simply becoming more, ahem, ‘mature’. But to be honest, it is a car that I have always thought looked quite smart in the flesh, inside and out, and I long had a regard for them whenever I spotted one (invariably in Italy – although also very popular as Belgrade taxis, I noted a few years back). I thought it might just be me, but a friend of mine with a keen aesthete’s sense also has a soft spot for them. Doubtless some people will be looking at the photos above and wondering hard about the credibility of anything I put forward, but – the aesthetics do work in the metal in a way that doesn’t necessarily carry across in images. From some angles it’s rather odd, in a way that perhaps shouldn’t quite work – but is rather charming nonetheless, in the manner of quite a few Lancia saloons over the years.

  7. Great article and comments, I really feel it touches many interesting areas of the automobile as a whole, from its concept forming and next to its realisation. Thanks very much!

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