Fables of the reconstruction: Another inglorious tale of Lancia.
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.
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.