Your Sleepy Voice Tells Me It´s Late Where You Are

A pleasant encounter on the streets of Dublin.

1989 Lancia Thema – enduring excellence

You might feel that we have featured the Lancia Thema rather too often on the pages of Driven To Write, but I would contend that it makes up for the blizzard of articles on the Citroën DS, Corvette, E-Type and Beetle found elsewhere on the Internet. With that said, here’s another Thema.

I had to double-check the facts: the Lancia Thema first emerged in 1984, launched in October of that year.  Hence, it is something of a shock to realise the Thema’s 40th anniversary is almost upon us.  The message I draw from this is that core industrial design principles amount to an enduring and time-proof way to resolve a product.  It is the car’s underlying angularity (and the angle of the front windscreen, mostly) that makes the Thema look its age. I would not want to change that, though.

For a long time, I thought the Thema was the least successful of the Type Four platform designs. On reflection, Lancia’s subdued styling lent itself well to the common shape that it, Saab, Fiat and Alfa all had to work to. I find the low-key character of the Lancia thrilling: it’s the equivalent of having a made-to-measure suit in plain grey. You feel well-dressed, but it’s your own private business. I would suppose that such overt discretion embodied by the Thema is no longer in vogue.  We can discuss whether the more pronounced grille is pushing the boat out too much or whether it is just discreet enough. I like it, but it does not need to be any more prominent.

As you know, the Kappa replaced the Thema and it also adhered to the Lancia principle of quietness, yet it is still unmistakable, even when seen from a distance. We might ask if the Thesis, successor to the Kappa, went way too far with its romantic forms and jewel-like detailing. That’s not to say I dislike the Thesis but rather that I think a better way forward would have been to apply all the same technology on a car of utmost conservatism and not try to use overt styling to woo customers.

1989 Lancia Thema grille

The Thesis could very well have been as delightful inside. The exterior on the other hand could very well have been conceived of as an Italian Volvo in terms of sobriety. They didn’t even need to think of Volvo: the Lancia heritage was sobriety and this Thema (a succesful Lancia, let’s remember) illustrates that concept very well.

1989 Lancia Thema interior

At some point I need to test drive one of these.  Period reviews tended to talk about torque steer and a less-than-rigid bodyshell. I wonder if Lancia themselves had a settled view as to whether the Thema was supposed to fight Mercedes-Benz for ride quality or BMW for performance and handling, or did it just land by chance between a sofa and a church pew? The other factor is how the ride and steering compare to the Trevi, which the Thema nominally superseded. Undoubtedly, the Thema was better finished, with an interior that was much more refined than the Trevi’s (though the latter is still a thing of wonder). However, I suspect the ride and haptics were more ordinary, something that would not impress the driver of, for example, a Peugeot 405 or 505.

We now walk on past the Thema and continue our Dublin stroll.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

19 thoughts on “Your Sleepy Voice Tells Me It´s Late Where You Are”

  1. Good morning, Richard. I don’t recall us talking about the Thema very much here. It’s been ages since I last saw one, so thanks for sharing it here. I’ve only sat in a Thema twice. Behind the wheel of a 8.32 and in the back seats of a 2.0 i.e. Turbo. I don’t recall them as being special to drive in anyway, either.

    I like the quiet restraint, though. Sadly the interior plastics always looked and felt a bit cheap, maybe even more so because the leather or alcantara does exactly the opposite. I would like to test drive one too. I found 7 for sale, 5 of which have the Ferrari engine. There can’t be more than a handful regular Themas left.

  2. Good morning Richard and many thanks for your strolling observation (s). Funny you mention “the Lancia heritage was sobriety” which is exactly what struck me when i happened upon a Lancia Fulvia in the wild, yesterday. It must’ve been from around ‘66 i guess, full of period patina on its dark grey suit and looking like it drove straight out of Italy where it was just discovered. Tried my utmost to see the beauty of it, and failed, unfortunately. But it did radiate engineering craftsmanship from every angle and, with that, well, sobriety.
    Somehow i forgot to take pictures of it, so I cannot add it to the collection of “remarkable cars in my neighbourhood”…

  3. Very good spot, Richard: these have become rare indeed! From memory I have been in a Thema precisely once, in the back sest,for about 10 minutes. It had been well used, and felt and little baggy: I don’t know what one in good shape would feel like. My observations of the interior materials were similar to Freerk’s: lovely Alcantara, slight shame about the plastics. I don’t know that they were objectively any worse than a contemporary Granada’s, though, just shinier. There was, as in all the Tipo Quattro cars, an impressive amount of room inside.
    I find it sobering that I can recall reading about the press launch of a nearly 40 year old car – it was in Vienna, and the writer opined that Fiat chose the location to emphasise the car’s more sober and upmarket attributes, a limited Mercedes (O tempus! O mores!)

  4. Good morning Richard. Thanks for the reminder of the Thema, a car to which I didn’t pay enough attention when it was current, but one that certainly deserves another look now:

    Discreetly handsome, as a Lancia should be. I think Michael us right about the interior plastics: they should be judged against the standards of the day, and were perfectly ok in that context.

    1. The Thema was always cricticised for the (lack of) quality of its interior parts.
      I remember a Fiat official telling a journalist that he could not understand this because the Thema parts were made by the same Fiat subsidiary that made the interiors for Audi and BMW and the Thema’s parts were to the same standards and there was nothing more expensive on offer there.
      The picture at the bottom shows the fully leather clad interior of an 8.32 or LX – I’d always go for the LX because it has the same wonderful interior but some sensible engines like Busso V6 or 16V turbo which make it just as fast as the 8.32 but much more user friendly in terms of maintenance costs and mire durable, too.

      There should be no HF ‘elefantino’ badge in the grille of any Thema, by the way.

    2. Good morning, Daniel. The 8.32’s interior in your photo didn’t suffer from the plastic issue as everything was covered in leather (sourced from Poltrona Frau if I am not mistaken). Even at the time I thought that BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi had nicer, less shiner plastics than the Thema.

    3. Here’s the dashboard of an LX – the same wonderful leather and real rosewood without the pain of the Ferrari-derived V8.
      For me, the 8.32 is not worth the extra hassle caused by its engine. The V8 doesn’t sound like a proper Ferrari because of its cross plane crankshaft (the 308 has a flat crank), in real terms it is no more powerful than the Busso V6 or turbo on offer in the LX and you get engine-out cambelt changes at extra short intervals with additional troubles that require you to run the belts without its covers to prevent overheating of the belts (a modification recommended by Ferrari also for the 308/328 but often forgotten on the Lancia 8.32) and then the V8 is frighteningly expensive to repair because spare parts prices equal their weight in gold.

  5. I was lucky enough to spend 8 weeks if my life in Siena in the late 80’s and there were Themas everywhere you looked around the town and surrounding region. They looked especially elegant and cool in that context.

    From some angles (rear 3/4 for example) the boot looks a bit tacked-on, but it actually gave the car a bit of character.

    I liked all of the Type 4 cars, even the Croma. The 9000 was a brilliant take on a larger Saab, and the 164 meant you could believe in Alfa Romeo once again. The Alfa was and remains my favourite, but I’d happily take a Thema.

  6. Went for a ride once in an 8.32 and had a hard time reconciling that engine with that car. There is an underlying boy racer aspect in the Italian car industry, and it sneaks out at moments: add to this some of the hot Alfas or the Maserati Gran Turismo, more butch with elegance.
    However, the chassis is really interesting – owned a 164 and a 9000 series Saab for years and really like that size of car, and what both marques did with it. The Saab was probably more refined and resolved, the 164 had its foibles, but it felt like a modern Flaminia in its solidity (oh for a bit more leg room tho). Miss both of them.

    1. I never understood the 8.32, unless it was the result of a “hold my beer” between Lancia engineers. The 2.0 Turbo must be almost as quick in a straight line and probably better balanced.
      Some years ago I heard a story (legend?) about the 8.32 water pumps. It seems they were different to the 308´s, and somebody bought the whole remaining stock from Lancia, to resell them at eye-watering prices.

    2. The 8.32’s engine was different from the one in the 308 in almost every detail.
      Every casting was different (the 308 for example had the gearbox casing integral with the oil sump and the gearshift linkage going through the casting – fearsomely expensive to repair when the oil seals for the linkage fail and make the engine drain its oil into the gearbox, the 8.32 of course had a conventional oil sump), it had a different crankshaft, different heads, the ancillaries were mounted differently to fit into the Lancia and so on. Nearly nothing is interchangable between Ferrari and Lancia engines.
      It seems that a sizeable number of 8.32s were bought used for their engines in the hope for cheaper spares for 308s only for the owners to find out that they could use just nothing.

      And yes, the turbo and V6 are just as fast and give a lot less trouble, mainly of the financial kind.

  7. The Thema is a very subtle piece of design. There’s a temptation to think that the Type 4 cars look similar, more so than is actually true, which is probably exaggerated in my mind by the fact that I know that they’re related. Also, there were quite a few back-to-back tests conducted – hard to resist if you’re a journalist, I suppose.

    Speaking of which, I found this this short test from Top Gear from 1989 interesting – the Lancia comes over as a bit of a hot-rod, on the quiet. I think these cars still look good (and may have gained in attractiveness in retrospect), but I recognise that my perception is influenced by all sorts of things.

  8. All four cars are quite nice, though the Alfa does take the cake for me. This Thema, though very nice, doesn’t seem to be in good nick and as almost always, the facelift didn’t improve upon the original. As I remember, the 8.32 was considered a bit of a gimmick (though a very charming one) even when it was introduced, although Enzo himself seems to have owned one.

  9. From my close-up inspection, the interior plastics are exactly as good as you would find on similar cars from the period and a bit nicer than what Ford, Renault, Peugeot or Opel had. “Car” test drove the 8.32 and really approved of it. The article had a very optimistic feel to it too, as much a travel memoir as road test.

  10. Sadly predictable but all three of the Top Gear test cars appear to no longer exist; all untaxed by the new millennium. My memory banks cannot remember ever having seen a Thema other than book/tv and now of course on the web. The sound of the 8.32 is poster boy stuff but my hopes still (foolishly?) circle around Stellantis reintroducing a Lancia we enthusiasts can salivate over in the years to come. Similar to how we cherish being reintroduced to the Thema after all these years.

    She’s still a looker at fotty year old.

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