Past Perfect

A false dawn from 2003. 

Image: Autocar

Editor’s note: The original version of this piece appeared on DTW in February 2016. Today’s version reflects a re-evaluation of the 2003 concept.  

Over the four decades FIAT Auto was in control, it had been possible to obtain an insight to the health of the parent company’s fortunes by how much development resource was drip-fed towards their habitually impoverished Lancia division. In the early years of the new millennium, despite being heavily indebted and messily extracting itself from an abortive association with General Motors, FIAT seemed primed to make a fresh attempt at re-establishing Lancia, now shorn of its sporting heritage[1] and projecting an unabashed offer in the luxury arena.

Following the Mike Robinson-led Dialogos concept which influenced the 2002 Thesis saloon, Lancia design would henceforth cleave to a retrospective aesthetic — one rooted more in themes reflecting those of the 1950 Aurelia. But despite this shift in creative focus, the appearance  of the Fulvietta concept at the 2003 Frankfurt motor show was something of a coup de foudre — the compact two plus two not only looking the part[2] but signalling the kind of high-end couture appeal that Lancia and its FIAT Auto paymaster was aiming for.

Built on underpinnings derived from the contemporary Fiat Barchetta — (itself based on the second series Punto), the Fulvietta was powered by a 140 ps 1.8-litre VVT unit from FIAT’s comely little boat. The bodyshell, designed at Centro Stile under the supervision of Lancia chief designer, Flavio Manzoni, remained faithful to the original Fulvia Coupé’s proportions and basic style, while lending it a more contemporary, more muscular stance. Only the frontal treatment differed, reflecting similarities to the Grandturismo Stilnovo concept of the same year — particularly in the headlamp treatment.

The concept, finished in Avorio and with an interior upholstered in Testa di Moro leather, with Tanganika wood adorning its traditional looking dashboard looked suitably chic and was universally hailed by press and public, both exhorting FIAT to sanction its production. This the carmaker did reportedly look seriously at doing, the specialist website, Italiaspeed at one stage reporting that FIAT was working closely with carrozzeria Zagato on having it assembled at their facility.

Fulvietta interior harked back to the original. Image: mad4wheels

But FIAT Auto’s financial crisis was worsening, and as matters coalesced, all non-essential programmes were halted or cancelled. Lancia’s reinvention would become one of the casualties, even core models like the third-series Delta being delayed until the business was stabilised. By Autumn 2006 and with the worst seemingly over, auto-journalist John Simister quizzed FIAT Group CEO, Sergio Marchionne about his plans for Lancia and the now renamed concept[3], the bejumpered one proclaiming, “We never said we would not make it. The next likely project after the HPE (New Delta) is a model that will appear like the Fulvia. Stay tuned, you will be pleasantly surprised.”

But two years later, there were still no surprises, pleasant or otherwise. In June 2008 Autocar reported that work on the little coupé was being revived, this time on the Alfa Romeo MiTo platform[4]. By this point, the decision was seemingly taken to go in a different stylistic direction, and with Manzoni gone[5], his Centro Stile replacement, Marco Tencone stated, “When you start in a new segment, you need a new design. We will be evolving the (Lancia) design language.” That Autumn, world financial markets crashed and all thoughts of reviving Lancia evaporated in the ensuing carnage.

Naturally when confronted with an emotive and well executed concept such as this one’s eyes tend to mist over. Audi had already cornered a significant market with the Golf-based TT Coupé, so there was probably an argument for a reborn Fulvia as a credible halo model, appealing to the fashion conscious, customers who appreciated the retro vibe and those with longer memories of Lancia’s heyday. Certainly, had something resembling this been introduced in the mid-2000s, there is likely to have been a market for it — coupés and convertibles still being saleable propositions.

With talk of reintroducing Lancia back into RHD markets and an absence of halo models to offer, Lancia needed something to win over hearts and minds and a pretty upmarket coupé seemed just the ticket, but fate and geopolitics once again conspired against the fabled Shield and Flag.

Image: oldconceptcars

But let us put emotion aside for a moment and look at the state of play. Lancia’s fate, already heavily in the balance was sealed by Fiat’s post-2008 collapse and subsequent merger of necessity with Chrysler. Furthermore, weighing the quality of Lancia concepts against the production reality over the post-Millennial decade, it seems likely any resultant production model would fail to have lived up to the 2003 concept’s promise[6].

But more to the point, the Fulvietta would have been the wrong car for Lancia. Yes, it looked good, but a frame by frame remake, no matter how well executed, is in the final analysis, simply a remake. And as it would prove for other so-called ‘Heritage Marques’, the retrospective design approach would enjoy a brief shelf-life, not just in customer terms but in terms of marque credibility as well. In reality, the last thing Lancia needed was to open up another front in the retro wars.

Throughout its history as an independent carmaker[7], Lancia had always been forward-looking, the past being best left for the historians to pore over. Taking a retrospective approach to style and design was in effect a tacit admission of failure — confirmation that FIAT were out of ideas, no longer having the capacity or patience for what had become to their eyes, only a source of irritation.

Image: oldconceptcars

There was nowhere to go from the Fulvietta concept, except into ever decreasing circles — this being the eternal and mostly unacknowledged consequence of looking backwards. The motor car is a forward-seeking device, always was, always will be. Retro was fun for five minutes. It should then have been put back in its box.

Fulvietta or Fulvia? Victim of circumstance, economics or corporate inertia? It really doesn’t matter, because to be blunt, for all its comeliness, this concept was an irrelevance — to Lancia and to the furtherance of the automobile. Best left where it fell.

[1] Much of which had been bankrolled at huge expense by FIAT Auto management. 

[2] The basis of course was the 1965 Fulvia Coupé, a car fondly recalled by marque aficionados for its style, road manners and for its illustrious Rally career. 

[3] The concept was first known as the Fulvietta, later being renamed Fulvia. 

[4] Itself a (distant) variant of the Grande Punto, which shared its platform with the Opel Corsa.

[5] Manzoni left the FIAT Group for VW. He currently heads the Ferrari design team at Maranello. 

[6] Given the alleged convoluted production process for the Fiat Barchetta, basing a revived Fulvia on its basis would appear both irrational and a sure-fire recipe for red ink. Also, looking at the execution of FIAT Auto’s efforts with Lancia during this period, it’s quite likely any reanimated Fulvia would not have been a quality item. 

[7] And well into the FIAT era for that matter. 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

17 thoughts on “Past Perfect”

  1. Why not both? The Fulvietta, and the new Gamma, Delta and HPE.

    Why lock the new Lancia down to one look, one styling theme?

    The more roots put down, the stronger the new growth, with many stems, not just one, for future growth.

    The TT gave Audi more strings to play, instead of the one note they’d seem stuck on.

  2. If I remember correctly the official name of this concept was Fulvia, even if it’s tempting to call it a Fulvietta because of its donor car.
    Based on the barchetta which already is a one plus one there were no rear seats.

    The Fulvia concept is very closely related to the barchetta. The door structures are the same as is the shape of the door trim, the bootlid structure is identical down to the way the gas strut is attached to the bodywork and the hinges, the way the front lights blend into the wings echo those of the barchetta. It’s very nicely done and very likeable, but in the end it’s a barchetta in a party frock.
    The barchetta’s limitations like very cramped interior, no forced ventilation and many more were acceptable in a roofless joke device like the little Fiat but not in a car with more serious ambitions as the Fulvia would have had to be. The Fulvia also would have to be much more refined than the rough around the edges barchetta in terms of road manners, suspension clunks and noise in general.

    Fiat sold just 50,000 barchettas over eleven years so they could calculate the possible market success of the Fulvia which surely would have been more expensive than the Fiat.
    And they knew the convoluted production processes that could be handled only by a small company. In 2003 Maggiora went bankrupt. They’d already built the Kappa coupé and the barchetta and given them enough of a headache when barchetta production had to be transferred to Bertone which in reality wasn’t in the business of such projects anymore.

    I’m sure Fiat made no money from the barchetta and they probably wouldn’t have made much from the Fulvia and it was good common economical sense not to build it.
    Looking at my barchetta (24 years old this month) I really like it exactly the way it is and for what it is – a fun car for fine weather. Would I have been prepared to pay significantly more money for the Fulvia which doesn’t offer much more than a barchetta with the optional hardtop? Don’t know.

  3. Good Sunday morning Eóin and all.
    Really enjoying this Lancia week, and I also feel – or hope for- a positive tune in the air for a marque that I came to appreciate more and more in DTW articles and comments.
    I would like to comment on the Retrostyle concepts and cars this question:
    What about the 500?
    Have we discussed it all through?
    The new beetle didn’t catch on, the new mustang is something entirely different but the 500 is what it says it is, a new 500. And its success defies the rules of “going retro” with a valid future to come, considering the new electric variant that’s on sale.
    Maybe is it a matter of just getting it right? Or is it just an exception that proves the rule?

    1. I’d say the 500 gets it right because it is a genuine 4 seater, has more luggage room than the original (As far as I can tell) and it has a happy face. In contrast a original was a bit of a cute misery-chops. I will stick my neck out and say that the current 500 is better than the original. Potentially the Fulvietta could have been too. This may be controversial but the Fulvia coupe did not look right from every angle (Like the MGB did or the Mercedes 190 of 1982), it had a leading edge chamfer on the bonnet which I found very irritating and it was always a little too bug-eyed. Additionally it was proportioned like a hardtop convertible, yet the photos I’ve seen (Either of aftermarket or Photoshop conversion, I’ve never been clear) of roofless ones always looked clumsy and insubstantial. Yet the Fulvietta has the look of a solid little roadster and the underpinnings.

      So there was potential there for the Fulvia coupe re-imagined as a fabric roofed convertible with an attractive hardtop included in the price. Positioning it this way would eliminate concerns about refinement and stop any bar room debates about whether or not the Fulvietta should have a pair of tiny token rear seats.

    2. Richard, the car you describe would have been a Lancia version of this:

      Wouldmit have made sense?

  4. Good morning Eóin. It is a great shame that the Fulvia concept never made production, but the harsh truth is that, even if it could have been built relatively cheaply on Barchetta or MiTo underpinnings, it would only have made sense as a ‘halo’ model to attract attention to the more mainstream cars in the company’s range, not as a serious revenue earner in its own right. This has largely been the role of the Audi TT, generating showroom traffic and raising the appeal of the company’s saloons, estates and crossovers. Given that Lancia had little in the pipeline in the way of more mainstream offerings for the Fulvia to promote, it was the right decision to can it.

    Incidentally, I don’t see this concept as particularly ‘retro’. Yes, it has the same basic proportions of the original Fulvia, but I thought it was a strikingly clean and contemporary looking design back in 2003, very different to, for example, the VW Beetle or (especially) the Fiat 500, which really were beating the nostalgia drum hard.

    1. When you look at the way the Punto platform was modified into the barchetta you see that it was anything but cheap to make.
      A second set of lower A post halves thirty centimetres further back, modified bulkheads connecting the two – lots of effort and not suited to large numbers and therefore handled by Maggiora.
      I’m sure tht in a Lancia the barchetta’s deficits would have shown too much to be acceptable.

    2. I agree, Daniel, on finding the styling not exclusively retro. I think that at the time it could have been developed into a credible design language for Lancia. Hatchbacks and other models would have had less retro proportions anyway, I’d imagine. Looking at it now, the underside seems a bit too heavy and the ride height a bit too high, though: something of a portent of the SUV/crossover craze. Or did I just get out of bed on the wrong side this morning?

      Overall, though, there wouldn’t have been a business case for the Fulvia: the Audi TT was viable because Audi had a credible range of cars to sell. For the Fulvia to work it would have had to be a quality product (as the article states – and also Konstantinos’ comment under the Pura article- that was unlikely); Lancia would have had to have a product range and investment on a par with Audi and; whether on Punto of Grande Punto/Corsa/MiTo basis, would have had to be a reasonably fun drive. None of these were bound to happen.

      The amount of work and money put into making the barchetta continues to amaze me. I have no insights into the financials, but I find it conceivable that for the amount they ended up spending on converting the Punto platform, they could have developed a bespoke one, possibly RWD, that they could then used for other products.

      Under FIAT, Lancia never stood a chance. It never got much attention and given the results of the attention that FIAT itself and Alfa received, even that wouldn’t have helped. Stellantis seems more adept at bringing out at least something of a positive spirit in its many brands, even if that means that their days as truly independent marques are well and truly over.

  5. Would the Fulvia’s case have been helped had it appeared earlier (e.g. mid-90s) as a supermini-based saloon derived the Punto/Y platform? Assuming of course the Punto platform had the same ability to spinoff a saloon body style as the Uno/Palio-based Albea/Siena.

    The Fulvia concept was limited by the expensive to build Barchetta and the Punto it is based upon was not Fiat’s dynamic high-point compared to other supermini rivals, unfortunately too much expectations would have been placed on it by the public which the Fulvia was simply never going to be able to fulfil.

  6. It’s a lovely concept, but as others have said, it’s probably better that it stayed that way.

    Both the new Beetle and Audi TT generally sold around 20,000 vehicles each year in Europe throughout their life in (so did the Scirocco), so I suspect that would have been the maximum volume for the new Fulvia. Then there’s the issue of dealer coverage, service levels and product quality…

    As so many other manufacturers have demonstrated, one can’t just come up with a concept and launch it because it’s briefly seen as being flavour of the month – there needs to be a proper long-term products strategy. That’s boring, but it’s what companies like the Volkswagen Group get right and I think and hope that Stellantis may operate in a similar way.

    1. Alfa projected 20,000 annual sales for their 916 GTV/Spider siblings and because Pininfarina couldn’t handle such numbers made then at Portello. After 64,000 in eight years production went to Pininfarina where 16,000 were made in three years.
      The Alfas effectively were killed by the TT which was conceptually similar but much more professionally executed.
      Barchetta production was around 5,000 per year because Maggiora could not make more than 43 cars per day. If they really looked at Zagato as a production partner for the Fulvia there would have been similar limitations.
      Only Pininfarina and Bertone would have been able to handle 20,000 cars per year but surely not the way the barchetta made and the Fulvia would have been made. The barchetta followed the path of cheap development and expensive production, something useful only if you calculate small production numbers from the beginning.

    2. Yes – the path of cheap development and expensive production is a potentially ruinous one – in terms of product quality and profitability.

      Designing for production without making the vehicle look cheap is yet another skill that needs to be acquired. And even the best and most experienced can end up designing something which turns out to be expensive to build.

  7. If the GM partnership had worked out then it could have made a lot more sense to build it on Kappa platform.

  8. This was a terrific concept, but in many ways I think it is equally interesting for exemplifying the politics within Fiat Auto at the time, particularly but not exclusively around Lancia. The design was by Centro Stile Lancia but the actual build of the car was overseen by Cecomp, under Giovanni Forneris. There is a bit of detail to that end in this interview with Sergio Limone:

    There is a whole lot of mythology that has grown around the supposed production prospects of the Fulvietta. Some of this, it must be said, was aided and abetted by statements from Lancia and Fiat managers at the time and subsequently, implying or in some cases outright stating that production was feasible. This was helped by the fundamentally well-thought-out and seemingly production-ready nature of the details on the concept. It is also true that at that time, Lancia had been refreshed with a bunch of young and talented managers and designers who had in many ways been given the brief as a “see what you can do with it, it’s moribund and we’re out of ideas” brief from Fiat high-ups – oh, and by the way, we’re giving you almost no money to do this. (If you want to see just how desperate the situation was at some points, consider these ‘alternative’, ‘guerrilla’ marketing tactics for the then-new Y: As such, there was a particular imperative for Lancia management to make every post a winner – the brand was publicly reported to be on the chopping block from at least 2002, which doesn’t look good on your CV even if it wasn’t strictly your fault, and in one form or another that threat never really went away until the recent Stellantis ten-year stay. The Fulvia was an idea from this group that saw the light of day; there were a number of others that never did. You can view the array of terrific concepts that emanated from Centro Stile Lancia during this period as similar outpouring of stunted creative vision.

    The problem is that by this stage, the Barchetta was out of production and it was never going to be viable to build the concept as-is, notwithstanding some backroom deals at the time that brought a good deal of the bankrupt Maggiora’s expertise in-house to Fiat Auto. I cannot locate it just at the moment, but there is or at least used to be an interview with Forneris somewhere online where he makes it clear that while it was a fully functional prototype, it was basically a hand-built, reskinned Barchetta, and as such, a non-starter for production in that form for the reason above. Initially, immediately after the 2003 IAA, Lancia executives talked about a run of 2000 or so, priced at around 35,000 euros. Who really knows if this was feasible or not – but if production for a car was ever going to be feasible, those numbers were likely the limit, and it would have effectively been a k Coupe-style, largely bespoke car, presumably utilising whatever low-volume expertise they could dredge up from their network of Turin specialists.

    That’s the context for this car – a car that Lancia management and supporters within Fiat Auto could potentially use to leverage support for the brand off the floor it was at with Fiat management, through public acclaim, showing the brand’s potential/non-moribund status, whatever you want to call it.

    By the time Marchionne made his comments about the so-called ‘specialty’ car, the vision of the Fulvia concept was long gone. Quite early on, the talk about productionising the Fulvia had moved to it being a metal-roof CC job. That model would have been nothing more than a fairly ghastly Lancia-ised version of Bertone’s Suagna:

  9. Just Beautiful. Beautiful just.
    Just one caveat, though I hate to raise it.
    The problem with looking to the past for inspiration, is that the result, while an achingly beautiful extension of the historic design heritage, can be of little relevance to today’s buying patterns. Sadly I have to wonder how much market there is left worldwide for a small coupe, however beautiful, whatever the heritage, however excellent the mechanicals. I hope I am wrong.
    Vivat Rex, anyway.

  10. Very interesting article and comments on one of my favourite modern concept cars. I thought back then and still think today that it woudn’t have been too expensive to produce as a replacement of the Barchetta (no point producing both simultaneously). Even though they belong to two different brands (Fiat and Lancia) in terms of the Fiat Group as a whole, the Fulvia would have served the same function as the Barchetta.

    With good marketing and a presence in maybe a Hollywood blockbuster or two, like BMW did with the Z3 roadster, the Fulvia would have served its purpose, which to me would have been to perform some long term image building, turning Lancia into a more sophisticated brand, instead of into what it turned out: an urban chic, one-model quasi brand, which is what it has been for the past few years with the Italy-only Ypsilon Mk.3.

    Alas, having said all that, to me the boring reality is actually this:

    1. As correctly mentioned here in the comments section, Fiat Auto was in a lot of financial turmoil and in much of a direction crisis in those years. The only true gems to come out of that time were the Panda Mk2 and the 500.

    2. A more technical reality was that by the time the Fulvia would have been to market, it would have had to be built on the Punto/Corsa platform, a completely different beast to that of the Barchetta, thus most likely adding considerably to the cost.

  11. Rather unexpectedly Lancia did seem to look at a 3-door Y Coupe as a rival to the Tigra and Puma, was honestly thinking a viable Fulvia could have been possible with a mk1 SEAT Cordoba style 2-door coupe and 4-door saloon development of the Punto platform.

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