Top Gear declared it to be the brand with the greatest number of great cars. They have won the World Rally Championship an amazing 16 times. Their cars, both production and concept, continue to be some of the world's most beautiful and astounding designs ever created. But despite all of this, the Lancia brand is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
If you're a car lover and spend a time on social media, you would be forgiven for thinking that the death of the Lancia brand is a major tragedy. The collective Lancia fandom is shouting ever louder from the rooftops that they don't want to see their beloved marque die such a pathetic whimpering death. Sergio Marchionne seems keen to put the brand out of its misery in a quiet way rather than through a splashy "we're killing Lancia" statement of intent, most likely because of the backlash from fans rather than because of any sound business logic. The problem is that Lancia hasn't been a solid brand in a generation, and hasn't produced anything of note in at least 20 years, and nobody at Fiat ever seemed to figure out what the brand should be, or where it should sit in the Fiat Group (now FCA) portfolio. Its sales have been flat (or worse) for as long as anyone can remember, and the only product anyone seemed to actually buy was a heavily-styled supermini based on the 500 and Panda platform—and now that's your only option.
So where did it all go wrong for a company that was, for nearly 100 years, one of the great innovators of the auto industry? It's easy to simply say that Fiat killed the brand when it bought it in 1969, but actually many of the cars we love such as the Stratos, Beta and Delta all came after that. Fiat poured money into a costly brand for years and produced many of its greatest hits, although its miserable quality controls also contributed significantly to its modern reputation of unreliable rustbuckets—and perhaps to the marque's demise. What actually killed Lancia is actually a much more fundamental problem—lack of clear brand strategy.
Badge engineering and joint ventures gone awry—the unfortunate Alfa Romeo Arna
In the 1970s and '80s, badge engineering was big business for all brands looking to save costs, and they didn't hesitate to slap a badge on almost anything. From the Nissan Pulsar/Alfa Arna to the Simca/Chrysler/Talbot/Plymouth Horizon/Dodge Omni to the highly forgettable Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra/Pontiac, Daewoo LeMans. While this served to decrease costs, it also muddled brand identities to such an extent that they started to blend together, turning cars for the first time into true commodities, appliances which should be consumed at the lowest price rather than for design, engine, or driving experience. Interestingly, Fiat resisted the temptation (at that time) to directly badge engineer Lancias, instead turning to platform and parts sharing with Saab to create the Fiat Croma, Lancia Thema and Alfa Romeo 164 (as well as the Saab 9000). This was, however, the beginning of the end. As Alfa Romeo was bought by Fiat in 1986 and merged with Lancia to create Alfa Lancia Industriale S.p.A, it became increasingly clear that nobody knew how to differentiate the two brands—or where they should fit in Fiat's increasingly ungainly portfolio of Italian marques.
The evocative Delta HF Integrale
Both Alfa Romeo and Lancia had at that time a strong reputation in motorsport. Alfa Romeo's dominant Grand Prix cars from the 1920s and '30s and their gorgeous sports cars from the 1950s and '60s had created an unshakable reputation for cars that looked great, sounded better, and drove well. They were race cars for the road, and despite plenty of missteps along the way, the brand continued to carry a loyal, near obsessive, customer base. Lancia, on the other hand, had just come off a glorious two decades of rally dominance with the Fulvia, Stratos, 037 (Beta) and Delta HF Integrale, but had only a smaller and more localised (Italian/European) fanbase and, once the Delta HF was gone, no production cars that reflected their racing heritage at all.
Drew's official photo from Lancia—during one of his many awkward periods. The car, named "Semeion", was meant to be a premium F-segment flagship to take on the S-Class.
This was a period in which I found myself as an intern at Lancia Centro Stile. I had recently completed an internship at I.De.A Institute, and my degree thesis car, a provocative 3-seat Lancia GT car, had piqued the interest of Mike Robinson, the design chief at the time. What I found there was a studio full of talented designers, including Ferrari's current chief Flavio Manzoni, but a management that didn't know where the brand should go. They were concerned that anything too sporting would step on the toes of sister brand Alfa Romeo, while a true luxury cars to combat Mercedes was realistically a bit out of reach considering the production cost restrictions of Fiat's platforms. In order to maximise profits, Fiat instead decided that Lancia would share both Fiat and Alfa Romeo platforms, while attempting to differentiate through unusual styling and trim alone. While Alfa Romeo started to find its footing again in the 2000s with the striking 156, 159, Brera and GTV, Lancia slowly faded into the background after trying and failing to capture carbuyers' imagination with the interesting Thesis, the unusual Delta, and the downright ugly Lybra. With the Chrysler acquisition in 2009, Lancia's demise was almost guaranteed when badge engineering reared its ugly head as Chrysler products with oversized Lancia grilles slowly replaced all of the bespoke products but the Ypsilon in the Lancia lineup.
So, by that reasoning, it seems that Lancia's death makes perfect sense. A brand without a clear direction in a group with an already large number of marques to manage should be put out of its misery. Except for one thing—FCA desperately needs a premium showcase brand, for both technology and design, and Lancia is the perfect fit. Citroën has just spun off DS as a standalone brand because of its strength in the market and design leadership. BMW set the premium stage with the return of Mini and recently created the i brand to showcase its future vision of vehicles both technically and designwise, and Nissan are doubling down on the Infiniti brand in Europe as a way of penetrating the ever-growing premium market. Lancia has a history of innovation dating back over 100 years. It has a sporting reputation that interestingly sits right on Citroën and DS's current playground, the WRC. It also has a unique reputation as the only true fashion-oriented Italian mainstream brand. Lancia should be FCA's DS. At a time when everyone else is pouring resources into the sector, FCA is pulling its best shot at a prime market segment.
So here's what I think needs to happen.
Drew's reimagining of his degree thesis, the Lancia Fera. Positioned as a provocative fashion-first C-segment sports hatch
Lancia should aim for a comeback in two key areas:
- A B/C-segment hatch with Italian style and advanced technology to combat the C4 Cactus, DS3 and Golf
- A brand-leading D-segment saloon and coupé with a hybrid/electric powertrain aimed squarely at the emerging premium electric segment which Tesla plans to invade in 2017.
The Ypsilon could be refreshed with a properly premium interior and an unique exterior design that clear sets it apart in the market and accents the two new products. All of the products in the Lancia lineup, including or especially the large coupé, should be unapologetically designed with hints from the Italian fashion brands and offer exceptional colour and trim options—something that shouldn't be difficult with Fiat's current leadership in the this area with the 500. The Lancia brand would also be a perfect fit for FCA to experiment with autonomous driving and future-tech which doesn't fit with the performance-oriented brands like Alfa Romeo or Maserati.
Any sign of retro design should be banished from Lancia. Ignore the screams from the twitterati for a retro-modern Delta HF and do what Lancia has always done best: innovate. Do unexpected things and stand out. Remember the spirit of the Stratos Zero concept, but don't try to replicate it. The market is begging for individuality, so give it to them in spades. Be bold. And most of all, don't rebadge anything. A small lineup has been proven effective for Mini and DS, so keep it that way. A D-segment product will help the profit margin and the underlying technology and innovation will get shared by Chrysler in the US, where the bold styling may be too much for buyers. In China, the Italian nameplate and fashion orientation should be hugely popular.
This is, of course, just a theory right now. The proper research should be done and a full strategy created. Instead, consider this a provocative suggestion from a longtime Lancia enthusiast and designer. The sketch above is my quick re-imagining of the car I created nearly 20-years ago while at I.De.A Insitute. It's design and unsual proportions are meant to reference Lancia's history of innovation while looking forward to something completely new and different. It's meant to provoke thought and discussion, not roll off an assembly line anytime soon.