Please Let Lancia Die
A perfect sunny late-October day, 1954. The wide boulevards of the Catalan capital, Barcelona, have been tamed, bent to the will of Alberto Ascari and his new Lancia D50. The brand new Formula 1 car is on pole for its first ever race. As is expected of a Lancia, the car has some strikingly original engineering behind it. The first ever stressed engine – the jewel-like twin cam V8 used to aid chassis stiffness. The outboard pannier fuel tanks solve packaging and weight distribution issues. It looks like no other car on the grid, and in Ascari’s hands, it’s faster than all others as well. Before retiring with clutch failure on lap 9 he sets a fastest race lap that no one would eclipse the rest of the day. Quite a debut. The car would go on to win the World Championship rebadged as a Ferrari.
A monolithic grey winter’s sky hangs over the snow covered mountains above Monte Carlo. The branches droop heavily under last night’s snow. Off a sheer rock face bounces a raspy snarl, at first muted, but growing ever more present and manic. Swinging into view, its source: the tiny, front-wheel-drive Lancia Fulvia of Sandro Munari. Proving the inherent rightness of Lancia’s engineering, nine years after its debut the Fulvia is still here, defeating Porsche 911s, Alpine A110s, Datsun 240Zs and others.
Lancia would go on to make the snow covered cols their playground. In the 70’s, reconnecting themselves to Ferrari, with the perfect little Dino V6 in the back of their genre-defining Stratos, they won the Monte in ‘75, ‘76, ‘77, and ‘79. Lancia was the first to see the potential in building a purpose-built car for rallying, and the Stratos was used to devastating effect. They continued the trend with its replacement, the perfectly proportioned 037. Now with supercharged 4 cylinder power, it slid sideways to another Monte win in ‘83 and yet another World Championship. Lancia engineering was synonymous with motorsport success and their car’s iconic Martini and Alitalia liveries did the brand’s image no harm whatsoever. It was in Martini colors that Lancia went on to define the lunacy of the legendary Group B era with its Delta S4.
In the frigid darkness, through the red smoke from spitting and sputtering flares held aloft by rabid fans, and blinded by a thousand camera flashes, Henri Toivonen throws the 560hp beast sideways at a snowbank packed with people. The four tires alchemically turn cold rubber and frozen slushy tarmac into best friends, and the beast catches at an angle, spitting itself down the hill back into darkness. Gone. Wait…POP! from the exhaust, a split-second blue flash illuminates the snowy trees in a man-made lightning storm.
Since 1906, Lancia has been responsible for groundbreaking, beautifully engineered, automobiles. The first monocoque chassis debuted in 1922 with the Lambda. That same car advanced suspension technology decades into the future with the fully independent ‘sliding pillar’ setup that incorporated the spring and damper into a single unit for the first time. Lancia put the first 5-speed transmission into a production car, and the first V6 engine. In a world of live rear axles, they produced cars with rear transaxles and independent suspension. Lancia never built to a cost. They rewarded their customers with elegant, expensive to produce, engineering marvels.
Even after they were absorbed into Fiat’s empire in 1969, they continued to build iconoclastic cars that stood off to the side, regarding convention with cool remove. When they were lumped together with Saab and Alfa Romeo, sharing a floor pan with those make’s 9000 and 164, respectively, Lancia chose to differentiate its Thema version by shoehorning Ferrari’s 3.2l, 4-cam V8 into the nose. They created an icon. It’s what Lancia always did.
Which makes their current state all the more impossible to bear. The once mad as a hatter Thema is now a rebadged and regrilled Chrysler 300 – a car as Italian as the Olive Garden. The legendary Flavia name is reborn on the soggy flanks of Miami’s least loved rental car, the Chrysler 200 – a car that wants to fold into itself like a wet taco. And yes, even that paradigm of American middle-class utility, the Chrysler Town & Country, has been rebadged. Folks, there is a Lancia minivan.
What power does a brand name have? Are we so stupid to think that something of the legendarily enigmatic Lancia heritage lives on in these cars? I don’t think so. Then again, we purchased the new Mini by the bucketful, regardless of it being a complete non sequitur to the original. But the difference is the new Mini is fundamentally a good car. The Chryslers that poor Lancia has to swallow should have been taken out back and shot.
Which is exactly what I hope happens to Lancia. We should be allowed to celebrate a marque with such an exquisite back catalog and awe-inspiring motorsport heritage for what it was. We should never be afraid to let a brand die rather than letting it continue to trade falsely on its own good name.
Breath deep…and let it go. Lancia is dead to me. Gloriously dead.
This article originally appeared on Nicholas D’Amato’s blog, Just Add Lightness