Fiat-Chrysler desperately needs a technical and fashion showcase brand — and they’ve just killed the perfect fit, says Drew Meehan
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 (10 manufacturer, six driver titles). 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; it 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 rust buckets — and perhaps to the marque’s demise.
What actually killed Lancia is actually a much more fundamental problem—lack of clear brand strategy.
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, the company turned 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.
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 racecars 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 localized (Italian/European) fan base and, once the Delta HF was gone, no production cars that reflected their racing heritage at all.