Lancia: The Death of a Marque?

Car companies die. Like the great lost cities and civilizations of antiquity, what once seemed vast, vibrant and permanent can soon end up as ruins. While I don’t mean to compare Lancia to ancient Rome, I think they’re going the same way.

Why does it happen? Usually because the brand loses its mojo; the cars aren’t as exciting as they once were, quality slips, investment drops. We buy fewer of them, the investment falls further, and soon a famous badge is in a fast, fatal, vicious cycle.

It’s not unusual. The recent recession did for Hummer, Pontiac and Saturn, and very nearly killed Saab and Chrysler, among others. The list of famous British marques that went to the wall is too long to recount. Disappointed enthusiasts blame everyone from the management (often with justification) to the press (are we supposed to advise you to buy a bad car?). But the car-buying public is the guiltiest. We’re fickle. If something better comes along, we’ll buy it. And if we don’t buy the marque we love, its parent company can’t keep making it.

But sometimes, a car company needs to be allowed to die. Lancia is owned by Fiat. Fiat was on its death-bed until the Canadian-Italian business guru Sergio Marchionne took over. Now it makes a healthy profit. But Marchionne thinks that a car group needs to make six million cars a year to get decent economies of scale, and have a future. Fiat makes just over two million. So when the US giant Chrysler went into bankruptcy protection in 2009, Marchionne took a stake in it. It didn’t cost him anything; he just provided the small car and small engine tech that Fiat does so well and Chrysler needs so desperately to satisfy US buyers with a newfound interest in fuel economy.

Marchionne makes no secret of the fact that he’d like to merge Fiat and Chrysler, but he’s already working hard to rationalize the weirdly diverse range of cars he’s wound up with. Some of the cars on the edges of his new empire are so distinctive that they won’t be compromised; small Fiats, Jeeps, the big Dodge pick-up trucks.

But Lancia, stuck in the middle, its sales slow and its distinctiveness long lost, is suffering. There will be a new Ypsilon supermini, but the other three cars in the range will all be rebadged Chryslers, built in the US or Canada. One will be the Mondeo-sized Chrysler 200C, recently introduced but based on the old Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger, the very definition of dull-driving automotive white goods, and the kind of unimaginative fodder that got the US car industry into such strife in the first place.

Next up is a Lancia-badged version of the new Chrysler 300C. This was a great car when it first went on sale in 2004; it probably saved Chrysler. But even then it borrowed some of its underpinnings from a 1996 Mercedes, and it’s unclear just how new the ‘all-new’ 300 Chrysler showed at this year’s Detroit motor show actually is. It’s certainly a lot more insipid-looking than the original.

And lastly, there will be a Lancia version of the Voyager people carrier, which is quite good as people carriers go. But what do any of these cars have to do with Italy, or Lancia’s storied past? Nothing, other than the badge stuck on the nose. Nobody who loves Lancia will buy them. You might suffer one as a rental car at Turin airport, or buy one if you just don’t care about cars and a dealer makes it so cheap you can’t refuse; even in 2008, desperate dealers were offering a buy one, get one free deal on the Dodge on which the mid-size Lancia will be based.

Nobody is fooled by cheap, cynical rebadging. This kind of farce has produced some of the worst cars in history. Like the ‘Saabaru’, officially the Saab 9-2X, a weird-looking mash-up of a Subaru Impreza with a Saab nose that US buyers didn’t suffer for long. Or the Alfa Arna of the mid-eighties, a car that famously attempted to marry Italian passion to Japanese reliability, but got it the wrong way round to the lasting shame of all concerned.

I’d actually rather see Lancia put into suspended animation than suffer this. It could always be resurrected when Marchionne’s plans for world domination have worked out and he has the cash to develop a real Lancia. At least we won’t have to look at them on UK roads, where Chryslers will stay Chryslers. But elsewhere, I worry the damage to Lancia’s image will be terminal, and ruins will be all that remain.

  • http://spot-a-lancia.blogspot.com LanciaHunter

    ...and to illustrate the point, here's a new badge idea - http://spot-a-lancia.blogspot.com/2011/02/new-lancia-chrysler-badge-revealed.html

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    Oh dear, what rot. As Anglocentric a view as its possible to have about Lancia, and clearly culled from a few recent press releases. A few facts for you Ben. Lancia has been starved of resources by its parent compared to the favoured child - but even so Lancia made money whilst Alfa lost it. Lancia's Musa (about which you appear to know nothing) outsold its Fiat sibling, the Idea. The previous generation Ypsilon was a huge success in its home market and across Europe, and the new one looks like its going to be just as good, and make it over here, at last, albeit as a Chrysler. And just to remind you, there is the mid-sized Delta between the Ypsilon and the Chrysler based cars, which is not bad either, though not the sales success of its smaller siblings.

    There is a pretty good fit between Lancia and Chrysler - Lancia has very good, successful, small cars, Chrysler does big cars pretty well. With a little European attention to fit, finish and driving manners, the 300C and Voyager can go from being pretty good actually to very good. The 200C is admittedly a bit of a dud, unless they manage to improve on the Sebring, but bear in mind that these are stopgap developments, until the parent company really gets its hands on things for the next generation of larger, Chrysler developed motors. Meanwhile Lancia needs a full, competent range, and this gives it that - money in coffers and punters through the door. Far from killing Lancia, this is the hard headed business attitude that might save the marque. Meanwhile, bury your prejudices and enjoy the new Ypsi, which will be brilliant. Lancia is far from dead, even if we won't see the badge over here.

    Chris Owen, Press Officer, Lancia Motor Club

  • kappaman

    Appalling result. Some recent cars were good - Thesis, Lybra - but didn't look quite right, as if design control had gone AWOL. Musa and Phaedra looked OK, but weren't that good inside. Ypsilon stayed popular (no, not big-time!) and no wonder: to be passed by one on a motorway into Paris lane-chopping at well over 160kph made my hair stand on end! Still chic too. New Delta is clever but expensive bolt-ons pushed price beyond reach of fans; deserved to bomb, as it has. Nuisance for me as I seek replacement for my lovely Kappa.

  • enzo farrari

    well it seems you are sadley mistaken... (editor) ... as lancia have just brought back there best car ever..!!! the new lancia stratos... and so far has got top reviews and looks superb and has a 5 star from top gear mag.. this could be the rebirth of a new lancia company and what a way to start back. lancia shell.. and a farrari engine plant long live lancia again......!!!!!!!!

  • http://www.lanciainfo.com Geoff

    agreed, as a confirmed Lancista. Let it go to sleep, rather than destroy it.

  • http://www.influx.co.uk david

    So the bits that aren't from Ferarris, Fiats, Chryslers and Alfas - these
    presumably are where the soul of Lancia resides these days?

    Is Lancia to be reduced to a bodykit and a few bits of interior trim?
    Eventually badge engineering with no thought to the principles of the brand
    reduces to a mere trim level as at BMC.

    Yes the Thema 8.32 had a Fiat chassis and a Ferrari engine, but it managed
    to be unique and Lancia in a way these new cars really aren't.

    The new Stratos will not be the snarling, untamable beast of memory, but a
    refined Ferrari drivetrain atop a beautifully engineered Ferrari chassis
    shrouded in a ludicrous body kit.

    I would love to see Lancia do well, but not at the expense of its heritage
    and its very soul.

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    On that basis David, Lancia has produced nothing of worth since the Fiat takeover, since when its borrowed liberally from the platforms and parts bin of its parent company, and managed to produce many decent motors - the Beta Coupe (now rightly regarded as a classic, but built around the Fiat twink),the Montecarlo, the Integrale (started life on the Ritmo platform, again that twink engine), the Stratos, the Thema (don't forget the Turbo which was actually faster than the 8.32, and the whole range sharing a platform, and even door pressings, also used by Saab, Fiat and Alfa), just for starters. The Gamma was a mad and delightful throwback to the days of Lancia's technical independence (though initially jointly developed with Citroen) but it bombed commercially.

    I'd agree that we are a little impatient for the next bona fide classic to emerge (the new Stratos is a little too much a coachbuilt Ferrari, and rather too exclusive to qualify) and since these tend to sporting variants, and Lancia is now being pitched as a manufacturer of luxury saloons, this becomes more difficult. But imagine for a moment that Fiat puts its engineering clout behind a next gen 300C, produces a really good platform, with decent fit and finish, and then creates a two door grand tourer in the spirit of the Flaminia? Or maybe a small, posh coupe on the Ypsi platform? I think its all to play for.

    But for starters, Lancia has to survive and be commercially viable, as it will never get the indulgence that Alfa has benefited from over the years. Though we could always wonder what might have emerged had the marque benefited from the largesse poured into to Alfa, to little commercial effect for many years (though credit where its due, Alfa too are getting it together as well).

  • http://www.influx.co.uk david

    Sharing parts is one thing, the Thema may have been put together using the
    same parts bin as the Fiat Croma, but I don't know anyone who would prefer
    the latter. The Lancia had its own identity and quirky character and it was
    properly 'executive'. Even so I think Lancia was already on the wane. What
    is happening now is more cynical IMHO.

    I would like to think that all of the cars you have outlined might exist one
    day, but realistically they make no sense within Fiat's empire.

    I think all the commenters clearly have a lot of love for Lancia, but the
    way things are going what will be their legacy?

    They'll end up like Riley, remembered for a bastardised version of the Mini,
    rather than the cars which really represented their proud heritage.

  • Gm

    The new ypsilon has as much italian flair as a daewoo.....and to say "chrysler does big cars pretty well" ......? really , you mean the previous decades mercedes underpinings are state of the art, better than the new jaguar for instance , or even the insignia or mondeo for that matter.....Is this the racing pedigree/ italian flair for which lancia was known....? really?

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    As far as the Ypsi/Daewoo comment, that's clearly a personal view - but the Ypsi is based on the Fiat 500 platform and will get Fiat's state of the art Multijet, Multiair and Twinair engines, so I'd suggest technologically a little ahead of the average Daewoo/Chevy - and fit and finish, handing, NVH etc. will be streets ahead. So perhaps just a tad harsh?

    As for Chrysler big cars - I'm no fan, I have to say, but in commercial terms they have done OK, and in *commercial* comparison to Fiat groups big cars, you have to say that Chrysler looks the better bet. Yes, they will need lots of work - technology transfer and improvements to interior quality for starters - but you have to understand that the present arrangement is a stopgap. See what arrives in 3-4 years and judge the results then.

    Lancia has a huge pedigree, and perhaps since the mid 90s, that has been obscured because Fiat did not know what to do with the marque, and starved it of resources in comparison to Alfa. There is a plan for Lancia now - one which has a viable business logic. Give it some time, and as Lancia starts to pick up again, we might well see the halo models emerge, which we all want to see - the sporting coupes and the grand tourers. Its a brave new world, but I'm not prepared to see the towel thrown in just yet, and all that pedigree with it.

    Volumex - the mods have been very generous to you, but you really need to take some water with it...

  • Volumex

    well I don't like being called riff raff either

  • Volumex

    on a serious note curious how you can say Chrysler cars have been successful if it wasn't for American national pride both Chrysler and GM would have hit the decks never to live again. With a premium marque such as Lancia you can't have stop gaps and certainly not ones without an ounce of Italianate thinking behind the engineering I feel like wearing a black arm band this week.

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    Tch - not missing the LMC at all but reading the club's forum every thirty minutes eh? I sense you may be missing the old place more than you think!

    But yes, on a serious note, Chrysler has not been a successful business entity for many years, hence the need for Benz and then Fiat support. I'd suggest that had a much to do with long term liabilities with former employees, and a sprawling and badly managed empire, as much as it did poor products (though its smaller products, such as the Neon and the Sebring, have been absolute turkeys - and the biggest worry for me, in brand terms is the rebadging of the 200C nee Sebring - that needs to have been improved out of sight if it isn't to reek of Bernard Matthews). Amongst that range, the 300C and the GV were amongst the better products, as in fact the original article for this discussion actually suggested. What Fiat has bought with Chrysler, apart from access to markets where it had no presence, and a brand which is established there, is also some competence with big cars, MPVs and SUVs. Lancia has been in the MPV market for a while now (though the Phedra, frankly wasn't up to much) and has always been into big cars (not always with outstanding commercial success) and would love to get into SUVs, which fit with the upmarket, luxury branding that Fiat wants for Lancia (and which, in many ways, fits with what Lancia always was pre-Fulvia sporting success - a manufacturer of big, and small, luxury cars). What's missing, at the moment, is the technological innovation, as well as the sporting halo models for which Lancia is rightly renowned, but that's not really been there for some years. Sadly, Lancia's technical innovation frequently failed to make money (which is why it ended up with Fiat in the first place), and its sporting pretensions are taking a back seat to Alfa's brand position at the moment. I think we are more likely to see Lancia's in the mould of the Appia, Flavia and Flaminia than the Integrale. But sporting Coupes to succeed the Kappa, the Beta and the grand tourers of the 50s and 60s might not be out of the question.

  • LMCguest

    Please bear in mind, that the opinion expressed by Chris Owen (below) is purely his opinion as an individual and it does not reflect the LMC stance on the matter. It is a shame that he chose to hide behind the "Press Officer" title, as it gives the readers here the wrong idea of the Lancia Motor Club. As far as I am aware, the LMC committee have not made an official statement about their feelings towards the Lancia/Chrysler and it would be wrong to assume that the Club's point of view (as a community) boils down to Chris Owen's statement made during this discussion. Thank you for your understanding and please, check out the LMC website for further references.

  • Fingers

    Lancia NEED to put the 2003 Fulvia concept in to production. I think it would sell well all over the world.

  • http://www.influx.co.uk david

    I may be reading this wrong, but he seems to be saying that it's a good thing these cars are going to be badged as Chryslers in this country, rather than what he calls "heritage-related lies".

    The problem with the Chrysler range of course, apart from the fact their best offerings are based on 15 year old Mercs, is that even the bigggest Chrysler fan would also have to admit that their cars are divisive - there are probably as many people who loathe the 300C, PT Cruiser or Crossfire as love them, and I would be genuinely surprised if you could find someone who actually lusted over a Neon.

  • Michael Fordham

    We're not surprised that our editorialising on the troubled recent history of a great brand like Lancia has stirred passions amongst the cognoscenti. Perhaps Mr Fingers is bang on the money when he mentions how powerful the introduction of something like the Fulvia concept into production would be for Lancia's fortunes. In our opinion the new Stratos, priced way beyond anything affordable by the common man - a may be an attempt at a corporate rebrand, but it won't make the figures turn in Lancia's favour. The great thing about Lancias of the seventies and eighties is that they not only made your heart beat faster, but were relatively affordable too.

  • Gm

    anybody remember the chrysler sunbeam?
    And the fiat twin air recently was denounced as a wholly uneconomical engine , so a bit pointless, lack of cylinders in a car more then wide enough to take a 4 cyl motor makes it unrefined tbh...

    Lancia need to realise they are at least competing with bmw (for medium sized saloons), let alone fiat and alfa themselves, for small and sporty, If indeed they do sell is there not a risk that this will be at the expense of one of there other brands? at least in the eu,Fiat bought chrysler to sell in Usa , after 2 years tops they will stop production for europe for the large cars...imo

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    That would be the Chrysler Sunbeam that begat some rather good sporting variants, including the Lotus Sunbeam. Not so bad in my book.

    The Twin Air issue is interesting. Autocar's road test delivered very poor fuel consumption compared to the official figures, but they did rave about the engine for its sound and driveability. One of their staffers took one out a couple of weeks later, and got much better fuel consumption under normal rather than test conditions (though nowhere near the official figures) - but then drove it as the engine begged to be driven, and watched the needle drop again. What he concluded was that for many people the Twin Air would never be that economical because it was too much fun.

    Brand competition - yes, VW has the same problem. Its a tough one.

    On the last point I think you are likely to be wrong. Lancia/Chrysler will probably develop a joint range of new cars, the smaller ones developed in Italy and the larger ones in the US. They will be sold in most markets under the most suitable brand (I'd love it to be Lancia here, but that's not to be), but I don't see them withdrawing the larger cars from European markets, because they need a full range of cars in all markets.

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    :-) The irony of being accused of hiding by an anonymous poster, when I'm one of the few on here who has given my name!! I'm easy enough to contact if you want to discuss this other than anonymously....

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    I've re-read the article, because I didn't remember the words 'heritage related lies' being used. If they had, I'd have taken exception. And they're not used in the article. The author makes some fairly trenchant comments about how he thinks its better to use the Chrysler brand in the UK (commercially he has a case, but I still wonder what could have been made of the Lancia brand heritage here, if we can ever get past the damage done by believing Esther Rantzen), and how Lancia have wasted the heritage legacy of the brand.

    I'd agree with you about the divisiveness of Chrysler cars. One mans character is another's yuck factor. But that's the way with all brands, certainly all those that aren't just bland and mass market. Agreed on the Neon, awful car.

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    I'd agree, it was gorgeous. Unfortunately it was based on the Barchetta platform, which got canned. But if Lancia are successful, who knows what might emerge? I'm an optimist on this. Marchionne has sorted out Fiat and is in the process of turning around Alfa. I'm prepared to give him a go with Lancia, even if his plans are, to put it mildly, controversial (as this thread proves!!). Going back to where we started, I'm not prepared to give up on the brand just yet.

  • http://www.influx.co.uk david

    Talking about the fact that the fat Chryslers will retain the Chrysler badge
    here in Paragraph 7:
    "We’re not getting the Lancia name, but we are getting the more ‘genuine’
    cars – the line-up in showrooms will contain less heritage-related lies."

  • Lancia Motor Club Press

    My apologies David, you are right. I couldn't even spot it when I was looking for it. Well on that line at least I disagree. A little too much hyperbole in an otherwise interesting article.

  • kappaman

    I fear you're right about larger Lancias vanishing from Europe. Terrible, as Lancia nearly always got the basic lux saloon right before selling a sportier version. Aurelia, Flaminia, Flavia/2000, Beta, Gamma, Kappa. Even little Fulvia saloons were well tested first, before the coupé. No Thema coupé came, alas, nor Dedra or Lybra. As if they ran out of enthusiasm and were told Alfa would do all that. All the above competed with the Germans, yet were never really sold against them --?corruption? -- my Kappa's well ahead of the eqivalent Merc of same age.

  • Keith Turner

    I had 8 Lancia Betas sedans, Trevi Volumex, coupes, HPE although Fiat based they were still distinctively different to Fiats of the same ilk & designed by Lancia people. My last Lanci was a Y10 really a Fiat Panda in fancy dress but fun to drive only 999cc but got me nicked for speeding at 85 mph on the M4 motorway. but a chrysler with a lancia grille & badge? OH most definitely NO!