“I’m not an adult, I’m a child with a drinking permit.” That’s how I’ve been defining myself lately. I’m in my mid 20s now, but I still don’t feel like a responsible adult. I see my parents, mature in their older age; I see my sisters, roughly a decade older—they’re buying and renovating homes, advancing in their careers. I see acquaintances and friends getting married, having kids.
Me? I used to be an engineer. I’m not now; lately I’ve been asking myself if I ever wanted to be one. I still enjoy science, I still like to learn new things, and I want to share new developments and complex principles with you, the readers. I’ve been considering taking creative writing classes, to find work as a writer and motoring journalist. It wasn’t what I thought I was going to do when I started college, but I’m finding that posting to Oppositelock and TAY is more personally satisfying than most of the things I did professionally. So, f*ck it, I want to write.
It took a few dark days to realize that it was OK for me to want to change my career. Life is nothing if not a storm that constantly causes us to shift our course. It all comes back, inevitably, to “Know thyself.” So simple to enunciate, but a lifetime’s worth of brain-wracking to understand and accept. Rarely easy is it, to face the truth; and all too often we recoil at the sight of it.
I’m taking a risk, to try and pivot my life this way. Failure is something I was always taught, explicitly and implicitly, to fear. Take as few risks as possible. But I’m tired of being too afraid to take a chance. I realized I’m tired of settling for something. I want to reach, even if I stumble and fall. I can’t be something I’m not anymore. And I’m not the only one who needs to let a mask fall away.
It brings me no joy to say it: Lancia doesn’t know what it is anymore. Or rather, FCA doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be.
Also in recent news, scientists have discovered water is wet, and space is really freakin’ big.
As is inevitable, bringing up the current state of Lancia—they’ve got one car, and it’s only badged as a Lancia in Italy—sounds the “glory days” alarm. See the required photos below.
If I sound apathetic, I’m not. I’m just...sullen. I don’t want to rag on Lancia—my dream car’s a Delta Integrale Evo II, for crying out loud! It’s finally going to be legal to import next year, and I would do terrible, unspeakable things for the money I’d need to get my grubby hands on one.
But as incredible as that past triumph is—seriously, they won 6 times in a row at the World Rally Championship with basically that same car, mildly modified every so often—it’s in the past. It should be celebrated as a shining beacon, a guide for future endeavors...except it’s not really guiding Lancia anywhere.
With Ferrari and Jeep printing money only slightly faster than the rest of FCA can spend/lose it, it’s obvious that Lancia was going to wallow. Historically speaking, the company was rarely in a secure financial position. But they were responsible for so many industry firsts, so much development, it can boggle the mind how they’re basically dying in a coma.
In the early days, Lancia wasn’t really doing anything new. Their first car, the 12 HP, later renamed ‘Alfa’, was produced in 1908. All told, it was a rather conventional ladder-framed car with a side-valve straight-4 engine. It was sold alongside the straight-6 engined Dialfa. But the inventor’s spark was there, just waiting to be unleashed. 1913 saw the release of the Theta, the first production car in Europe to have a standard electrical system. And in 1922, there came the Lambda.
The Lambda—aka the most astonished car the world has ever seen—was the first car to have a production V4 engine. That V4 was a narrow-angle jewel, a direct ancestor to VW’s hallowed VR engine series. A lot of beloved cars wouldn’t exist without those engines.
The Lambda was also the first production car to feature a unibody construction, as well as independent front suspension. Basically, this car was the equivalent of Steve Jobs debuting the Apple computer mouse. Or maybe the Blackberry 6210 in a world of Nokia 1100's.
Sadly, company founder Vincenzo Lancia died just before the Aprillia, his last design, was put into full production. Although it didn’t introduce any new manufacturing or performance technologies, it was the first car to be designed in a wind tunnel, with a drag coefficient of 0.47, a world record low at the time. The later Ardea was the first production car to offer a 5-speed manual, starting in 1948. Later years saw yet more industry firsts.
The Aurelia was powered by the world’s first production V6. It, along with its successor the Flaminia, were some of the first cars to feature a rear transaxle. Finally, we have the Thema 8.32, which was Italy’s answer to the Impala SS, a FWD Hellcat for the 80s.
We can’t forget Lancia’s racing developments. The 1954 D50 had an engine that was both a stressed chassis member and off-center to lower the car’s height, as well as pannier fuel cells to improve weight distribution. And Group B brought the deranged, gibbering insanity that was the Delta S4, and its Stradale road-going counterpart, with their gloriously twincharged engines. Race car technology may still be improving road car technology, but back then it was on a whole ‘nother level.
Lancia could never have done any of this if they weren’t willing to take risks. Vincenzo, as a race car driver and self-trained engineer, knew exactly what kind of cars he wanted to build. He wanted to refine the automobile, raise its mechanics to new heights. That’s precisely why Lancia, as a company, is famous. Especially in the days before Fiat’s acquisition of the brand, Lancia focused on quality and performance, on improving the cars it built, forcing the competition to keep up. They wanted to deliver the pinnacle of the automobile.
Take, for instance, the Fulvia HF. One of the few FWD cars to be competitive in rallying, it featured four-wheel disc brakes, a narrow-angle V4 mounted ahead of the the transaxle, and an independent front wishbone suspension. But none of these were firsts at this point. There were other production cars with four-wheel disc brakes before 1965. The V4's design was new, but the concept wasn’t. Lancia may have introduced independent front suspension to the world with its sliding pillar design, but Citroen’s Traction Avant had wishbone front suspension.
The Stratos may be one of the most visually and dynamically exciting cars ever to be built, a design that resulted in three straight WRC championships, but technologically it wasn’t earth-shattering. Mind you, that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant.
Packaging that glorious Ferrari V6, the suspension components, the transmission, and so on—that was incredible. It was the first car designed from scratch as a rally-crushing monster. As one of the most focused, sharpened, uncompromisingly extreme homologation specials ever produced, it paved the way for the rally cars racing today.
So was the 037, the last RWD car to win the World Rally Championship. Although based on the Montecarlo (what North America calls the Scorpion), only the center section of the car was retained. The body panels were different, the engine orientation was changed, the list goes on and on. It may not have been the first silhouette racer, but it joins the Stratos in helping define the modern rally car.
And finally, the Delta Integrale. A design from the mid 70s, produced until the early 90s, it was a run-of-the-mill hatchback that underwent more surgery than a C-list celebrity: sky-high suspension travel, several Spec Miata’s worth of struts & bracing, an AWD system, and a heavily modded engine. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and the world’s a better place for it.
In a way, these cars were like iPhones. The first iPhone was revolutionary, a piece of technology that has impacted daily life in a myriad ways. That would be the Lambda. Later generations—the 037, the Stratos, etc.—may have introduced new features, packaging better cameras, more memory, and improved processing into a space that should honestly be more mind-boggling than it is, but Apple didn’t invent all that hardware. Instead, they figured out a new way to present and package it, a new way of making all these disparate elements work together to bring about an experience (Steve Jobs didn’t invent the mouse, he refined it). I’m sure Vincenzo would’ve approved.
Lancia made innovations to refine the concept of the car, to raise its abilities to new heights. But they paid the price for it. Literally. The complex production processes, the fixation on quality and constant improvement: all these meant the cars were basically hand-made. Of course the Stratos has the oil temperature gauge right in front of the driver, and the needles on the Delta’s tach & speedometer rotate in opposite directions. No wonder the company was in dire financial straits most of the time. The cars were priced so high becuase production costs kept creeping up, and sales didn’t respond.
Lancia’s homologation specials—the Stratos, 037, the Delta, and so on—may be jaw-dropping, but they didn’t add a lot to the company’s bottom line. The Fulvia HF is an amazing rally car, but it cost more than an E-type when it was new. You know the “which would you rather?” debate over the Civic Type R and its AWD competitors? Essentially that.
It’s no surprise FCA have decided to basically let Lancia wilt on the vine; the company’s image was ruined by the Beta’s poor quality, which had a cascading negative effect on sales and profits. However, it’s because of Fiat’s purchase that we even have the Stratos and Delta. Fiat’s management back then clearly saw something in Lancia. That something is still there.
But FCA can’t continue what it’s doing. Platform-sharing is nothing new, but Lancia should not have to rely on a re-skinned 500 just to survive. FCA, like it did with Alfa Romeo, needs to take a risk, and let Lancia do what it does best, what Vincenzo set out to do in the first place: make cars that epitomize what a car can, and should, be. But it won’t be easy.
On one level, I can understand Sergio’s current dilemma. How is Lancia supposed to stand out, not just as an automaker, but from the rest of FCA’s lineup? Ferrari has the prestige, the street and track performance, and a clear connection with racing. Alfa Romeo has the luxury and near-luxury sporty car market covered. Dodge has the visceral excitement, cheap thrills, and drag strip machismo on lock.
And then we turn to the world stage. I’ve always said Mazda is the new Lancia, with its esoteric rotary engines and its devotion to driving excellence, as well as its passionate love affair with internal combustion. Lancia could be that innovative again, but it would have to a) stay fairly small; and, b) put a lot of its eggs in the ‘new tech’ basket. Sergio won’t want another niche brand like that.
Speaking of niche brands, if Lancia is about refining and perfecting the driving experience, how are they different than Lotus? I recognize that Lotus has a different approach to sports cars, but these two brands share a devotion to perfecting the driving experience. And while we’re on the subject of sporty cars, if Lancia were to return to cars like the Thema, how could they stand out from Porsche or BMW?
I realize the likelihood of someone cross-shopping a Lancia with a Lotus or Porsche is similar to that of Woodford Reserve bourbon being available at the next Royal Wedding, but Lancia did have models in the segments those brands specialize in, at one point. And this indecisiveness regarding what Lancia should focus on, what it should be about, is why FCA isn’t going forward with the marque.
The sticking point is heritage. Identity. Ferrari has racing, and a pedigree developed over years of successes and marketing. But Alfa Romeo didn’t have that same level of panache or pop-culture presence when it returned to the US. Why was FCA willing to risk on it, and not Lancia?
For one, Alfa had a lot of enthusiast presence here. Word-of-mouth excitement, and looks that could stop traffic and injure passer-by. It rasied a sense of discovery, and exclusivity. Very grass-roots.
It also helped immensely that the Giulia was good. More than that, its engineers knew exactly what they wanted: a luxury car that was fun & satisfying to drive, regardless of trim level. The Quadrofoglio turned up the speed dial to 11, but the base Giulia can still rock some sweet chords. It slotted into a competitive and highly lucrative market offering an experience distinctly its own.
But Lancia can’t do the same. It has much less history in the US; there’s still an enthusiast following here, but the physical car presence is small. Cars have improved in quality so much, Lancia’s enhanced version of “Fix it again, Tony” should no longer apply—it’d be a return to Lancia of old—but these kinds of memories are tricky to deal with, or even address, for fear of tainting a brand.
I know many of you are screaming at the screen right now, “RALLYING! It’s f*cking simple! RALLY!!!”
But rallying in the States has never really been on the same level as NASCAR, or even IndyCar. Yes, Rally America is incredible—I’ve been to Sno-Drift multiple times, and I’m going back next month—but it doesn’t have the same media coverage. Rallycross is doing better, but it too doesn’t have a ton of on-air ubiquity. Rallying is an amazing experience, and it’s still a big deal all over the world, especially in Europe. But if FCA wanted to bring Lancia back, at some point they would have to consider the US market, if only briefly. And I will not be hurt again after Alpine.
Sadly, there’s just not as much of a market for rally-inspired cars. True, hot hatches with a rallying bent, like the Focus RS, have started to, uh, gain traction in the US, but the only cars on sale in the US today that come with a sense of rallying pedigree as stock equipment are the Subaru WRX and WRX STI. Sergio would be taking a massive risk trying to bring a marque that’s best known for rallying success to the States.
But he should still do it. Because not only could FCA save Lancia, they might be able to finally help rally and rallycross become some of the most relevant and accessible forms of racing today.
2018 marks the end of the 25 year waiting period before the Delta Integrale Evo II is legal to import. It’s a unique opportunity to market the brand. Sergio, worried Lancia won’t be able to make a splash in the US? Take one Delta Integrale, get some GoPros, carve up some back roads, peel into FCA’s Auburn Hills headquarters, and put the whole thing on YouTube. Maybe partner with Petrolicious. But for the love of Vincenzo and the S4, DO NOT put a ‘real people’ type gimmick in there.
Next, leverage rallying: start with the rally car, and get a road car from that. Basically, Lancia should take a race car, and then lower the intensity a bit. A whole range: base model, an Integrale version, a homologation special of sorts, and then the race car. Something like like what Ferrari did with the 458: the ‘normal’ 458, the 458 Speciale, the one-off 458 MM Speciale, and finally the Pirelli World Challenge car.
I’ll be the first to admit that I thought World Rally Cars were far removed from their road-going counterparts. They are, but not as much as I believed. The road and rally versions rarely share more parts than a few body panels, but the same philosophies that guide the development and improvement of a rally car carry over to that of the road car, and vice versa. The lessons beaten into the teams by gravel really do translate to carving some asphalt. How great would it be if Lancia could shock the world, and put a significantly stock car in the race? Like Ford did with the GT.
It would be an amazing opportunity for a major manufacturer to support a racing discipline. FCA doesn’t have a rally presence—they have Ferrari for the track, and Dodge for the drag strip, but nothing in rally. Lancia could become for rallying what Ferrari is to F1, only less douche-y. Doing so would foster a relationship that could lead to greater exposure, by guaranteeing the sport that companies have skin the game.
FCA could then neatly pivot to rallycross (with the requisite modifications). There’s a reason Red Bull sponsors it: the racing’s like chugging three energy drinks back-to-back. It’s frantic but serious; highly refined but low-rent on the surface. It’s arguably the fastest growing motorsport in the world, and being able to race a car that’s close to what’s in a showroom would have a major affect on brand image and popularity. Now that World Rallycross has lost Ford and Hoonigan Racing, which, thanks to the Gymkhana series, were some of the sport’s most recognizable brands, it’s an amazing opportunity for another carmaker to step up to the plate. And ultimately, it would be another proving ground for automotive tech, to help Lancia do what it has always done best: deliver an exhilarating automotive experience.
Lancia will never again be a ‘regular’ car brand. It won’t be able to compete in the same kind of markets as it once did. FCA may balk at the thought of making a boutique brand. But for every risk, there’s an amazing possibility of reward. Car enthusiasts were worried when Geely became Lotus’ new owners, but have you seen the stuff coming out of Hethel these days?
It was a risk to launch Alfa Romeo in the US again, but Motor Trend chose it as its Car of the Year. Lancia has a chance, not just to flourish on its own, but also to help raise the star of some of the best racing series in the world. But what do I know? I’m not an engineer.