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The Last Great Lancia?

Mention Lancia and many people immediately think of the Stratos or Integrale, quite rightly you could say, Italian car enthusiast Matteo Licata tell’s us of another Lancia that was in it’s own right, one of the greats of the Italian marque.

In the early 1980s, Lancia badly needed to recover from the debacle of the Gamma, a car whose design hadn’t been well received and whose engines had a nasty reputation.

Swedish automaker Saab was far too small to pay for the development of a whole new car, yet it badly needed one.

So the idea behind the “Type Four” project was that Fiat and Saab would jointly develop three cars that shared the same body structure. All three would be front-wheel-drive and under 4.7 meters long.

Interestingly, the three cars would share even the doors, leaving for the front and rear design to characterize each brand’s offering. A design challenge only one man could tackle successfully: Giorgetto Giugiaro, then at the height of his success.

Among the resulting three cars, the Fiat Croma, Saab 9000 and Lancia Thema, is this last one that arguably turned out prettier.

The weak market acceptance of the Gamma’s fastback profile was a very recent memory, so the new Thema was a traditional three-box saloon. The “secret” of the Thema’s attractiveness laid in its crisp, perfectly harmonious proportions.

No adventures were allowed under the hood, as well: the lusty Fiat twin-cam fours and the “Douvrin” V6 engine from Peugeot provided all the power and refinement the Thema needed to compete in the executive car segment.

It was the right car at the right time: by 1984, when the Thema came out, Italy went on to enjoy a spectacular economic recovery from the 70s doldrums. The Thema became a status symbol, the car to have for thrusting executives or small entrepreneurs.

Then, in 1986, the unthinkable happened.

A Thema with a Ferrari engine.

The Thema 8.32’s 3-liters V8 was a highly modified version of the engine that powered the 308 and Mondial. It developed 215 HP, which doesn’t sound like much today, but was Ferrari-grade power in the mid-80s, giving the front wheels plenty of work to put it to the ground.

Each Thema 8.32 was hand-finished in the old Lancia works of Borgo San Paolo in Turin and had the most lavish interior the world had ever seen: nearly everything was covered in supple, high-grade leather.

The “Thema Ferrari” would stay in production until 1991, and it’s now a coveted classic.

The 1980s saw the Station Wagon become a fashionable choice for well-off Italian families, leading Lancia to offer a Wagon version of the Thema. Two competing designs were presented, one from Pininfarina and one from Zagato: Pininfarina won the day, and one can see why, as it looked exquisite indeed.

In a rare example of good judgment, Fiat’s top brasses took good care of the Thema. It received constant and tasteful upgrades to its appearance and specification throughout its life, the last one in 1992.

The Thema’s presence was enhanced by several subtle tweaks, without altering a design that was inherently “right” and just didn’t seem to age.

The Thema went away quietly in 1994 after 360.000 cars were made: it is fondly remembered in its native Italy, but in Europe, its impact remained somewhat limited.

Patchy dealer network and the less-than-stellar reputation acquired by Lancia’s 1970s models are certainly to blame for that.

Matteo Licata is an Italian car enthusiast and contributor from roadster-life

The Last Great Lancia

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