It has been conjectured that Fiat's attempt to take its storied Lancia charge from rallying legend to a somewhat effeminate near-luxury brand, overtly geared to women, was doomed to begin with.
However, today - perhaps, particularly this year - it's worth remembering the brand's last flagship, the Thesis, for a memorable ad in which Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta appeared, riding a bike along a tree-lined avenue.
A number of large cars whizz past her, causing her hair to fly uncontrollably, and even her skirt to lift. She stops, annoyed. When a Lancia Thesis approaches at high speed, Maria prepares for yet another buffeting; yet her skirt barely flutters, as the breeze caresses her hair. The car overtakes her gently, quietly, and smoothly.
As the film ends, the cyclist and the driver exchange glances, in mutual recognition of this sophisticated demonstration of power, one which has left room for courtesy and sensitivity.
Lancia is - perhaps soon, was - one of the world's oldest automakers. Founded in 1906, it became known for technological innovation and craftsman-like attention to detail.
In the Twenties, the Lancia Lambda was the first car in the world with stress-bearing bodywork, eschewing the frame to which American automakers would remain true for the better part of the twentieth century. The Lambda was also first with independent front suspension.
France's Citroën would become famous for its obsession with wind tunnels and aerodynamics, but Lancia's Aprilia of the Thirties boasted a wind-cheating body before Citroën had ever mentioned coefficients of drag; and registering a Cd of 0.47 back when the average value among the competition was a bluff 0.60.
And in the Fifties, under the Aurelia's hood was the first V-6 ever fitted to a roadgoing vehicle.
From the 1970s onward, under Fiat ownership, Lancia wrestled with reliability and rust prevention, while also struggling to retain its identity. Fiat became increasingly intent on integrating Lancia into its engineering and purchasing systems, which saved cost but also hurt competitiveness - particularly in the upper echelon, where being authentically distinctive is important.
The '80s rallying success of the legendary Lancia Delta Integrale - six consecutive world championship titles - gave Lancia something truly unique to talk about again. More recently, its Ypsilon city car proved very popular.
But the soft, sinuous lines for which many remember Lancia need a large canvas to really work.
Lancia's last commercially successful flagship was the 1985 Thema. The Thema's successor, the Kappa, had not done quite as well, despite plaudits for its refinement, packaging, and capable chassis. Some said that Kappa's use of an Alfa Romeo platform had condemned it to also-ran status.
Determined to regain its stature, Lancia decided to pull out all the stops. In 1995, it launched itself into researching what the typical Lancia customer - the "enlightened bourgeois of the 1950s and 1960s," as Fiat Auto managing director Roberto Testore put it - would want at the turn of the Millennium.
The answer came in the form of Mike Vernon Robinson's stunning "Diàlogos" concept of the 1998 Turin Motor Show. The high front, long bonnet, and profile resembling an upside-down wedge marked a new formal language, one which refuted the school of rational forms in favor of emotional elegance. Its large, vertical grille was flanked by diamond-shaped headlamps; its sculpted, shapely fenders broke away from the hood line in a manner similar to cars of the Thirties and Forties. All of this bucked the trend for over-rational, visually spare shapes.
"Exciting elegance goes far beyond rational utility to leave space for the imagination," Lancia enthused. Though controversial, the look successfully averted the customary protruding bumper and consequent front overhang of front-wheel-drive cars.
Neither Fiat nor Alfa Romeo had anything rear-wheel drive. The new Lancia flagship - unlike the Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs with which it would compete - would thus be front-drive. That apart, however, Lancia promised that the Thesis platform would not be shared with any other cars in the Fiat group. Fiat had virtually invented platform sharing, but was now developing spaceframe technology which allowed the basic chassis to be tailored to different cars, with flexible dimensions and flexible mountings.
Inside, innovative telematics technology would prove that the Italians had, finally, mastered multiplexing; with the added bonus of providing intriguing contrast to the retro exterior. There would be a seven-inch TFT color display in the dashboard, with navigation, voice recognition, a hands-free phone, and an optional television. Other options of note would include radar cruise-control, a sunroof with solar cells to power the air conditioning when the vehicle was parked in the sun, dual climate zones for the rear passengers, power assistance when opening the doors, tri-fan ventilated and massaging seats, an electronic parking brake, and an eleven-speaker Bose audio system.
Each Thesis would get eight air bags as standard, and electronic stability control.
The doors would close as soundly as those of a Mercedes E-Class, and the materials employed in the cabin would be used not merely for appearance, for also for the tactile and acoustic reactions they aroused.
"People will be looking for excuses not to buy this car. So, we wanted to be damn sure we didn't give them anything to hook onto," Robinson told CAR magazine.
Underlining the technology within were bi-xenon headlights and thirty LEDs per taillight.
The Italians were particularly proud of their telematics system which, they promised, was the easiest to use around. This, remember, was just as BMW's iDrive launched in the E65 7 series, confounding journalists and owners alike.
However, like the French, the Italians had never been particularly good at electronic gadgetry. The car suffered several delays.
"Trimmed as it is in acres of (real) wood, leather, and alcantara, it's sure to become a favorite among Europe's executive class," wrote Frank Markus for Car and Driver in February 2001 upon seeing the finished result at Geneva.
"The cabin is truly rich, and walks the right side of that line in Italian style dividing the perfectly proportioned minimalism from their bling-bling rap-star Versace vulgarity," said Paul Horrell for CAR. Horrell was particularly impressed with the lightly-varnished wood trim and cast magnesium in the center console. "I can't tell you how much more satisfying it is to use a cupholder or ashtray that glides out of solid metal than some clacky plastic lid."
The car would be named "Thesis" which, like Thema, recalled a letter from classical Greek. This, said Lancia, conjured up the image of culture, while also conveying the idea of advanced scientific research and state-of-the-art technology.
Originally planned to launch in 2000, the Thesis in April 2002 finally became the largest and most luxurious sedan in the Fiat Group portfolio.
To Lancia's credit, the challenging front and rear fasciae of the concept had been retained for production. Yet something had been lost in translation; mostly, perhaps, in the flanks. Something about those door frames seemed more plebian than the rest of the car, and that bulging waistline, much though (as design critic Stephen Bayley has suggested) it might have recalled the 1965 Flaminia, did not quite fit.
Rumor had it that some degree of inflexibility in Fiat's early spaceframe strategy had forced the change in proportions.
Whatever the reason, the Thesis tended to photograph as though three cars: front, sides, and rear. Not for nothing was it frequently described as simultaneously pleasantly controversial yet frustratingly mellow.
On the road, where the human eye tends to focus on one aspect, the Thesis' lines worked better. Front and rear, from a dead-on perspective, it looked at least as rich as the German competition, and certainly exhibited more character.
To drive, Thesis should have been fairly capable. Its aluminum front suspension was a development of the traditional double-wishbone layout, which enthusiasts find preferable to MacPherson struts. Five links controlled the movement of the front wheels, yet kept virtual steering axle as close as possible to the wheel center, to benefit steering accuracy and response. At the rear, various arms in aluminum, steel, and cast iron provided a fair degree of passive rear steer. Grip was decent, particularly for a car which weighed four thousand pounds. Predictably, the nose would eventually run wide under hard cornering, but the lack of feel through the steering was as frustrating as its non-linear response.
The odd twitchiness of the chassis could pay off, however, as the Thesis was throttle steerable. Lift off, and balance would be restored.
The silent cabin, with its five-millimeter glazing, met a ride that was very good indeed. For the body control, and superlative smoothness over the most pocked roads, one could thank Maserati, who (together with Mannesmann-Sachs) had engineered those six-sensor, semi-active dampers for its Spyder sports car. More akin to a Jaguar than to the German competition, so good was the suspension's ride quality that it even had a name: "Skyhook." Buick would unofficially borrow that name to describe the ride of its own cars.
Predictably, the Thesis' most popular engine was the torquey yet economical 2.4-liter JTD diesel. Surprisingly in thrifty and displacement-taxed Europe, gasoline buyers bypassed the two-liter turbocharged and 2.4-liter five-cylinder models in favor of the sonorous, Alfa-derived three-liter 24-valve V-6.
Lancia had invented the V-6, and this particular engine revved happily to its 6,300-rpm power peak, and 7,000-rpm red-line, producing 215 horsepower and 194 foot-pounds of torque. That made for a top speed of one hundred and forty-six mph; but the Thesis’ sheer heft ultimately conspired against it, resulting in a rather relaxed, 9.2-second 0-60 mph time.
A 3.2-liter V-6 was also available. Plans were made to offer Cadillac's Northstar V-8 and a three-liter Isuzu V-6 diesel was offered as well (to be shared with the Saab 9-5 and Renault Vel Satis), but Fiat's messy divorce from General Motors in 2002 put paid to that.
Thesis was supposed to support an effort to push Lancia sales from just one hundred and fifty thousand in 2001, to three hundred thousand by 2008.
However, Thesis failed to hit even the modest sales goals Lancia had set for it: a mere thirteen thousand and two hundred units in 2002, and hopes for twenty-five thousand in 2003. Mind you, in true Italian fashion, they could never quite agree on a target. Juan Jose Diaz Ruiz, executive vice-president for marketing and sales, was more ambitious. He foresaw annual sales of thirty-five thousand cars.
In the end, they sold just sixteen thousand over seven years. Sales ran through 2009, but the Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi triumvirate was never threatened. More to the point, the Thesis couldn't nearly match the sales of its Kappa predecessor; and the Kappa, in turn, had not done as well as the Thema before it.
Lancia took the failure on the chin, having invested four hundred and five million euros in the project (one hundred and eighty-five million for R&D, and two hundred and twenty-one for tooling).
Following 2010’s Fiat/ Chrysler tie-up, Lancia CEO Olivier François took on the additional role of Chrysler CEO. He saw a parallel between the two brands. For the past ten years, he noted, both had strived to offer, to varying degrees, a quietly elegant, near-luxury experience. Both were positioned as style-conscious brands for upwardly mobile, trend-setting customers.
François was widely regarded to have done a good job at Lancia with limited resources. Despite the long-running Ypsilon and Musa both being based on the floorpan of the last-generation Fiat Punto, and though the Lancia Delta was constrained in its proportions by the Fiat Bravo platform, Fiat’s near-luxury brand had ridden out the effects of the economic downturn remarkably effectively. In a down market which had battered the auto industry, Lancia’s sales in 2009 had remained flat.
But François would sound Lancia's death knoll when he rebadged various Chryslers - including a minivan - as Lancias.
Today, Lancia sells cars only in Italy - and its only car is the little Ypsilon hatchback. The brand is not expected to last much longer.
What a pity. Thesis was a colorful car in a conservative segment - a dignified expression of what Lancia thought its brand could be in the modern era. However, after several years of lackluster cars, for one model to muster the distinction to support a hefty price tag was always going to be a tall order. And the relevance of Lancia's somewhat muddled brand values, post-Millennium, was at best debatable.
Writing for CAR, Paul Horrell saw this clearly at the time. "Imagine a Rover 95 (a theoretical step-up from the British brand's retro 75, which debuted at roughly the same time as the Thesis and which also proved to be its maker's swansong) and you would be spookily close.
"It's a scary thought: two brands that refuse to be youthful or sporty (are the) two brands that have underperformed."