Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Lancia Thema 8.32

The Lancia Thema, when launched in 1985, was a measured study in innocuousness. From deep within the bosom of the drawn-with-a-set-square design school, the forgettable silhouette, questionable reliability and harsh interior plastics added up to every petrolhead’s nightmare: a car that was specifically designed to go reasonably cheaply from A to B. And nothing else. That Pininfarina not only designed it but were happy to publicly put their name to it was deeply troubling, as was Lancia’s positioning of the Thema as a luxury car. People were baffled. Weren’t Lancia the chaps that made beautiful swooping coupes and cheeky saloons with fizzy, rev-hungry engines, in bodies made from recycled bean tins stuffed with newspaper? Where did this square-jawed wet lettuce amble in from?

Thankfully, Lancia is an Italian manufacturer. This means two important things; firstly, they’re extremely passionate. Secondly, they’re totally unable to leave an idea alone. With the Thema there was a void-like sensation, a feeling that a spark was missing... nobody, however, could really have anticipated what would happen next.

The range wasn’t entirely devoid of sporting variants for the stealthy family man about town; a 2.0 turbo served the needs of the forced induction fanatics, with a saucy Alfa Romeo 3.0 V6 to satisfy the no-substitute-for-cubes old school. This wasn’t enough for the Lancia mentalists though, and in 1986 they unveiled – possibly as the result of a bet – the Thema 8.32. They cemented their reputation as a bunch of fucking loopers with this one: it had the 32-valve 3-litre V8 from the Ferrari 308 QV. For crying out loud.

Of course, throwing a Ferrari engine in a staid and unassuming saloon leads to a lot of problem-solving; the gearbox, suspension and brakes all had to be substantially beefed up. Ferrari themselves lacked the space in their Maranello plant to assemble the engines, so the decision was made to farm the job out to motorcycle heroes Ducati. Aside from the mechanical savagery though, Lancia kept the exterior admirably secretive. If you’ve seen the movie Taxi - in which a mundane looking Peugeot 406 terrorises Marseilles at warp speed - or indeed, if you were ever a fan of Transformers, you’ll love the rear spoiler; the flat featureless bootlid electrically morphs itself Corrado-style to increase rear downforce at speed. Parked up: drab saloon. In motion: stealth missile.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ferrari were keen to distance themselves from the project. While they were happy to supply engines and aid drivetrain development, this was very much in the spirit of Italian camaraderie and a genuine passion for automotive innovation rather than any sense of corporate advancement or – heaven forbid – to test the waters of entering the family car market. As such, the 8.32 bore no external identifiers that claimed Ferrari credentials; indeed the only direct reference was a small stamp on the inlet manifold reading ‘Lancia by Ferrari’. (64 limited edition cars were painted in Ferrari’s trademark Rosso Scuderia, but this was the only concession.) It’s not uncommon for owners to fit yellow Ferrari logos to the wheel centres but this is rather missing the point of the 8.32, which is that it’s a Q-car. The sort of car that very few people would give a second glance, yet with the kind of performance on tap that could easily tear your face off and smear it over the back seat with the slightest tickle of the throttle.

It wasn’t a sales success. It was never meant to be. Over the six-year production run a total of 3,537 were built, their £40,000 price tag and lack of a right hand drive option meant that just nine (nine!) were officially sold in the UK. The figures are wholly irrelevant; the Thema 8.32 was built because Lancia wanted to do it, and this is the sort of illogical thinking that marks out the Italians as the most passionate of car manufacturers. It’s now the stuff of legend, the fire-spitting phoenix that rose from the depths of mediocrity to raise a few eyebrows… just for the sheer hell of it. It’s a shame that more companies don’t bear as much soul.