Prior to its 1969 takeover by Fiat, Lancia was a free-thinking carmaker with superbly engineered products. When its admirable list of priorities got Lancia into trouble (the carmaker routinely placed quality ahead of cost-effectiveness), Fiat's intervention was all but inevitable. Mercifully, Fiat at first did its best to retain the traditional attributes of Lancia's cars. Fiat was a sprawling, profit-hungry automaker, though, and as Lancia aged its products became more anonymous and less like their innovative and technically advanced predecessors.
That's not to say that Lancia made bad cars, even if Fiat's use of low quality steel ensured that 1970's Lancias returned to the earth more quickly than most owners would have hoped. Lancia continued to build competitive cars, but many of them were little more than pricey Fiats with some token luxury features on the side. Stated as a trans-Atlantic analogy, Lancia was to Fiat as Lincoln was to Ford.
The Lancia Thema was a good, if anonymous, automobile that Lancia produced under typical big-carmaker conditions. In other words, the Thema was far from an independent design for an independent company. Instead, it was the result of collaboration between a handful of automakers that aimed to produce several new and well-engineered models while sharing ideas and technologies to minimize the costs of developing truly capable cars.
The Thema was underpinned by the front-wheel-drive 'Type Four' platform, which resulted from the joint efforts of Fiat/Lancia, Saab, and Alfa Romeo. All brands involved with the development of this platform used it to underpin a new model. From Alfa Romeo came the 164, an attractive sedan with Pininfarina styling. Saab used the new platform as the base for its 9000 hatchback (later a sedan as well), which, despite being the only car of the quartet not made by an Italian brand, benefitted from Italian styling courtesy of Giorgetto Giugiaro. Finally, Fiat and Lancia used the Type Four platform for the Croma and Thema, respectively. Both the Croma and Thema, like the Saab 9000, were styled by Giugiaro.
Of all the new models on the Type Four platform, the Lancia Thema was arguably the one most confused in its mission. The Fiat Croma was the mainstream model, just a typical family car on a sturdy new platform. The Saab 9000, with its cavernous cargo hold and safety-conscious engineering, was quite clearly a Saab. The Alfa Romeo 164 was costlier, prettier, and less sensible—in other words, it was an Alfa.
With so much of the market covered by the Fiat, Saab, and Alfa, the Lancia Thema was stuck without a very clear identity. It was a higher-end Croma of sorts, but so were the Alfa and Saab—and the latter two had at least established clear ties to their respective brands.
The Thema was offered in many variations as it struggled to find a niche. Offered as a sedan upon its arrival in 1984, the Thema lineup expanded to include a Pininfarina-styled station wagon for 1986. Throughout its production, several four cylinder engines were used to power the Thema. Initially, there was a naturally-aspirated or turbocharged 8-valve motor, displacing 1,995cc. Later, these engines gained 16-valve heads. A turbodiesel four was also offered, displacing 2,445cc. Two V6 mills were offered as well: first a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo unit, and later an Alfa Romeo-sourced motor to replace it.
There was, too, an eight-cylinder version of the Thema, first available in 1986. Called the Thema 8.32 (8 cylinders, 32 valves), its power plant was sourced from another, better-known Fiat subsidiary: Ferrari.
If the idea of what was essentially a pricey, front-wheel-drive Fiat with 215 prancing horses under the hood sounds crazy—well, that's because it was. This was not some heinous act of badge engineering with Ferrari emblems painted all over a hapless family sedan. Rather, the Thema 8.32 was an attractive and tastefully understated sedan with an honest-to-goodness Ferrari V8, displacing 2,927cc, mounted transversely in the car's nose. This was the V8 used in the mid-engined Ferrari 308, and it turned the mild-mannered Thema into one of the best sounding sedans of all time.
With the exception of the 8.32, which has become a cult classic, the Thema is still considered a largely ordinary vehicle. It's not particularly fast, particularly fancy, or particularly fun, but it is a well-rounded car that, even if it's not a true Lancia, at least shares the shield and flag of one of Italy's most historically significant carmakers.
'Lancia Thema.' CarsfromItaly.net n. pag. Web. 17 Jun 2010. http://www.carsfromitaly.net/lancia/index.html.
Wood, Jonathan. Great Marques of Italy. London: Octopus Books Limited, 1987. 151-183. Print.By Evan Acuña