Updated: Nov 9, 2019
This is the story of a car that resulted from a joint project between two companies that had nothing left to lose.
One that managed, for a brief moment in time, to challenge the German dominance of the executive car sector.
This is the story of the Lancia Thema.
The two companies I've mentioned were Fiat, which controlled Lancia, and Swedish automaker Saab.
Fiat needed to replace the outdated and deeply unfashionable Argenta.
Lancia badly needed to recover from the debacle of the Gamma, a car whose design hadn't been well received and whose engines had acquired a nasty reputation.
Saab was far too small to pay for the development of a whole new car, yet it badly needed one.
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 failure of the Gamma was a very recent memory, so the new Thema was a traditional three-box saloon that invented nothing but looked fresh and modern without trying too hard.
The crisp, perfectly harmonious proportions gave the Thema an on-road "presence" the Gamma never had.
The infamous boxer four-cylinders were also gone, leaving space to the lusty Fiat twin-cam fours and a V6 engine bought-in from Peugeot.
In short, the Thema had grace, space, and personality, and with its good specification and powerful engines compared favorably with the more expensive offerings from Mercedes and BMW.
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.
Lightning in a bottle.
For a fleeting, shining moment in time, there was nothing cooler on the face of the earth. With a 3-liters V8, 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. Leather EVERYTHING!
As if all this wasn't enough, Lancia topped it all off with the feature that blew my young impressionable mind to smithereens.
A retractable spoiler activated at the touch of a button. BOOOOM!
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.