What the Hell Happened to Lancia?

A once mighty pioneering force in the automotive world, Lancia now languishes in the bottom left “low-low” quadrant of Fiat Chrysler’s Boston Matrix awaiting an uncertain future. Stewart Longhurst takes a look at the marque’s history and visits Thornley Kelham, a modern business that is keeping Lancia alive with their restoration and custom projects.

On the outskirts of South Cerney in Gloucestershire, sits a large, modern but rather grey and nondescript industrial unit on a small development of similar buildings. Aside from the company name on a sign, there are few clues as to what kind of business is inside and certainly nothing to suggest that this is the home of an innovative company that is keeping a legendary motoring brand alive. Although they repair, restore and service many other classic marques, around half of the vehicles which pass through Thornley Kelham’s workshop were made by Lancia, a once great car maker now reduced to just the single Ypsilon model – and one shared with Chrysler, at that.

First things first, let’s learn how to say Lancia correctly. There are many ways that you hear people say the brand name but according to Italians, who should know, the pronunciation of Lancia is not the anglicized, trisyllabic “Larn-see-uh” but the shorter “Lan-sha”. There, you can be a proper bore about it now.

Very few automotive marques with a history like that of Lancia cling onto life with so feeble a grip. Like Lord Voldemort in the early Harry Potter books (ask your kids), Lancia survives only as a graft to the Professor Quirrell of Fiat Chrysler, sustained by the unicorn blood of its heritage.

But what a heritage.

Vincenzo Lancia’s company gained a name for innovation from the beginning. The Theta model of 1913 was the first European car sold with a full electrical system as standard, and the Lambda, which arrived nine years later, was the first car with a monocoque chassis and independent suspension. In the late 1930s, Lancia also pioneered the use of wind-tunnels to hone the shape of the Aprilia.

Post-war, with the company now in the hands of the founder’s racing driver and engineer son Gianni, they continued innovating; first 5-speed gearbox fitted to a production car was followed shortly after in 1950 by the first V6-engined production car, the Aurelia. The Lancia Aurelia also heralded the use of a front-engine, rear-transmission layout and inboard-mounted rear brakes in an effort to reduce the car’s unsprung weight.

From this point on, Lancia’s evolution went hand in hand with top-level motorsport; running cars successfully in sports car road racing events and Formula One.  In 1951, Giovanni Bracco took an Aurelia B20 to second place in the Mille Miglia; one of 30 Lancias among the top 100 finishers.

In 1954, Gianni recruited a disgruntled Alberto Ascari from Scuderia Ferrari to drive for Lancia and was rewarded immediately by a Mille Miglia victory.  The following year, Ascari gained two F1 wins for Lancia before famously over-cooking the Monaco chicane and taking an unexpected dip in the harbour. Ascari survived unscathed but just four days later was killed in a crash at Monza whilst testing a Ferrari sports car that he was to co-drive in a later race.

The combination of Ascari’s death and Gianni’s expensive quest for innovation led the company to quit F1 and, amid financial difficulty, to sell a sizeable chunk of the business. Lancia remained unprofitable throughout the 1960s and was eventually taken over by Fiat in 1969.

Having started rallying the Fulvia Coupé with a works team in the mid-60s, Fiat ownership allowed Lancia continued participation and success throughout the 1970s with the Stratos, and the 1980s with the Delta Integrale. These ongoing sporting accomplishments might have sustained Lancia’s road car development and sales but by the 1990s Lancia had ceased rallying – and its road cars were merely facsimiles of other Fiat group models.

A reputation for corrosion, resultant poor sales, and a mass buy-back scheme eventually led to Lancia withdrawing from the right-hand-drive market in 1994. Since then there have been several rumours of a return; this almost happened in 2008 but the financial crisis caused plans to be scrapped once more. Lancia’s sole surviving model, the Ypsilon, is only in the UK courtesy of a Chrysler badge – and now this brand too has disappeared from our shores.

In 2009, driven by a desire to do a better job of restoring and painting classic cars than they’d experienced elsewhere, photographer and businessman Simon Thornley and car refinisher Wayne Kelham founded the company that eventually took their names.

Having started out just doing paintwork, they quickly realised that in order to be in control of project scheduling, quality, and costs they needed to develop their in-house skills to cover most if not all restoration specialisms. As a result, they now field a team of 35 providing a full suite of services to classic owners and collectors that includes finding cars, restoring, repairing and servicing them, through to selling them and even supporting concours d’elegance and motorsport events. In fact, the only jobs they now subcontract out are woodwork and upholstery trimming.

With an unusually perceptive eye on the classic car scene and childhood memories of family cars, they quickly identified Lancia owners as one of the least well served groups but, says Simon, “If we just did Lancia, we’d probably make more money but we’d get bored pretty quickly”.

So, their clean and tidy workshops contain, in addition to multiple examples of almost every Lancia model, MG, Porsche, Aston Martin, Bentley, a solitary but leviathan Rolls Royce belonging to The Peninsular Hotels, and a one-off Goldmanini Barchetta owned by the bass player of a well-known rock band who lives not far away and entrusts all his collection to Thornley Kelham.

One thing that characterises this car restoration company over many others is that despite their business being about the past, they have always looked to the future. When they first started, for example, they realised that most companies like theirs had a workforce with an average age over 60, a situation they knew they must avoid if the business was to be sustained. Keen to keep heritage skills alive through training and apprenticeships, their first apprentice, Danny, still works for them nearly ten years on.

They have found though, that most who start the apprenticeship scheme don’t see it through; the work and attention to detail the firm demands is laborious and painstaking and so contradictory to modern day expectations of instant gratification.  Body metal work skills in particular are very hard to come by but good craftsmanship here is most crucial to the success of the end product.

Simon also believes that you shouldn’t get so precious about classic cars so that you can’t modify or modernise them. Yes, keep the rare, matching-numbers concours-queen cherished and stubbornly original, but those that fall short of this hallowed status are there to be enjoyed, however you choose to achieve it.

More and more of Thornley Kelham’s work is to make classic cars easier and cheaper to maintain and drive by modernising the unseen mechanicals whilst retaining the external looks. Simon feels that welcoming and encouraging this approach will help ensure the long-term survival of classic ownership as emissions  in particular comes under increasing scrutiny, something that will be exponentially more troublesome when petrol use is no longer mainstream.

Thornley Kelham gained high-level exposure in 2014 when they showed a recently restored Aurelia at Pebble Beach; no ordinary car, it was arguably the most famous Lancia of all, the one that Giovanni Bracco drove in the 1951 Mille Miglia and in which he also took a class win in the 24 Heures du Mans in the same year. You can read the full story of this three-year restoration on their website but in working on this car they came to know so much about the Aurelia and about how to lower the car and change the roofline which had been done in period; knowledge that would prove very useful in their next project – a limited run of ‘fuorilegge’ cars.

For those not familiar with Italian, this translates as a bandit or literally as ‘outlaw’ and when asked if they’d produce an outlaw Aurelia, Simon and Wayne leapt at the chance. The Bracco car gave them inspiration as well as knowledge, endowing the pair with the confidence to customise an Aurelia; something Lancia aficionados may not have otherwise welcomed. With only around 3,800 Aurelia B20 GTs built and less than half of those surviving, the cars that they found to customise were largely late-series barn finds in need of total restoration.

So what makes an Outlaw? There isn’t a single recipe as it can include pretty much anything the owner wants to do to modify the car but there are a few common modifications. The visible changes include lowering the roofline, widening the wings, adding a bonnet scoop and removing unnecessary external features such as the indicators by incorporating them into the head- and tail-lamps. The interior is fitted with specially made seats, upholstered in leather.

The key ingredient in an Outlaw, however, is performance. This is achieved by the installation of the 2.5L V6 engine and drivetrain from the later Flaminia model. Enlarged to 2.8-litres and fitted with a modified camshaft  and fuel injection, this gives the Outlaw a significant power boost over that of the original cars, albeit one that necessitates further improvements to the brakes, suspension, and a host of other hidden mechanicals.

The finished article is beautiful. Retaining the elegance of the original fluid 1950s styling, it blends it seamlessly with a delicious splash of hot-rod. Outlaws number one and two are finished, and numbers three through to five are partway through their two-year builds.

Donor car number six has been sourced and an order placed, but work has yet to commence. Simon having promised that there would be no more than nine built in total. There are just three more opportunities for discerning buyers to become the proud owner of one of these creations.

Workmanship like this doesn’t come cheap, of course. An Outlaw will cost you somewhere in the region of £400,000 (plus VAT if you live in Europe), depending on the final specification.

If that’s a step too far, then Aurelia ownership can be achieved at a much lower cost.  A B20 GT in working order can be bought for around £120,000 with well-sorted ones commanding upwards of £185,000.  This is still a lot of money but when you consider that a contemporary Aston Martin DB2 in need of complete restoration will set you back £120,000, you start to understand what good value these Lancias represent.

However, Simon considers the Touring-bodied Flaminia GT, which shares the same Superleggera construction and coachbuilding as the DB4 and DB5, to be the very best value-for-money Lancia on sale today. With prices starting at around £90,000, they are just a fifth of the figure being asked for a contemporary Aston Martin.

Still too rich? How about a Lancia Fulvia Coupé? Achingly pretty, they’re a snip at less than £20,000 for a really good one.

Reflecting on the legendary cars that came out of Vincenzo and Gianni’s Turin factory, it’s probably for the best that Fiat Chrysler haven’t relaunched Lancia – and better still that they should kill the marque altogether, especially when you consider that the alternative to what could be a dignified death would probably be an Alfa-like stasis turning out stylish but distinctly average saloon cars and diesel-powered SUVs…

But here’s a thought: what if the pioneering and innovative make could be reborn to spearhead Fiat Chrysler’s development of beautiful alternative-fuel sports cars and grand tourers? If either Signor Lancia were around today, it’s highly likely they’d have done it already.

 

Words: Stewart Longhurst @SportsandGT

Photos: Andrew Green @picturecorner