The cars we loved.
Lancia has a long history of producing interesting and often innovative cars. These advances include the first use of an electrical system in a production car, wide use of fully independent suspensions in the 1940’s and the first use of a five speed manual transmission in a production car. The list goes on. So when the Fiat Automotive Group took over Lancia in 1969, it was only natural that the Lancia brand would be positioned near the upper end of Fiat’s brand portfolio that included Alfa Romeo, Maserati , Ferrari and of course Fiat itself. A partnership with Saab in the early 80’s would produce an upmarket sedan shared with the Alfa Romeo 164 and Saab’s 9000. Lancia’s version of the “Type Four” chassis would receive special attention starting in 1987 with the 8.32. The Type Four flagship would mate a Ferrari engine with the front wheel drive Thema’s dowdy sedan bodywork.
The name 8.32 refers to the V8 engine with 32 valves. With the Thema as a starting point, the 8.32 was the closest thing to a four door Ferrari that you could buy. Had the Ferrari theme extended to the designer, the Thema might have looked as exciting as it was under the hood. Instead Pininfarina designed only the station wagon. Although Pininfarina was responsible for some of the most beautiful modern Ferrari’s, the Thema wagon was a straight forward unassuming looking sedan. The sedan was not much different. With Ferrari’s help the 8.32 would re-establish Lancia as a builder of premium luxury cars in a time when its rallying successes with the Delta captured the public’s attention. Although not all the components came from Ferrari’s parts bin, most of the parts that mattered did, including a detuned version of the 3.0 DOHC engine used in the Ferrari 308 Quattrovale.
There’s conflicting information on the production of the Ferrari engines, maybe due to the cross bred nature of this car. Some accounts suggest that early engines were built by Ferrari in Maranello with some parts assembled at Lancia’s S. Paolo plant. Others contend that later cars would have Ferrari contracting some construction to Ducati in Maranello. In either case changes to the crankshaft and other modifications between Ferrari’s version and Lancia’s resulted in 202 hp in early carbureted versions (vs. Ferrari’s 240). A change necessary to accommodate the luxurious nature of a sedan as opposed to a high-strung all out sports car. Lancia made no secret of the Ferrari link in its sales brochures with “Lancia by Ferrari” references on the engine and badging in other parts of the car.
Ferrari motivation detuned or not provided a wonderful growl that must have surprised onlookers seeing that it came from what looked like a regular Thema to the casual observer. Subtle ground effects, special 15’ alloy Ferrari inspired wheels on 205-55VR Goodyear tires would distinguish the 8.32 from other Thema. Performance was a big part of the 8.32 selling points, although its appearance would not suggest it in a heavy-handed way, making it a popular “sleeper” car with those who did not want to attract too much attention. A five speed manual transmission car could do 0 to 60 in the 6.8 to 7.2 second range depending on year and engine setup. At well under 3,000 lb., the 3.8 could easily approach a top speed of 150 mph while the independent MacPherson strut suspension maintained solid steady handling.
The attention to detail continued inside of the wood accented cabin with high levels of luxury. Leather seating from Poltrona Frau, a high-end furniture manufacturer insured world-class comfort. Full instrumentation and a range of entertainment options like rear passenger headphone inputs were innovate features that would later become commonplace. Another feature that would become more commonplace was a rear spoiler that would raise at speed for improved aerodynamics. Some of the Thema 8.32’s features were somewhat excessive like the hand painted belt line stripes and other handmade labor intensive processes that contributed to its high asking price of nearly $57,000 in US dollars.
The Thema 8.32 was produced in left hand drive versions only, limiting it’s appeal in many parts of Europe, although it was popular in Italy. By the time the Series 2 cars were on the market (1989-1992) problems with earlier cars were catching up with the 3.32 in the form of a reputation for poor reliability and expensive service. Lancia’s had a reputation for fussy quality (one of the reasons they withdrew from the American market). To add insult to injury, the maintainance needs of the Ferrari engine ended up a costly endeavor that eventually damaged the car’s resale value. Many of the 8.32’s distinctive features would find their way to lesser Thema’s by the time the model was discontinued in 1992. The Thema Turbo would eventually provide better straight line performance for far less money-making the 8.32 somewhat redundant.
Lancia had a compelling sports sedan on par with anything BMW or Audi might have produced. Unfortunately they had not mastered the art of durability as their German competition had. The Thema was the first sedan to ever use a Ferrari engine, putting it in a class with the Dino as a Ferrari stepchild. Ferrari’s approval might have been underhanded, but it’s been said that Enzo Ferrari himself was driven around in a Thema 8.32 in the last years of his life. Enzo also gave 8.32 to his Formula One drivers, adding some amount of credence to the orphaned Ferrari mindset.
8.32 still occupies a controversial space amongst some Lancia and Ferrari fans. To Lancia lovers, the 8.32 only served to tarnish the reputation of the Thema as unreliable and overpriced, while Ferrari lovers shun it for front wheel drive, four doors and the fact that it was after all a Lancia that looked too much like a Saab. Whatever view you might take, there’s no denying that the 8.32 was an interesting car that pioneered many features that have become commonplace in many of today’s cars. If only the quality issue were resolved, the legacy of the 8.32 might have been different today.
In an odd twist, Fiat’s purchase of a controlling stake in Chrysler will result in the resurrected Thema name being shared with Chrysler’s new 300 sedan. The 300 based Thema will replace Chrysler in Europe while Chrysler will continue to sell the 300 in North America.