Essay : What if?
Motoring writer Matthias Jost ponders the ramifications of collaboration with Italy’s perennial bridesmaid: Lancia…
THAT bloody globalisation.
OK, so it is a necessary evil for the car industry, spreading the ever more crippling cost of technological innovation and legal compliance over bigger numbers of vehicles. And of course it ensures the survival of a number of companies that would have bitten the dust had it not been for one of the big players snapping them up and giving them access to their brainpools and parts bins.
On the other hand, countless cherished nameplates have fallen by the wayside in this process of consolidation and global playerdom. And let’s not forget that of all the struggling minions absorbed into the corporate embrace of Ford, GM or VW, not many have kept their dignity. It may be a sign of the times that Jaguar has to make do with mass-market mongrels to ensure its survival, that Saab has to give up on its once typical hatchback format to appeal to that elusive “premium” formula, and that a rebodied VW can be hailed as the saviour of Bentley, but a rather cynical sign it is too.
While these marques are more or less safe in their conglomerate havens though, let’s have a look at two venerable companies whose future looks rather bleaker due to decades of mismanagement, and which have more in common than one might think: Lancia and MG Rover. You all know about the latter. The sorry remainder of Britain’s once world-beating car industry, it has spent aeons kept from realising its full potential by lack of funds or misjudged strategies or, mostly, both.
One could speculate endlessly about how differently things would have turned out had Honda taken over, BMW persevered, the 25/45 been priced right from the start, Qvale not been bought and the money spent on the 45 replacement instead, TWR not folded and so forth, but it’s the result that counts: stuck with an ageing model range that appeals mainly to traditionalists and (on export markets) anglophiles indifferent to resale values, the company is fighting for survival and has to rely on an increasingly fickle home market as 70% of its 2003 production remained in the UK. At Lancia the picture is similar. Owned by Fiat since the 1960s, it has lost all its once-revered quality and technological expertise under the corporate umbrella. Cost-cutting saw the introduction of horrors such as the Prisma or Dedra, the cult status gained by the ferocious Delta integrale was foolishly thrown away in a misguided attempt to reposition the brand as something akin to Buick all’italiana.
The lacklustre Delta MkII was not replaced due to predicted lack of demand (now why would that be?) and the same fate awaits the underrated Lybra. Damage done, image destroyed, Lancia has all but vanished from international awareness (a whopping 80% of its 2003 production were sold in Italy) and stands with its back to the wall.
The way out for both? Collaborate! Neither has much to lose but a lot to gain, and aren’t individual joint ventures rather than full mergers touted as the way forward by so many analysts? Lancia may be as good as dead, but, crucially, it has new product and access to state-of-the-art technology. How should this work then? First of all, sell Lancias in the UK.
Now I’m no expert on production engineering, but since all platforms and engines Lancia uses are available in rhd configurations, I don’t see how it can cost an awful lot to make right-hooker Lancias again. MG Rover could sell the sublime new Ypsilon as the 25 replacement, the Lybra, while dated, could do a lot better than the ancient 45, and with the Musa, Phedra and Thesis new segments could be conquered. Keep the ZR, the 75/ZT and the TF, make the CityRover as cheap as it should be, and voilà, there’s a whole new outlook!
How’s that for broadening the appeal of a brand? Lancias already coming with nice chrome grilles and sumptuous interiors, nothing but the badges would have to be changed. And perhaps MG Rover could use those excellent multijet JTD diesels in other models too?
Of course this scheme would not instantly guarantee survival, but it would be a much needed shot in the arm for both. Lancia would regain access to Europe’s second-biggest market (through one of Britain’s biggest dealer networks) without having to reintroduce its tarnished name at great expense. Its excellent new models would get the chance to live up to their commercial potential unhindered by image problems, and the numbers thus generated would aid the business case for the beleaguered brand.
MG Rover, meanwhile, would get the fresh product it so desperately needs, additional showroom traffic and thus increased revenue.
A small start perhaps, but, if successful, one that could lead to interesting perspectives for all involved, especially factoring in the Proton tie-up. And what’s going to happen instead? By the end of the decade, Lancia and MG Rover will more than likely have had their funerals.
That bloody globalisation…