Essay : What if?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Motoring writer Matthias Jost ponders the ramifications of collaboration with Italy’s perennial bridesmaid: Lancia…


Italy's Rover 45? The current Lybra model seems to perfectly encapsulate Lancia current design school - does it signify that the company is about to step off the precipice? In many ways, there are synergies between this and the Rover 45...
Italy’s Rover 45? The current Lybra model seems to perfectly encapsulate Lancia current design school – does it signify that the company is about to step off the precipice? In many ways, there are synergies between this and the Rover 45…

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…

The Thesis would be a rival for models in the upper end of the Rover 75 range... if it were sold in the UK. Lancia obviously tried to give this car "retro" appeal (just like Rover did with the 75), tying it stylistically to the Aurelia. However, unlike the elegant Rover, it merely comes across as a pastiche - could a collaborative venture with Rover put an end to such monstrosities...?
The Thesis would be a rival for models in the upper end of the Rover 75 range… if it were sold in the UK. Lancia obviously tried to give this car “retro” appeal (just like Rover did with the 75), tying it stylistically to the Aurelia. However, unlike the elegant Rover, it merely comes across as a pastiche – could a collaborative venture with Rover put an end to such monstrosities…?
Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

19 Comments

  1. Hi

    But the excellent Lybra wasn’t “current” when you wrote this piece in 2011. Last ones were 2006. It’s somewhere between a 45 and a 600, but build quality is better — harking back to pre-Fiat Flavia standards.
    I’m afraid it makes MGs look cheap and nasty as if bits would soon fall off.

    The JTDs aren’t great, but are certainly almost ubiquitous in Europe where diesel’s still so much cheaper (but the difference is being tapered out by tax changes). 1.9 feeble compared with 2.4’s mid-range torque.But yes, RHD would be easy.
    Thesis, an ugly giant of a car, built only for statesmen and capts of industry, also had high build standards.

    At Jan 2018, Lybras down to €2500 for a really good one, usually in Switzerland, Holland or Belgium. Some (poorly maintained) in Hungary and Bulgaria!

    All the tooling got bought by and sent to a Chinese firm, but with that country’s fast push into electric I doubt they’ll ever make it again.

  2. When I first saw the photo of the dark red car, I immediately thought of the hideous Ford Scorpio from the mid 80s; or one of those strange Chinese copies of western models.

  3. Lancia is now a one model “brand”, sold in Italy only. With the Ypsilon be replaced, or will the brand be allowed to die (like so many of the BL brands )?

    • Apparently Lancia/Fiat will not replace the Ypsilon,despite selling 60,000 in Italy last year.So that means the end of Lancia.

      • The Ypsilon and its predecessors have a useful niche in Italy as a stylish and more upmarket small car, but the economics of having such a vehicle only sold at home clearly don’t add up.

        I imagine the Mito won’t be replaced either

    • Well, I wonder why there are so many in France. It’s still chic in Paris in particular.
      I admit it can’t make much profit — few small cars do — so it could die, but probably not just yet.

  4. Has there ever been any historical instances in the automotive world where carmaker sold one or more marques within its portfolio to another carmaker?

    Since Lancia is one of those marques that would have benefited from being given to another carmaker by the late-80s to early-90s onward, when Fiat decided to focus their attention on recently acquired marques such as Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

    Given Fiat’s / FCA problems, they could have done with the extra cash from selling Lancia during the period of the Lancia Delta Integrale.

    • “Has there ever been any historical instances in the automotive world where carmaker sold one or more marques within its portfolio to another carmaker? ”

      Vauxhall / Opel from GM to PSA?

      Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford to Tata?

      Toyota bought some of Subaru when GM sold shares.

      Ssangyoung from Daewoo to Mahindra?

  5. The Chrysler tie-up shows how this could’ve went, with the Rover 75 (instead of 300) as the new Thema, Delta as 45, Ypsilon as 15/25?

    Didn’t end up working out well, as others said Ypsilon is the last straggler before the marque is axed.

  6. I don’t think badging and assembling Lancias would have provided a solution for MG Rover as Chryslers attempts to gain traction in the market has shown.

    However I do think when the phone call came from Fiat regarding assembling a “Ronda” like (Riat) treated Stilo in the UK so soaking up surplus Stilo capacity for Fiat and giving MG Rover a car which was once you got over the badge values every bit as good as the then current VAG offerings to replace the 25 / 45 most importantly at the time giving them a car with state of the art diesel engines, MG Rover missed an opportunity.

    Most importantly it could have opened up other opportunities as well as a cash flow such as a Ralfa ised 159 to replace the 75 and Rover joining in with Fiat with the re-skin of the Stilo to the Brava at the start.

    • The 159 sat on a GM platform (designed initially for a Saab!), which may have caused headaches in licencing to Rover.

      • No it was a joint development for Alfa and Saab but GM pulled out of the project before it was finalised. It was over engineered, its stiffness and resulting weight was due to the demands of Saab, but GM got cold feat over the cost.

          • It was, I like the 159, a bit heavy but it felt like a big GTI to drive and so you could hunt down “cooking” BMW and when the road was wet you had a lot more confidence than them.

            However the market segment wanted RWD, so as Alfa found, I think Saab would have struggled to get traction in the market.

    • How would assembling the Stilo in Longbridge help soak up surplus Stilo capacity? Unless it was the most token assembly job (like the MG6), and that would have left the Longbridge facility even more under capacity

      The Stilo wasn’t an especially good car anyway, not a patch on the Ford Focus and without the build quality of the Golf IV.

      • The proposal was to ship CKD kits excluding the Rover DNA bits, so it would have made little if any difference to Longbridge over how they had worked with Honda.

        I disagree I think the Stilo was a very underated car, in the same way the Golf was as always a very overated car. The Ford Focus was better than the Golf but again lacks that VW perceiced quality.

        As for perceived quality, well this is exactly where Rover could have addressed the issues as they did with turning the Accord into the Rover 600.

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