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5 December 2012


I know it sounds funny, but there may just be some parallels between Walt Disney and Ferdinand Piech… or rather the empires both men either spawned or currently run. The Disney Company continues on its tear of swallowing up Pixar, Marvel Comics and, just this month, the Star Wars franchise. Disney seems quite adept at eyeing up strong intellectual property and then putting their financial weight behind building those properties beyond what’s been seen before. So while folks dressed like Wookies at Comicon ponder this universe-changing news, I’d like to draw a parallel to Piech’s own empire… the Volkswagen Group.

Of course the auto industry isn’t quite the boutique brand swallowing entity it was in the early oughts. Gone are the days when Jacques Nasser snapped up Aston, Jaguar and Land Rover to build a premier automotive group, or when Piech vied for Lamborghini, Bentley and Rolls-Royce only to have the latter snapped away in a deft last minute move by BMW. Piech picked up Bugatti as a consolation – arguably a cooler brand anyway. Those days however are over. Then again, you could argue nobody really told that to Piech and the Volkswagen Group.

 

We reported just last month that Volkswagen had mulled over purchase of the ailing Lotus brand, Ducati was added over the summer and Piech has made regular mentions of Alfa Romeo to the press… perhaps in hopes of prompting Fiat to cash in and sell off the storied Italian brand or perhaps just to annoy Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne. While it could be either scenario, let’s assume Piech really wants Alfa.

Alfa Romeo itself is an iconic brand steeped in design and pop culture. Even still, its modern product range is a bit lackluster and somewhat limited by Fiat’s own current lack of of viable luxury platform architecture. Fiat seems to suggest all of that is about to change and offered up the 8C Competizione as proof… but as of yet there is still no official word on distribution in the USA or really ground-breaking new product on show stands or in dealerships. All that being said, Fiat really has shown no want or need to sell off Alfa. Quite to the contrary actually.

 

On the Volkswagen side, Alfa is an imminently cool badge and yet also an odd fit. Piech and company have always shown a penchant for picking up brands with rich heritage and mashing down the throttle through injection of the Volkswagen Group’s vast platform architecture,  development prowess and also the implementation of model proliferation. Still, a rejuvenated Alfa at VW’s hands seems less a replacement for the somewhat heritage bereft and ailing SEAT brand and possibly more direct competitor to Audi itself. It’s not exactly filling a void in the portfolio and part of me wonders if the draw of Alfa doesn’t go deep back into Audi and Porsche family history – back to the 1935 German Grand Prix when Ferdinand Porsche’s vaunted V16 Auto Union Silver Arrows designed were bested on their home field of the Nurburgring by the great Tazio Nuvolari in a year-old Alfa.

While I’ve no doubt in the potential of a rejuvenated Alfa, I’d suggest another Italian route entirely… and one that still knocks on Fiat’s door. Just this past month Automobilewoche broke news suggesting that Fiat plans to kill off the Lancia brand – a marque that is today known for odd little Italian cars or re-badged Chryslers. Its demise within Fiat is perhaps not much of a surprise. Then again, that might make it one hell of a bargain.

So why Lancia? Just in case you missed Jeremy Clarkson and company on Top Gear suggesting the brand may have been the best ever, we’ll point out a few high points. Instead of peaking as Alfa did from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, Lancias greatness stretches rather firmly into the 70s and 80s as well. A brand known for technology, it was also rich with the same design injection from carrozzeria such as Bertone, Pininfarina and Zagato as was Alfa. In more modern motorsport (and much like Audi itself), Lancia has heritage at both  the 24 Hours of Le Mans and on the rally scene… even Group B. Through that racing, it may even be more synonymous with the iconic Martini Racing livery than even Porsche is. Also, there are the cars – from the more elegant Flaminia, Aurelia or Fulvia to the edgy 80s era Delta Integrale 5-door that did all the things the Subaru Impreza WRX STi does today… only decades before.

To me, Lancia fills a gap in the Volkswagen Group portfolio – slightly redundant with SEAT yes, but steeped in heritage and panache that SEAT seems never having been able to muster. SEAT’s destiny appears to as a regional brand, whereas the regionality seems more a plight of Lancia currently and not indicative of its potential.

Imagine if you will an all-new Lancia. Let Fiat shut them down and purge the bad and/or Chrysler product. Re-launch it as was done with Bugatti. Design an all-new lineup based on Volkswagen Group platforms. Here’s what I’d suggest.

Beta
Revive the name of this front-wheel drive range and put it on the next-generation MQB platform with a size similar to Audi A1 and Volkswagen Polo. Perhaps sell Beta WRC-spec rally cars to privateer teams using Polo WRC factory team derived components.

Delta
Another MQB-based offering, this would be a 5-door with somewhat boxy shape that embraces the 80s rallying icon. This should be a performance model as well, with various Integrale levels of performance… think drivetrains from S3 or RS 3.

Fulvia
Fulvia would be an essential platform mate to the Delta. This model was sold as a coupe and sedan over the years, with a rebodied coupe by Zagato. So go 4-door and elegant GT coupe with MQB platform and drivetrains and hand design over to Bertone or Zagato for special editions.

Thema
Today this is the rebodied Chrysler 300C. It’s been a large sedan in the past too so why not continue that effort. Either a large MQB like the Volkswagen Passat or a more bargain oriented MLB off of a generation B8 A4 or perhaps even C7 A6 in the vein of the SEAT Exeo’s current re-use of the elder Audi B7 platform.

Flaminia
The Flaminia has a long heritage, and one that saw elegant coupes and roadsters in the 60s. I see a similar strategy here of using last-generation tooling and platform from Audi for a large and luxurious coupe lineup – redesigned Italian takes on the A5 coupe, cabriolet and Sportback body styles.

Stratos
More modern enthusiasts who are fans of Lancia likely would first recognize the more recently designed Stratos one-off build. Lancia left the trademark of the Stratos lapse, and never sanctioned the Ferrari-based car. But, that doesn’t disqualify it as the coolest thing to wear a Lancia badge in decades. Were the Volkswagen Group to sort out the trademark issues, could you just imagine a Lancia Stratos coupe based on the new, smaller MSB mid-engine sportscar chassis Porsche would like to push in order to produce a baby Boxster? Yes, that’d take the Lancia down a notch from its spiritual placement with V8 power, but it would be more consistent with modern downsizing and would fit more with a sub-Audi brand with Italian flare.

Motorsport
I briefly mentioned a Beta WRC rally car for privateers. There’s no reason Lancia couldn’t focus more on privateer efforts at a number of levels using existing Volkswagen Group development. While re-doing the last-generation Audi LMP chassis with Lancia bodywork and a more affordably run petrol engine may be a bit of a reach, other things like the aforementioned WRC car or an SP4T VLN Delta Integrale or Fulvia using components from the Audi TT RS VLN or the shelved Volkswagen Nurburgring programs might be a more viable maneuver.

In conclusion, I’m certain I am over simplifying things… and you’d need to find more options for market-demanded models like crossovers and MPVs, but even still. I’m convinced that the Lancia brand would be such a great fit for Volkswagen. It is rich in design, technology and motorsport heritage. It seems to be quite obviously unwanted by Fiat so both a bargain and a blank slate. Also, it would bolster the group in the affordable and emotional zone where SEAT resides but where the Spanish marque is also failing to really light the world on fire. Its inclusion likely wouldn’t spell the end for regionally strong SEAT, but it would offer more panache in other world markets than does Audi’s Spanish cousin.

More Information on the 2011 Stratos here: new-stratos.com/en/

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