Let me make one thing clear from the outset: I love Lancia. My favourite car is the Delta Integrale (although I’m yet to sit in one, let alone drive one). The Stratos is generally just another way of saying “uber cool” in my language. The classic Fulvia is about as pretty as a car can get.
And of all the cars my father owned, his Lancia 2000 Sedan is easily the pick of the bunch, oozing flair, style and individuality. So, yes, I love Lancia.
Which is why it pains me to live in the knowledge that Lancia is responsible for what is perhaps one of the worst special editions of all time. Not only was it a crass marketing-led edition, but it also ensured the rot, (pun intended), started to set in for the brand in the UK.
Lancia died in the UK in 1993, but this special edition, launched in 1981, led to a slow and painful death for one of the world’s greatest car brands. Even a stunningly successful legacy in world rallying did nothing to stop the rot.
The car in question was the Lancia Beta Hi-Fi, based on the rather beautiful Beta Coupe. Good to drive, pleasant to look at and with strong performance, but hideously overshadowed by an ongoing problem with rust. For years, Lancia lived under a cloud of rumours suggesting that their cars were built using low grade, Russian-sourced steel. In the UK, the corrosion problems and a media witch-hunt ensured that Lancia was on a downward spiral by 1980.
The result was that Lancia was left with a number of unsold vehicles, including the Beta Coupe. Many of these were simply parked up disused airfields, exposed to the elements. This would take its toll on any car. On a Lancia Beta, the results would be catastrophic.
So Lancia had a problem – it needed to shift the stock. In 2010, Lancia’s future depends on Chrysler. In 1981, it was Aston Martin. Or more specifically, Aston’s engineering arm, Tickford. Aston needed to springboard the newly formed Aston Martin Tickford company and Lancia needed support with shifting unsold stock. A marriage made in heaven?
The solution developed by Tickford was the Beta Coupe Hi-Fi. Call me a cynic, but when a special edition’s name majors on the stereo system, surely alarm bells would start ringing. I mean, would you be fooled into buying an Austin Metro Goodmans? Or the Datsun Sunny JVC? Or maybe the Toyota Starlet AM/FM? No, thought not.
As you might have guessed, the Hi-Fi’s key selling point was the sound system, in the shape of a Voxson, one of Australia’s biggest audiovisual companies.
So, Italian car, British… er… special edition and Australian tunes. Kind of like Luciano Pavarotti singing Land Down Under at the Milton Keynes Bowl. It also came with an electric aerial (!), spoilers, gold side decals and black alloys. In my humble opinion, it actually looks pretty good. Just a shame the cars were doomed to fail.
The truth is, the cars were already rusting by the time Tickford got hold of them. Indeed, many had been sat dormant in their airfield home for up to two years. Only 300 were ever produced, but only a small number of these will have survived the end of the decade. A shame.
It is easy to poke fun at the Hi-Fi. It reeks of everything that is wrong with special editions – a poor attempt to boost flagging sales, usually by exploiting the buying public. But for me, the Hi-Fi represents a sad chapter for Lancia. Like a tired entertainer, once big and now merely seen performing in deserted seaside towns, the Hi-Fi is an unfitting legacy for the great badge. I’d much rather remember the Fulvia, Delta, Thema 8.32 or Stratos.
Would it stop me buying one if I saw one for sale tomorrow though? Not likely!