For ten years between the 1980s and ’90s, it successfully held the position as the brand’s flagship. Created in a three-volume version, then joined by the versatile station wagon, as per Lancia tradition it brought together elegance of lines, luxury materials and outstanding performance.
In the early 1980s, Lancia launched a joint project known as “Tipo 4”, to build a high-end car.
The Thema was tasked with replacing the Gamma: the hand of Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign produced an elegant three-volume saloon car featuring classic yet modern lines, with a bright, spacious but most of all luxurious and elegant passenger compartment. The international announcement was made at the Paris Motor Show in September 1984, ahead of its official debut at the Turin Motor Show that November.
The front features the characteristic trapezoidal grille, a stylised horizontal development of the typical shield radiator grille that became a true icon of the brand with the powerful Lancia Aurelia. On the sides, large rectangular headlights with built-in direction indicators that closed into the mudguard, and wraparound, partly body-colour resin bumpers. The bonnet and windscreen were sportily tilted, followed by the large passenger compartment and the high, well-proportioned boot, featuring sizeable vertical wraparound lights with horizontal elements, whereas the number plate holder extends inwards in the centre.
One of the specificities of the design was the doors, in particular the wraparound connection to the roof. This solution made it possible to improve the cleanliness of the lines, by removing the traditional weatherstrips to increase the elegance of the sides and to perfect the aerodynamics.
But the real Lancia signature lay in the passenger compartment, starting with the seats: the front ones were comfortable and enveloping; the back offered two sumptuous armchairs either side, each with large headrests and soft armrests between them. All the seats were finely upholstered: from velvet and differently textured chenille to Alcantara and the unmissable leather. The dashboard was very comprehensive and easy to read, enhanced even further by the dual check panel. In the middle: large air vents, automatic climate controls and a door that covered the housing of the car radio, with a second door in front of the ashtrays and cigarette lighters.
The engine at launch was the evolution of the glorious 1,995-cc twin-cam Lampredi, at that point equipped with electronic injection, available in a naturally aspirated or turbocharged version, the latter with two balancer shafts, at 120 and 165 hp respectively. The transverse front engine was tilted forward by 21° to keep the bonnet lower and more streamlined. It was a front-wheel drive car with manual five-speed transmission, or automatic with three settings in the naturally aspirated version only. The turbocharged unit was then used as the basis for the first all-wheel drive Lancia Delta HF 4WD, which marked the beginning of the glorious Delta era that would dominate rallying for many years to come.
In addition to the two-litre engine, the Thema came with the 2.8 V6 PRV, an engine developed jointly by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo for use by multiple manufacturers. A highly flexible engine, it was well-suited to become an official car, so much so that it would be fitted to the limited edition of the Limousine version with an extended wheelbase.
On the other hand, the 2.4-litre Turbodiesel unit was a resounding success, having already been used by the Fiat Group on other models. With the adoption of the intercooler, however, Lancia raised it to 101 hp, bringing to the market the fastest diesel car at the time, with a top speed of 185 km/h.
Produced in three series for ten years, from 1986 the saloon car was joined by the station wagon version designed by Pininfarina, and in 1987 by the rare Limousine. It also continued to stand out for its powerful engines, petrol and diesel, which evolved over the years to adapt to regulations on improved cleanliness and efficiency, without sacrificing performance. The spearhead was the Thema 8.32, equipped with the Ferrari V8.
Two major innovations came in 1986: the creation of the station wagon version, but most of all the launch of the Thema 8.32.
The coachbuilders Pininfarina and Zagato were entrusted with the task of creating the family Thema: the two proposals were very similar, but the Pininfarina version shone through. The replacement of the third volume with an extended roof and large tailgate did not distort the lines, which remained elegant and offered the advantage of greater load capacity. Met with even more appreciation was the sophisticated self-levelling suspension, one of the most popular options on station wagons. The family car was initially fitted with turbocharged petrol and diesel engines only, just as the SW market was becoming more elite than it had previously been, transforming them from working vehicles to fashionable, prestigious cars.
The Lancia Thema 8.32 was a case apart: not so much and not only for the Ferrari 32-valve V8 engine, but also for the luxury and quality of the materials to finish off the interior, with briar wood on the dashboard and door panels, Alcantara on the seats and steering wheel or, as an option, “Poltrona Frau” leather. Externally, it was recognisable for its “star-shaped” alloy wheels, a characteristic design adopted by Ferrari at the time, and by the innovative electrically controlled retractable spoiler on top of the boot. Side skirts ran under the doors, with a thin double yellow line along the side: nothing too ostentatious for a highly elegant saloon car with a top speed of 240 km/h.
The 32-valve V8 engine, from which the model took its name, was based on the one fitted to the Ferrari 308 and Mondial Quattrovalvole, with gentler delivery to suit it both to the comfort of a saloon and to its front-wheel drive. At the time, its 215 hp was said to be the maximum output a front-wheel drive car could withstand. The refined options included electronically controlled suspension.
At the 1988 Paris Motor Show, the second series of the Thema range made its debut, recognisable for its new front end that slimmed down the entire car, together with the new headlights and direction indicators that took up the entire lower part, making the headlights thinner and more streamlined. Certain details were inherited from the 8.32, such as the body-colour mirror caps, although the most significant innovations lay in the engines with their 16-valve cylinder head. Their output was increased: 147 hp in the naturally aspirated version, known as 2.0 i.e. 16V, and 181 hp in the 2.0 i.e. Turbo 16V, fitted with 15" wheels. The Turbodiesel rose to 2.5 litres with a top speed of 195 km/h as a result of its 115 hp, keeping it among the highest-performance diesel cars. The 2.8 V6 ditched mechanical injection for its electronic counterpart. At that point, the automatic transmission was manufactured by ZF; it had a four-speed transmission and was available for the “i.e. 16v” and for the diesel version.
The interiors were ennobled by wooden accents and certain tweaks to the instrumentation, but above all by improvements to the gearbox to make the clutches faster and more precise, whereas adjustments to the suspension adapted the dynamic behaviour to the increased output. The following year, the 16-valve versions, like the 8-valve versions before them, would also be equipped with a catalytic converter, while in 1989 the Turbodiesel was made cleaner with the adoption of the EGR valve.
In September 1992, the third series was launched, with localised aesthetic changes to the bumpers, availability in a range of trim levels, and updates especially in the mechanics, which were increasingly refined and equipped with systems to reduce emissions. By then, all units had catalytic converters, the naturally aspirated 16-valve had adopted variable intake ducts to improve elasticity, and the V6 was based on an Alfa Romeo engine, increased to 3.0 litres with 171 hp.
Over the course of ten years, 358,000 units were produced, making the Lancia Thema a true Italian status symbol. Not only for entrepreneurs and professionals, it had also become the blue car par excellence for all authorities, as well as being selected by those who wanted to stand out for their elegance, without sacrificing sportiness. With 2,370 units in the first series and 1,150 in the second, the Lancia Thema 8.32 – also known as the “Thema-Ferrari” – became an authentic “instant classic”.