The Lancia Thema was one of those cars that might easily have never been created. Lancia didn’t set out to build it; the company got roped into a project that started out solely as a Swedish venture.
In 1974 Saab was looking to create a car to sit above its 900, but the arrival of the oil crisis put paid to its plans. When Saab decided to revisit the idea in 1978, it quickly realised that it would have to team up with another car maker to develop anything competitive. The arrival of Vittorio Ghidella at Fiat in the same year was just the ticket, as he was keen to revitalise an ailing Lancia, so he teamed up the marque with Saab to create a new executive car.
In the end Fiat and Alfa Romeo would also join the party, with the Croma and 164 respectively, but of the ‘Type 4’ cars (including Saab’s 9000), it was the Lancia Thema which was the first to arrive, in 1984.
By the time the Lancia was unveiled, it shared nothing mechanically with the Saab 9000 as the Italian engineers couldn’t agree with the Swedes on the best wheel size, suspension system – or indeed pretty much anything. In fact it shared just half a dozen pressings in the engine bay – and the doors – so the economies of scale that Lancia and Saab sought never materialised. An outcome which was surely as predictable as they come...
Which Thema to buy?
The only Thema that anybody really covets is the 8.32 (8 cylinders, 32 valves), with its Ferrari-sourced powerplant, but in truth any of these stylish – if rather anonymous – saloons is worth a punt. The 8.32 was for many years something of a performance-car bargain – but was not any faster than a properly sorted 16-valve Turbo. The smaller engine also being significantly lighter resulting in a more balanced car.
At first the Turbo got a 165bhp engine, which was boosted to 185bhp in 1989 then 205bhp in 1992. The earliest normally aspirated engine gave 120bhp, later increased to 150bhp then 155bhp – the 2.8 V6 was rated at 150bhp.
While the normally aspirated cars are worth buying purely because of their rarity, it’s the Turbos that make the most sense in the real world as you get strong performance. Numbers of at a price that doesn’t bear any relation to the poke on offer.
The left-hand drive-only 8.32 is intriguing because it’s just so mad; a 215bhp V8 driving the front wheels makes no sense at all. But 2370 Series 1s were sold between 1986 and 1988, and a further 1601 Series 2s between 1989 and 1992, even though a BMW M5 was 10 grand cheaper.
To dismiss the 8.32 on the grounds that it is an overpowered front-wheel drive car would be a mistake. Admittedly, there is torque steer, and wheelspin – especially if driven like a hooligan – but the joy of having a Ferrari engine in an extremely classy saloon car is a unique proposition. In a world governed by common sense, it simply shouldn’t exist, but be thankful it does.
Although based on the unit in 308, this engine was suitably modified for smoothness and refinement. Achieved by using a different crankshaft, power was reduced while torque was increased. It’s a magnificent engine, which suits the saloon car surprisingly well.
There was only a four-door petrol-engined Thema saloon offered in the UK, but if you’re prepared to travel to Europe you could find the pretty estate. If you have a penchant for that sort of thing – there was also a diesel engine offered across the Channel too. But as with the 8.32, these cars were built with left-hand drive only.
Performance and specs
Lancia Thema 8.32
||215bhp @ 6750rpm
||210lb ft @ 4500rpm
||Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
|Price when new
Dimensions and weight
• Anything that’s unique to the Thema will be pretty much impossible to find new, so items such as body panels will be especially hard to pin down. Corrosion isn’t usually a huge issue on looked after cars, but it is likely to be taking its toll on higher mileage cars that have been used regularly through winter.
• You should look out for any signs of accident damage, as a poorly repaired car will never look right and might be more trouble than it’s worth in the future.
• The engine management system of the V6 engine tends to be unreliable, so if there’s any misfiring as you accelerate, expect to have to track down a decent used ECU.
• On turbocharged cars look for blue smoke from the exhaust which could betray a worn engine but it’s more likely to give away a tired turbocharger. Replacements are available though and they’re not too costly.
• All of the engines are fitted with three drive belts including a cam belt which needs to be replaced every three years or 36,000 miles. It needn’t be an especially costly job, especially if you do it yourself, but get a specialist to do the work on an 8.32 and it’ll be expensive.
• Cooling system leaks are fairly typical, especially from the water pump as well as the bottom radiator hose joint. Replacement parts or repairs are available though.
• Gearboxes usually last pretty well but some early V6 editions could suffer from weak synchromesh on third, so feel for crunching as you swap cogs. The gear linkage can also snap, leaving you stuck in gear.
• Clutches aren’t especially durable; they can fail in less than 40,000 miles, or half this if abused. Check for a heavy pedal, indicating the clutch is on its way out.
• Brake discs don’t seem to last very long either, so feel for juddering under braking which indicates the discs have warped.
1984: The Thema debuts at the Turin motor show, then goes on sale with a choice of normally aspirated or turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engines, along with a revamped version of the Peugeot/Renault/Volvo 2.8-litre V6. European buyers could also choose a 2.4-litre turbodiesel.
1986: The fruitiest Thema of the lot is unveiled – the V8-powered 8.32 complete with electronically controlled suspension and an active rear spoiler that rises from the boot lid.
1988: A facelift brings redesigned headlamps, grille and rubbing strips, new 16-valve engines in normally aspirated or turbocharged forms, plus a revised V6 for European markets, a more powerful turbodiesel and the option of a four-speed ZF automatic transmission.
1992: There’s another refresh, even though the writing is on the wall for Lancia in the UK and the Thema in general. The suspension is stiffened up, there’s a refreshed grille and bumpers while the halo Thema 8.32 is canned – although the plug had already been pulled on UK sales, 18 months previously.
1994: Lancia pulls out of the UK, with the Thema dying at the same time.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
Although rare, prices for regular Lancia Thema models are relatively low in the UK. Turbo 16v models are potentially worth up to £2500 in top condition, but the limited market for these cars does tend to mean even nice examples can struggle to sell for more than £1750.
For what is a very special saloon, the Ferrari-engined Thema 8.32 is still surprisingly good value too. You might be lucky enough to find an example for around £8500 in the UK, although stronger demand from Europe does mean that the left-hand drive model could be worth more than £13,500 overseas.