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Rethinking creativity

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Historians divide Lancia’s history into phases – which typically follow ownership of the company: first the family, then next under Pesenti, ending with Fiat ownership from  the end of the 1960’s..

The family phase of early ownership can be simply divided from first under Vincenzo, Adele’s stewardship and of course the memorable post-war years under Gianni. The Vincenzo phase becomes two: pre- Lambda, more classic, and then post-Lambda, more radical, ending with the Aprilia.

The Pesenti phase, from 1955 to 1969, often languishes in the shadow of the earlier family ownership, and as a passage to later corporate ownership. But it might be worthwhile to consider it as an interesting interlude in the company’s renovation, one where good ideas, more contemporary production practices, and a beneficial owner was trying to continue the role of Lancia in a new world.

With a different understanding of this phase, one could then consider Lancia’s history more simply as two parts, one phase first under family ownership and then under Pesenti, but sharing the role of  a small industrial concern (through to 1969). Later, the second phase of Lancia would be under Fiat as a corporate concern of particular distinction, but clearly no longer personal.

This suggests a different way to think about Lancia’s evolution. Rather than dividing the company into family ownership, and then not, it suggests that one could look at the company first as run personally and then merely as part of a much larger corporate enterprise.

What would be gained by such a shift in perspective? Well, one thing would be that our focus would be less on the personal innovation in the company (always alluring) and more on its role in the marketplace. The self-sufficient company, one before Fiat, approached its market in one way; the one after Fiat ownership approached it differently – as part of a larger corporate strategy, still seeking to engage the same niche, but with different tools. Could one really approach the design-oriented professionals with a conventionally engined car, as Fiat proposed?

Any company respecting its history must find ways to evolve. And the evolution is problematic – this difficulty exists for similar companies in other areas: consider Leica, or haute couteur clothing manufacturers, or even professional design and engineering firms.

All struggle with reinventing themselves. Many have had similar transitions from family to corporate ownership, and this has never been easy. There just seems to be no simple successful way to do this. Recent hIstory is full of complicated examples of firms trying this. Leica, inventor of the 35 mm rangefinder camera, has struggled mightily in the past 25 years to develop other cameras of equal merit. Their optical divisions (instruments, sport optics) have done well, but their camera group seems caught between updated rangefinders (now digital) and more cutting edge, but not traditional, DSLR products. All  built to very high standards, but their client base has been slow to accept newly designed high priced alternatives to the work of larger Japanese companies. So companies like Leica are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: if they leave their past behind, they lose their customer base; if they don’t evolve, they are mired in their (no longer profitable) past. This seems to be the fate of companies with a strong historical identity.

Let us return to Pesenti and the period from 1955 to 1969: could one see this as a rather interesting period of evolution – not just with different ownership, but as a continuous grappling for how best to deal with Lancia’s strong history and company tradition? Seen even a bit more broadly, one could look at the 25 years from 1955 to 1980 at Lancia, and see them as a period where the past was still vital, but as a period when Lancia went through changes to evolve into a more contemporary, corporate model.

During this period, there must have been still remaining strong and clear memories of the period of family ownership. Many people from that phase of ownership were probably still involved in the company – and many were forced out.

It is interesting to look at the Pesenti, and early Fiat years as the transitional period it was: the Flaminia was derived from the Aurelia; the Flavia was clearly Fessia’s effort to contribute to Lancia’s heritage with his “radical Lancia”. The  Fulvia was derived from the Flavia in the same was as the Artena, Ardea and Appia were from their big sisters. it was  done with some assistance (still unclear) of Zaccone Mina with the return to the V engine. Of all of these, the Fulvia was the most original contribution to Lancia’s heritage – although the Flavia may have been just as significant in engineering terms.

These models are distinct efforts to reinterpret and carry forward the Lancia heritage. So too, the factory’s expansion at Chivasso can be seen as Pesenti’s effort to develop a modern Lancia, with high standards but more efficient production values. Long overdue, he was probably quite correct in this, but ultimately ended up with the curious dillemma of neither enough and too much production at the same time.

Pesenti’s efforts to change the scale of Lancia production  could not save the company. Was there still insufficient volume to justify the costs? Or was the problem simply not enough sales volume in the troubled 1960’s?  Ironically, in looking at Gianni’s sale of the company in 1955, one must also recognize that Pesenti’s efforts over the next 14 years, with all the funds he put into the company, were also not sufficient to make it work.

In looking at the complex systems of design and innovation at Lancia, I have wondered if the problem was not in the approach of lancia, as is commonly thought – but rather in the fact that the financial control systems in place were not adequate to manage the very complex production model. Imagine the Pesenti model of design and production today – nimble, small scale, innovative and highly adaptable prodution – it would be highly desirable, an Italian Audi or BMW. It is quite risky and difficult. Very few companies have survived with a small or medium sized factory and highly variable complex designs. Maybe there are a few….

How to place the company in the marketplace became the next struggle. Surely the Beta has its role in this, and the evolution of the Delta is remarkable. As paths for repositioning the company in a different role, they are fascinating examples of how to evolve a brand.

And then the Stratos – conceived from out-of-house, it has little initial Lancia heritage, until nursed to production by Cesare Fiorio, whose father a senior Lancista from years before. Small strands of continuity are evident in this revitalizing Lancia by appealing to autosport – these efforts are a renewal of the “Gianni gamble” (where sport was to be used to give Lancia identity), but this time it worked. Building on the sporting successes of the Fulvia, the Stratos dominated the rally world and the press. Succeeded by the Delta, these three cars redefine Lancia for the next generation. The company is reinvented once again.

The Delta successfully connects with aspects of the Lancia past. This car is a small, upmarket design-focused product like many earlier Lancias – but now without radical engineering, but with a focus on the market. Can one see the Delta as a Lancia meld  of an Aprilia and an Audi A3? Lancia DNA was once again revitalized. The Integrale is the sport model, a B20 of its time; race product built from a standard car.

Today, memory and knowledge of the original Lancia heritage has long left the company. The company now must turn to some other way to find its roots. Mike Robinson started this work – in his efforts to find a legacy now much more obscure and dificult to understand. Today’s generation builds off work and heritage from the 1980’s, not the 1950’s or earlier.

And the innovative Lancias of the first phase, from 1920’s the 1930’s, through to the 1950’s and 1960’s? These cars are tucked further back in history, where the explorations and innovations are more distant. Peculiarly, they may emerge more distinctly – in simpler times, the more accessible engineering make them shine clearer. One can only hope so. Amdist the clarity of the Lambda and the Aprilia there is much inspiration.

drawing from Lambda Owner’s manual

Written by Geoff

June 15, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Aurelia

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