In the 1960s, Lancia could compete head-to-head against Mercedes-Benz and other luxury automakers from all around the globe thanks in part to the Flaminia. It was luxurious, solidly-built, and powered by engines that rightfully compared to works of art. Flaminia production ended in 1970, and the Italian company didn’t launch another executive sedan until the Thema bowed in 1984. By that point, years of neglecting the Lancia brand led to a very different situation, and Mercedes wasn’t exactly envious of Lancia.
The Thema was based on the tipo quattro platform that also underpinned the Saab 9000, the Alfa Romeo 164, and the Fiat Croma. At its launch, buyers could choose from a palette oof Fiat-sourced four-cylinder engines, a 2.5-liter turbodiesel, and even a PRV V6. However, brand aficionados argued that these engines weren’t up to the task of powering a flagship sedan built by the car maker that had been the first to mass-produce a V6 engine.
Fiat was well aware of that, and it soon started to look for ways to spice up the lineup. Several different options were brought to the table and discussed until André Chardonnet, Lancia’s importer in France, suggested the idea of shoehorning a Ferrari-sourced V8 in the Thema’s engine bay. The solution was surprisingly adopted and the Thema 8.32 was presented to the public for the first time at the 1986 Turin Motor Show.
The eight-cylinder used was a 2.9-liter unit with 32 valves borrowed from the 308 Quattrovalvole. This explained the car’s name: 8 cylinders, 32 valves. Lancia made some modifications to the engine in order to make it better suited to a luxury sedan. When all was said and done, horsepower went down from 240 to 215, while torque jumped from 177 to 209 lb-ft.
The Maranello-built engine sent the 3,086-pound car from zero to 62 miles per hour in a respectable 6.8 seconds, and on to an Autobahn-worthy top speed of 150 miles per hour. That said, those who bought an 8.32 and expected to get essentially a 308 sedan were often disappointed. The V8 spun the front wheels via a five-speed manual transmission, a setup which put 62% of the weight on the front axle and created a car that was more comfortable cruising at ultra-high speeds than doing hot laps on a track. That’s not to say that it wasn’t quick or lively, but it certainly wasn’t a four-door Ferrari.
An adequately upgraded braking system was required to keep the extra grunt in check, so Lancia fitted the 8.32 with a set of brakes sourced from the Delta Integrale and a Bosch-designed ABS system.
Lancia could have easily milked the Ferrari connection for all that it was worth by slapping Ferrari decals and prancing horses all over the car, but they instead opted for a discrete “sleeper” look. The 8.32 had a specific yellow emblem on the grille, 15-inch five-spoke rims reminiscent of the ones found on many Ferraris at the time, and a retractable spoiler on the trunk lid. The rest of it was roughly standard Thema fare.
The story was different on the inside, which as luxurious as a presidential palace. The seats were upholstered in Poltrona Frau leather, and the dashboard insert was made out of burr walnut. Interestingly, the rear headrests automatically flipped down when reverse was engaged.
As expected, all of these features came at a lofty premium: the Thema 8.32 cost 63,098,000 lire in 1988, about twice what a Thema powered by a 16-valve 2.0-liter four-cylinder cost that same year. That figure could go up very quickly if buyers started adding options such as electric rear seats, heated front seats, a sunroof and an in-car television (!).
In 1988 Lancia gave the entire Thema lineup a slight facelift that included different headlights, a revamped grille, and redesigned mirrors. In addition to a new look, the mk2 cars gained a hydraulic suspension system built by Boge that was very similar to the one developed by Citroën. The sedan’s ride height was adjustable, and the driver could select between several different modes including “Sport” and “Automatic.” Although complex, the 8.32’s suspension accurately previewed the electronic suspension setup (e.g. Mercedes’ Dynamic Select) that’s found on many high-end cars today.
To keep European bureaucrats happy, Lancia fitted the 8.32 with a catalytic converter in 1990, which bumped the V8’s power output down to 205 ponies and slightly lowered top speed to 146 miles per hour. Production of the Thema 8.32 ended in 1992 after a few examples short of 4,000 cars were built – all of them were sedans, Lancia never built an 8.32 wagon. Other versions of the Thema stayed around until 1994.