20.06.2005 As the final Lancia Lybra rolls out of the Mirafiori factory this month after a six-year stint, we pay tribute to this excellent, yet underrated, bearer of the famous shield

As the final Lancia Lybra rolls out of the Mirafiori factory this month after a six-year stint as Lancia’s mainstay in the compact executive segment, we pay tribute to this excellent, yet always underrated wearer of the famous badge.

The Lybra's death brings to an end, at least temporarily, Lancia’s offerings in the compact executive class, a line which stretches back from the Lybra to the Dedra, Prisma, Beta and Flavia/2000. Instead, its place will at least partly be filled by Fiat’s all-new D-segment contender, the Croma. With lessons drawn from Lancia’s top-of-the-range Thesis saloon, the new Fiat represents a logical successor, especially as its interior has, in more than one instance, been noted (in favourable terms) as being similar to that of a Lancia.

The Lybra was originally conceived under the direction of the then-head of Lancia Centro Stile (since late 1991), Enrico Fumia, although external design house I.DE.A. had a hand in the car’s genesis. This was normally the case, as with the Ypsilon, I.DE.A and Fiat styling centres were drafted in for exterior and interior design proposals. But Fiat’s CEO during that period, Paolo Cantarella, made a conscious decision to favour in-house designs over the work of I.DE.A., Pininfarina, Bertone, and Italdesign, because he felt that only in-house designs could establish a clear marque identity. Fumia’s original sketches and models, dating from 1992, showed a clear resemblance to the 1995 Lancia Y, which was penned at around the same time. In particular, the projected nose and tail treatments were extremely similar to the smaller car, (its stylistic orientation was already clearly defined in the initial concept drawing where Enrico Fumia developed the graphic theme around the lozenge shape described by headlamps and grille deriving from the geometry of the Lancia shield), while the overall proposal showed a marked resemblance to the elegant, yet-to-be-released, Peugeot 406. "Looking at the Lancia models of the past, we identified a series of styling cues, ‘guidelines’ you might say, to interpret and not just replicate,” said Fumia at the time.

However, the car’s gestation was not to be completed without a hiccup or two. In mid-1996, the car was sent back to the drawing board. This was the year when Mike Robinson became Director of Design at Centro Stile Lancia – and he is often credited with the Lybra design. Robinson worked up a small variety of alternative noses, with the additional constraint of having to work around the fact that only limited changes could be made to the tooling. He obviously tried to steer the Lybra design towards his vision of what Lancia was to become – which was the Dialogus / Thesis style.

The original Fumia design was described by the words of motoring journalist Richard Bremner (writing in CAR Magazine), “Dealers saw an early version and rebelled in horror when they realised they were supposed to sell the thing.” While obviously a tongue-in-cheek comment, if Fumia’s early sketches are anything to go by the result was not nearly as bad as that, indeed the design has aged remarkably well and it would be interesting to see what would have transpired if the car had been put into production in that form. Interestingly, even the recent Pininfarina Maserati Quattroporte proposals showed a similar rear-end design, and the design proposal for the estate represented a particularly stylish solution. However, events transpired to cause a restyle and as a result of this delay, the Dedra ended up staying in production for rather longer than had originally been anticipated – indeed, it was just short of its tenth birthday before it was killed off.

In any event, the new Lancia finally made its long-awaited debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1999. The car was available from launch in both four-door saloon and five-door estate variants, the latter known as the ‘SW’, or Station Wagon.
 


Continuing the tradition of innovation, the Lybra had a brand-new suspension design known as ‘BLG’ at the rear, which allowed for a small amount of passive  rear-wheel  steering.
Fumia’s original sketches and models for the Lancia Lybra, dating from 1992 on, showed a clear resemblance to the 1995 Lancia Y, which was penned at around  the  same  time.
Fumia’s original sketches and models for the Lancia Lybra, dating from 1992 on, showed a clear resemblance to the 1995 Lancia Y, which was penned at around  the  same  time.
Fumia’s original sketches and models for the Lancia Lybra, dating from 1992 on, showed a clear resemblance to the 1995 Lancia Y, which was penned at around  the  same  time.
Fumia’s original sketches and models for the Lancia Lybra, dating from 1992 on, showed a clear resemblance to the 1995 Lancia Y, which was penned at around  the  same  time.
As the final Lancia Lybra rolls out of the Mirafiori factory this month after a six-year stint as Lancia’s mainstay in the compact executive segment, we pay tribute to this excellent, yet always underrated, wearer of the famous badge.
As the final Lancia Lybra rolls out of the Mirafiori factory this month after a six-year stint as Lancia’s mainstay in the very tough compact executive segment, we pay our tribute to this excellent, yet always underrated, wearer  of  the  shield.

Impressions released by Lancia just prior to the new Lybra model finally made its long-awaited and delayed public debut at the Frankfurt IAA Motor  Show  in  September  1999.
Although sales figures were good for the first year of the Lancia Lybra going on sale, they rapidly deteriorated as the sheer weight of competition and constant updates in the compact executive market started to weigh against the model and the lack of development attention being paid to it.


In-line with Fiat’s stated ambitions for Lancia at the time, the new model was pitched towards re-establishing the marque as the luxury arm of the Fiat group, with a core concern being passengers’ wellbeing inside the car. To this end, it included features taken from the Lancia Dialogos concept car.


Ironically, however, it was precisely this concept which indirectly caused the Lybra to have rather less of an initial impact than its abilities strictly deserved. The unveiling of the Dialogos at the Turin Motor Show in April 1998 had stunned the automotive world and established a new direction for the Lancia marque. It in turn meant, however, that in many respects the Lybra was seen as the last of the ‘old-generation’ Lancias (or a gestation model) and little attention was paid to its part in the much-anticipated Lancia revival, the press focusing their interest instead on the Dialogos-influenced Kappa replacement, which would eventually emerge in 2001 as the Thesis. This was perhaps justified, as the Thesis did mark a watershed in Lancia’s history, but it also meant that the large step forward the Lybra represented over the Dedra was, to an extent, overlooked.

Nevertheless, for all that, the press found plenty to like in the Lybra, even if the reviews were not as unstinting in their praise as they had been of the Fiat group’s other recently-launched compact executive, the Alfa Romeo 156 (launched 1997 – two years before). In this respect, the Lybra was merely highlighting itself as a true Lancia. Much like Saabs, Lancias are renowned for not being able to fully flourish in the restrictive confines of a road test. Whilst their endearing nature tends to leave a positive impression, the underlying engineering takes time to appreciate. Indeed, this point represents a fundamental tenet of Vincenzo Lancia’s approach to car manufacturing – his products would only demonstrate excellence, he said, when they offered to customers much more than they expected at first sight.

True to Vincenzo’s ideals, the Lybra demonstrated evidence of that famed Lancia innovation, notably in its rear suspension design. The platform was distantly related to that of the 156, with similar wheelbase and track, but whereas the Alfa utilised a combination of double-wishbone suspension up front and MacPherson struts at the rear located by twin transverse links, Lancia (in the interests of prioritising ride comfort) elected to use struts at the front and a brand-new suspension design known as ‘BLG’ at the rear, which allowed a small amount of passive rear-wheel steering.

‘BLG’ stands for ‘Bracci Longitudinali Guidati’, or Guided Longitudinal Arm. This all-new design essentially consisted of a transverse arm, which was jointed along the centreline of the car, acting in concert with a conventional trailing arm. In practice, the system operates similarly to a MacPherson strut, but the length of the transverse arm ensures superior wheel control, as less camber changes are induced for the same amount of suspension travel compared with a normal strut arrangement. However, adopting such a system was not without cost and the main drawback of BLG is the high unsprung weight of two main locating arms, a potential problem Lancia managed to resolve by manufacturing the arms out of aluminium.

Furthermore, the setup offered packaging advantages, as the springs were located between the transverse arm and the subframe, leaving the dampers occupying less space. Although a relatively complex system, the advantages were plain to see on the road, as at its launch the Lybra was praised for its excellent ride quality, a tribute to the abilities of Lancia’s engineers. In its own small way, this represents another notch on the long list of practical and resourceful Lancia innovations over the years, a list which remains one of the marque’s hallmarks.

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Images: Lancia

2005 Interfuture Media/Italiaspeed