Why Lancia Never Made it in America
Welcome to another edition of Sports Car Face Plant, where we show you a car that, on paper, should have been a hit, but for some reason (or many reasons), was a flop. Mid-engine, rear drive, two-seater with styling by Pininfarina, basis for a fabulously successful Group B rally car: It should’ve been a home run. But the Lancia Scorpion was the victim of bad timing, increasing safety and emissions regulation and poor decisions, essentially dashing Lancia’s hopes of ever selling cars in the United States. PHOTOS: Lancia Scorpion Rally Car Around the world, the Scorpion was known as the Montecarlo, but in the United States, the Chevrolet personal luxury coupe was sold under that moniker, so Lancia chose the name Scorpion, in reference to its frequent co-branding with performance tuner Abarth.
The Montecarlo/Scorpion was originally slated to be the replacement for the Fiat 124 Coupe. By the close of the tumultuous 1960s, the demand for traditional two-seat roadsters was fading, but cars like the Porsche 911 Targa proved that customers were still interested in European sports cars with some kind of a roof opening.
In 1970, Fiat began building a series of prototypes – the X1/9, the X1/8 and the X1/20. The X1/8 prototype was finished in the summer of 1970, with a follow-up prototype finished in January of 1971. In July of 1972, the X1/8 was renamed X1/20 and looks even more like the production Montecarlo/Scorpion. The final prototype featured at Targa-style roof, and all the styling details that would make the production version of the Montecarlo by 1974.
Since all the development was under Fiat’s imprimatur, why did the Montecarlo end up as a Lancia? To homologate a new Group B car for racing. Fiat’s brand new X1/9 wasn’t able to move 500 units that quickly to be homologated, so the Montecarlo – which shared and a lot of basic structure with the mass-produced Lancia Beta Coupe – ended up branded as a Lancia.
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Series 1 Montecarlos (from 1976 to 1978) were the basis for the US Scorpion. Its launch was lackluster from the very beginning. It wasn’t a brand many people in the United States recognized. Lancias had been exported by the handful here. It was never officially even sold as a brand here until 1975.
Think about what Nissan went through when it launched Infiniti in 1991: It invested tens of millions in getting the American public to understand this new brand. Lancia? There was hardly a blip on the marketing radar. Even the parent Fiat was barely a brand.
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Then there was the timing: 1976 was a bad time all around, for every manufacturer selling a car in the United States. Emissions regulations were way ahead of the technologies available to help an engine run cleanly. Lancias were choked to death, reduced to just 81hp, versus the 120 that the Montecarlo delivered in the home market. When Road & Track drove the Scorpion, they described the experience as offering “'little joy listening to the wheeze of an emission equipment-stifled 4-banger.”
Doubling down on the failure was a braking system that seemed to think it was hauling a 454 with dual quads to a stop. The front brakes were way overboosted, causing a lot of road testers to pan its “severe front locking” and “disconcerting” braking tendencies.
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In all, just 1801 Scorpions were sold here. The Beta Coupe sold not much better, and Lancia beat a hasty retreat in 1982, after just eight years on the market. In 2009, Lancia’s CEO, Olivier Francois, took over as CEO of Chrysler, and in 2010, a Chrysler-badged Lancia Delta appeared at the North American International Auto Show, but there’s been no further action in bringing Lancia back as a brand since.