Usually, I spend about as much time in contemplation of concept vehicles as I do of Michael Barrymore's career or the fate of David Blaine. In other words, they arouse my curiosity, but are unlikely to have much of a direct impact on my life.
But amid all the myriad flights of fantasy at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show, the new Lancia Fulvia coupé stopped me in my tracks. This ravishing two-door not only looked fantastic, but it carried a badge whose absence from the UK market has long perplexed me.
I have owned a couple of the original Fulvias. These were the mass-produced versions of the sharp, elegant little coupé that Lancia went rallying with in the early Seventies, winning almost every trophy they so much as glanced at.
The Fulvia represented the dawn of a glittering new era for Lancia's motor-sport division, which, having quit Formula 1 after the death of Alberto Ascari in 1955 (donating all six of their F1 D50s to Ferrari, who rebadged them and continued to race them with great success), went on instead to dominate the World Rally Championships for two decades. Between 1970 and 1992, Lancia cars won 11 championship titles, more than any other manufacturer even now.
I owned my Fulvias long after all that, but traces of the company's Dolce Vita magic still lingered on their chiselled bodywork and classic Sixties Italian interiors. The Fulvia was not only one of the best-looking cars I have owned, but it was a great drive.
Now I know exactly what you are thinking: "What about the rust?" It is true that both of mine were frayed by ferrous oxide but, and here is the crunch, they did not really rust any more dramatically than any of the other old jalopies I have owned, German, British, French or Japanese.
"I have driven Lancias from the Fifties that were so refined they didn't make a sound, something not even Rolls-Royce could do back then," UK Lancia Club president Paul Baker told me. "They were among the best-engineered cars. They won more rallies than anyone else, but everyone claims to know someone who had a Lancia that rusted and their suitcases fell through the boot floor."
Mr Baker gets understandably irritated when anyone asks him about Lancia's rust problem, but the truth is that in the late Seventies, as a result of a dodgy consignment of metal bought from Russia, Lancia Betas were crumbling as they came off the production line.
Lancia offered to buy the cars back from distraught owners but the stories of engines dropping out at traffic lights, holes appearing in the floors and cars depreciating to the point of worthlessness within two years had already spread like petrol-fuelled gossip.
The problem was compounded by unreliability. The gorgeous Pininfarina-styled Gamma coupés, for instance, overheated and shed their power-steering belts when you drove them on full lock. Lancia, which had once prided itself on its meticulous engineering, had been brought low by Fiat Group accountants, anxious to cut costs. But there was one element of Lancia's eventual departure from the UK market I have never fully understood.
The rust and reliability problems were addressed by the early Eighties, to a certain extent at least, after which Lancia went on to produce its most successful model, the Delta. The Delta not only won the Car of the Year in 1981 (a dubious honour, admittedly, but a marketing coup all the same), but in its rally clothes won six more championships (in a row!) for Lancia.
So how was it that by 1994, when Lancia gave up making right-hand-drive cars, sales had crashed to 700 per annum in the UK?
Conspiracy theorists trace the decline to the day Fiat took over control of Alfa Romeo from the state in 1987. Until that point, Lancia had been a rival to Alfa, with both brands trading on their sporting heritage but, as Peter Newton, present PR director for Fiat in the UK explains, there was only room for one mass market sporty brand in Agnelli's stable: "They had to tease the brands apart, so the whole essence of Lancia's rallying went out in the interests of both brands.
"Instead, Lancia was going to take on BMW, but unfortunately in the UK Lancia shared an importer with Suzuki. I don't need to say any more."
The UK market, which had been Lancia's second-biggest after Italy, was seemingly sacrificed at the altar of Alfa Romeo. More happily, today there are many in the UK, like Mr Baker, who still remember the glory days of Lancia and lust after Lancias of the past, cars such as the innovative Lambda and Aurelia, or the beautiful Flaminia and Flavia; as well as the stunning rally icons, the Stratos and Integrale. I cannot think of another manufacturer who has made so many models I would love to own.
The UK Lancia Owners Club remains the biggest in the world (including Italy), which surely suggests that the company could find a strong demand for its present range in the UK. Is it beyond the realms of possibility for Lancia to "do a Skoda", turn around its brand image and relaunch here?
The present Lancia range certainly has enough quality, including the elegant Thesis luxury saloon, which reportedly has one of the most exquisite interiors and best rides of any car this side of a Bentley. Mr Baker says one Mercedes executive told him the Germans were genuinely amazed by the continuing poor marketing of the Thesis, which they might otherwise take seriously as a rival. It sells for around £28,000, and the Pope uses an adapted, bulletproof version. Then there is the funky new Ypsilon hatchback, a delicious, characterful urban runabout that has the potential to be a class leader.
Rumour has it that the new Fulvia is destined for production. If it drives as well as it looks, or half as well as the original, you can certainly put my name at the top of the waiting list. But Mr Newton believes I should not hold my breath. "You can never say never," he says, in a "saying never" way. "There is lots of optimism regarding Lancia as a brand but none as far as the UK market is concerned. There are no immediate or future prospects for right-hand-drive Lancias.'Reuse content