Lancia Thema 8.32

When an owner asks if you fancy driv­ing his Lancia Thema 8.32 from Cape Town to Jo­han­nes­burg, there’s only one an­swer

Classic Cars (UK) - - Welcome - Words WIL­HELM LUTJEHARMS Pho­tog­ra­phy KIAN ERIK­SEN

It all started with a phone call.

‘My Lancia Thema 8.32 has been ser­viced in Cape Town and it needs to come back to Jo­han­nes­burg,’ said the owner. ‘Per­haps you’d like to drive it back?’

I’m ex­posed to new cars al­most ev­ery week and, I’m sad to say, the fur­thest I’ve ever driven a clas­sic car, a Mercedes-benz 300SEL 6.3, is ap­prox­i­mately 30 miles. The prospect of a three-day road trip in a Fer­rari V8-en­gined saloon sounded ad­ven­tur­ous, ro­man­tic… and sim­ply too good to pass up.

South Africa en­com­passes a wide va­ri­ety of land­scapes and most of its routes are in very good con­di­tion, so there shouldn’t be many un­ex­pected road hazards. How­ever, the unique­ness of the car made me won­der – what would I do if it en­coun­tered a prob­lem, or any type of break­down, on our jour­ney? After all, this is not a type of car any ru­ral town me­chanic would be able to fix; lest we for­get the Lancia was sent 1000 miles just to be ser­viced. But given the golden op­por­tu­nity, I gave the owner a con­fi­dent yes.

Shortly be­fore our de­par­ture, the car had a com­pre­hen­sive en­gine-out ser­vice (£3500, in­clud­ing a new ex­haust sys­tem), which set­tles my nerves some­what.

I’ve never driven a Lancia Thema nor a Fer­rari 308GTB Qu­at­trovalv­ole, from whose 2.9-litre V8 en­gine the 8.32’s pow­er­plant is de­rived. How­ever, I was look­ing for­ward to get­ting ac­quainted with the car over the course of the 1000-mile trip.

On the Fri­day af­ter­noon that I’m due to col­lect the Lancia at Cape Town’s V&A Wa­ter­front, I de­cide to head up Sig­nal Hill, one of the main at­trac­tions in Cape Town. It me­an­ders up a steep climb and of­fers per­fect vis­tas of the city, Ta­ble Moun­tain and even the coast­line, if you drive all the way around the hill. It is here that I have my first op­por­tu­nity to take a closer look at this Gi­u­giaro-penned ma­chine.

A twist of the wiper-op­er­at­ing stalk prompts the rec­tan­gu­lar spoiler to de­ploy from the bootlid. To­day it might look laugh­able, but down­force of 12kg at 87mph and 20.5kg at 137mph is not to be sniffed at.

The yel­low Pranc­ing Horse cen­tre caps on the five-spoke wheels make clear that this is no or­di­nary Thema. The 8.32 de­notes the eight-cylin­der, 32-valve con­fig­u­ra­tion of the Marane­lese en­gine, but it wasn’t sim­ply shoe­horned into the Lancia and told to get on with it. Whereas in its 308GTB ap­pli­ca­tion the Fer­rari V8 de­vel­ops 240bhp at 7000rpm, in the Lancia it de­vel­ops 215bhp at 6750rpm. But im­por­tantly, the torque out­put has been marginally in­creased to good ef­fect, as I’ll soon find out.

To fit the V8 in the Thema’s en­gine bay (which was orig­i­nally de­signed to house four- and six-cylin­der units), the grille – with a new egg-crate de­sign – was pushed for­ward to ac­com­mo­date an en­larged ra­di­a­tor, re­in­forced front sus­pen­sion and stiffer springs. Fif­teen-inch wheels and thicker, ven­ti­lated front discs help it to cope with the ex­tra heave.

I climb back into the cabin of the Lancia, re­plete with its full-leather trim. The mo­ment I twist its ig­ni­tion key the 8.32 emits a deep-chested bur­ble, which re­mains au­di­ble from idle and even at low speeds. It’s a con­stant re­minder of the spe­cial en­gine un­der that dis­creet bon­net. As the sun starts to set I take it easy and cruise home, a 40-mile drive from Cape Town.

To­mor­row morn­ing at 6am, I’ll load my lug­gage into the Lancia’s 462-litre boot – and find the parts that were re­placed dur­ing the re­cent ser­vice. The 650-mile drive to Kimberley, the cap­i­tal town of South Africa’s North­ern Cape prov­ince be­gins.

The next morn­ing’s ex­cite­ment starts an hour into the drive. I de­cide to ditch the N1 toll road, which heads di­ag­o­nally from

‘No ru­ral town me­chanic would be able to fix it. After all, it was sent 1000 miles just to be ser­viced’

‘The gearchange has a re­as­sur­ing di­rect­ness, but I’m most im­pressed by how low down in the rev range the V8 starts to show its pedi­gree’

de­tour. At times I can’t help but wince be­cause it’s im­pos­si­ble to miss all the ob­sta­cles, but the Lancia sur­vives un­scathed.

I’m re­lieved when I cross the Vaal River at Chris­tiana and get the 205/55 tyres back on the N12, be­cause while the coun­try’s ar­te­rial routes are smooth and well-main­tained, the back roads in this part of the coun­try are lit­tered with bro­ken tar­mac and pot­holes. With a new­found ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the N12, I can re­sume en­joy­ing the dul­cet tones of the rum­bling V8.

The tim­bre makes it­self heard through­out the rev range. It sounds per­fectly in tune; not re­motely as harsh or in­tense as that of mod­ern machin­ery. It’s the per­fect sound­track to the Thema 8.32 ex­pe­ri­ence.

About 100 miles be­fore Jo­han­nes­burg the fre­quency of the towns starts to in­crease and I rel­ish the chance to work the gears more. Cog-swap­ping is an in­dul­gent ex­pe­ri­ence in the 8.32, which was only avail­able with a man­ual ’box. I can only as­sume the ac­tion is not as di­rect as an open-gate Fer­rari lever, but there is a re­as­sur­ing di­rect­ness to it; you’re never in doubt in which gear the car’s in or where the next notch is.

I’m also im­pressed by how low in the rev range the en­gine starts to show its pedi­gree. At times I’ll leave the trans­mis­sion in sec­ond or third gear and let the revs drop down past 1500rpm. But the mo­ment I put my right foot down the en­gine pro­gres­sively picks up speed. How­ever, I’ve promised my­self that I will only prop­erly rev the en­gine out as we get closer to the owner’s res­i­dence, well, just in case some­thing goes wrong.

Even on this Sun­day af­ter­noon I’m glad that the owner doesn’t live too close to the heart of Jo­han­nes­burg be­cause that would have meant deal­ing with even more traf­fic. The quiet roads close to his home al­low me to rev the en­gine out in the first few gears – a per­fect way to end this three-day Thema 8.32 ex­pe­ri­ence.

The en­gine may have a much heav­ier body to lug than in the 308, but the torque de­liv­ery is creamy through­out the rev range. The nee­dle pushes with zest past 5000rpm for the fi­nal 2000. This car is quick, make no mis­take.

Once I park the Thema for the last time I trans­fer my lug­gage into a new, mod­ern SUV. I re­flect on the ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially be­cause the owner claims that he was never in doubt that the car would com­fort­ably com­plete the 1000-mile trip.

I now have no doubts about the 8.32’s long-dis­tance cre­den­tials. It is ut­terly com­fort­able and the driv­e­train is per­fect for cov­er­ing dis­tances quickly. It’s more suited to long open roads than twisty moun­tain passes; its con­tem­po­rary Ger­man com­peti­tors would clearly out-han­dle it, but a part of me ac­tu­ally wished I could spend a part of this trip re­lax­ing in the rear of the car where I could plug in my head­phones to lis­ten to the ra­dio.

At the time, CAR South Africa mag­a­zine ended its driv­ing im­pres­sion in 1987 by stat­ing, ‘The 8.32 is an ex­cit­ing re­cruit to the ranks of the world’s finest cars; not so much a wolf in sheep’s cloth­ing, as a grey­hound in a mink coat…’

I think I left my own mink coat back in Cape Town. I won­der if the 8.32’s owner would ad­vo­cate an­other 2000 miles?

A vi­sion of Thema 8.32 heaven – an empty stretch of road spool­ing out be­yond the hori­zon

Spolier alert: de­spite the pes­simistic friend of its driver, the odd elec­tri­cal grem­lin and a bar­rage of back­road pot­holes, the Thema 8.32 com­pleted its 1000-mile trip with­out a hint of drama

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