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
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