At the time of this writing, Lancia—one of the greatest automakers of all time, with a history of racing success and great driver’s cars—currently produces just one vehicle. The Lancia Ypsilon is a homely little hatchback that’s been on sale since 2011 and is powered by a range of eensy little engines, including a 0.9-liter inline-two. This situation comes after several years of parent company FCA foisting rebadged Chrysler products on Continental buyers, including the Lancia Thema (neé Chrysler 300). Such cynical badge jobs made a mockery of the brand’s heritage, but it didn’t have to be this way. At the 2003 Frankfurt Auto Show, the company showed off the Fulvia Concept, an homage to one of the company’s finest-ever enthusiast cars and a triumph of the era’s fascination with neo-retro design.
From the looks of the Fulvia Concept, production was a slam dunk. While the styling was exceptional, taking all the right cues from the mid-1960s Fulvia coupe without being derivative, it was based on humble mechanicals already plying European roads in the form of the second-generation Fiat Punto, a humble subcompact hatch (that did have some sportier HGT versions). There were rumors a 140-hp, 1.8-liter engine could find its way into the production car, plenty of juice for something that was analogous in some ways to a sub-scale Honda Prelude.
Nor was its front-wheel drive that much of a hinderance to the concept. The original Fulvia Coupe famously used a series of V-4 engines to drive the front wheels. So a modern, FWD Fulvia was very much in the spirit of the original. So, too, is the shape and general concept of the interior, with that big splash of beautiful wood spanning the width of the dash and recalling but not aping the original.
At the time, observers gave the Lancia Concept a good shot at production. The Concept certainly has elements that wouldn’t have survived the jump, but it definitely previewed a produceable car based on serviceable mechanicals. Unfortunately for Lancia, and all of us, its parent company’s financial situation—precarious at best—meant it was dead on arrival.
All we’re left with is a question: Could it have gone differently? Judging by the sad trajectory of Lancia in the years after the concept debuted, there likely wasn’t a way forward. But however unlikely, it’s pleasant to imagine a world where in addition to the Fiat 124, FCA dealers in America had a sporty compact coupe to sell as well. At least the Fulvia Concept remains as an example of how to do retro the right way, providing a solid template for future auto designers as they reimagine the great cars of the past.