When an owner asks if you fancy driving his Lancia Thema 8.32 from Cape Town to Johannesburg, there’s only one answer. Words Wilhelm Lutjeharms. Photography Kian Eriksen.
1000 miles across South Africa in a Ferrari-engined Lancia? Only one answer to that. Across Africa Would we like to drive a Lancia Thema 8.32 – you know, the one with the Ferrari V8 – 1000 miles across Africa? That’ll be yes, then.
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 W109, 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 ix; 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 it 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 Cape Town to Johannesburg, and take the tunnel for the longer Du Toitskloof mountain pass. It’s not the smoothest stretch of tarmac, but the Lancia soaks up the bumps with ease. My ears adjust to the climb in altitude, even though the summit of the pass is only at 820m (2700ft). From here on it will only be long, straight stretches of roads all the way to Johannesburg, so I push the Thema harder through some of the last corners as I head up the pass.
The 8.32 is not particularly wieldy – after all, it is laden with such luxuries as electrically adjustable rear headrests and seats; this one has the optional heated front seats too. However, once it has settled and is stable in a corner it feels more planted than I expected.
Although I never have to brake particularly hard, the brakes do a good job of knocking of speed. The V8 and its ancillaries add 54kg, to give a claimed kerb weight of 1400kg. Of that, 64 per cent is balanced over the front axle so the 8.32 can feel nose-heavy.
On the other side of the mountain I spot a troop of baboons crossing the serpentine road. They don’t seem too bothered by the presence of the 8.32. Perhaps they’ve mistaken it for a standard Thema.
Back on the highway I know that the Lancia’s longdistance cruising ability will be tested to the utmost. Before we both settle in for the ride, I target a quick stop only another 80 miles up the national highway. Matjiesfontein is one of the smallest but most interesting towns I’ll encounter on the way to Johannesburg. It has a Transport Museum and an old colonial hotel named the Lord Milner. The hotel’s doorman proudly poses next to the Lancia – he knows. During the next few hundred miles I realise that my earlier worries were unfounded – the Lancia is running perfectly.
However, a few hours in, two dashboard warning symbols illuminate, one being the suspension light. Not ideal – the dampers are electronically controlled. At the next fuel stop I call the owner. Fortunately my fears are laid to rest when he explains that the suspension light shouldn’t result in any big problem; the other light indicates that one or more of the outside bulbs have blown. He’s right – a front foglamp and a tail light are out.
Between Laingsburg and Beaufort West, average speed cameras monitor traffic on the N1. I settle into an indicated 79mph, using my modern GPS for a more accurate reading than the Lancia’s speedometer. The Lancia feels happy to hum along at this speed.
To overtake slower traffic, I can keep the gearbox in fifth, put my foot down and make full use of the torque. For a brisker fly past, dropping down to fourth sees the revs increase with smooth vigour and the Lancia surges past its prey before settling back into crusing gait.
With the exterior temperature gauge nudging 26°C most people would use the aircon, but I prefer to fully embrace classic motoring and drop the windows when I need a blast of fresh air. It makes for a noisy cabin, but feeling closer to the landscape rushing past is an adequate payoff.
The Lancia will happily gallop at headier speeds, and my chance comes once I leave the N1 for the quieter N12. Knowing the distance between our last two ill ups, I calculate over 120 miles the Lancia has averaged a respectable 28 miles per gallon.
I decide to venture a little of the usual roads and visit the isolated, ultra-conservative town of Orania. The roads through the politically controversial right-wing town have undoubtedly never seen an 8.32, and in turn, I have never seen so many minors driving their parents’ cars – the follow-on from them driving tractors from a very young age. The day will soon come to an end, but not before I need to make another fuel stop at Strydenburg. Whenever I re-enter the Lancia’s cabin, I’m surprised by how luxurious it still feels by modern standards. The door cards are trimmed in padded leather and the roof lining in suede. All this undoubtedly helps to minimise engine and road noise. And it’s nothing but a joy to caress the rim of the leather-covered three-spoke steering wheel.
Before reaching Kimberley, I encounter a stop-and-go road block where repairs to a section of the N12’s asphalt are underway. The blue and pink horizon adds to the relaxed ambience, contrasting with the dark cabin and the brown and yellow landscape.
That evening I tell a friend – who was convinced that we would have a breakdown at some stage – that I’ve arrived safely. He, in turn, warns that I should never pull away too quickly because the 8.32’s front driveshafts might get damaged by the effort. As I park the car at the guesthouse, I’m impressed that the Lancia has brought us this far.
The next morning the 8.32’s engine turns over immediately and I visit two of Kimberley’s Anglo Boer War memorials before setting of on the trip’s 350-mile final leg. Although I know the road to Johannesburg on the N12 – the standard and safe if not monotonous route – I decide to see what Google Maps suggests. This proves to be the only mistake I make on the trip.
It directs me along a shorter, quieter route, starting with the R64 towards Boshof. Outside Boshof it tells me to turn left and head north on a gravel road whose surface soon deteriorates. I have no choice but to push on and complete the 60-mile 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?
‘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’
Tech and photos
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS Lancia Thema 8.32
Engine 2927cc V8, 32 valve, Bosch KE3 Jetronic mechanical fuel injection
Power Torque 215bhp @ 6750rpm
Max Power 210lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Suspension Front: independent by MacPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar; Rear: independent by MacPherson struts, coil springs and anti roll bar; optional electronically-controlled dampers
Steering Rack and pinion with speed-variable power assistance
Brakes Ventilated discs front, solid discs rear with Bosch ABS system
Weight 1419kg (3128lb)
Performance Top speed: 149mph; 0-60mph 6.8 sec
Fuel consumption 16mpg
Cost new £37.5k CC
Price Guide in UK £13k-£20k
‘No rural town mechanic would be able to ix it. After all, it was sent 1000 miles just to be serviced’
A vision of Thema 8.32 heaven – an empty stretch of road spooling out beyond the horizon.
The Ferrari-sourced V8 means tunnel runs have magnetic pull BMW E36 and 8.32 meet the Atlas Impala. MkI that’s become one of several war memorials in Kimberley. It may have a modest capacity for a V8, but the 2927cc unit only just its. Local graffiti is surprisingly philosophical. The speedo is out of order. Does that mean we can plead ignorance?
The Lancia copes with the mountain pass road but prefers highway miles N12 roadworks allow time to admire the evening sky. Modern tech meets old new tech. The Lancia achieves 28mpg… until the average speed cameras disappear. Lancia may have borrowed the engine architecture and a set of wheel caps from its cousin in Maranello, but this accomplished cruiser made the V8 its very own.
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.