When an owner asks if you fancy driving his Lancia Thema 8.32 from Cape Town to Johannesburg, there can be only one answer! Guillaume Muller goes for an epic road trip.
By Giullaume Muller
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?”
Now, I’m exposed to new cars almost every week but, I’m sad to say, until recently the furthest I’d ever driven a classic car, a Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3, was approximately 50 km. The prospect of a three-day road trip in a Ferrari V8-engined saloon sounded adventurous, romantic… and simply too good to pass up.
As a country South Africa may serve up a wide variety of landscapes but most of its major routes are still in good condition, so I wasn't anticipating 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 the type of car any rural town mechanic would be able to fix; lest we forget the Lancia was sent away 1 500 km 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 (R65 000 including a new exhaust system), the knowledge of which settled my nerves somewhat. I'd 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 more than 1 500 km trip.
After picking up the car at Cape Town's V&A Waterfront on a Friday afternoon, I decide to head up Signal Hill, one of the main attractions in the "Mother City". 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 12 kg at 140 km/h and 20.5 kg at 220 km/h was not to be sniffed at in the '80s. It also makes for an unexpected party trick, impressing those who might at first look down their noses at this angular '80s sedan.
The yellow Prancing Horse centre caps on the five-spoke wheels also make it clear that this is no ordinary Thema. The 8.32 moniker denotes the eight-cylinder, 32-valve configuration of the Maranelese engine, but it wasn’t simply shoehorned into the Lancia and left untouched. Whereas in the 308GTB the Ferrari V8 develops 177 kW at 7 000 r/min, in the Lancia it punches out 158 kW at 6 750 r/min. But, importantly, the torque output was marginally increased to good effect, as I was to find out for myself.
To fit the V8 into 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 helped it to cope with the extra heave.
I get back into the Lancia's cabin, 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 60 km drive from Cape Town. Early the next morning at 6 AM, I’ll load my luggage into the Lancia’s big 462-litre boot – and find the parts that were replaced during the recent service. The 950 km drive to Kimberley, the capital town of South Africa’s Northern Cape province will then start.
The road trip begins
The first day'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.
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 settles and is stable in a corner it feels more planted than I had expected. Although I never have to brake particularly hard, the brakes do a good job of knocking off speed, too. The V8 and its ancillaries add 54 kg, to result in a claimed kerb weight of 1 400 kg. Of that, 64 per cent is balanced over the front axle, so the 8.32 can understandably 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 long-distance cruising ability will be tested to the utmost. Before we both settle in for the ride, I target a quick stop only another 130 km 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 kilometres I start to think that my earlier worries were unfounded – the Lancia was running perfectly. However, a few hours later, my confidence sinks as two dashboard warning symbols illuminate, one being the suspension light. This is not ideal – the dampers are electronically controlled.
At the next fuel stop I phone the owner. Fortunately my fears are laid to rest when he explains that the suspension light shouldn’t result in any major problem. The other light, he explains, was indicating that one or more of the outside bulbs had 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 127 km/h, 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 surging past its prey before settling back into cruising mode.
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 fill ups, I calculate that over 200 km the Lancia had averaged a (very) respectable 8,5 litres per 100 km.
I decide to venture a little off the "beaten path" and drive through the isolated town of Orania. The roads through this little town have undoubtedly never seen a Thema 8.32 and, in turn, I have never seen so many minors driving their parents’ cars – likely the consequence of 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 of 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 roadblock 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 inform a friend – who was convinced that we would have a breakdown at some stage – that I had 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 had brought us this far.
The final stretch
The next morning the Thema’s engine turns over immediately and I visit two of Kimberley’s Anglo Boer War memorials before setting off on the final leg of the 570 km trip.
Although I know the road to Johannesburg along the N12 – the standard and safe, but ultimately monotonous route – I decide to see what Google Maps could offer as an alternative. This turns out to be the only mistake I would make on the trip.
I'm directed to take a shorter, quieter route, starting with the R64 towards Boshof. Outside Boshof I'm told to turn left and head north on a gravel road, the surface of which soon starts deteriorating. With no alternative, I push on and complete the 100 km detour, my nerves increasingly frazzled. At times I can’t help but wince because it’s impossible to miss all the obstacles, but somehow 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 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 160 km before Johannesburg the frequency of the towns starts to increase and I relish the chance to work through 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 accuracy to it; you’re never in doubt about 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 1 500 r/min. 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, 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. This 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 past 5 000 r/min with zest for the final 2 000. 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 1 600 km 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.
At the time of the Thema's launch, CAR magazine South Africa 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 3 000 km?
Lancia Thema 8.32
Engine: 2 927cm3 V8, 32 valve, Bosch KE3 Jetronic mechanical fuel injection
Power: 158 kW @ 6 750 r/min
Torque: 285 N.m @ 4 500 r/min
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Suspension: (f): independent by MacPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll
bar; (r): 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: 1 419 kg
Acceleration 0-97 km/h: 6.8 seconds
Top speed: 240 km/h