Something For The Weekend - the Lancia Beta

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When Fiat bought Lancia in 1969, it saved the company from bankruptcy, kept it Italian and soaked up debts thought to be totalling around 100billion lire. The Italian giant also inherited a workforce that was disillusioned and had lost key members of staff.

Nonetheless Sergio Camuffo, who was tasked with turning the ailing company around, convinced backbone workers to stay put and help him develop the new regime’s first car – the Beta.

The decision to make it came in 1970, but it wasn’t an easy brief. Fiat wanted the car ready for marketing within three years, record pace at the time.

Camuffo resisted taking the easy option of building a rebadged Fiat and set about creating a machine with its own distinct characteristics.

The first of these could be found in the powerplants. Lancia used Fiat’s twin-cam units, but they were heavily revised, with different castings, camshafts and manifolds to produce more power and extra torque lower down in the rev range.

The suspension was the next area to benefit from Camuffo’s eye for engineering. Fiat’s simple front-suspension design was scrapped in favour of MacPherson struts with their lower wishbones fitted to the front subframes.

The rear was granted the same consideration. Its independent layout was simple yet effective. In fact, the design was so accomplished that it was used in Themas into the ’90s and was even copied by the Japanese after Camuffo neglected to patent it.

When the car was launched, on time, at the Turin motor show in 1972 it came fitted with all-round disc brakes and optional power-assisted steering.

The Coupé would be added a year later. It featured a body by Pietro Castagnero with wheels that were, apparently, inspired by those on a Bugatti Type 35. It also had a shorter wheelbase, more power and weighed just 990kg.

The Spider came in ’73 and the HPE (standing for High Performance Estate) in ’75 – the same year as the mid-engined Monte-Carlo.

When Malcolm McKay reviewed the Beta (see C&SC November ’08) he found it to be a sweet-handling car, with a free-revving engine and roadholding that belied its front-wheel-drive configuration.

It was the HPE that was thought to be the best of the bunch among Lancia employees, which makes this Volumex (meaning supercharged) HPE all the more appealing, especially with a price of just £1500.  The vendor doesn’t mention an MoT and does inform us of the need for “some restoration work”, but it’s said to be in good condition inside and out, with a strong engine.

That’s very much the bargain basement end of the market, though, and one that is more than likely susceptible to the word you knew would come up – rust.

It is something that most cars of this age will have encountered, but the Beta’s watch-spots form a worrying list that includes the subframes, sills, rear-suspension turrets and the majority of the bodywork. Mechanically, the engine shouldn’t be prone to head-gasket failure, but should have its cambelt changed regularly.

At £2925, this 1979 2000 Spider offers something a little bit different. The dealer calls it a rally car, although it’s hard to tell how far this goes, but what we know for sure is that it has an MoT, bucket seats and a CB radio.

Could it be your entry into historic rallying? We’re not sure, but luckily there’s a well-established fan base with sites including www.betaboyz.co.uk, montecarlo.org.uk/cms/, viva-Lancia.com and lancia-beta.de sure to have an answer.

If you’d rather avoid the worry, this 1984 machine could be the one to go for. One of the best on the market in the UK, its previous owner had the car from 1991 and it comes with an extensive history including maintenance that adds up to more than £10k and a proven 161bhp.

For some people the Beta will always be seen as a re-engineered Fiat, but for those in the know it's one of the most practical ways into Lancia ownership. Our free buyer’s guide can help steer you in the direction of a good one.

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