From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99

| 14 Jul 2021
Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99

For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here


Pity the poor family-car buyer of today as they seek an executive saloon in which to transport their brood and impress their colleagues.

No doubt the cars available are all extremely capable, but the basic recipe for success was finalised long ago, which means that the sector has become a homogeneous mass with choice limited to which badge you want to display on the driveway and which option boxes to tick.

Things were very different in the 1970s.

Saab and British Leyland (née BMC) had long since championed the advantages of front-wheel drive, and slowly everyone else was following suit. But beyond that, manufacturers still put their own distinct spin on new models for this growing market.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
“Each is an all-rounder that could take on top-end and mid-range competitors alike”

The Saab 99 and Princess were mainstays of group tests at the time, along with the Lancia Beta and Citroën CX.

One is a more traditional three-box design, the others reflect the struggle between stylists who wanted a sleek fastback body and marketing folk who insisted on a saloon rather than a hatchback.

Each is an all-rounder that could take on top-end and mid-range competitors alike.

As the 1960s progressed, Saab harboured ambitions of becoming a volume manufacturer and, realising that the 96 wouldn’t bring the firm to a more mainstream audience, started work on the 99.

It linked up with Triumph to develop a new engine, the British company having already planned a V8 and a slant-four around a common cylinder-head design. It was the four-pot that the Swedes were most interested in.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The Saab’s slant-four engine is mounted longitudinally

Saab grew ever more disillusioned with Triumph, however, eventually going its own way.

It carried on with the basic design, but changed things such as the crankshaft, the block, the cylinders, the camshaft and even the head bolts. Not one part was interchangeable between Saab and Triumph production versions.

At first, the Swedish incarnation displaced 1.7 litres and the 99 was launched in ’68 after the sort of development programme that BL would have killed for by the time the Princess came along.

The 99 had been five years in the making, and was released only after 150 pre-production examples had been thoroughly tested.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The Saab 99 boasts fine cabin quality

Marque enthusiast Andy Boorman thinks that his immaculate example may be the only 1709cc car left in the UK.

The 99’s engine was stretched to 1854cc after only a year, and the dashboard was altered from that on Boorman’s car.

The latter meant the deletion of the incredibly effective eyeball vents, which provide welcome ventilation and a minor clue to the thorough engineering that runs throughout the 99.

The model was designed with safety very much in mind, and part of the integral roll-over protection is clearly visible within the front inner wing. The brakes – discs all round – feature a split circuit and a servo.

Everything looks and feels substantial, and the build quality is stunning. The interior, mostly black plastic, is a little sombre, but it’s well arranged – with the possible exception of the typically Saab location of the ignition barrel down between the seats.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Black plastic dominates the cabin (left); chrome on early cars

Boorman is confident that his early car will lack for nothing in comparison with rivals that are several years its junior, and he’s absolutely right.

The 99 drives very sweetly, with strong torque and smoothness from low revs. You can accelerate away from 15mph in third gear with no problem at all.

This example retains Saab’s freewheel system, which was eventually deleted from the 99. It offers an experience akin to that of the Citroën’s C-matic transmission, of which more anon. Before setting off, you engage freewheel using the separate lever mounted between the seats. From then on, you can change ratios without using the clutch, which is needed again only when you come to a stop.

The handling is tidy without being spectacular, and only the slightly lacklustre brakes betray the model’s age. In all other respects, Saab was at least 15 years ahead of its time with the 99.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The tidy saloon spawned a Combi-Coupé hatch

It’s easy to forget now what a major presence Lancia was in the UK throughout the ’70s. Britain was the Italian firm’s main export market, and its products comfortably outsold those of BMWFiat had bailed-out Lancia in 1969, and the first new model to be released after the union was the Beta of 1973.

The engines were modified from those also found in the Fiat 132/Mirafiori, but everything else was down to Lancia, which at that point still enjoyed a degree of independence from the parent company.

After three years, the Series 2 came along and, although it looked much the same, only the bonnet was carried over.

The Beta had always been available with four-wheel disc brakes, a five-speed gearbox, fully independent suspension and twin-cam engines. As What Car? put it in a later road test: ‘They continue to be made with the enthusiast driver in mind.’

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The Lancia Beta’s neat lines still look fresh today

That much is clear even now. Andy Collins is an expert on the model, and brought along his friend Dan Lingham’s 2000ES.

The ES was a UK-only package that comprised a sunroof, alloy wheels and electric windows, although the latter option was deleted after they proved problematic and Lingham’s car features manual winders.

The dash is laid out logically enough but, while the intermittent and normal speeds for the wipers are on a stalk, you have to flick a separate toggle for the fastest setting.

It’s a pleasant interior – not as extreme as that of the CX, but a touch more stylish than the Saab. The seats are firm and, while you feel a bit more ‘on’ the car than ‘in’ it, there is no doubt that this is the most sporting of our quartet.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Clockwise from main: as expected, the Lancia Beta 2000ES has a stylish interior; quad covered headlamps; attractive dials

The twin-choke Weber thrives on revs and the engine sings all the way to 6000rpm, providing acceleration that is strong enough to catch out many moderns as you move through the ratios via the enormous gearknob.

Collins talks about Lancia with as much frustration as passion, and rolls his eyes as he explains that, although home-market Series 2 Betas were offered with power steering from the get-go, it took until the early 1980s for that luxury to be offered to British customers.

As a result, this particular car has an unassisted helm, which is heavy only at parking speeds or when turning into junctions.

For the rest of the time, it is excellent – communicative and offering plenty of feel – plus body roll is well contained.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The Lancia’s sweet-revving, twin-cam, four-cylinder engine

The Princess came along at a difficult time for British Leyland, being launched in March 1975, just weeks before the Ryder Report recommended in effect the nationalisation of the company to save it from failure.

While BL was struggling financially, it certainly wasn’t lacking in ideas or daring. The latest saloon was a replacement for the Landcrab, and it’s hard to believe that one directly followed the other – Harris Mann’s striking ‘wedge’ looks at least two generations younger than the antiquated ADO17.

Early studies included a hatchback rear end, but BL didn’t want to pinch sales from the mid-range Maxi, alongside which the new model would be built after an investment of £22million in the Cowley production line.

The 18-22 Series was renamed the Princess only six months after its launch. This was indicative of a troubled birth, during which the car acquired a sorry reputation for poor quality and dismal reliability.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The wedge profile of the Princess 2200HLS is now more sought-after than it once was

With factory labour relations running at an all-time low, BL struggled to improve working practices and salvage some respectability. But battle on it did, and the revised Princess 2 came along in 1978.

Gone was the old car’s B-series ‘four’, replaced by the overhead-cam O-series for the 1700 and 2000. At the top of the range stood the 2200, which retained the six-cylinder E-series unit.

The suspension valving was altered and there was a revised dashboard, while external tweaks were limited to the deletion of the Princess script from the grille and C-pillars.

It’s a distinctive design that perhaps sits a little high – Mann apparently wanted it to ride much lower – but Jeff Davis’ 2200 draws plenty of admiration.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Clockwise from main: velour and plasti-wood dominate in the Princess; large dials; lozenge-shaped headlights

Davis’ car is an HLS, which means that it comes with lots of goodies. Bear in mind, however, that this was a time when a heated rear window was considered a luxury item.

There’s a wood-veneer insert to the dash, which is an ergonomic delight to anyone who has experienced the ‘everything just out of reach’ approach that Issigonis insisted on for the Landcrab.

The seats are wonderful, with fold-down armrests, and comfort is the overriding Princess theme. Yet this is no big softy.

The Hydragas suspension is considerably firmer than the Citroën’s hydropneumatic set-up and, while you would be unwise to corner too vigorously, it doesn’t roll as much as its French rival.

The assisted steering is nicely weighted, too, though acceleration is best described as stately. The auto ’box in this car can be persuaded to kick down, but the resultant change in noise doesn’t seem to translate into any noticeable gain in speed.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The smooth transverse ‘six’ of the Princess 2200HLS

And so to the CX, which is still a fabulous-looking car and perhaps the most successful interpretation of the ‘fastback saloon’ style.

Penned by Robert Opron’s team, it continued where the otherworldly DS left off and, in profile, resembles a lower, longer and sleeker Beta – itself like a less-angular Princess.

The Citroën was launched in August 1974 to widespread acclaim, winning Car of The Year by a country mile. It sold well, too, with 112,000 finding new homes in 1976 alone.

It was initially offered with 1985 and 2175cc powerplants derived from those in the DS, and carried over the self-levelling hydropneumatic suspension that was so intrinsic to Citroën’s DNA. The luxurious Pallas joined the range in 1975, and Pawel Anielski’s 2400 boasts the C-matic transmission that arrived the following year.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The pace doesn’t live up to the Citroën CX’s still-sleek style

As if the exterior wasn’t extreme enough, the CX’s cabin offers more evidence of the firm’s unconventional thinking.

The dials are of the revolving-drum type, while pods at either end house controls that would ordinarily be found on stalks – wipers, indicators and the like. Across the top, a row of 17 warning lights stares back at you.

But none of this has been done for the sake of being different. Those auxiliary switches are within a finger’s reach of the steering wheel, and everything is just where you need it. The seats are soft but grip you well and, all in all, the interior of a CX is an incredibly nice place to be.

Out on the road, you need to recalibrate your inputs. The brake pedal has little travel and a lot of assistance. The steering, too, is highly sensitive.

Combined with the soft suspension, it means that you can easily – if unintentionally – pitch the CX into corners at alarming angles

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The largest engine lacks urge

The C-matic is another thing to get your head around. In most respects it works like an auto: you leave it in ‘Park’ when you switch off, and there is no clutch pedal.

But you still have to change ratios manually so, when you slow down for a junction, there is a moment at which your brain struggles to come to terms with the fact that you are moving a gearlever and about to stop, yet there is no need to depress a clutch.

The transmission doesn’t seem to do a great deal for performance, however. Anielski’s car has the 2347cc engine that was introduced in 1977, but acceleration is languid.

That suspension is the car’s trump card. Gravel tracks, speed bumps, country lanes, fast A-roads – all are soaked up with supreme nonchalance, to the point where it’s almost difficult to tell when you’re going from one surface to another.

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
Clockwise from main: single-spoke steering wheel and bright trim inside this Citroën CX; huge headlamps; bonkers dashboard

The Princess and the Citroën are built for comfort rather than speed, with the 2200 offering the slightly more mainstream experience.

It would make a superb long-distance companion and it’s an injustice that the model is dismissed by so many purely because of an inbuilt aversion to BL as a company.

Though surreal at times, the CX is wonderful – and so different to drive that it is almost unfair to compare it to other cars.

Yet it lacks the breadth of ability displayed by the Lancia and Saab. The Beta is the performance choice – the others simply can’t compete – but the Saab’s quality puts its rivals to shame and, while you give away a little in terms of space, you gain a lot more in all-round appeal.

It isn’t an extrovert, merely a beautifully engineered and executed package that speaks for itself.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to DS Workshop; www.lanciamotorclub.co.uk; Leyland Princess Enthusiasts’ ClubSaab Enthusiasts’ Club

This was originally in our July 2013 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


Factfiles

Classic & Sports Car – From the left field: Citroën CX vs Lancia Beta vs Princess vs Saab 99
The Lancia Beta 2000ES (right) and Citroën CX 2400 on the road

Citroën CX 2400

  • Sold/no built 1974-’89/1,041,560 (all CXs)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, overhead-valve 2347cc ‘four’, Weber carburettor
  • Max power 115bhp @ 4800rpm
  • Max torque 131lb ft @ 3600rpm
  • Transmission three-speed C-Matic, FWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones rear trailing arms; interconnected hydropneumatic spring/damper units, antiroll bar f/r
  • Steering powered rack and pinion
  • Brakes powered discs
  • Length 15ft 2¼in (4629mm)
  • Width 5ft 8in (1727mm)
  • Height 4ft 5½in (1358mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 4in (2844mm)
  • Weight 3073lb (1395kg)
  • 0-60mph 12.2 secs
  • Top speed 111mph
  • Mpg 21
  • Price new £6797 (1978)
     

Lancia Beta 2000ES

  • Sold/no built 1972-’81/194,916 (all saloons)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1995cc ‘four’, Weber carb
  • Max power 119bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max torque 127lb ft @ 2800rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear lower transverse arms, struts, coil springs
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 14ft 1in (4292mm)
  • Width 5ft 7in (1701mm)
  • Height 4ft 7in (1397mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 4in (2540mm)
  • Weight 2442lb (1107kg)
  • 0-60mph 10.5 secs
  • Top speed 107mph
  • Mpg 26
  • Price new £4197 (1977)
     

Princess 2200HLS

  • Sold/no built 1975-’81/224,942 (all)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, sohc 2227cc ‘six’, twin SUs
  • Max power 110bhp @ 5250rpm
  • Max torque 123lb ft @ 3500rpm
  • Transmission three-speed auto, FWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by wishbones rear trailing arms; interconnected Hydragas displacers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes disc/drum, with servo
  • Length 14ft 7½in (4457mm)
  • Width 5ft 8in (1727mm)
  • Height 4ft 7½in (1409mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 9in (2667mm)
  • Weight 2678lb (1215kg)
  • 0-60mph 14 secs
  • Top speed 105mph
  • Mpg 23
  • Price new £4390 (1978)
     

Saab 99

  • Sold/number built 1968-’84/588,643 (all)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron block, alloy-head, sohc 1709cc ‘four’, Zenith Stromberg carb
  • Max power 87bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max torque 98lb ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual with freewheel, FWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones rear rigid axle, longitudinal links; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 14ft 3½in (4354mm)
  • Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
  • Height 4ft 9in (1440mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 1½in (2473mm)
  • Weight 2349lb (1065kg)
  • 0-60mph 15 secs
  • Top speed 97mph
  • Mpg 26
  • Price new £4548 (1977) 

READ MORE

Separated at birth: Saab 99 vs Triumph Dolomite

Citroën GS Pallas vs Vanden Plas 1.7: avant-garde for the masses

Soul sisters: Fiat X1/9 vs Lancia Beta Monte-Carlo