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Lancia Beta

Lancia Beta Published: 29th Mar 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lancia Beta
Lancia Beta
Lancia Beta
Lancia Beta
Lancia Beta
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Beta was a great car and popular over here yet it effectively killed off Lancia’s hopes in the UK

Overreaction can be a dangerous and counter productive emotion and it certainly killed of Lancia in the UK almost 40 years ago as Lancia found out in 1980. Its popular and highly likeable Beta saloon became front page tabloid news when an exposé revealed that rotting front subframes was causing their engines to drop out.

It wasn’t totally true but it made good copy – so much so that Lancia quickly started to buy back affected cars at over-inflated prices leading to a reparation that it’s never lived down since. Yet rotting rear subframes were par-for-the-course on any Issigonisdesigned BMC car (the front one lasted almost eternally due to major oil leaks protecting the metal!) and Longbridge didn’t do anything about this dangerous fault until the design was replaced.

Yet the Beta had so much to offer. Lancia was a prestigious trade that prided itself on engineering excellence – and it broke the company, causing Fiat to acquire it in 1969 who immediately instigated a more affordable replacement for the outmoded, expensive Fulvia range which, in basic saloon form, cost more than a Lotus Cortina.

Beta was an all new front-wheel drive range using transverse mounted Fiat twin cam engines (but further breathed upon and badged as Lancia units) of 1.4, 1.6 and 1.8 sizes and Citroën five-speed transmissions, wrapped in a stylish body that was not dissimilar to the Rover SD1 but launched four years earlier albeit sans hatchback.

It found immediate favour with the motoring press (who were mainly car enthusiasts to be fair) yet also made friends with the usually conservative UK paying public, partly due to the Italian’s ultra competitive pricing which put them within the budget for anyone needing a new common or garden Ford Cortina. A tempting prospect.

Such was the popularity of Beta in the UK, becoming one of Lancia’s most important markets, that it also offered the divine Coupé and the equally attractive Beta HPE which knocked our Scimitar GTE into a cocked hat. By 1975 Series 2 Saloons were introduced with a general tidying up of things (revised interiors and bodywork) and facelifted engines with a 1300 replacing the previous 1.4. Three years later, all HPEs and Coupés gain new interiors and 1300 gains a capacity increase from 1297cc to 1301cc!

Did you know that it took Lancia almost 70 years to offer an automatic option? It came to our shores just as the Beta scandal surfaced. The submarining subframes affected 1st Series vehicles (built from 1972-1975) and included the Coupé, HPE and the lovely half cabriolet Spyder. As with Fiat cars (not Ferrari!), it was rumoured that their excessive rusting was due to cheap Russian steel being used (a payback for Fiat building the Lada factory) but this was not substantiated but it’s fact that Motor’s long term, top of the range 1800ES had so many rust blisters after less than a year that it required a total respray.

You could hardly criticise the Italian for complacency, you can for capitulating. Even though some Betas were on their third owners and nearly six years old, Lancia did the decent thing buying back suspect cars but it cost the company much more than money. A remedy featuring a better subframe design and a comprehensive six year anti-corrosion warranty – long before rival car makers offered such a scheme – only seemed to compound not save the situation.

Lancia decided to drop the Beta name entirely (it was the third time this nomenclature had been used by the company, previously worn on a bus!) and badged the new conventional-styled saloon as the Trevi.

Italian stylists can go from the sublime to the ridiculous and you’d never guess that the legendary Pininfarina penned this monstrosity. Worse was to come inside when the previously sensible dashboard was replaced by a slab of what looked like a big slice of gouda cheese. By this time Lancia had launched the smart, square cut Delta hatchback, which morphed into the fabulous four-wheel drive Integrale, but mainstream models – even the booted Prisma – were as good as dead in the water in the UK despite the sporting Alfa GTV-beating Coupé and HPE gaining fuel injection for 122bhp and a 2.0-litre 135bhp supercharger option called the VX. It was rotten ending to a fine car.

Why we love them

The motoring press raved about the Beta when new – drive one and it’s easy to see why. You didn’t have to a be dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast to appreciate the Lancia’s better points, such as its zesty nature, handling which was a world away from the Marinas and Cortinas of that era, yet it twinned with a ride that’s better than that of many modern cars thanks to a soft suspension and high-profile tyres. The steering is sharp if weighty, the brakes strong and the gearchange is precise too. In fact, the Beta was the ideal choice for those who had sadly outgrown their Alfasuds.

If there was one anomaly it was apart from slower and harder worked 1300/1400 models, there didn’t appear to be such a great performance (nor economy) difference between the bigger-engined versions but the Coupés now make great cut price Alfa GTV alternatives and the HPE a more sporting possibility to our Scimitar GTE. “When it comes to family saloons with better than average performance, good road manners and a high level of refinement, we regard the Lancia Beta as more than competitive,” said Motor in 1974. They still held the same high regard for the 2000 Automatic by as late as 1980 – before the rot set in so to speak.

Tempted by a trevi

Bob Hirschhorn reveals how he became a lover of Lancias

Afew years back I was offered my first Lancia as a gift because the owner, a customer of mine, could not find an interested buyer. It was a 1973 2000 saloon in rough condition. I enjoyed seven thousand miles in it appreciating its fine qualities and tolerant of its idiosyncrasies. Next, I was offered by a friend a car he never got on with but I was keen because not only did it look stylish and I was familiar with its mechanicals but was all together and on the road and the price was right. This was the coupé version of the foregoing saloon, namely a Lancia 2000 Farina Coupé and in HF form with the higher specification no less!

I joined the Lancia Motor Club and obviously talked to many people owning a variety of models. Lots of them drove examples of the Beta range, considered to be ‘modern’ Lancias in club circles. They raved about how underrated their Beta coupés and HPEs were to members with older models. The Beta saloons however remained rare even within the club. Betas intrigued me, how would I rate them?

At this point in time, I was in the market for a cheap car for general everyday use, something that would be good to drive and preferably a bit distinctive. A friend considered a possible car for me would be a Lancia Trevi. A Trevi! But what was one of those? To cut a long story short, I bought the car you see in the pics. Alright. I did have to do a few odd jobs to it which the previous owner had put off but the car was a revelation. For £700 I had a very well equipped but unusual four door sports saloon of 1982 vintage (it cost £6490 then) – a modern classic bargain indeed. The Trevi (meaning three box layout) is in effect a late (Series 3) Beta saloon with a boot (instead of a fastback).

The Beta Saloon’s reputation had been irrevocably tarnished by 1980 due to a corrosion problem which although localised was in the vicinity of the engine bearers which resulted in exaggerated stories of engines falling out. Not many Trevis and Series 3 Betas were imported in the early eighties and with natural wastage few now remain in good useable condition. Their main claim to fame is a facia design which is most novel. It is futuristic in style and works quite well in practice excepting visibility of dials in very bright or very dull conditions. All clocks, gauges, switches and warning lights are positioned down deep holes apparently hewn out of the mass of the dash panel giving an overall harmonious and integrated impression.

My car came in that classy looking Lancia dark blue which suits the design with its flush fitted lighting front and rear. Mid blue cloth abounds inside including the headlining. This goes well with the black carpeting and plastic interior fittings and polished metal door tread plates give a quality air.

This Trevi was incredibly reliable barring a starter rebuild, new lower ball joints and dampers, exhaust manifold and silencers, the odd gaiter bush and mounting, a cylinder head oil leak and a few intermittent electrical niggles.

I once kept up with a briskly driven Mini Cooper S on a lovely B road for about thirty miles with little bother. The Trevi handles so well with impressive turn in on bends, yet still retains a comfortable ride. The power steering is excellent being quite light but retaining good feel. It hangs on and remains composed even when thrown around whilst making spirited progress. The brakes are equally impressive really complementing the handling and road-holding abilities.

The distinctive and unusual Lancia Trevi is one of the few ‘special’ cars I have owned – I moved on to Dedras soon afterwards. I still love it and would recommend one. It is more fun to live with than it might appear to be and most people are foxed as to what it exactly is.

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