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Lancia Beta Montecarlo

A FERRARI FOR FANTASISTS OR THE FULL MONTE? Published: 7th Jun 2013 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Rare big brother to the Fiat X1/9 offers a baby Ferrari-Dino experience for MGB money. Performance from Fiat-based engine only adequate but mid-engined handling is very good, though the brakes need watching. Well engineered, but build quality may be a worry along with rust. Surprisingly good specialist support and club back-up Lancia’s Beta Montecarlo is a bit of a mixed up motor. Originally designed by Fiat to be the mid-engined X1/9's big brother, sharing its layout and replacing the ageing 124 Spider (Fiat's own MGB) the Montecarlo disappointed in performance if not in looks, and was given to Lancia to make good, only to be pulled barely three years after its launch. Improvements and development made sure the car was better received when it resurfaced in 1980; it stayed in production for four years. Like the X1/9, after decades of indifference, enthusiasts are starting to view the Montecarlo in a new light. It is not as classy as the fabulous Fulvia, nor does it have the all-wheel drive spiritedness of an Integrale, but it does offer Ferraresque looks combined with rarity and all for MGB-type money.

HISTORY

Fiat took advantage of both Bertone and Pininfarina’s creative genius, at the end of the Italian hippy Sixties: the company needed a replacement for its Fiat 850, and two prototypes were developed in parallel: the X1/9 and the X1/8. Bertone was responsible for the former, a mildly- disguised version of another prototype suggested for the De Tomaso Ford; Fiat bosses liked it enough to forget about Pininfarina’s X1/8, for a while.

1972 Two 1:1 models were built, and the project – bigger than the original concept – adopted the X1/20 name.
1975 The new car is launched at the Geneva Motor Show. By now, Fiat had lost all interest and farmed it out to Lancia. Fiat’s smaller X1/9 was already selling well; Fiat had also been working on a very similar prototype: a joint Fiat-Abarth effort called the Abarth 030 and powered by the Fiat 130’s engine, a six-cylinder 3.2 unit bored out to 3.5 and developing 285bhp. A V6 was the initial aim but in the end, trusty Fiat twin cams were used instead, with a pedestrian 120bhp 2-litre for Europe. It was even less, a 1.8 litre, for the US where it was badged Scorpion (because Chevrolet held the right to the Montecarlo name).

Like the Fiat X1/9 on which it was based, the Beta Montecarlo was given a mid-engine layout and a two-seater sports car’s unique steel body that was more rounded than the Fiat’s. It shared the engine, transmission and all-round MacPherson strut suspension set-up with the Beta saloon and coupe and the X1/9.

The Montecarlo’s basic design did not change dramatically over its nine-year life span. From 1975 to 1984 it relied on the Lancia Beta for its running gear, though its twin-cam engine has a sportier head, cams and mountings to the Fiat unit.

1976 Imports start in the United States. UK cars follow a year later. These cars differ from the original model, as they don’t have the solid ‘rear buttress look’ (aping the Ferrari Dino 246GT).

1978 The Montecarlo’s production is suspended, to sort out those infamous over-sensitive, lock-prone brakes…
In 1980 it reappears as the Series 2. Bigger, better brakes, without servo, improved the function and its ‘feel’. Improved spring and damper rates encouraged more competent handling, and engine torque was enhanced by fitting a Magneti Marelli electronic ignition system.

So at last the Montecarlo had all its toys in place, but when it was withdrawn in 1984, it disappeared altogether. A supercharged version was never offered for the road, and only around 7500 cars were made, about 1000 of which came to us.

DRIVING AND PRESS COMMENTS

Clearly, this Lancia was the perfect answer to those who said that the X1/9 was a cracker, but it cried out for more power. While no fireball, the Fiat twin cam unit provided decent performance; Autocar timed one 0-60mph in just under ten seconds and it went on to almost 120mph. In other tests, the car recorded even faster times. The 1975 model was even praised for its braking, though it was a well-known fact that the wet performance was abysmal, hence the car’s withdrawal from production.

Being unusually light at the front, as all mid-engined cars, the Montecarlo would not benefit from servoed front brakes, as they would lock under certain circumstances (such as wet roads). And lock they did. At re-launch, Lancia had disposed of a servo in favour of bigger 9.9in discs and a variable braking control device with a mechanical link that calibrated the leverage.

The Montecarlo had balance and poise provided that it was not pushed too much, especially during cornering. Autocar noticed a mild oversteer in all circumstances, with oversteer due to throttle lift-off mid-corner, a trait which could be easily corrected and even give the driver some entertainment;

“A joy of the handling is the amount of traction that the rearward weight bias confers.”

The magazine criticised the car – which at just under £6000, was as dear as a Lotus Esprit and a lot pricier than the Beta Coupe and the Spyder off-shoot – for its lack of refinement. On the other hand the sporty Lancia was relatively easy to climb into, if slightly uncomfortable to drive in, much as the rest of Italian classics. The rear window had a particularly impractical wedge-shape, but despite its narrow glass area, rear view was surprisingly good. It was noisy but usefully roomier than an X1/9.

PRICES

The days of bargain Montecarlos are almost gone but you don’t need to break the bank to buy one – yet. Expect to pay around £5000 for a respectable, usable car that is ready to go but needs some fettling. It’s rare for Montecarlos to break the ten-grand barrier but top cars can get close to this; £7000 is ample to buy a very nice one. Cheap ‘deals’ are to be avoided at all costs. Maybe £1500 will buy one but you need to include the cost of the parts and the labour/ time to make one good. For example, rear wings are £750; bumpers, a tad over £400. Sills are £180 per side. At least, a fair number of panels are still available now. According to The Monte Hospital (0121 2882160 http://www.montehospital.co.uk) “nothing is impossible” in terms of parts and repairs. The Midlands-based specialist says something like 200 remain in the UK with about 50 really nice ones around – although an increasing number of owners are now spending serious money (£20,000 on parts alone in some cases) on theirs to make good. Clearly, the time to buy is right now.

IMPROVEMENTS

Want to make this Beta better? There’s a fair amount you can do: engine swaps, for example, can be anything from an Integrale engine up to a vivid V6 Alfa lump, which makes life quite interesting… If you want to stick with the twin cam (a fine engine, too), then the Volumex supercharger unit taken from the Beta Coupe and HPE fits. Or you can install the I.E fuel injection, although even the stock engine can push to around 170bhp by conventional tuning. I.E electronic ignition and a better radiator are wise precautions even on standard cars. Chassis mods consist of better damping while the notorious brakes can be upgraded with Koni Tar, Ox or Rossini bits. Remember to disconnect that servo if still fitted… Try quality modern radials as a starting point.

VERDICT

A cheap as chips baby Ferrari, or a pricey Lancia? It depends on how you look at the Montecarlo in 2013. A mid-engined car will always be sporty, but pedigree makes any car desirable or not. A ‘Lancista’ will turn their nose up at a Monetecarlo. On the other hand an Italian-sports car enthusiast will remember that the Montecarlo is a good example of what Fiat did well until recently.

What To Look For

GENERAL

Look at as many you can, before buying, as they vary greatly in standard. Beware of a freshly painted car as it may hide lots of filler. The trim is easy to find, though many cars have already butchered in the pursuit of customising.

There are around 200 models in the UK: apparently we are the richest source of available parts in the world. Markets such as the USA, Japan, Australia and Europe (sometimes even Italy itself!) all contact UK Lancia specialists for their parts.

It’s reckoned that post ‘81 cars are better rust- proofed though there is no hard evidence of this.

Italian electrics… If loom is original, then it may need replacing although bad earths are the biggest
culprits. Check that all the systems work, especially the powered windows which can become lazy.

ENGINE

It’s a robust unit but you must hear it start up from cold, as bearing rattle is all too common.

Head gaskets can give in at around 60,000 miles so do the usual checks for this. Cambelt changes are critical and don’t forget the tensioner assembly (under £70 from MSMR – 07710 073281).

Don’t be surprised to find an oily engine bay, as these units are hard to keep completely sealed, especially the cam covers and head gaskets.

BODY AND CHASSIS

Yes, these Lancias do rust pretty badly and you’ll strike gold if you find a car that’s never been under a welder’s torch. Inspect every body panel carefully for crafty bodges, but the best-known rot spots are the sills and the suspension attachment points at the bulkheads. You’ll need to get underneath to check thoroughly and a magnet is essential.

The A and B posts, as well as valance and slam panels are all very suspect areas especially the front bonnet one. Yet, the infamous front sub-frame rot that afflicted normal Betas doesn’t cause the same distress on a Montecarlo, although rear cross- members have been known to fracture so check this.

Cosmetic areas prone to the tin worm include the rear wheel arches (good value part panels available however), the door bottoms and the front and rear ‘bonnets’. However, the front is triple layered in places with a sponge that is used for lining. A soaker and a sucker for rain water, you can guess the rest…

TRANSMISSION

Generally okay, although like all Italians lose synchromesh. Real culprits are the torturous linkages, which all wear - if brown-coloured, then they are the originals. It’s expensive to fix but worth doing.

As you would in an X1/9, check the clutch: it’s not easy to replace and the hydraulics are just as iffy

SUSPENSION AND BRAKES

Early cars used Fiat X1/9 hubs and these are sealed (welded) items. Leading specialists modify them, so inserts can be fitted.

Servo only worked on the front. Most have since been sorted by now. Have they been uprated well?

The steering has no real problems, although racks can wear. More importantly, the geometry must be set up accurately, a job only for Montecarlo specialists.

Three Of A Kind

LOTUS ESPRIT
LOTUS ESPRIT
The Lotus of the same vintage has a lot in common with the Lancia and both are great when on song. Like the Monte, Esprits are rising in value if really good, but many aren't. Early sharp-suited styled ones are not well built and too harsh; S4 is the better car. Very wide, and not as nimble as an Elan or the Elise.
FIAT X1/9
FIAT X1/9
Little brother to the Montecarlo, the Fiat has more charm than the Lancia and knocks both a Midget and a Spitfire into a cocked hat to drive. Alas durability isn’t too good with this Fiat; they rot like mad and part supply can be patchy meaning the Lancia Montecarlo is better served. Still very good value.
TOYOTA MR2
TOYOTA MR2
Launched just when Lancia had canned the Montecarlo, this Toyota was everything the Italian could have been, yet the original MR2 remains strangely overlooked. All are quick and handle much better than the Beta and are usable as daily drivers. That said rusty Mk1 and MK2s are a worry. There’s also a good racing series, too.


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