On one hand the seventies were a great time to buy something sporty and Italian – there were lots of makes and models to choose from, ranging from true exotica like the Maserati Merak, to pretty Spiders from Alfa and Fiat, plus everyday cars with a bit of poke, like the Giulia Sprint or the Sud Ti. They were all great fun to drive as well, and as the Brits struggled through an era of uninspired designs and workforces, the Italians seemingly couldn’t stop churning out great cars, and had it not been for one little issue with build quality, Alfa Romeo might still be churning out Suds in the same way VW does Golfs. Now when I say ‘one little issue’ I might be understating matters a little, for when these cars started to rust, there really was no stopping them – I’ve recounted the tale of my grandfather’s Fiat failing its first MOT on the grounds of corrosion here once before – and naturally enough the matter had an effect upon sales of all Italian imports, but there was one car, one particularly lovely car upon which the effect was catastrophic: the Lancia Beta.
The poor old Beta had trouble from the start, purists bemoaning that the first incarnation – the ‘Berlina’ Sedan, introduced at the Turin Motor Show in 1972 – was little more than a fancy Fiat, and exactly the sort of thing they expected after the takeover in ’69. And to be fair they were right, the mechanicals and mode of construction were clearly inspired by Fiat’s desire to modernise the marque and dispense with costly over-engineering, though the Sedan hardly proved the best demonstration, with its vague steering and handling issues. The 2+2 coupé appeared a year later, with styling by Pietro Castagnero – previously responsible for the Fulvia sedan and coupé – along completely different lines, and equipped with either a 1.6 or 1.8 litre engine (the latter never making it to these shores). The car rapidly established itself as a driver’s favourite, with short wheelbase and wide track making for superb roadholding and a top speed of 110 mph even in 1.6 spec.
Next up, in 1975, came the HPE (High Performance Estate), based upon the Sedan’s longer wheelbase and with elegant styling by Castagnero. The HPE was doubtless the most practical of the Betas, with plenty of luggage space and little discernable performance loss, though the Pininfarina redesigned Spyder appeared later the same year, and immediately became the most prominent model in the range. Featuring a fully-integrated roll-bar and latterly a cross-member, the car was more ‘Targa’ than convertible and, like the HPE came equipped with 1.6 or 1.8 litre engine. The 1.8 option would soon disappear, the performance differential having long been considered rather inconsequential, its place taken by a 2.0 litre unit offering improved acceleration and increased torque.
No sooner had the 2.0 litre engine appeared, in late ’75, than the range was given a facelift, the Series 2 cars appearing in March ’76 with improved trim and a variety of detail changes. All was going well for the Beta range, when the bottom almost literally fell out. By ’76 the earlier cars had begun rusting – whether the cause was low-grade Eastern-bloc steel or simply inadequate rustproofing remains a mystery – but more worryingly the rot combined with fatigue had uncovered a serious design flaw in the mounting of the rear subframe to the floorpan on the Sedans. Under stress the mounting could separate from the floorpan, tearing away a chunk in the process, its deterioration becoming apparent though erratic handling under acceleration.
Lancia reacted quickly, recalling all Series 1 Betas for free repairs or offering generous trade-ins for those too far gone, the Series 2 models meanwhile were fitted with strengthened mountings. Sadly the British press, understandably tired of reporting upon build quality issues on domestically-produced cars, seized upon the opportunity to haul Lancia over the proverbial coals, exaggerating the extent of the rust issues, and ignoring the fact that they had become the first manufacturer to offer a 6 year warranty against corrosion. Sales were understandably affected, the Beta name being dropped in 1981 at which point the cars were given a superficial overhaul, and fuel-injection offered on the 2.0 variants. Production ended in 1984, not long after the introduction of the supercharged Volumex, which has remained highly collectable.
Enthusiasts knew better than to believe the negative press surrounding the Beta, and its reputation has remained strong in such circles, which is sadly more than can be said for Lancia within the UK market. Ultimately the Beta was no more susceptible to corrosion than any of its contemporaries – and a better car than most – but the almost total absence of Lancia from the UK market in the years since its demise, has sadly proven to be its legacy.
First published on Discoveryuk.com