With regard to cars, I’m a sucker for two things: Italian sports cars and a perceived good deal. I scraped my knuckles on Fiat X1/9s, 124s and 850s. I’ve owned not one, but two Alfa Romeo Milanos. As a friend likes to joke, I provide food and shelter to the most needy, unloved, misunderstood and inexpensive Italian cars ever made.

Did I say inexpensive?

So, you want to buy a Scorpion…

I was living in Southern California when I saw a Craigslist ad for a 1977 Lancia Scorpion: “Rare car, needs some work, $7,000.”

The Scorpion was originally designed as a slightly larger, more-powerful sibling to the 63-horsepower, mid-engine X1/9. While it shared most of its suspension design with the wedge-shaped X, its twin-cam, 4-cylinder heart came from the Fiat 124 Spider. Top it off with design and construction by Pininfarina, and you have a car that almost resembles a pint-sized Ferrari Boxer, if you squint the right way after downing a few glasses of grappa.

Launched at the Geneva auto show in 1975, the car hit showrooms by ’76, now badged as a Lancia as part of its Beta model range. Economics were at play, as the car was expensive to produce. So the Lancia badge delivered both the car and its MSRP upmarket. Abroad, the Lancia was named Montecarlo, but General Motors’ lawyers ensured that no Lancia would be sold under that name here. The Scorpion moniker referenced joint development of the model with Abarth, which had come under Fiat’s control several years earlier.

Rare, but not so desirable

While the Montecarlo had a 2.0-liter engine making a reasonable 120 hp, federalization dictated that the Scorpion receive an emissions-controlled, detuned 1.8-liter version with just 81 hp. The Scorpion also gained chunky steel impact bumpers, pop-up sealed-beam headlights, and taller springs to meet the DOT’s minimum bumper and lighting height requirements. Early versions of both models had solid rear buttresses, while later cars had glass inserts for improved visibility.

In its neutered American form, it was nearly as slow as the far-less-expensive X1/9. Moreover, a brake booster acting solely on the front brakes often resulted in premature lock-up, especially on damp roads. Is it any wonder Lancia pulled the plug by the end of 1977?

The Montecarlo was also canceled that year, but the braking system was revised for its return in Europe from 1980 to ’81. That was just long enough to homologate the successful Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo Group 5 race car and launch the Lancia 037 Group B rally car. Both racers used the Montecarlo’s highly rigid central chassis tub. In total, just over 5,700 Montecarlos were built for the global market, plus 1,801 Scorpions for North America.

Back to reality

It took some haggling over a day or so, but I managed to get the sale price of my Scorpion down to $5k. I’d seen a cell phone video of the engine turning over but failing to start. “Just needs a fuel pump,” the seller told me. Couldn’t cost much, I thought. Besides, the car had some excellent period upgrades (dual Weber DCNFs, hot Serra cams, Serra “rally-style” exhaust) and was a rust-free Southern California car all its life. It had all the appearance of a once-cherished collector car that had fallen on tough times.

The fun really began in my garage two weeks later when I realized the car didn’t just need a fuel pump, it needed a new engine. Inspection revealed the car had likely been parked due to a head gasket leak. Coolant in the cylinders had seized two pistons to their bores. After a contentious phone call, the seller incredibly agreed to either buy back the car or refund me $1,000. I foolishly chose the latter. Mere months later, my wife and I moved 1,100 miles north to Washington state.

The real work begins

Many months passed, and after finding a new home and catching my breath, I had the Scorpion trailered to me along with an NOS Lancia short-block I’d found on the East Coast (a minor bargain at $500 shipped). Shipping the car cost a grand, so I was sitting at just over my original $5k investment. I could have just installed that new 81-hp short-block and hoped for the best.

Instead, new 9.8:1-compression Euro-spec pistons, plus various belts, bearings, seals, hoses and ancillaries were ordered for about $2k. I got the car to local specialist Pete Bristow, owner of Bristow’s Exclusive Auto Repair in Tacoma, WA. He discovered the entire cooling system was corroded and unusable. Add another $1,500 for new steel coolant pipes, an upgraded aluminum radiator and nearly impossible-to-find cooling-system hoses. The exhaust system and fuel tank were also rotting from the inside out.

The brake system needed a full rebuild for another $500 in parts. (I provided my own “free” labor.) Fresh Dunlop tires cost just over $500, and I bought a new set of 15-inch Lancia 037 look-alike wheels for $800. Miscellaneous odds and ends — a new fuel-tank gauge sender and period-correct Abarth steering wheel among them — cost another grand. Oh, and let’s precisly balance that engine while it’s torn apart.

It’s alive!

As I wrote a $13k check upon picking up my newly mobile Lancia, I realized I could have just spent that much years ago on a decent Scorpion driver and saved a lot of time and money. By now, I had nearly $24k into a car charitably worth half that amount.

But the hits kept coming. On my fifth drive in the car, the brittle plastic adjuster mechanism in the driver’s seat broke into about five different pieces. Parts have been unavailable for decades. More-robust and supportive seats sourced from a Lotus Esprit were $700, while labor to fabricate custom mounts, do some post-build fettling and engineer a choke cable for easier cold starts resulted in another $2,000 bill at the mechanic’s. Some 500 miles later, the car is still in need of fresh paint, some suspension and brake adjustments, and who knows what else.

The good news is I’m finally having some fun driving the car.

By the time I have the Scorpion that I envisioned at purchase four years ago, I’ll have spent over $30k on a car that may never be worth more than $20k. That’s me, a sucker for a “good deal.” At least I may finally have cured my desire for project cars. Until the next Maserati Biturbo that just needs a tune-up comes along. ♦

One Comment

  1. Love this story – a car I have been passionate about since I saw it years ago. Sorry for the misfortune but drive and enjoy. look forward to seeing it own the SCM 1000

    Brad Miller