Even rubber-bumper MG prices have left Betas in the dust, though its
DOHC engine was designed by Aurelio Lampredi of Ferrari fame
DOHC engine was designed by Aurelio Lampredi of Ferrari fame
For most collectors, the Lancia story effectively ends if not with the Fiat takeover in 1969, then certainly with the end of Fulvia production in 1976. The Beta-introduced in Europe in 1972 and in 1975 in the U.S.-simply does not show up on the radar of the few American Lancia collectors out there. It's often derided as just another bad 1970s Fiat.
The recent rise in collector car prices has thinned the ranks of sub-$5,000 "credit card cars." The bump in prices, however, has not affected the Beta one lick, meaning that even perennial D-listers like rubber bumper MGBs and Midgets have left them in the dust.
Along with wretched refuse like the Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT, Volvo 262C, and the Renault 17 Gordini, the Beta is among the cheapest '70s European GTs available to committed "value seekers." It may also be the most underrated.
Designed by Lancia, not Fiat
Fans of Aurelias, Flaminias, and even Fulvias are unlikely to give the Beta a second look because of its perceived status as a fancy Fiat. This, however, ignores the fact that the Beta was designed by Lancia rather than Fiat engineers. And although powered by a Fiat motor, the 1.8- or 2.0-liter DOHC unit was designed by Aurelio Lampredi of Ferrari fame.
Lancia re-entered the U.S. market in 1975 with considerable fanfare, a fairly large advertising budget, and a full line of very attractive cars. They included the Beta coupe and Berlina (sedan), which were joined a year later by the Scorpion, a mid-engined sports car, and the HPE (for "high power estate"), a pretty two-door wagon not unlike the Volvo P1800ES or Reliant Scimitar. The final model to appear was the Beta Zagato, a targa-roof version of the Beta coupe with a folding back window resembling an early soft-rear-window Porsche 911.
"So lovely, so agile, so slow"
Early U.S. Betas were carbureted and set up for low emissions rather than power or drivability. In 1976, Road & Track called the Scorpion "so lovely, so agile and so slow." As for the Beta coupe, the then-opinionated magazine characterized it by saying, "Beauty can be only skin deep."
Fuel injection and an increase in displacement from 1,800 cc to 2,000 cc helped, but straight-line acceleration was not what the Beta was about. These days, however, where the cars no longer have to pass smog tests, different carburetion, cams, and exhaust can make them the decent performers their European cousins were.
Relatively low power meant torque steer was not a problem, and the Beta is generally regarded as one of the better handling front-wheel-drive cars of the '70s. Sharp handling was mated with a very pleasant ride and a luxurious interior with full instrumentation. Most Betas came with leather seats that were comfortable and stylish. The leather used was also surprisingly hard-wearing for an Italian car. Betas one the road today generally have intact but dry leather with, at worst, some pulled seams.
Aside from a lack of power, a rubbery shift linkage and slightly vague power steering were the car's only liabilities from a driving standpoint. Changes were few during the Beta's life in the U.S. A new dash and steering wheel, displacement increase, and fuel injection, plus a chrome grille surround for the final two years was about it. Unfortunately, the U.S. never saw the Volumex supercharged model that Europe got, as Lancia exited the U.S. market along with Fiat in 1982.
Early interiors (1975-78) are generally regarded as more attractive and sported a better-looking steering wheel than the 1979-82 cars. Air conditioning was a fairly common option, given the cars' position as a small luxury GT, but the odds of finding one in working condition today are up there with spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Rust-prone an understatement
To say the Beta is rust-prone is an understatement of massive proportions. Anyplace is fair game as far as rust; crappy Soviet steel is to blame. In the U.K., a large export market for the Beta, there are stories of front subframes separating from the rest of the unit structure. There were lawsuits over the rust issues and Lancia even replaced some cars.
The tinworm will certainly be the biggest impediment to finding a car worth owning. Zagatos are rumored to be better rustproofed, but even these can perforate anywhere, including around the folding rear window on the deck.
Because of the shared Fiat components, mechanical parts are reasonably available. Head gaskets, poor synchromesh, and copious oil consumption are the usual problems. If the car you are looking at doesn't have a receipt for a timing belt, do it immediately. A Beta with bent valves isn't even worth anything to the Kidney Foundation. Trim items beyond badges and rubber are problematic. One item that is completely unobtanium is the Zagato taillight lens. It is unique to the car. Individuals have bought entire parts cars just for a set.
Never massive sellers in the U.S., rust and hamfisted repairs by tightwad owners that resulted in vehicular destruction have thinned the ranks of survivors considerably. Surprisingly, though, they appear frequently either on eBay, Collector Car Trader Online, and even Craigslist on the West Coast. Acceptable Beta coupes can be had in the $2,500 to $3,000 range and Zagatos go for about a thousand more. Don't be tempted by the numerous $500 cars out there. It's simply not worth bothering, when good cars trade in the low thousands.
For an outlay of almost nothing, a Beta coupe can be a stylish and even fairly cushy Italian GT with a decent exhaust note and handsome looks. The HPE adds some practicality and is quite beautiful. The Zagato is one of the few open sports cars around with passable rear seating. If an Alfa 2000 GTV or even a Lancia Fulvia isn't in the cards, a Beta will give you a decent portion of what small displacement Italian GTs are about for the cost of a few cases of Chianti.