The Beta: a Mistake that was Probably Fatal for Lancia

Paulius Gaurilčikas

In the 1960s, Lancia was almost a premium manufacturer. The Lancia Fulvia, Flavia and Flaminia were technologically advanced, luxury cars. However, they were expensive, so they didn't have much success outside of Italy and as a result, the company's finances dried up to the point that in 1969, they were forced to find shelter under the wing of Fiat.

Meanwhile, Fiat had a slightly different vision for Lancia. Lancia's sales were dwarfed by Fiat's: while Lancia had annual production numbers in the low tens of thousands, Fiat was selling over a million, even during the worst of years. So Fiat decided to base the new Lancia model on a Fiat in order to reduce production costs and make the model more affordable.

Thus, the Beta that came out in 1972 was the first new Lancia model that was part of Fiat. It was named after a letter of the Greek alphabet as a nod to the first car made by Lancia – the 1908 Alpha. Even though it was pieced together from Fiat components, the Beta was actually a very good offer in the 1970s. With DOHC engines, five-speed gearboxes, fully independent suspension, and disc brakes on all four wheels, all versions of the Lancia Beta came equipped with standard features that were far from the usual. Add an attractive price and you'll get one of the better cars on the market at that time.

1974-1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo
1974-1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo
©Lancia archive
1974-1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo
1974-1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo
©Lancia archive

In addition, the Lancia Beta had a body style for everyone. The Berlina was a standard four-door. It looked like a fastback or a hatchback, but it had a boot that opened separately, so theoretically it was a saloon. The Berlina came out in 1972 and was the first version of the Beta; a year later, a sporty 2+2 coupé was introduced on a slightly shorter wheelbase. The Spider appeared in 1974 and was an even more interesting variation of the coupé, with a unique targa top roof panel.

1975-1978 Lancia Beta Spider in red
1975-1978 Lancia Beta Spider in red
©Lancia archive
1975-1979 Lancia Beta 1.3-liter
1975-1979 Lancia Beta 1.3-liter
©Lancia archive

And that wasn't all. Taking the lead from the Volvo 1800ES and the Reliant Scimitar, Lancia introduced its own shooting-brake – the Beta HPE. The final representative of the Beta family was the Beta Montecarlo that went on sale in 1975 and had little in common with the other Betas aside from its name. With rear-wheel drive (all of the other Betas were front-wheel) and a rear mid-engine layout, the Montecarlo was like an entry-level Ferrari for the price of a Lancia. The Beta came with 1.3–2.0L four-cylinder engines, and the most powerful 2.0L version could hit 133 hp and promised an acceleration of 0 to 100 km/h in less than 9 seconds.

1975 Lancia Beta HPE
1975 Lancia Beta HPE
©Lancia archive
1975-1979 Lancia Beta 1.6-liter
1975-1979 Lancia Beta 1.6-liter
©Lancia archive

At first, this entire range of Betas received only positive reviews, so Fiat management decided to sell the Lancia in the United States, where the Spider was renamed the Zagato (since the models being sold by Alfa Romeo and Fiat were already called Spiders), and the Montecarlo was renamed the Scorpion (to avoid conflict with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo).

1975-1979 Lancia Beta 2000
1975-1979 Lancia Beta 2000
©Lancia archive
1978-1981 Lancia Beta HPE
1978-1981 Lancia Beta HPE
©Lancia archive

But things quickly began to unravel. The poor assembly quality led to an entire series of problems, and the body had even worse issues. The Italians had used thin sheets of steel, and they hadn't given the slightest thought to anti-corrosion, so the cars were incredibly rust-prone. Corrosion even damaged important areas like the subframe. The rust situation got so complicated that Lancia ended up spending millions in the UK buying back cars from unsatisfied customers.

1979-1981 Lancia Beta 3 series interior
1979-1981 Lancia Beta 3 series interior
©Lancia archive
1981-1984 Lancia Beta H.P.Executive
1981-1984 Lancia Beta H.P.Executive
©Lancia archive

Ironically, despite all of the problems with the Beta, there was one area where Lancia simply predominated. That was the rally, where the Lancia Stratos and the Rally 037 were unsurpassed. With good models, Lancia would have predominated in sales as well, but the situation there just kept going downhill. The Beta was in production until 1984, and the later models were of much better quality than the first. However, the huge warranty costs and its irreparably damaged reputation meant that it had to say goodbye to the US and UK markets.

Lancia Beta Coupe 2000i
Lancia Beta Coupe 2000i
©Miloslav Rejha, Flickr

In light of the Beta's unsuccessful history, it is not surprising that their prices are currently not very high. In addition, nearly 200,000 units of the two-door coupé, HPE and Spider (Zagato) models were built in all, so even knowing all of the problems with corrosion, it is still possible to find a reasonably good car. Only the Montecarlo (Scorpion) will be more expensive, but after all – it's practically a Ferrari!