R&T Vintage Review: Lancia Beta Montecarlo – Lost In Translation

One of the more readily forgotten chapters of the 70s was Lancia’s push for a share of the lower-premium import market. Lancias had of course been imported since the 1950s, but were always a relatively expensive rarity, which was in keeping with their exceptional engineering and quality. But after Fiat acquired (read: rescued) Lancia, it naturally had to rationalize what had been a very un-rational operation. That meant Lancias that shared as much as possible with Fiat.

The Beta was the most important result of that, and the Beta Montecarlo (spelled as one word) mid-engined sports car actually started out as a Fiat project, the X 1/20, a larger version of the X 1/9. But the project was given to Lancia to round out its Beta sedan and coupe program, and made for a quite interesting and capable new entrant in the market. Veteran driver/reviewer Paul FrΓ©re tested it in Europe ahead of its US introduction in the fall of 1975. And its name had to be changed to Scorpion at the last minute, as it was clearly stepping on Chevrolet’s turf. And along with the name change came a number of other unfortunate changes that drastically dimmed its prospects in the US.

Pininfarina was not only responsible for the Montecarlo’s styling, but developed the whole car from scratch under a contract with Fiat, and built it wholly too, a first for Pininfarina. As such, it shared very little with the other members of the Beta family.

The Monte Carlo/Scorpion had a lot of positives: a handsome design by Pininfarina, a five speed stick, and terrific handling. Unfortunately, because of the US emission standards, the US-market Scorpion came with a severely-emasculated 81 hp 1756 cc engine instead of the quite lively 2 liter four as tested here. That put a crimp on its appeal and success. And since the suspension had to be jacked up to meet bumper regulations, its handling was also compromised. US-spec headlights meant the clean front end had to be ruined. An issue with overly-boosted brakes led to criticism and the Montecarlo/Scorpion was withdrawn from the market in 1979 and re-launched in 1980. But by 1981, it was all over.

Rust was a major issue on the cars too, and has led to a low survivor rate. It’s been quite a while since i saw one, although they were not uncommon in California at the time.

 

A promising start, as documented here, turned out to be a pretty major failure.