Wandering down a random aisle in the import section of a Denver-area junkyard, I tripped slightly as the earth stopped rotating. Catching myself, I then heard angelsong. Bright lights, confetti cannons, and dancing girls emerged from behind a discarded Camry. A split-open roll of mint-fresh Krugerrands was at my feet. Well, maybe none of that actually happened, but all of those things are seemingly more likely to happen than to find a Lancia Zagato Spyder in the junkyard, not the least of reasons is that it’s been 40 years since they last were sold in extremely low numbers stateside.
And yet, this is the twin to the one that was driven in mid-1981 by our Realtor who helped my parents purchase a house in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. Like, fershurr, totally. My understanding is that Maddy sold one house (ours) in her real estate career that was prompted (as far as I know) by her impending divorce. But out of all that I gained a lifelong friend in her son, Evan, who completely unselfishly helped me, a dorky kid from a German village, assimilate into L.A. culture, was a close schoolmate for the next six years and good friend ever since.
They lived in Tarzana (yes, named after Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous character as it is located on his former ranch property), and I distinctly recall always checking out the hot little Italian number in the driveway with the license plate “MAD TOY” when we’d be invited over there to swim in their pool that first summer and hang out. White on black, just like this one, and the first and only one I had ever seen.
Not that I’ve seen many since (can’t actually recall the last), and I have no idea what happened to Maddy’s car, but I recall it didn’t seem to survive their move to the next town over once the family home was sold…I can’t think of many more impractical cars to launch a real estate career with but 18% interest rates at the time didn’t help either, I’m sure, and then becoming a single mom with three lanky teen boys probably put the final kibosh on the whole little Lancia thing, 2+2 or not.
Of course Lancia itself didn’t last beyond 1982 in the United States, with the final two years of Spyder sales only totaling 791 units over here of a total 2,871 which was actually a good chunk of the combined worldwide total of 9,400 units. None of those numbers is synonymous with long term success.
This Spyder version is though just one of a three-legged “sporty” Beta model range (here not including the fastback Berlina sedan, later three-box Trevi or the less mechanically related but in early years also called a Beta, the Montecarlo/Scorpion) produced from 1973-1984 that totaled about 192,000 vehicles all told with the majority being the Beta Coupe and the Beta HPE (sort of a long-roofed extended wheelbase coupe) taking second place in the Beta model sales sweepstakes. By that measure, the Zagato is surely the red-headed stepchild of a red-headed family (don’t be mad, my hair used to have reddish tones too and I sunburn easily), but to my eyes the most interesting (and subversively most attractive) by far. This is for sure the Beta I’d choose, you bet(a).
Lancia itself is a magical name and brand, brought down of late (well, the latest couple of decades surely) with such indignities as being made to peddle rebadged Chryslers products and currently only producing and selling one little around town errand runner hatchback, but with a glorious history of innovation, competition, sport, design, and spirit that Stellantis apparently plans to revive. Bring it, I’ll at least test-drive it! Of course the conjunction with Zagato, the famed coachbuilder and styling house adds yet more spice to the pot, even if this car was styled by Pininfarina with Zagato only building it due to Pinin having too much on their plate already.
Over here the car was simply the Lancia Zagato with or without either a Spyder or Spider suffix, in other places around the globe it was generally known as the Lancia Beta Zagato Spyder, although it’s not like the rest of the world was awash in Lancias at the time either.
But hey, a little Italian 2+2 with a removable targa top panel and a fold down rear window convertible section, that all very much in the vein of the original Porsche 911 Targa, what’s not to like? Pictured above with the rear section lowered…
…and here it is with the rear section up, sadly missing the plastic rear window. But the one I knew was in Los Angeles, the top was usually off, the back was usually down, and it looked goooooooooood.
Mechanicals under the front-hinged hood were more or less solid, this was a front wheel drive car with MacPherson struts at all corners and a transversely mounted 2-liter inline-4. ’79 and earlier U.S. models made do with a carbed version of the engine, the 1980 model year was skipped here entirely, but when the car came back for its last two years it had gained Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection and enough additional power (around 108hp total in US form) to make it quite a lively performer for its day.
The engine bay looks modern enough to pass for something seen today, maybe add a large piece of plastic on top to fit in more but nothing too scary going on in there, most kids today could probably figure all that out easier than a V8 in a longitudinal arrangement while laughing at the electronics.
Of the three sporty Beta variants, this one to me looks the least off-beat (off-beta?), I guess I’m seeing a lot of modernized Fulvia Coupe in there, especially from this angle, which has always worked for me. The black bumpers and most of the trim works for me as well as a fan of the 1980s, and even the somewhat tacked on side markers and stuff like that I can shrug off as Italianate character.
Bur even the grille has a lot going on at a closer look. That stepped black portion, then the multiple horizontal bars at the bottom with the Lancia logo containing the very old-looking font. I don’t know that I’d necessarily call it all harmonious and of a piece, but pizza as a concept sounds quite weird too, looks even weirder, but manages to work quite well once you get down to business, so what do I know.
The rear, if sawed off two feet from the end and displayed by itself, doesn’t look particularly exotic, in fact it looks kind of like the Toyota Corolla of the same model year back here. I guess that’s how I see Lancia design, generally pretty understated with a decent amount of practicality in lieu of unnecessary flourishes and, if anything, perhaps further along the path to 80s angular modernity than many others at an earlier date, remember this shape/car debuted for 1974.
That angularity translates to fairly decent trunk space, all well-lined with (now falling off) carpeting all around. But what are we not seeing? Yes, the famed Lancia Beta rust monster reputation! Sure, there is some at the seams and there is in fact some around the bottom of the doors, however I think this car has seen a very long period of storage with much of it out of doors which can explain a lot of it.
The keychain may have acted like an anode rod in this case, who knows, but the head of the ignition key is in the shape of the Lancia badge, and who was cutting key blades like this back in 1981? It’s a key I’d love to be able to use daily.
The BFGs in 185/70-14 aren’t quite correct, I believe the original fitment for the ’81 Spyder was a Pirelli P6 in 185/65-14 and mated to these chunky little alloys, color matched in this case, allowed it to carve some nice lines. There’s a little of that rust behind the wheel well and in the lower portion of the door…but never mind all that, let’s check out the inside!
This is where the US$11,880 base price in 1981 pays off, well, beyond the engine, chassis, rarity, opentoppishness etc… An interior that if you imagine a lot cleaner and not as tattered, looks and smells like lire, lots of lire. $11,880 then is equivalent to less than $40,000 today though, which is really kind of a screaming bargain for whatever the equivalent of this might be today.
As a matter of fact I don’t think anything would be near that price, never mind a European car built at a small designer’s factory. An Alfa Romeo might be closest conceptually nowadays for most but a 2+2 semi-cabriolet similar to this today, even produced on a normal production line in much larger volumes and with decent power compared to what else is on the road would be at least in the $70k or more range, no? For comparison, a 1981 Corolla started at $5,808, a Mercury Capri $6,685 and a Porsche 924 with very similar weight and power a heady $16,770!
I simply adore this instrument panel. There is not even a whiff of “Dashboard Of Sadness” that pervaded lots of cars back then, especially the domestics. Two main dials and SIX supplementals spaces that contain four more instruments with room for two more and then various indicator lights to boot! You’ll need all three passenger to shake a stick at all that, you can’t do it yourself.
The 85mph speedometer is a sad commentary on early ’80s affairs, but what I wonder about most is the mileage, with just 13,370 displayed I sincerely hope this made it all the way around at least once, which not everyone would necessarily believe a Lancia of the period to be capable of.
The wheel itself has the fattest rim this side of a go-kart track and the two spoke design seems like it would feel pretty good. I like the demure little logo at the bottom instead of the huge things we get nowadays. The dainty spindle stalks are quite nice as well with what look like relatively substantial heads on them and not too many functions crammed on each one.
A completely period-appropriate Alpine head unit sits atop the centerstack, those fat rocker switches below it just make you want to push them all day long, and the symmetry of the upper and lower curves is indication enough that someone spent time designing this thing, it’s sort of architectural. Egg-crate vents at the lower end, but everything rendered in black firmly leaves the ’70s behind, far quicker than the rest of the industry seemed to, with perhaps Audi being the next most “modern” as far as interiors go but even then not really until a couple of years later into the ’80s.
Pulling back a little more shows the rest of the lower center stack with a perhaps slightly too tall stick shift but with what looks like a purposeful knob atop it and then the glovebox area and shape continuing the sweep of the dashboard. The pack of Marlboros is a nice touch too, very fitting, there may or may not be a Members Only jacket stashed under one of the seats too, I forgot to check in my giddy excitement.
Another little logo rendered on the edge of the glovebox door, but note it’s the more modern logo this time as opposed to what’s on the grille. I love them both, but this one would still work well on a new car today.
Convertibles do make it so much easier to get a good range of interior photos even without full access, I could drive this car today and not think I’m in a 40 year old car based on this. And while a little underpowered compared to current vehicles, with its light (but considered heavy-ish at the time) weight of 2655 pounds it should be able to keep up well enough although the power to weight ratio is worse than most of today’s economy cars.
The back +2 seats are definitely on the snug side, but most striking is that someone clearly reupholstered the centers at some point, I did a double take when I looked at the fabric. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the same fabric on either throw pillows at a Ross or Marshalls or on a couch in a La-Z-Boy furniture showroom, perhaps both? Lancia did not provide interior fabrics featuring imagery of Route 66 or Hollywood signage, let alone a Tri-5 Chevy with a flame job.
As I mentioned earlier, the Zagato Spyder model apparently sat out the 1980 model year in the US, but then this VIN tag indicates an extremely early production 1981 version. I can’t parse the actual ID number as to where it falls within the overall Lancia or even Beta production sequence, so that’ll remain a mystery unless someone else knows. The Betas are all “828” cars and this is a series 4 car, the 202011 though doesn’t seem to work based on the numbers I’ve used in my research provided via an excellent chart of the entire Beta production number history at viva-lancia.com.
I’ve not driven a Lancia Zagato and it’s doubtful I ever will, but I’m all in on this car if you couldn’t tell. I love nothing more than seeing cars I never see anymore, and this one dredged up some great old memories. I think I’ll text Evan later today and see how Maddy is doing.