COAL: Lancia Beta Berlina • Rust Never Sleeps

Stop me if you’ve heard this story:  protagonist in stable relationship becomes deeply distracted by seductive if unstable newcomer, ignoring strong forebodings and whispered admonitions.  Trouble and strife ensue.  Long days and nights pass, bills pile up, the scales begin to fall from our subject’s eyes.  The new partner is moody, unreliable, fickle.  The romance dissolves beneath our protagonist’s feet as unheeded warnings and pleas for discretion begin to haunt her/his waking hours.  The former partner, moreover, is long gone . . . there is no turning back.  Only pain and sorrow loom on the horizon.

And we’re only talking about the espresso machine.  Imagine what happens when the object of one’s affections is on the scale of an actual motorcar.  Which is the subject of this sad cautionary tale.

In our previous episode I seemed to have found the ideal car for the snow-capped heights of the greater Rocky Mountains:  a Saab 99 with heated front seats, front wheel drive that could navigate the occasional raging blizzard with Swedish aplomb, and a heater that could toast a bagel for breakfast if so required.  The rear seat folded down to carry 2×4’s for house projects, and the Triumph Dolomite derived propulsion unit, reverse engineered by sturdy Swedish engineers in down vests and woolen underwear, always started first time when prodded by the key-between-the-seats due to adoption of the revelatory Bosch D-Jetronic injection.  No more December mornings with a heartrending R-R-R-R-R-R-R-R soundtrack by dawn’s early light.

I had the perfect car, in other words.  Why would I look around for anything else?  Why even ask, knowing how human beings are wired?  When it comes to potential life mates, automobiles or espresso machines, the grass always seems to be greener on the other side of the fence (although given that my home address is listed in the Pacific Northwest that old adage has acquired new connotations).

The fact of the matter is that during a trip to Salt Lake City with my pal Randal I saw, out of the corner of my watering eye, a bit of Italian machinery on the forecourt of the local Jaguar dealer.  Smoking brakes ensued and soon we were, as was our wont, kicking the tires of one Lancia Beta Berlina, sparkling in the mid-day sun . . . where was that singing coming from?

Now, you may very well ask, why would I now heed an Italian siren song in the wake of being tied to the mast and boldly resisting the call of an Alfa 2000 Berlina?  I have no idea.  All the reasoned arguments, carefully mustered, should have come to fore.  I intimately knew the reputation of Italian cars abandoned to fate in a harsh and unforgiving USA.  You only can hear ‘Fix It Again Tony’ so many times before it resides in your brain at the molecular level.  At least the Alfa was a tried and true model that had been in production for going on a decade.  The Beta was that rare beast, a clean sheet design, which should have sounded an alarm.  For that matter, could it really even be considered a Lancia?  Fiat now had its hands around the throat of the revered Lancia marque and there were hints that the Beta was nothing more than gussied up Fiat parts bin special. Furthermore, there was certainly no Lancia dealer in my town.  Who was going to service said Beta?

Notice the non-battering ram bumpers of the Euro version

Customers the Jaguar salesman would have preferred

All those questions filled my head but quickly leaked out my ears.  Look at those plush seats!  Look at the cam cover castings on the Lampredi designed DOHC motore!  Look at the dash with all those gauges in Italian!  Look at the sunroof!  And the Pirelli Cinturatos!

How much did they want for it?  A ball park figure was soon acquired from a rather nonplussed Jaguar salesman who was accustomed to working with doctors and lawyers rather than a twenty-something with long hair and an oddly colored potential trade-in.  Desperate times call for desperate measures . . . I mentioned, somewhat disingenuously, that my uncle may very well be interested in a new XJ-6, which was a complete fabrication as I knew he would cling to the steering wheel of his Volvos till his dying day.  However, this ploy made the salesman’s eyes light up as he began the traditional back and forth march to the sales manager’s office.  I had planted a seed and the prospect of a new Jag sale combined with a real desire to be rid of the funny Italian car (which he had likely never heard of) from his lot may have resulted in a deal that tilted toward that limited gray area of financial possibility on my end.  He gave the Saab a once-over and quoted me a reasonable trade-in price.  Long story short, a couple of days later Randal and were on our way to pick up the Lancia and bring her back to her new casa.

For anyone unfamiliar with Lancia S.p.A., I could spend all night telling tales around the campfire of the storied Italian brand, but none of them would likely convey the depth and scope of its importance to both Italy and automotive engineering in general.  We can watch YouTube videos all the live long day that extol the virtues (and vices) of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, Alfas and Maseratis or even the odd DeTomaso or Pagani, but Lancia has fallen off the map due to . . . I suppose ‘mismanagement’ may be a harsh word, but Fiat, aka the GM of Italy, certainly qualifies for the award.  Fiat acquired Lancia in the late Sixties after the latter had spent decades essentially hand building over-engineered, exquisite automobiles with outdated tooling and increasingly limited resources.

Now today it is just another cog in the vast Stellantis Galactic Empire, but in 1970 Fiat was truly a European powerhouse, producing 1.4 million vehicles and controlling over 50 percent of the Italian market.  I don’t want to go on making GM comparisons all day, but those stats may ring a bell.  More to the point, Fiat was a full range manufacturer, assembling everything from the humble 126, the old 500’s replacement, to the high end 130 Coupe, not to mention the Ferrari-powered Dino Coupe and Spider.  Add to that the 127, 128, 124 berlina, 131, 132, 124 Coupe and Spider, and the X/1-9, a vehicle so astonishing that when I witnessed its debut at its Torinese source I was speechless.  Who could match Fiat in those days?  For range, depth, and engineering prowess, no one.


Low-end Fiat

High-end Fiat

Even higher-end Fiat. I rest my case

If anyone had the resources to save Lancia, it was Fiat.  Fiat, of course, had its own long and distinguished history, but in a country famed for its automotive engineering, no one could match Lancia.  Enzo Ferrari admitted as much when in 1955 he retired his own Formula One project in order to campaign what came to be known as the Lancia-Ferrari D-50, a car designed by Vittorio Jano with which Fangio would go on to win the 1956 World Championship.  True to form, Lancia ran out of money to campaign the car and simply handed it over to Ferrari.  Enzo may have been a proud man, but he was also practical and the quality of the D-50 was strikingly evident.

The Lancia-Ferrari D-50, campione del mondo

A Lancia Aurelia because why not?

A decade later the entire Lancia operation was handed in similar fashion over to Fiat, who quickly realized that if they continued to build Lancias by Lancia methods, they weren’t going to make any money, either.  Consequently, the Lancia heritage was engineered out of the clean-sheet cars that Fiat had on the drawing boards.  The V-6 and V-4 engines that set them apart were left on the scrapheap of history (replaced by Fiat’s in-house DOHC inline four), as was the obsession with detail and engineering perfection.

As a foreign albeit quasi-adopted bystander, my stake in all this was purely emotional . . . my absolute favorite car during my Italian sojourn had been the Fulvia Coupe, a tiny jewel of a car, its front wheels powered by a V-4 engine that looked like the orange crate it came in, but perfect in every detail.  It remains my favorite car of all time.  I saw one on the road in Washington State this summer, still elegant as ever–all Fulvia Coupes (and Zagatos) should be beatified and granted protected status.

La macchina più bella

But I digress. A Fulvia Coupe, even if one were available, would not have met my present needs, while there was a case to be made for the Beta.  You can tell by one look that it followed the brief for Italian sedans, er, berline, i.e. a sedan is for carrying four or five (including la nonna) in dignified fashion, leaving the sexy stuff to the spiders and coupes.  The Beta Berlina may look relatively innocuous today, but that fastback four door styling was cutting edge in the early seventies (and copied in many places from the Rover 3500 to the Chevrolet Citation), not to mention what lay under the sedate skin:  four wheel independent suspension, four wheel disc brakes, transverse DOHC four cylinder, front wheel drive, five speed gearbox, and unit construction.   So, while it may have appeared on the surface to be a sedate and slightly frumpy sedan in the Italian mode as the Flavias and Fulvias that came before it, its mechanical specs were bang up to date, futuristic, even.  We will only mention the other members of Beta family in passing, including the lovely coupe, the jaw dropping HPE estate, the Montecarlo–a grown up X/1-9–and the Zagato, a modified coupe with a lift off top that came along a few years later.  There’s no question that it was a line-up to envy, and it seemed to demonstrate that Fiat was serious about upholding the Lancia name and preserving its reputation for engineering innovation and quality.

Complete Beta range except for the Zagato

I can see my twenty-odd year old self poring over the specs and convincing myself that owning a Beta made all kinds of sense, but let’s face it, I was hooked on an Italian dream with limited basis in reality.  This is not to say that my Lancia was a bad car . . . it was not, but it required a few things I wasn’t equipped to provide, including, chiefly, a heated garage and an Italian mechanic known on a first name basis.  But all that is jumping ahead.  First, let’s pose the sixty-four thousand dollar question:  what was it like to drive?  Well, it was bliss.  We lived in a small town with a seven or eight mile road that curved down from a plateau alongside a creek.  A series of sharp second gear turns followed.  I took that way to and from work, and on a warm summer night with the sunroof open and the Lampredi twin cam singing, there was nothing more soul stirring.

Yeah, those seats are comfortable

View from the helm

But . . . there were a few issues that appeared early on.  The first I discovered upon checking the trunk.  The spare wheel apparently came from an Alfa.  Ah well, a trip back to Salt Lake mustered up the appropriate replacement, so no worries.  Checking the front passenger seat I noticed that one of the seams was coming apart.  Easy enough to address.  But then as fall turned to winter other issues surfaced.  First of all, it didn’t like to start when the temps dropped below freezing.  You may scoff and say, of course not, it’s Italian!  It came from a Mediterranean climate! What do you expect?  To which I would reply that I just returned from hiking the Italian Dolomites and it was freaking snowing in September!  Don’t tell me that the engineers had no idea such a thing as snow and ice existed.  You need an hour and a half, tops, to drive to the nearest ski area from Torino.  Seriously, there was no excuse!

That’s right, the Dolomites

All that aside, we learned, eventually, how to coax the Beta to life when the thermometer dropped, so no harm done.  But then one of those January inversions settled into the valley and the temperatures dropped well below zero, not to resurface until weeks later.  I’d confronted this climactic deep freeze once before with the Simca . . . the fuel line had frozen solid and the car had to spend a night in a heated garage and then have a can of gas treatment dumped down its icy throat.  The conditions were brutal and the Lancia cried no más!, or rather non posso più!  This time it really wouldn’t start.  I had it towed to the nearest Fiat dealer who diagnosed a slipped timing belt . . . the belt itself shouldn’t have required replacement for another 40,000 miles, but the cams had been so reluctant to turn in the minus 20 conditions that the belt jumped several teeth, which resulted in bent valves, of course.  So, a total top end rebuild.

Some weeks later the Beta returned home, supposedly with a clean bill of health (and a block heater), but something sounded . . . off.  The engine seemed a little bit louder.  I shrugged and decided I was imagining things.  Nevertheless, it continued to grow worse.  The eventual diagnosis?  A cracked exhaust manifold.  Apparently the cold had worked its magic once again.  An exhaust manifold couldn’t be too expensive, could it?  In fact, it could, plus new ones were suspiciously scarce, back ordered all the way to Torino, seemingly.  Dammit.  I looked in the back pages of Road & Track and found an aftermarket header for half the price of a manifold.  A couple of weeks later our bemused postman delivered something that looked like the complete plumbing apparatus for a new bath.  Our local garage installed it without a backward glance, notwithstanding the fact that it was the only Lancia that would ever grace its lift.

Winter turned to spring and spring to summer.  Only a few nagging issues surfaced, but other things were on our minds as we contemplated a move to the Pacific Northwest where I was enrolled in school for the next term.  We loaded up a U-Haul truck, which I drove while Linda drove the Beta, together with our month old daughter.  Along the way one of the front u-joints began behaving oddly and making an ungodly sound.  Somehow we all made it to Seattle intact, but it was one more thing on a long list that kept getting longer.

You can see where this is going.  We were both working and I was going to grad school.  Fooling around with a temperamental Italian diva was not in the cards.  It was time to move on, but to what?  But that’s a question for the next installment.  In the meantime let us conclude with some of Lancia’s greatest hits that followed in the ensuing years.

The Stratos (mic drop)

Lancia Thema 8.32. That’s right, the one with the Ferrari V8

Beta Zagato

Lancia Delta Integrale–together with the Fulvia and Stratos before it, World Rally Champion. Lancia won 11 championships.

Lancia Gamma Coupe…another flawed masterpiece

And finally, the sine qua non of Betas, the Montecarlo Turbo 2

As you see, Fiat can’t be accused of giving up after the Beta, but times change and economic conditions don’t always support even the best intentions.  The Beta’s issues, including a rust problem often attributed to the use of Russian steel, doomed Lancia in the export market, even if in retrospect its corrosion troubles were matched by many 70’s cars, but the marque never really recovered.  Lancia continued apace in the Italian market through several decades, but then the bottom fell out.  The nadir had to have been when the proud Lancia scudetto was fixed upon… the Chrysler 300 and Town & Country minivan.  I admired Sergio Marchionne for many things, but I will never forgive him for that.

Today Lancia produces a single model, the Ypsilon, based on the Cinquecento platform.  At least the Cinquecento is cute.

How the mighty have fallen