“Even Beta: Lancia’s thrilling new Trevi.” Archie Vicar takes a look at an exciting new sporting luxury saloon from Italy’s respected Lancia marque.
Track & Motoring, July 1981. Photos by Greg Orford. Owing to an overwhelming cyan-blue colour cast affecting the original images, stock photography has been employed.
Without any doubt Lancia’s engineers have been scratching their heads since 1972, trying to think of a way to top the terrific Beta. Despite its front-drive handicap and an engine donated by Fiat, it really is a cracking car, with much to commend it. So how do they go better than the very best?
Simple, they don’t. The Beta Trevi has a different interior and new body panels. But the underpinnings of the Beta are all still there and, some say, thank goodness for that. The Beta Trevi was shown in Geneva about a year ago but it’s only now available in the United Kingdom. We tested a 2 litre model to find out Lancia’s formula for building on their achievements of the 70s and taking them into the ‘eighties.
Taking the excellent foundations of the Beta as a their basis, Lancia have been quite ingenious in retaining not a few of that car’s better points and adding some new details. The original Beta was a four-door saloon despite its fastback looks (much like the Citroen GS). Very cleverly, the Beta Trevi is also a four door saloon but it has a boldly cut notchback to prove it. So, now Lancia has not one but two four-door saloons in its line-up: one for people who want saloons that look like hatchbacks and another for people who want their saloon to look upright and boxy.
The Beta Trevi’s engines are also the same as those found in the Beta Berlina: a sprightly 1600 and a sporty 2000. A choice of Weber or Solex carburettors is available. The suspension is fully independent. McPherson struts and coils are positioned all the way around the car, which is handy since the same type of tyre is used on all four wheels too. Those wheels are Pirelli P6 185/65HR 14″ radials. As per the Beta, a screw-pillar jack is provided and the screen wipers have two-speeds plus an intermittent setting. So, that’s the Lancia Beta Trevi in overview.
Getting inside the car
Once inside the car, many drivers will notice that the interior is subtly different from many other vehicles. Perhaps inspired by Munich, the dashboard is very much shaped with the driver in mind. The main gauges and dials are recessed in deep tubes all angled towards a point just below the driver’s eyeline. Lancia’s own brochure describes the innovation: “The main instruments are arranged directly in front of the driver.” And interestingly, the passenger can see nothing of what the driver is doing speedwise, which is very handy for car with the Beta Trevi’s sporting intent. The seats are very soft and wide thus allowing a lot of freedom for movement, ideal on a long journey on motorways.
A pet hate of mine is losing things in car interiors. I can’t tell you how many Mont Blancs and Bics I’ve lost in test cars, and how many pairs of spectacles, lighters, pipes, boxes of matches and the like that have been lost with them. The Beta Trevi avoids this hazard by having almost nowhere to store personal effects, apart from a small, odd-shaped declivity just to the right of the gear stick.
It would be excellent if other manufacturers could also save our time and theirs by stopping the race to have the most places to mislay vital bits of falderal. Incidentally, if you really do have to find somewhere to put things, simply don’t order a radio with your Beta Trevi. It’s not a standard item and the resultant hole in the dash would be a good nook into which to cast a pack of Craven “A” cigarettes in between smokes.
When I first started my road testing career getting a car going and keeping it going was always a challenge and great fun too. The Lancia Beta Trevi harks back to the entertainment of these sadly bygone days by requiring deft use of the accelerator pedal, gearbox and “the rolling halt” to keep the car from stuttering and stalling during the first seven or eight miles of driving. The trick is to avoid the car coming to a halt at, say, a junction or stop light or for any reason at all. Getting stuck in heavy traffic is unwise also, unless the engine is well-warmed through. The other alternative is a bit of patience. Just start the car, light a cigarette and rev firmly until you’ve finished a second one. By then the engine will be well up to operating temperature.
At this point it might be fair to ask that the car is like to drive. Well, the Beta Trevi is fundamentally a car with Ultramontaine heritage. All it needs are gently curved steeply inclined mountain roads to really shine. With this in mind it is easy to forgive the car for not quite relishing the choked streets of Norwich and the Norfolk countryside where we chose to conduct our appraisal.
As it was, the Trevi balked at the frequent tight corners and the consequent shifting of gears. One bright spot was the ease with which one could change from third to fourth. This is so generously sprung that that it often liked to helpfully drop out of gear itself if one was really going hammer and tongs. Fifth gear is tuned for power rather than quiet running so at motorway speeds it does drone rather. Stay off the motorways is my advice.
In handling terms, the Beta Trevi is a car where gentle understeer disguises a propensity for the most entertaining lift-off oversteer, especially in the wet. It switches from one mode to the other with nearly no intermediary state. Drivers who like a challenge will find that the Beta Trevi will provide much amusement.
Lancia recommend only one tyre for this car, as it is around the Pirelli P6s that the suspension has been tuned. To fit any other tyre would be like putting tomato ketchup on a Melton Mowbray pork pie. Like the pork pie, the Beta Trevi is complete unto itself. My tentative feeling here is that Lancia have been more than courageous in choosing this suspension set-up of the Beta Trevi. It brooks no compromise while other makers still insist on promising only stodgily predictable understeer (VW, Leyland and Renault take note!).
The robustly built Beta Trevi weighs 23.3 cwt. 115 bhp is safely put down through the expedient of having 72% of the weight falling on the front axle. This means that it’s the clutch that spins rather than the tyres if you drop a cog quickly into first. In second gear a humorous wisp of blue smoke signals tyre spin.. If you’ve avoided tyre spin or a flailing clutch, 40 mph comes up in 6 seconds, and 60 mph can be attained in 11 seconds.
Not bad, not bad at all. It’s best to keep the revs up beyond 4000 to get the best out of the Beta Trevi’s charismatic twin-cam Fiat-derived motor. Driven as intended the Beta Trevi easily attains 23 mpg. If you want to see the other side of 25 mpg you have to drive it in a way the car isn’t designed for anyway, which is to say, with gentle inputs and little vim or vigour.
The Beta Trevi’s road-holding is generally good and the brakes manage to do a fair amount of stopping. This is no lady’s car though: a good firm shove is required to get the very best out of the anchors. But Lancia know their customers and unlike, say, Ford or Vauxhall, don’t pander to those for whom mere convenience means more than challenging driving.
Accommodation and equipment
As mentioned above, the interior is a simple but bravely modern affair. Rather than being designed by committee it is clearly the work of one singular mind, the designer Bellini of Italy. He has stamped his vision and understanding on the interior of the car in precisely the way architects of the ’30s did. It is uncompromising.
As in the Citroen CX, the door release levers are hidden to avoid cluttering the otherwise blank interior panels. Bellini doesn’t want the driver or passengers to disturb the clean lines of the interior. That would distract from the striking seats which are clearly inspired by the latest Italian furniture design of 1977.
Oddly, now that the Beta Trevi has less space on the inside than its predecessor, Lancia make a bit of meal of how roomy it’s supposed to be. Despite it being a bit of a small car they insist “the Trevi is one of the most spacious on the inside.” Well, logically, the least roomy of ten cars can still be one of the most roomy, the “tenth most roomy car.” Lawyers must have written Lancia’s marketing fluff. I’m still puzzled. The Beta was notably roomy and the Beta Trevi is notably not so roomy. Where did the space go?
It’s a good smoker’s car. While the rear doors lack any visible decoration they do have an ashtray each. Simple though they are, they are effective. The driver’s ashtray is placed to allow you to keep your cigarette in your right hand, leaving the left one to do the gear-changing.
The ventilation is simply terrible but most smokers will have one or two windows open anyway. The windows are electric, in the modern style, with the four switches safely out of reach between the front seats. Rather than put the gear change map diagram on the ball of the gear lever where it is hidden by your hand, the gear locations are marked on the plastic fascia of the centre console. This is another clever idea, and typical of the originality that Beta Trevi demonstrates. A nice high lip over the tailgate keeps your possessions safe once the boot lid is open. All in all, the Beta Trevi is both different and original in many ways.
The Trevi has it all: a charismatic engine where the emphasis is on performance and not eking out petrol. On the handling front, the Beta Trevi manages to offer the possibility of either thrilling tail-out antics or play-it-safe understeer. The exterior design sets the car far apart from other saloons. Inside, the car is cosy, nicely trimmed (in navy blue or chocolate brown velour) and is fitted with a uniquely designed dashboard which ought to get the neighbours talking.
The only horse in the bath is a rather abstract one: should Lancia be building a car focused on both performance and luxury? And does the car’s Fiat roots mean it lacks that critical element of character that’s so important in today’s increasingly competitive market? But as it stands, the car’s unusual styling and quirky features, all built upon a tried-and-tested decade-old design will surely mean Lancia’s current progress can continue unchanged.
Archie Vicar is a founder member of the chartered society of retired motoring writers.