This is the Time and this is the Record of the Time

Car advertisements offer a snapshot of a different time. Welcome to a vision of Italy – mid-’70s style.

Image: Author’s collection

Today’s visual meditation rests upon that perennial DTW favourite, featuring press ads for two of the more indulgent offerings from Lancia’s abundant Beta family. These were expensively shot advertisements featuring high production values, and targeted at a discerning audience. During the 1970s, (before it all unravelled for them) Lancia’s UK importers spent a sizeable portion of their ad budget with publishers, Conde Nast, between full-page colour ads like these, and multi-page spreads made in conjunction with a fashion house(s) of choice.

The product planning meetings for the Beta programme must have been interesting. Given the breath-taking scope of what they eventually went with, one has to wonder what wonders were rejected along the way. Were their Fiat masters over-compensating for the paltry state of Lancia’s product plans, or was there a clear-headed strategy behind offering so many seemingly overlapping variations?

The Beta Spider as seen above was based upon the factory Coupé, styled in house by the same team who had crafted the pretty Fulvia Coupé before it. The conversion was carried out by Zagato, although it bore little of the carrozzeria’s trademark style. The hefty rollover hoop was clearly a nod to the same proposed 1973 US Federal regulations which adversely affected innumerable early ’70s designs, despite never being enacted. It’s unclear as to whether the Spider ever made it across the Atlantic, but its more exotic mid-engined brother certainly did, badged as the Scorpion.

Image: Author’s collection.

While Bertone’s delicate little X/19 was a successor to the equally diminutive Fiat 850 Spider, the larger Pininfarina designed X1/20 was initially aimed (it’s alleged) at replacing the larger 124 Spider. But with that model remaining a strong seller in the US market – there being robust demand for technically simple and relatively crude open two-seaters in America (as MG and their ilk had long tapped into) – this more sophisticated concept was gifted to Lancia as the Beta’s halo model.

Designed, engineered and built by Pininfarina at their Grugliasco plant, the Montecarlo was introduced in 1975 in coupé and spider versions, the latter aimed at a more discerning clientele than the workaday 2+2 Zagato Spider. The example pictured above is curious however, in that while clearly a first series car, it has lost the early model’s full rear buttresses in favour of the flying buttress arrangement of the second series. However, the revised model didn’t appear until 1980, well after this ad was aired. Was there an interim model?

The Montecarlo was taken out of production in 1978, following a well publicised issue of premature locking of the front brakes under full retardation. It was two years before Lancia could offer a suitable remedy and allow Pininfarina to resume production. The revised cars could be identified by glazed flying buttresses, the new corporate Lancia shield grille and new style alloy wheels shared with the Beta HPE, Coupé and later versions of the Trevi. The changes came too late to save the Montecarlo however, and it was withdrawn in 1981, having never met its potential.

I suppose one could make a comment about implied (or overt) sexism in the manner in which these ads were composed, but one has first to remind oneself of where they were being run (Vogue continues to enjoy a predominantly female readership), the fact that the spots were playing upon somewhat clichéd notions of Italian culture, not to forget the mores of the time, which are somewhat different some forty years later.

What we’re left with therefore is two rather arresting (if poorly reproduced) images of very pretty, deeply flawed motor cars, and perhaps one takeaway piece of reflection: Had we known what would subsequently befall the marque, would we collectively have been as sniffy about the Beta programme at first sight? Because looking at what Lancia was offering during the 1970s, it seems more like a high water mark.

The times, in more ways than one, are not as they were.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “This is the Time and this is the Record of the Time”

  1. Here’s a picture of a US version beta Spider

    The Spider originally came with frameless door windows and a stand alone roll over hoop. These cars had the torsional rigidity of a sheet of wet toilet paper and the design was changed to windows with frames, taking the standard coupe/HPE doors and bars between the windscreen surround and the roll over hoop. They still were exceptionally floppy, particularly when corrosion had set in at the base of the rear side panels and sills which was the case all too early because all water getting in through the notoriously leaky roof was collected there.
    One evening in the early Eighties I was passing a Honda dealer with my then current Alfa. They had the front and back doors of their workshop open so I could see their scrap yard and a silver beta Spider standing there. Five minutes later the beta was mine for very little money. It was an early two litre example (brown Mk1 interior, common headlamp cover) which was fun to drive but also gave its fair share if trouble.

    Not all Mk1 Montecarlos had full metal buttresses. UK versions already had the glass panels in Mk1 guise because local visibility regulations mandated see through rear three quarter panels. In the picture I see an RHD car so this would be appropriate.
    The Montecarlo becoming reality isn’t too much of a wonder. It was the first car fully designed, developed and produced by Pininfarina (just as the X1/9 was at Bertone) so it was them who had to bear the risk.
    A Montecarlo in good condition is a wonderful car to drive particularly if the engine has been upgraded to Tipo Abarth standard, which many of them are.
    The biggest problem of these cars nowadays is that there are absolutely no spare parts except for the ubiquitous engine.

  2. Ah, the Beta, from a time when car manufacturers offered genuine choice to the customer and the abomination of the ‘SUV Coupé’ was many years in the future. Here’s my favourite Beta derivative, and car I regret never owning:

    Lovely!

    1. Seconded. I won´t forget seeing one roar past me in the middle of a Jutland summer´s evening as I was biking home from work. It looked like a mirage. Is there anything comparable today? Of course, you know I am mad about the Trevi. Still, the HPE is a marvel.

    2. Daniel, how delightful!

      I hope your ownership experience was happier than my father’s… he owned one of these briefly (same colour too), but sadly it was already in pretty poor shape when he bought it and he had to move it on as it proved too expensive to maintain.

    3. I had a lovely black on in the mid ’90s. It was a fantastic touring car – good handling, comfortable and reasonably economical. Sounded pretty good too. I sold it when someone made an offer I couldn’t refuse – he’d not driven it, just looked over its rust free body (the kiwi climate was obviously a bit friendlier!).

  3. Goodness me, that Beta at this time on a Sunday morning is enough to spill my morning tea…delightful.

    As to the adverts, I wonder how early in the morning they had to be to secure such a quiet location by the statue? shoo-ing away gangs of small boys and interested men. And I’m no Italian geographical expert but is the backdrop to the “police” photo the abandoned city of Craco? Both adverts must’ve needed planning akin to a military operation but the results are much more gratifying along with being interesting than a lot of today’s computer generated nonsense. Of their time, as you say, Eóin – lovely.

    1. Good morning, Andrew. So, do we think the lady in the Montecarlo was speeding, or has broken down? Either scenario is equally possible!

    2. The picture with the Beta Spider in front of the statue wasn’t that difficult to organize.
      First of all, the photo crew needed an official permit to take pictures at this place. In Italy, an official from the Polizia Municipal was usually on location.
      The four young men were casted extras. The small street to the right of the statue and the area behind the camera only had to be closed for a short time for the shooting. Three PAs (Production Assistant) were probably enough to do this.

      We did a similar photo shooting, just without a car, during the day in the middle of Berlin amidst the hustle and bustle of tourists. We were only three people on the production side.

      And yes, Film- and Photoshootings must be planed akin to a military operation. When you work behind the camera, you learn to work in a disciplined manner pretty quickly. Democracy behind the camera only works to a very limited extent.

      One of my best anecdotes about military operations in the film business: For a two-week film shoot in South Africa – the location was chosen because we needed a steam locomotive with which we, the actors and crew, could drive through the countryside while filming – we hired a local catering service. The boss was a plump mom who was an absolute authority on her work. When I asked her what kind of support she needed from the production side, she said, “White boy, you just tell us when and where we should serve food, we’ll do the rest.” She wore a T-shirt with the company’s logo on her chest and with the words on the back “Film is War!”

    3. Good point there – these are theatrical ads and the CGI stuff today is brittle and unconvincing. Back in the 1980s the BMW adverts really stirred up my emotions and feelings for the brand. The actuality of the ads´ scenese was part of this. I can´t believe in the arid concrete landscapes of Photoshopia where all the new ads are produced. These Lancia ads have real power because they are, simply put, real.

    4. The car is a first series Targa, 1975-1978.
      The problem I see is that there is something like “POLI…” on the fairing, but a white-red police motorcycle never existed in Italy, those being olive green until 1976 and white-blue from 1976 onwards.
      It might be a local police bike, but the picture should be 1975-78, and until 1986 the local police (Polizia locale) was called “Vigili urbani”, so this should be written on the fairing.
      The uniform is also not Italian: might it be French or Swiss?
      So I do not think this is an Italian bike+policeman combination.
      Finally, the only Italian thing appears to be the bike, possibly a Moto Guzzi Falcone, used by all Italian polices from the Fifties to Seventies and also exported.
      White and red are the colours of Monaco and of Switzerland.
      My best hypothesis would be a Monaco policeman (more or less French uniform, colours, Italian bike instead of the BMW used in France).
      Second best a Canton Ticino policeman; Mandello del Lario, where Moto Guzzi is built, is a stone’s throw from Canton Ticino.

      Another problem is the yellow line on the side of the road, also not Italian, when present they are white.
      A bizarre detail is the line perpendicular to the yellow one on the left.
      The background town might one of hundred towns in middle Italy; I had a look to the skyline of Craco, it is not.

      All the above would point to a picture assembled from various elements: a further clue in this direction could be the very close, too close, relative position of bike and car.

    5. “So, do we think the lady in the Montecarlo was speeding, or has broken down? Either scenario is equally possible!”

      My initial thoughts were that the attractive young lady discovered the Montecarlo’s arresting Achilles’ Heel first hand and had left the road in a symphony of tyre squeal and expletives. But I thought that might have been a little obvious, so refrained from making the observation. Mind you, if you have to leave the road at speed, I can think of less stylish conveyances in which to do so.

      I saw a Montecarlo about a fortnight ago. Sadly I was unable to stop and further investigate. It was a second-series car, I think, but modified to vaguely resemble an 037 rally car. Lovely thing. Parked next to a 105 Series GTV. That was lovely too. Things you see in West Cork. I was passed by a pristine baby blue Fiat 850 Coupé today while walking the dogs… There’s a Trevi knocking about around here as well. Bizarre.

    6. @ anastasio: Well observed.

      My guess: The photo is a setup. The ad was for Lancia UK because the Montecarlo shown is an RHD.
      The crew brought the vehicle with them, maybe the two models too.
      Motorbikes from the Police (and Military of course) where not rentable. The probably had some police on location, but they came by car. So the only motorcycle they could rent on location was a civilian Moto Guzzi – and it came in red, I think the Falcone was only available in red.
      Painting (and re-painting) the bike was to expensive, so the Propman just put a white stripe and the letters onto the front, and thought it would be funny to paint the side border line in front of the camera in yellow.
      Apart from the fact that the police motorcycle has no (blue, red, what ever) signal light, no police officer would overtake a stopped car on the right across the grass strip to park in front of it.
      It looks like the result when commercial photographers and creative directors simulate reality.

    7. ‚Vigili urbani‘ are called ‚polizia municipale’ or ‘policia locale’ nowadays and are a local municipal force comparable to traffic wardens that mainly serve as a first contact for citizens.
      Therefore no sirens or flashlights on the bikes – following and overtaking a criminal with a Nuovo Falcone would have been nearly impossible anyway.
      The Nuovo Falcone was a bike specially designed for military of police forces, initially there even wasn’t a civilian version. There were very few such Guzzis in private use and if they were they had no fairing and no panniers.

      Some ciities like Bergamo initially kept their red bikes after the forces were renamed from ‘vigilie’ to ‘polizia’.

  4. I don’t wish to be harsh…But I will be.

    I think the car broke down after she’d been speeding. They just had to wait for the smoke and steam to clear to get the shot!

    1. Apples and toothbrushes really – the two brands were complimenary. I have a soft spot for brutes like the 75 and Alfetta and the charming 164 just as I am wistful about Trevis, Kappas (the coupe) and Flavias.

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