The 1972 Beta heralded a brave new start under Fiat ownership for Lancia. We tell its story.
Over six decades from its foundation in 1906, Lancia & C. had earned an enviable reputation for the excellence of its engineering and its finely crafted, innovative and desirable cars. Unfortunately, Vincenzo Lancia, his friend and business partner Claudio Fogolin, and Vincenzo’s son, Gianni, who took over the company when his father died suddenly in 1937, were far more talented engineers than they were businessmen. Consequently, Lancia always struggled to maintain the consistent profitability necessary to sustain the company.
The Lancia family sold their shareholding in the company to Carlo Pesenti, who took over as chief executive in 1955, appointing Professore Antonio Fessia as head of engineering. The new management continued the Lancia tradition of designing technically innovative cars that were difficult and expensive to build. By the late 1960s, Lancia was losing money heavily, with weak sales and an ageing range of models.
Step forward Fiat, the Italian automotive giant, which launched a successful takeover bid in October 1969. With no new models under development at Lancia owing to a lack of funds following a decade of losses, Fiat started with a clean sheet. In early 1970, Sergio Camuffo was appointed to lead the development of a new mid-range saloon, nominally to replace the Fulvia model.
Camuffo pulled together a small team from the depleted ranks of Lancia engineers to work on the new model. The team would have to balance the need to use existing Fiat and Lancia parts to contain costs, yet create a distinctive Lancia identity for the new car. They would take their design from conception to production in less than three years, a truly remarkable achievement.
In the late 1960s, Fiat’s larger models cleaved to the traditional rear-wheel-drive layout but, respecting Lancia’s tradition, it was decided that the new model should be front-wheel-drive, albeit with a transverse engine installation, a first for Lancia. Fortunately, Fiat had in its 125 model a well-regarded DOHC inline four-cylinder engine with a cast-iron block and alloy head that would prove suitable. In the new Lancia, it would be offered in 1.4, 1.6 and 1.8 litre capacities. An end-on five-speed gearbox that Fiat was co-developing with Citroën would also be employed, with the engine and gearbox mounted together on a separate front subframe.
Lancia engineers would modify the Fiat engine considerably for transverse installation. A new alloy cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers, different carburettors and new inlet and exhaust manifolds improved the power and torque in all versions. The 1,438cc unit developed 89bhp (66kW), the 1,592cc unit developed 107bhp (80kW) and the 1,756cc unit developed 118bhp (88kW). The changes made meant that, externally, the engine looked quite different to the Fiat unit, which was no doubt intentional on the part of Lancia’s engineers.
The rest of the technical specification would be equally progressive, with independent suspension using MacPherson struts and coil springs, located by wishbones at the front and transverse arms at the rear, and disk brakes all round. Rack and pinion steering was fitted for the first time in a Lancia. The bodystyle, by Giampaolo Boano at Centro Stile Fiat, would also be distinctive, a crisp and contemporary fastback design(1). The new car was named Beta(2) recalling Lancia’s previous use of the Greek alphabet for its model names. It was formally unveiled in October 1972.
Car Magazine journalist and Lancia aficionado Philippe de Barsy drove a pre-production example at the media launch event and was highly impressed, describing the Beta as “a car in the great Aurelia tradition”. Even though the test car apparently lacked some of the production model’s soundproofing, it was “smooth and silent!” while the steering, pedals and gearchange were described as “light and precise”. The close-ratio gearbox was “perfectly tailored to the sweet power of the 1,800cc version of the engine”.
Barsy was amazed at how the subframe mounting and transverse installation completely changed the character of the engine. He noted that the Italian automotive press had mourned the passing of Lancia’s narrow-angle V4 engines but opined that “pure Lancia drivers will not be as illogical”.
The interior accommodation was comfortable and spacious, and luggage space was described as “enormous”. While he was somewhat ambivalent about the exterior styling, Barsy regarded the Beta as a great return to form after the “disastrous Pesenti-Fessia(3) regime at Lancia”.
Continental European sales commenced in early 1973 but it would be almost a year before the Beta was made available in right-hand-drive markets. Autocar magazine road-tested the 1.8 litre version and published its findings in November 1973. The car achieved a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 10.7 seconds and a top speed of 109mph (176km/h). Overall fuel consumption on test was 24.3mpg (11.62L/100km) despite the car being driven “brutally hard”. In both performance and fuel economy, the Beta bettered its most obvious direct rival, the less sophisticated Fiat 132 Special 1800.
With regard to handling, the front-heaviness of the Beta’s mechanical layout was apparent, but it was “reassuringly stable, no matter what the road conditions” unless pushed exceptionally hard. The ride was somewhat firm at lower speeds, but the seats were “sumptuously comfortable”. Wind and road noise were “impressively muted”, but engine noise was intrusive above 85mph (137km/h).
In terms of practicality, the Beta offered “better-than-average leg room, decent head room and large door openings”. The boot was “truly vast and of a useful shape”. The standard of construction appeared to be excellent: “Seldom have cars been produced with such narrow and regular margins”.
This review was typical of the ringing endorsements that the new Beta received, and sales started strongly. Further variants quickly followed: a 2+2 two-door Coupé in 1973, a targa-topped Spider a year later, then a three-door shooting-brake, dubbed HPE (for High Performance Estate) in 1975. The handsome Coupé and HPE variants were styled in-house by Centro Stile Lancia under the direction of Aldo Castagno, with Piero Castagnero acting as consultant, a role he had previously performed for Lancia on the design of the Fulvia Berlina and Coupé.
The Spider, although very similar to the Coupé below the waistline, was designed by Pininfarina and built by Zagato. The HPE used the Berlina’s platform and shared its 2,535mm (99¾”) wheelbase. The Coupé and Spider shared a shorter 2,350mm (92½”) wheelbase version of the same platform.
The final addition to the Beta range was the 1975 Montecarlo, a mid-engined sports car available in fixed-head or targa-roofed formats. This model was designed and built by Pininfarina and utilised the twin-cam transverse engine and gearbox from the other Beta models, but otherwise shared little with its FWD siblings. It had originally been designed for Fiat as a proposed replacement for the 124 Coupé.
Within five years, Lancia had been transformed from a struggling independent automaker, producing well-regarded but outdated cars that sold in small numbers, to an upmarket Fiat group business unit offering a range of contemporary and desirable models that had a high degree of commonality in componentry and could be manufactured efficiently and economically in high volume.
Moreover, with a larger Gamma saloon almost ready for launch, a coupé to follow a year later, and development work on the smaller Delta hatchback was already underway, the future for Lancia was looking brighter and more assured than at any time in its history.
Part Two follows shortly.
(1) This bodystyle could readily have incorporated a fifth door, but hatchback designs were still regarded as inappropriate for a prestige car.
(2) As the first in a new generation of Lancia models developed and launched under Fiat ownership, it might have been called Alpha if not for the confusion (and irritation in Milan) that name might have caused on a Lancia.
(3) Carlo Pesenti was chief executive of Lancia from 1955 to 1969. Antonio Fessia was the company’s head of engineering from 1955 until his death in 1968.