Fate’s cold hand catches up with the Beta.
The Beta and its derivatives were developed progressively over its production life. A smaller 1,297cc 81bhp (60kW) engine replaced the 1,438cc entry-level unit in 1974, at which time power steering was offered on LHD models. In 1975, the 1,592cc engine was replaced by a slightly smaller capacity 1,585cc 99bhp (74kW) unit and the 1,756cc engine was supplanted by a 1,995cc 117bhp (88kW) powerplant. Electronic ignition was fitted from 1978 and automatic transmission became an option, making the Beta the first Lancia to offer this feature.
The 1,995cc engine received fuel injection in 1980, raising the power output to 120bhp (90kW). Fuel injected models carried the 2000 i.e. suffix. Finally, the 1,995cc engine was fitted with a supercharger (reverting to carburettors) in 1982. Supercharged models produced 133bhp (99kW) and carried the 2000 VX suffix.
After just three years on sale, the Beta berlina received a subtle but well judged and highly effective facelift in 1975, with stylistic input from Pininfarina. The key changes were made to the DLO of the car. The bottom edges of the door windows were made deeper so that they now sat flush with the instep at the top of the door skin(1). The rear three-quarter window was adjusted to match and extended rearward, with a triangular vent added to the trailing corner in place of the Lancia emblem.
The previously flush rear windscreen was now inset at its lower edge, to make it a little more upright, reducing reflections and improving rearward visibility. The effect of these changes was to make the DLO appear larger and to take some visual weight out of the rear end of the car.
At the front, new headlamps with dual lights under a single rectangular lens replaced the previous twin circular units on the upper-level models. The rear lamp graphics were also reworked to make the units appear slimmer. The cumulative effect of these changes was to make the Beta look noticeably sleeker and more elegant. The revised model was given a Series II designation, although not badged as such.
In 1976, Lancia introduced a larger sibling to the Beta, the Gamma; the four-door fastback-saloon joined by a two-door coupé variant. Both models were styled by Pininfarina.
Production of the Beta Montecarlo was suspended for two years from 1978 to deal with a safety issue. The brakes exhibited an alarming tendency to lock-up, a problem that was solved simply by removing the brake servo. Quite why this took two years to fix is unclear. The relaunched model was identifiable by its glazed rather than metal rear buttresses, a change made to improve rearward visibility.
By this time, word was spreading about worrying corrosion problems. Such was the superficial standard of rust-proofing in the auto industry in the 1970s that it was not uncommon for external body panels to develop signs of corrosion when vehicles were only a couple of years old. However, the Beta’s issue was structural, involving a box-section cross-member to which the rear side of the engine and gearbox subframe was bolted. This cross-member had inadequate anti-corrosion protection, and could rust through, no longer providing a secure fixing for the subframe – rendering the car beyond economic repair.
The problem was most acute in the cold and damp climates of Northern Europe, and particularly in the United Kingdom, then Lancia’s biggest export market. In severe cases, the corrosion would result in an MOT(2) test failure. To the company’s credit, Lancia acknowledged the problem and established a buy-back programme for cars up to six years old, even if they were no longer owned by the original purchaser. Cars bought back were dismantled and scrapped.
The British news media reported the story widely, often in rather hysterical and misleading terms(3). There were also rumours about inferior quality steel supplied by Russia, untrue stories about engines falling out while the cars were being driven, and misleading claims that the problem was still affecting cars built in the early 1980s, by which time Lancia had introduced reinforced subframe mountings and more thorough anti-corrosion measures.
The media onslaught on Lancia was unrelenting, and UK confidence in the marque slowly ebbed away. Even if a potential buyer trusted Lancia’s claims that the issues had been resolved, the car they might buy could prove unsaleable second-hand. In order to try and reassure the market, Lancia introduced a six-year anti-corrosion warranty(4) in 1979, the first mainstream manufacturer to do so.
Lancia did not go down without a fight, however, introducing the well-regarded Delta C-segment hatchback in 1979, following this three years later with a saloon version, the Prisma. The company also launched a three-volume version of the Beta berlina in 1980. This was initially called the Beta Trevi, but Lancia subsequently dropped the Beta prefix across the range to distance themselves from the now tainted name.
The Beta berlina was simultaneously updated as a 1980 model. It received the Trevi’s front end, with its shield grille, new headlamps and outboard indicators set into the corners of the front wings. The roof drip rails, which had previously terminated at the trailing corner of the rear side windows, were extended rearward to the tail of the car(5). The Beta also received the Trevi’s unorthodox dashboard by industrial designer, Mario Bellini. This cliff-like structure featured multiple circular indentations for switches, warning lights and instruments. This update was called the Series III. The berlina was discontinued in 1981.
The Montecarlo was also discontinued in 1981, while production of the Spider ended in 1982(6). The coupé and HPE models continued until 1984 with a minor facelift, identifiable by larger bumpers that wrapped around the bodysides to the wheel arches and a black rather than bright metal trimmed DLO.
Total sales of the different Beta derivatives were 435,802 over twelve years, broken down as follows:
|Model||Years in Production||Number Produced(8)|
|Beta berlina||1972 to 1981||194,914|
|Beta coupé||1973 to 1984||111,801|
|Beta Spider(6)||1974 to 1982||9,400|
|Beta HPE||1975 to 1984||71,261|
|Beta Montecarlo||1975 to 1978
1980 to 1981
|Trevi||1980 to 1983||40,628|
As far as the UK and Irish markets were concerned, the corrosion issue precipitated a decline which would ultimately prove terminal. Lancia sales plummeted year on year; in 1993, just 569 cars found buyers in the UK, following sales of 701 in 1992 and 1,320 in 1991. This was a far cry from 1978, Lancia’s best ever year, when around 11,800 cars were sold in the UK.
Lancia announced in December 1993 that they would no longer supply RHD markets, including the UK and Ireland. Many of the 46 surviving UK dealerships had already taken on other franchises as selling and servicing only Lancia cars had long ceased to be a viable business.
The Beta’s corrosion issue is often cited rather lazily as the major or even sole cause of Lancia’s subsequent difficulties, its withdrawal from RHD markets and further retrenchment. I think this is simplistic and unfair on what was an otherwise excellent and highly capable range of cars.
There were many other missteps amid Lancia’s route to near-oblivion. Following Beta corrosion debacle, there was the failure of the Gamma flagship model, and a less than inspired attempt to replace the Beta and Trevi with the Prisma model, which was obviously a booted version of the C-Segment Delta.
There have been occasional rumours of a return to RHD markets(7), and currently, Lancia is reduced to selling just one model, solely in its home market, the extraordinarily resilient 2011 third-generation Ypsilon supermini, sales of which were 43,076 in 2020. Stellantis, the new owners of Lancia, recently announced that a revival is planned for the marque (its third since the Fiat takeover). We live in hope.
(1) Exactly the same technique had been used successfully on the Fiat 132 a year earlier after just two years on the market, transforming its originally rather frumpy appearance into something much smarter.
(2) The MOT test is the UK statutory annual inspection for vehicles that are at least three years old. MOT stands for Ministry of Transport, the long-defunct government department that originally introduced the test in 1960.
(3) This 1979 British TV news report was typical of the tone of much of the coverage, with an alarmist warning of engines “dropping out” and an accusation that Lancia was attempting to “cover up” the problem.
(4) The warranty was conditional on annual inspections on the car being carried out at Lancia dealerships at the owner’s expense, which seemed rather parsimonious on Lancia’s part and undermined confidence somewhat.
(5) Oddly, the alteration to the drip rails was actually introduced some months before the facelift proper and featured on some 1979 pre-facelift cars.
(6) A total of 791 Series IV 2000 I.E. Spiders were manufactured in 1980 and 1981 for export to the United States and would be the last Lancia model to be sold there.
(7) The third-generation 2008 Delta and 2011 Ypsilon models were sold in the UK and Republic of Ireland as Chryslers from 2011 to 2013. They made a negligible impact, the Chrysler name lacking the cachet of Lancia, however tarnished its reputation might have been.
(8) Production data from: www.viva-lancia.com.