“To create an unfavourable impression, it is not necessary that certain things be true, but that they have been said. The imagination is of so delicate a texture that even words wound it”. [William Hazlitt (1778-1830) – Writer, critic, philosopher]
With a now unassailable position within the annals of infamy; derided and patronised by legions of uninformed writers and journalists, has sufficient time elapsed to speak dispassionately about the Lancia Beta? It’s difficult to be certain, but the point of today’s exercise is to consider some of the anomalies and areas of received wisdom which have surrounded the car since its inception.
Speed: Frequently a desirable trait, especially when it comes to the motor car, but like most matters in life, context is all. In the case of the Beta, it would come to frame a negative, insofar as the initial gestation was by industry standards, staggeringly short. Following Fiat Auto’s takeover of the failing Lancia business in 1969, the situation at Borgo San Paolo was dire, not just in financial, managerial, or engineering, but crucially in product terms.
With no new models in hand, Fiat’s appointed engineering leader, Sergio Camuffo had to work fast. But to take a new from the ground up design from concept to announcement in just over two years, while on one hand a staggering achievement, and one deserving of high praise, was likely to have been root of many of the Beta’s later well-publicised maladies.
The speed at which the Beta – not simply one car, let’s not forget – was conceived has lent many (this author included) to ponder exactly how this could have been achieved without recourse to some pre-existing handware. Yet power unit apart, there seems to have been little or no technical or structural carry-over from any existing Fiat group product.
Is it possible that the original Beta could have been derived from a mothballed front-drive Fiat Auto programme – a not impossible hypothesis, given that Mirafiori was already edging in this technical direction? A curtailed joint effort under the PARDEVI agreement with Citroen? Little of a meaningful nature appears to have been documented (in English anyway) regarding this aspect of the Beta’s origin, so must remain in the realm of conjecture.
Also anomalous is the matter of scale. It is almost universally agreed that the Beta was intended to succeed the entry level Fulvia, a car which not only looked a good deal more compact than it was in reality, but was also starting to look rather dated by the early 1970s. This optical illusion suggested therefore that the more rakish and modernist Beta was a significantly larger motorcar.
Bigger it was, in most dimensions, although not as much as one might imagine. 205 mm separate the cars in overall length, while the Fulvia is 153 mm narrower. Counterintuitively, it is the Beta which is the taller, by a mere 3 mm. The Beta has an additional 63 mm in wheelbase, allowing for the fact that the Fulvia at 2477 mm was already on the generous side. While successive models always tend to grow in size, these dimensional differences, while not vast, are nevertheless of a greater magnitude to that of an expected iterative step.
A further inconsistency regarding the Beta saloon was the decision to employ a two volume body shape. Granted, this silhouette was somewhat in vogue at the time amid European design circles, largely on the basis of Pininfarina’s earlier Aerodynamica studies, not to mention Citroen’s much-lauded homage in the form of 1970’s GS-series, or indeed the following year’s Alfa Sud.
However, Lancia’s customer base was largely conservative in taste and with the three volume saloon still very much the favoured silhouette for an upmarket saloon, it was a curious choice. Did Lancia’s new masters wish to make a clear demarcation within the Lancia bloodline, or simply preview the forthcoming Gamma – one wonders whether the Beta saloon was subjected to much customer consultation?
It would appear that the necessity to get the Beta quickly onto the market was driven largely by Fiat Auto’s impatience to amortise what must have been a considerable investment. But given that the Fulvia berlina was a proven, well-regarded model, why was it rushed into a premature grave, rather than freshened and at least temporarily retained?
It is likely that for Fiat, the discontinuation of the Fulvia allowed the Chivasso plant to be repurposed for Beta production while eliminating an undesirable model – if viewed purely from a cost of production perspective. But actions have consequences and this precipitated a market void for a more compact-sized Lancia product in the domestic market, one which wouldn’t be meaningfully addressed until the advent of the Delta in 1979.
One of the defining qualities of the Beta was the level of proliferation which the model line essayed. Saloon, 2+2 coupé, 2+2 Spider, four-seater shooting brake hatchback, and mid-engined two-seater. Later of course, there was also the tre-volumi Trevi. While on one hand, it was a symphony of choice; there really being a Beta model for just about everyone, but there is a strong case to be made to suggest that Lancia engineers stretched themselves too thinly by developing so many stand-alone versions.
As a Fulvia replacement, equipping the Beta with engines of 1.4 and 1.6 litres capacity was entirely logical, especially as both in saloon and coupé form, they were larger, heavier motorcars. However, as the Flavia itself moved upmarket from 1971, (with its mid-decade replacement intended to be more upmarket still), it was also deemed expedient to offer the Beta with a 1.8 litre engine. This placed the model closer to its larger sibling, lending further uncertainty as to the Beta’s true position in the hierarchy. As the Beta became Lancia’s core offering, the range would encompass 1.3 to 2.0 litres, the latter nudging the lower reaches of what had been the Flavia’s market – a lot to ask of one car.
The Beta was built at Lancia’s Stabilimento Chivasso manufacturing plant, a factory which had produced the Fulvia to admirable standards of assembly and finish. However, build and material quality was not a notable feature of the Beta, pretty much from the outset. Although well appointed, the Beta’s dashboard moulding and instrumentation for instance, like so many Italian cars of that era, was not a particularly enticing visual prospect; neither looking nor feeling like a quality product, while the soft furnishings were neither as durable nor finely specified as of yore. Paintwork too was a weak point, with owners complaining of degradation and surface corrosion within a very short time.
While there was an obvious drop in quality brought about by the change of ethos after the Fiat takeover, there was also the fractured labour relations of the 1970s to consider – a situation affecting virtually all Italian carmakers to a greater or lesser extent. But while it is quite likely that much of the Beta’s woes stemmed from inconsistencies in production engineering – which we know was likely to have been rushed – we must not discount the quality of workmanship which took place on the production line, especially when it came to the preparation of the body-in-white.
By the time the ‘Beta rust scandal’ hit the UK airwaves in 1978, Lancia’s press and PR functions appeared to either be asleep or simply in bunker-mode, hoping the clamour would die down of its own accord. Certainly, back in Turin, the initial feeling seemed to be that this was a local issue of little concern – it only being after the whole thing had blown well out of proportion that any meaningful action was taken. It’s highly likely that Lancia UK’s failure to control the media narrative early on allowed the more sensationalist aspects of the story to take hold and become embedded.
Similarly, after the event, the UK importers were far too slow in communicating positive change and getting across to customers – existing and prospective – that Lancia remained a sound purchase. By the time they did, too much ground had been lost, hardly aided by the glacial pace in supplying the improved new models in RHD form.
But all this aside, and despite the fact that the press (both national and specialist) were all too willing to keep the story alive (they propagate it still), the Beta debacle alone did not destroy Lancia in these markets. That came about as a result of a whole slew of factors, much of which lie outside the scope of this article.
There is however a hypothesis that the Beta/ Trevi models comprised a market sweet-spot for Lancia, being an ideal size for a broad swathe of buyers. Once the model became discredited however, not only was its rationale lost, but because Lancia never directly replaced it, so too was this market itself.
So, where does this leave us? On one hand the Beta was a terrific achievement by Sergio Camuffo and his engineers – a finely and intelligently conceived series of car designs, encompassing a broad swathe of markedly different, yet closely related cars. In this regard, the Beta programme was rather clever. Couple this with the speed in which it came into being, not to mention the cars’ many fine qualities and the Beta should be better regarded – but for its Achilles Heel.
Whether it represented the correct path for Lancia at this point, or indeed one it could afford however is another question. But fundamentally, its fitness for purpose, its market success, or indeed whether Lancia could ever have replaced it like-for-like was not predicated upon its own fortunes, but those of its Fiat master. And because Fiat Auto remained a rather unstable vessel throughout the 1970s and the decades that followed, it became inevitable that Lancia too would founder.
William Hazlett’s eloquent thesis on reputation can be brought to bear upon the Beta story, at least if one views both it and Lancia’s retrenchment in narrow terms. But in taking a broader view, not only was the Beta rust scandal ultimately a matter of inconsequence; in the overall scheme, so too was the Beta itself.
 The Beta’s development was amongst the shortest ever, second only to that of the 1962 Chevy II, which allegedly took a staggering 18 months from approval to job one.
 While the Lampredi twin-cam was a Fiat engine in principle, it was greatly changed in detail, with little parts commonality.
 Surely there would have been some documentation had this been the case?
 An illusion consequent of its somewhat upright and rectilinear styling theme.
 The Beta Spider was designed at Pininfarina, but built by carrozzeria Zagato, while the Monte Carlo was not only built by Pininfarina, but designed and largely developed at Cambiano – itself a stillborn Fiat concept.
 This can be rationalised to some extent by Italy’s punitive taxation of large capacity engines.
 The Gamma Berlina was built at Lancia’s Borgo San Paolo plant in Turin to a high standard, lending further credence to labour-related issues at Chivasso.
 An example of this being the fact that it was over a year after launch that the Trevi reached the UK market. Ditto the Delta.