Here’s a fun game: strike up a conversation with any car enthusiast about the ins and outs of the Lancia Beta. If the chat lasts for longer than five minutes before rust begins to rear its ugly head, then it’ll have lasted longer than the average Beta did. At least according to the Daily Mirror, which in 1980 launched a campaign against the Italian marque demanding that corroded cars must be bought back from customers.
Today, however, the fears over rust have largely disappeared. The cars that were worst affected have long since rotted away, leaving only the fittest to survive. Some, however, would argue that the Beta wasn’t significantly worse off in this respect than contemporary British rivals in the first place...
Once bodywork issues have been put to bed, there’s much to enjoy about the Beta. Available in a range of body styles and powered by variations of Fiat’s twin-cam four cylinder engine, every model features all round disc brakes and MacPherson strut suspension, which endows it with a pleasing ride/handling balance. Power is sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox, while later models become easier to live with thanks to optional power steering and electric windows.
Which one to buy?
The Beta was offered in five distinct body styles during its life. The first to debut was the Berlina. Though it bears the appearance of a five-door hatchback, it featured a saloon-style bootlid, as Lancia believed that this was the more desirable configuration. The Coupe debuted two years later - sitting on a platform 190mm shorter than the Berlina - followed closely by the targa-like Spyder, also using the shortened underpinnings and a 2+2 seating layout. Unlike the rest of the range, the Spyder was built by Zagato.
The fourth body style to join the line-up was the HPE. This three-door shooting brake-style model was pitched as a sporty model in the line-up, and combined the Coupe’s front end styling with the longer wheelbase of the Berlina. In 1980, production for the Trevi started, which most closely mimicked the Berlina, but bore a much more traditional three-box saloon shape.
The engine line-up ranged from 1.3 to to 2.0-litres in capacity. Throughout the Beta’s life, various upgrades were introduced, mainly to improve driveability rather than outright power. The most potent option, the supercharged 2.0-litre fitted to both the HPE and the Coupe, produced 135bhp and promised a 0-60mph time of about 8.5 seconds.
The Spyders were the rarest models when new, with a total of 9330 produced (in comparison to 194,914 Berlinas), though it’s the two-door models that are most frequently available now among the classifieds.
We’d suggest avoiding cars fitted with the automatic gearbox if possible - it's very slow, very unreliable and spares are scarce. Some owners have chosen to convert the car to the five-speed manual should any terminal gearbox issues occur.
Performance and spec
Engine 1995cc inline four
Power 115bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 130lb ft @ 2800rpm
Top speed 117mph
Fuel consumption approx 28mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
● Despite the risk of body panel corrosion being reduced on any examples that have survived this long, there are plenty of areas still to look out for. Check the front subframe, the battery shelf, and the bonnet - particularly at the leading edge of the latter, where stone chips can cause trouble (examine the front valance for the same reason).
● The doors rust along the lower edges and seams, while water can get in through the mirrors on those that are internally adjustable, causing rot from the inside out. Finally, ensure the drain holes within the arches are clear, or else the sills can start to rust. Restoration is generally straightforward, but can get expensive.
● Check that the electric windows go up and down as they should, as issues are common
● You should carefully inspect the condition of the interior, as dashboard switches, seat trim and other components can be difficult to source.
● Mechanically, most Betas should be fairly reliable if properly maintained. Of course, beyond 100,000 miles some parts will begin to suffer from general wear and tear
● The automatic gearbox, which was offered from 1978 onwards, is poor. Not only does it make the car approximately 30 per cent slower, but is also notoriously weak. Repairs are tricky and replacements scarce
● Head gasket trouble is fairly rare, but it's most likely to occur on 2.0-litre cars
● Cam belts need to be changed every 36,000 miles, but ideally more frequently
● If carb-fed models run roughly when cold, don’t worry - this is completely normal. The engine will idle at around 2000rpm on startup, but once everything has warmed through make sure it drops to around 800-1000rpm.
● The heater is notoriously unreliable, and there’s a strong chance that it will be either always on or always off
1972: Lancia Beta launched in Europe
Jul 1973: Right-hand drive Beta Berlina (saloon) launched
Mar 1974: Coupe introduced
Sep 1974: Spyder launched
Apr 1975: HPE launched
1978: Mid-life revision includes cosmetic tweaks, the option of a 3-speed auto gearbox for the saloon, and electronic ignition for 2.0-litre models. Power steering now optionally available for left-hand drive cars
1979: HPE loses Beta nametag
Apr 1980: Trevi body style (traditional three-box saloon) introduced. Features redesigned dash which is also fitted to the Berlina
1981: Power steering becomes optional for right-hand drive models, 2.0-litre models gain fuel injection
1982: Volumex supercharger becomes an option for the Trevi, and for the HPE and Coupe one year later. Spider production ends
1984: Production of Coupe, HPE and trevi ceases
Key clubs and websites
• www.betaboyz.co.uk - a Lancia Beta Forum, which also sells spare parts
• www.autocasa.co.uk - Classic Lancia/Fiat/Alfa Romeo (and Volvo!) car specialist based in Coventry
• www.omicron.uk.com - Lancia specialist based in Norfolk
• www.lanciamotorclub.co.uk - The oldest and largest owners club dedicated to the Lancia marque
Summary and prices
One slightly perverse benefit to the Beta’s rusty reputation is that values on the classic car market remain fairly low today. The finest examples of the Coupe, Spyder and HPE can all be bought for less than £10,000, while clean low-mileage models can still be found for as little as £6000. Models which need some mechanical work are likely to fall around £4500, while the most rotten project cars can be bought for as little as £500.
Words: Alex Ingram