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, fears over rust have largely disappeared, but it’s still part and parcel of the Betas image. 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…
Launched at the 1972 Turin motor show, the Beta was Lancia’s big new hope in the the family car sector. Like earlier Lancias, it was technologically ahead of the game, featuring all-round disc brakes and a fantastic array of Fiat twin-cam engines. From the 1300 to the largest 2.0-litre, all offer a pleasing sound, torquey power delivery throughout the rev range as well as a satisfyingly crisp throttle response.
All Betas came with a five-speed manual gearbox too, although some road testers claimed that it was a little bit notchy in operation. With front-wheel drive and independent MacPherson strut suspension all-round, the Beta is a capable machine. Don’t expect big thrills though: the Beta is naturally-biassed to mild understeer, which is easily controllable.
Which Beta 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. As a pure performance proposition, the HPE was never a huge success due to a number of faster rivals. It was always one of the most characterful choices though, and looks extremely classy to this day.
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.
You might also come across the car’s more sporty sibling, the Beta Montecarlo. You can read the full buying guide for the Montecarlo here, although the slightly bigger Beta models are potentially a better fit for larger drivers!
Performance and specs
||1995cc in-line four-cylinder
||115bhp @ 5500rpm
||130lb ft @ 2800rpm
||Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
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. The windows were notorious for becoming very slow with age, and would eventually stop working altogether. Most have probably been repaired, but if not, a repair will involve stripping the door down and servicing the mechanism. Time consuming, but not expensive for the DIY mechanic.
• You should carefully inspect the condition of the interior, as dashboard switches, seat trim and other components are very difficult to source. Leather trim is rare, but can be more easily repaired than the velour trim – which becomes thin, stretched and baggy over time. The foam in the seats can also deteriorate, although this can be replaced by specialists.
• 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. Like any classic, there can be significant cost in recommissioning a Beta that has been stood for any period of time. A car that has been in regular use will be easier to keep on top of, as well as throwing up fewer surprises.
• 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. Thankfully, it’s unusual to find these.
• Head gasket trouble is fairly rare, but it's most likely to occur on 2.0-litre cars. Check for any white residue in the oil and coolant, which could mean that the two have been mixing.
• Cam belts should be changed at 36,000 miles or every three years to be safe.
• 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. As with all carburettor-equipped cars, it will benefit no end from regular tuning sessions.
• The heater is notoriously unreliable, and there’s a strong chance that it will be either always on or always off, thanks to a fragile heater tap. Cars with air conditioning are actually more resilient, but the more basic mechanical heater can be difficult to repair due to poor parts availability.
1972: Lancia Beta launched in Europe
July 1973: Right-hand drive Beta Berlina (saloon) launched
March 1974: Coupe introduced
September 1974: Spyder launched
April 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
April 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
Owners clubs, forums and websites
• www.betaboyz.co.uk – 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.