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Lancia Montecarlo: Buying guide and review (1975-1981)

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Acquiring a mid-engined, Pininfarina-built Italian classic would normally require pretty deep pockets, both to buy and run. There are one or two exceptions, though, one of which is the distinctive Lancia Beta Montecarlo.
The first car to be fully designed and built in house by Pininfarina, the compact two-seat sports car was originally intended to be sold as the Fiat X1/20. However, once the opportunity to offer the car at a higher premium presented itself, the responsibility of development was delegated to Lancia. 
Despite the name, it shares very little else in common with the regular Beta. While early on in the development phase it was powered by 3.0-litre V6 engine mounted behind the driver, the 1973 oil crisis necessitated the change to a 1995cc twin-cam four-cylinder. The Montecarlo was offered as either a coupe or a convertible, the latter featuring a targa-like opening with a manually retracting roof.
Though the handling can be described as a little tricky on the limit, the lightweight body and mid-engined balance means that in general it’s great fun to drive. Many spare parts are easy to source today as much was lifted straight from the Fiat/Lancia parts bin. 
The Montecarlo resulted in two spin-offs, delivering varying degrees of success. The first, known as the Scorpion, was a Montecarlo sold in the North American market. It was hamstrung by a wheezy 1.8-litre four cylinder, due to strict emissions regulations, while the styling was spoiled by US-spec 5mph impact bumpers. The second was the 037. The group B monster was loosely based on the Montecarlo, earning Lancia the manufacturers’ title in the 1983 World Rally Championship.
Which one to buy?
Two versions of the Montecarlo were produced over a six year period. The first, known as the Beta Montecarlo, was released in 1975. The inline-four engine produces 118bhp, enough for a sub-10-second 0-60 time. Alloy wheels measured 13 inches, while the cabin was trimmed in vinyl, with fabric upholstery an optional extra. A total of 5638 Beta Montecarlos were manufactured: 3558 were coupes, the remainder convertibles.
Early Beta Montecarlos were blighted by a design flaw in the braking system in the form of an over-sensitive servo. It made the brakes very difficult to modulate, often manifesting itself in front locking. Due to criticism from both road testers and customers, production was halted in 1978 while a solution was found. 
Two years later, the second-generation model appeared, which along with a brake fix (which involved fitting larger front discs and calipers, and removing the servo altogether) introduced a number of updates. The front-end styling featured a new split grille design first seen on the Delta one year earlier, while the buttresses were partly glazed to improve rear visibility. At the back, an aluminium strip sits in place of the body coloured metal where the badging was located previously. A new alloy wheel design, measuring 14 inches, was necessary to house the larger brakes. Inside, the Montecarlo (the Beta prefix was dropped for the second-gen model) gained new materials and a three-spoke Momo steering wheel in place of the previous two-spoke item. 
Mechanical changes were fairly limited. The engine gained a higher compression ratio, new carburettors and electronic ignition to improve driveability, while the suspension geometry was also revised. Production ran for a single year, with 1123 coupes and 817 spyders produced.
A number of cars were modified in period, and although few remain today you might come across  cars with non-standard engines, exterior modifications and other performance-oriented changes. While a greater degree of caution should be the taken with such cars, there really is a lot of potential to improve performance, handling and usability. 
Performance and specs
Engine 1995cc inline four
Power 118bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 122lb ft @ 3500rpm
Top speed 119mph
0-62mph 9.3secs
Fuel consumption 30mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
Wheelbase 2300mm
Length 3810mm
Width 1690mm
Height 1190mm
Weight 1040kg
Common problems
● It shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that rust is a major issue for Montecarlos. The firewall, wheel wells and rear crossmember are all key areas to look out for, as restoration will be complicated, and expensive. 
● The sills tend to rust just for fun, and it's unlikely that you will find a car that hasn't either had them replaced, or needs them to be done. As the sill adds a huge amount of structural integrity to the car, the quality of the work must be good. 
● Extensive sill corrosion often spreads to the bottom of the a-post. Repair of this is considerably more involved, and it can be tricky to get the door aligned properly afterwards.
● It's important to inspect the floor pan, as the factory-applied underseal coating actually cracks and lets in water. Once the corrosion starts it takes hold very quickly, so a car that has had the underside protected is hugely desirable. 
● The rear brake lines are also susceptible to corrosion, so try to get under the car for a thorough look. Replacement is a relatively straight forward job. 
● The gear shift is slightly obstructed at the best of times, but worn bushes can make its action much more awkward
● Montecarlos feature quite a lot of plastic trim, but for the most part it is extremely durable. It is however quite hard to replace, so getting one with all of its trim intact will potentially save you a lot of time and effort finding parts.
● First series models have an over-sensitive brake servo, which can cause the front brakes to lock up easily, especially in the wet. Some owners have eased this problem by fitting upgraded front discs and pads, while others - much like Lancia itself - have chosen to remove the servo altogether
● The electrical system can be temperamental, usually due to poor earthing. Check that lights, wipers dashboard gauges and electric windows all work properly. It’s also worth checking the interior for signs of damp, as this can also wreak havoc with electronics.
Model history
Mar 1975: Lancia Beta Montecarlo unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show
1977: First right-hand drive versions sold
1978: Production halted to, among other revisions, try to cure braking issues 
1980: Production resumed for second-gen model. Revised styling inside and out, improved braking system and minor engine tweaks round off the changes
1981: Montecarlo production ceases. A total of 7798 built
Key clubs and websites
• www.montezone.co.uk - parts and spares specialist based in Plymouth
• www.lanciamotorclub.co.uk - The oldest and largest owners club dedicated to the Lancia marque
• www.montecarlo.org.uk - a members’ club dedicated to the Montecarlo, Scorpion and 037.
Summary and prices
Prices for the Montecarlo remain fairly attainable. Rusty versions are probably best avoided, but for the ambitious, they are available for £2-£3000. Spend upwards of £5000 to get something running and reasonably solid, although it will almost certainly need some cosmetic work. 
The cleanest examples are priced at around £10,000, while near immaculate Spyders with a handful of miles are priced at around £13,000. Finding any Montecarlo can be a challenge however, so expect a fairly long search for the right car. 

Words: Alex Ingram
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Last updated: 4th Apr 2016
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