Who remembers the Lancia Beta? “Enormous fun to drive, beautiful raspy exhaust note and, like most Italian cars, the harder you thrash it the better it likes it. Plus there is the perverse enjoyment of driving something everyone assumes long since turned to ferrous oxide.”
So says this car’s owner James Ross Sinclair, who is all too familiar with comments regarding the “Lancia Rust Scandal” when he displays his 1978 Beta 2000 Berlina at car shows. He says: “Everyone has a view, usually negative and mostly Top Gear-inspired.”
At times Sinclair has stood next to his Lancia while “people have told me they were all crushed – at which point I have to point out it is an actual car and not an artist’s impression”.
When the Beta made its debut in 1972 there was considerable debate among motoring enthusiasts as to whether it was worthy of the innovative Italian marque’s shield badge; the power plants were courtesy of Fiat, which had owned Lancia since 1969 (the Beta being the first new model introduced after the takeover), while Citroën developed the transmission.
However, when British imports commenced in 1973, the Beta appealed to those who might have otherwise considered a Triumph Dolomite or a BMW 2002.
In the 1970s the UK was Lancia’s principal export market; 40 years ago a 2000 Berlina would have cost £4,080.96; a very reasonable sum for a front-wheel-drive sports saloon with elegant fastback styling, a five-speed gearbox and idiosyncratic charm.
As the decade progressed the Beta range expanded to include the Coupé, the shooting brake-styled HPE, the Spyder convertible and the lovely mid-engined Monte Carlo, but the Berlina remained the core version of the line-up.
Unfortunately, by 1980 the marque’s notoriety for corrosion was well-established in the public mindset – this ITN bulletin gives both an impression of the problem and a reminder of how 1950s-like broadcasters still sounded at that time.
Sinclair has viewed the footage “so many times. At least Sandy Gall has the good taste to pronounce ‘Lan-cha’ properly”.
He also reflects that “of course the biggest issue with ownership is the rust jokes, to which I have become accustomed. To be honest, it’s tiresome though. I’ve lost count of the times I have been lectured about how they ‘rusted in the showroom’, how they ‘were all crushed’, ‘Russian steel’ and so on, but perhaps that’s part of the appeal. We all love an underdog”.
The Beta Berlina ceased production in 1981 and today there are probably only 15 2000 saloons that remain on the road.
Sinclair came across his example in 2015. “It was owned previously by an Italian from Gloucestershire who ran his own garage, Mr Gino Fatica. As far as I can gather, he ran it from (almost) new then tucked it away in his workshop where it sat for at least a decade until he passed on.”
Fatica’s son then sold the Lancia and Sinclair discovered that it was “in remarkable condition for any car, let alone a Lancia Beta. It was rustproofed from new with Dinitrol, which was probably the smartest investment ever”.
The Beta was “completely stripped to a bare shell. It was only at this point that it dawned just how much of a survivor the car was. It is not bluffing when I say I’ve seen more rust on a four-year-old Mercedes. The guy who was doing the rebuild was equally astounded and kept sending me various pics with the title ‘mintage!’”.
Sinclair pays tribute to Matt Crissel, who was responsible for the Lancia’s paintwork, while on the road “you get used to the rather vague gauges and the driving position takes some acclimatisation. It’s typical of what used to be known as ‘the Italian ape’ [position], legs bent, arms straight out”.
But these are but minor issues as the 1,995cc twin-cam engine “makes the most lovely crackle and pop”, and the Lancia “feels like a much younger car to drive”.
It inevitably causes a minor sensation and earlier this summer Sinclair was at a petrol station when the owner of an “18-plate Maserati wanted it at any cost, and a small crowd gathered around the Beta in disbelief”.
And such a reaction is wholly understandable in the presence of one of the few very surviving examples of the car that was allowed its owner to “stand out from the crowd”.
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