Reliability versus desirability, those were the arguments that governed my selection of a staff car. My initial desires were based on one of the bigger-engined coupés from Opel or Ford, for some of my most enjoyable miles were completed behind the wheel of an Anglo-German Capri hybrid that carried an effective Weslake-modified 2.6-litre V6. Earlier this year I drove both the GS and GS/E versions of Opel’s 2.8-litre Commodore Coupé and I was very impressed indeed, though I was a little disheartened to find that servicing was required every 3,000 miles, versus the 6,000-mile Ford interval: I don’t like “my” cars to lounge indolently at the garage.
That I didn’t drive away in a secondhand Opel GS was due to a catalogue picked up casually at Earls Court, a couple of months before I returned to journalism earlier this year. I was sold entirely by this beautifully illustrated, but somewhat vague (technically speaking) leaflet. Thus it came as something of a surprise to me when I began to write again, to discover that my catalogue choice had in fact been quite thoroughly assessed by the British press in France. However, everyone was most complimentary about the Beta Coupé and so, in January 1975 I set out to trap one, before the price went up from the bargain £2,345 at which it was announced.
First I tried talking to Lancia GB, but they don’t talk to potential customers, all the customer contact is left to the dealers. I was quite pleased to find that Wood & Krailing, High Street, Theydon Bois, Essex, had pretty well what I was looking for (in dark blue, unfortunately without cloth trim) because that gave me the distinctive Essex HOO registration! Alert car traders always seem intrigued that the Ford County should allow Lancias to roam around with their distinctive OO registrations.
The comprehensive, standard specification included 5½-in. rim by 14-in. alloy wheels, tinted and laminated front screen, electric rear window, driver’s door mirror, quadruple Cibie 220/110 watt quartz iodine headlamps, stainless steel bumpers with rubber inserts, electric screenwashers, internal instrument to measure sump oil level, and even a rechargeable torch that plugs in under the dashboard.
The PVC seats proved slippery but, at 15,000 miles they look a lot smarter after harsh use than the beautiful crumpled cloth covering of a 7,000-mile demonstrator. I was delighted to find that Wood & Krailing had the intelligence to install retractable seat belts, in this case the unusual Toric units that carry no clip on the belt, for the belt is dipped into a centre post, which saves a bit of fiddling.
Since my Beta Coupé was acquired, Standard House has bought a second such 1600 model. I was appalled to find that had fixed belts (appalled because the driver describes them as unusable, and that’s just sheer waste, whatever you think of wearing belts yourself) and that, purchased just a few months after mine, it had cost more, secondhand, with 5,000 miles registered, than mine did when new!
I did find the car very complicated to live with at first. There are six supplementary instruments for a start, and one has to sort out which is oil temperature and which is water, remembering not to panic at the sight of a dial that moves not at all, unless its nearby button is pressed, when it should show you how much oil is in the sump. The second speed for the wiper is on a central panel, and it pulls out for a faster speed. Marvellous, but the panel flexes enough to frighten new owners who have already had the bonnet release spring bounce across their toes! Starting is a first time affair after a couple of days’ acquaintance. In summer I just press the throttle twice and turn the key; in winter I add full choke and an occasional depression of the clutch.
Lancia advise running the unit in, while Fiat say nothing about this procedure when talking about the same basic engine when installed in the 124 Coupé. I ran it in, and I have the Beta serviced as near 3,000 miles intervals as possible (Fiat is 6,000 miles), though I have a feeling the only reward is in conscience rather than science.
So far as the car’s mechanics were concerned the pre-delivery checks had been properly carried out, and my only complaint at the first, free labour service, was that the gear selection needed improving when attempting a noiseless change into 1st. The change still occasionally sticks today, often failing to select 1st at all.
This was done, and by the time 1,000 miles came up I was very pleased with the car. After a great deal of experimentation I had found a driving position that was comfortable, which is no mean feat in the Lancia or Alfetta Coupés. The Beta was averaging 31-33 m.p.g. while restrained to 4,000 r.p.m., a figure that equates to slightly more than our 70-m.p.h. limit in the Lancia’s 5th gear.
A steady period of commuting through the East End brought a very low period in our love-hate relationship, for I find the steering dangerously low-geared for crowded city streets. For example, turn 90 deg. left, straighten up, and try to steer gently around an oncoming hazard, or simply try to avoid the hazard, and resume one’s previous path. In both situations the car is slow to respond, and the amount of wheel shuffling needed can leave the hands clear of the rim at the second when front-drive torque reaction has chosen a dangerous path. When I checked, some months ago, Chequered Flag had fitted no less than 18 Coupés with smaller steering wheels. I now have a very nice one from Abarth, and I sincerely hope that it will he installed very soon. Incidentally, the new power-steered 2000 models are much, much, better in this respect, and I have no reservations at all about their handling.
The next service at Theydon Bois passed without incident and I set off on a very tough schedule following the Scottish Rally, from whence the car returned with 7,000 miles registered and a large oil leak. I had moved West of London and the car was booked hastily into the Chequered Flag at Chiswick. The leak came from the oil pressure gauge union at the front of the engine and was repaired without fuss under warranty. The car gleamed under a wax polish and vacuum clean interior (I’m told this is regular practice, it was certainly much appreciated) and ran so quietly that I could have sworn it wasn’t a Beta Coupé at all!
The car returned to good-mannered commuting at an average 26-28 m.p.g. At 10,500 miles the throttle return spring broke while travelling at high speed. I did detect the “ping” at speed, and it isn’t difficult to drive safely without the return throttle action whilst out of traffic, but I wasn’t amused at the early failure during a Bank Holiday. However, the Dome Garage at Brentford on the Great West Road had a kind gentleman who repaired it swiftly, and I’ve since acquired a new spring, so we’ll see how it lasts.
Then I went to Autocare at Pangbourne for a service at 11,500 miles. This wasn’t far short of £60 and included drilling out sheared exhaust down-pipe bolts needed to repair a tremendous boom period that was being inflicted on us by a manifold damaged by engine torque reaction. As the car was a month over 6 months old, it was definitely out of warranty, and that was the signal for the Coupé to really provide a period of considerable unease.
Just as 12,000 miles became a recorded fact, so did a distinct twitchiness in the oil pressure gauge. The internal instrument said we were over half full of oil, and so did the dipstick, but the pressure gauge showed totally, and potentially terminal, lack of pressure. According to the internal sump gauge the Beta was well overfilled by the time we had cut out the surge, and since the car was puffing out oil from the rear, I felt it spoke the truth! Minus surge, but then the oil gauge needle started to twitch back to zero whenever we exceeded 5,000 r.p.m. Must be overfilling that did it ? Chequered Flag, Uncle Tom Cobley, and others took turns to read the level, which was now correct. Oh dear!
At 12,200 miles I shut the driver’s door with the winding glass partially lowered . . . there followed a short, sharp shower of glass! Chequered Flag were the only ones to have the right glass, but even they had to call it a day after several hours attempting to tension the glass and they had to sub-contract the job. My thanks to those who did conquer the task, and to the Flag for keeping the bill down to an unprofitable level.
In quick succession a headlamp and a sidelamp failed, on opposite sides. Both wiper blades split shortly afterwards and I had to buy two more of these nasty Trico-licensed Carello units, which cost nearly £8 a pair. Lunacy! Now thoroughly depressed, I decided to drive back to Wood and Krailing and see if they could sort out the pressure readings and the lights. No problem. Smiles all round, yes they could do it, and lend me a car if things turned out to be serious.
Well, it wasn’t very serious, just that the oil pressure transmitter unit was expiring, a component worth about £6. I was on my way with a light heart once more, and the oil pressure needle indicating about another 20 lb. more than I have seen on any other Coupé.
Just before 15,000 miles appeared on the odometer a U-turn produced a broken flashing indicator lever, snapped off toward the steering column end of its plastic and light metal construction. To replace with new parts involves all the steering column mounted levers for headlamps and wipers, parts that amount to nearly £20. Gloom has set in again while I study the strength of plastic metal and the worth of drilling and tapping a stud insert for the maimed lever.
Judged purely from the driving seat, and from the reactions of passengers (often carried under difficult circumstances) the Lancia Beta Coupé is a great success. It looks good, and it performs extremely well, balancing overall m.p.g. figures in the high twenties against a readily available 105 m.p.h. (it will do just Over 110 m.p.h., but you’ll use a lot of throttle return springs!) and acceleration that is excellent, providing that you ignore the sharply increased noise level over 5,000 r.p.m. Oil consumption has settled around the 750 m.p.p. level in hard use.
My greatest satisfaction comes from the extraordinarily good adhesion, high speed handling (i.e., as soon as you get away from city side streets) and brakes that are simply superb. The engine may not be exceptionally powerful at 108 b.h.p. (new 1600s have 100 b.h.p., and better torque delivery) but that hasn’t prevented it setting up the kind of cross-country performances that I can remember achieving in an Elan or Europa. A car that delivers this much excitement, and balances it with practical fuel consumption and luggage-carrying ability is rare indeed, and I am very pleased indeed from this point of view.
That the new Lancias are even better is a credit to the company, who may well hit Alfa Romeo very hard indeed with the competitively priced 2000 series available in so many guises. Nonetheless I judge Fiat guilty of misjudging what the Lancia name should mean in quality. Some of the spares are very expensive, which one doesn’t mind so much if there is little likelihood of ever needing spares. I still don’t think this car is a Lancia; I say it is an excellent FWD replacement for the Fiat 124 Coupé. “Lancia” should mean a degree of refinement and finish that I just do not see in this car.
If it was a question of putting the Beta range into Lancia guise, or not having a Lancia marque, fair enough. I would rather see Lancia survive. Now that the range is complete I should like to see an extra degree of attention paid to the quality of the car, particularly with regard to interior noise levels and increased quality of minor components that can be so annoying when they fail.—J.W.