Which way is the sports car going? Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, and our own Lotus have pioneered the mid-engined road car formula, setting new standards of roadholding and handling. Porsche succeed very nicely, thank you, with the rear-engine, rearwheel-drive formula, having burnt their fingers with the mid-engined 914 series. But what of the motor industry giants? British Leyland, monopolisers of sports car mass-production in Britain, scotched their excellent mid-engined Rover prototype and, if the TR7 and impending new Jaguars are yardsticks, seem intent on sticking to conventional front-engine, rearwheel-drive layouts. Datsun, sports car market penetrators with the 240/260Z, follow suit. British Leyland versus Datsun, the United States sports car market is their oyster, though for how much longer if their designs don’t move with the times ? From Italy looms a distinct threat sired by the huge Fiat conglomerate: the two-seater, mid-engined, Lancia Beta Monte Carlo.
Fiat tested the US market with the pretty, little, Bertone-designed, mid-engined X1/9. It had a wonderful reception in spite of the modest performance of its 1,300 c.c. engine. An alternative bigger engine in the same shell seemed the next logical move and indeed a prototype 2-litre X1 /9 has been much in evidence around Europe in the hands of Fiat’s Competitions Department for the last year. But it won’t see production; instead Fiat commissioned Pininfarina to design a brand-new, mid-engined, monocoque shell and handed its production and development over to Lancia, utilising the sporting traditions of the famous marque acquired by Fiat in 1969. The 2-litre Monte Carlo completes the Beta range and coincidentally with its introduction Lancia are to re-enter the American market, abandoned several years ago, using the new car as a brand leader. With the bulk of Monte Carlo production intended for the USA, whether the model will reach British shores remains a matter for conjecture. When Lancia introduced the car to us in Turin recently the word was that importation would depend on favourable Press reports and subsequent reactions from customers and dealers. The car proved such that unfavourable Press reports are inconceivable, while representatives of the British importers were equally enthusiastic. If it does come to Britain it will find direct competition from the forthcoming new 2-litre, mid-engined Lotus and the similar formula AC 3000; with prices for these two likely to be well over £5,000, the Lancia could well undersell them both should it follow the firm’s current price-structuring.
In appearance there is nothing Beta Saloon or Coupé-like about the Monte Carlo, an almost “ugly-but-beautiful”, low and stubby design stamped front and rear by the US-mandatory, impact-absorbing bumpers/bodywork. The photographs tell the rest of the aesthetic tale, although a little unfairly; it is necessary to see the car in the metal to fully appreciate its exciting presence. “Squashing” the amidships engine to save space by placing it transversely was easily achieved by using what is basically the same inclined engine/transmission unit as the frontwheel-drive Betas, the 1600 Coupé version of which was tested in last month’s MOTOR SPORT. The cast-iron cylinder block is the same as that of the 1800 (1,756 c.c.) Beta, the bore being 84 mm., a longer throw crankshaft increasing the stroke from 79.2 mm. to 90 mm. to give a capacity of 1,995 c.c. The main effect of the enlargement has been to increase torque rather than power from this twin-overhead camshaft, Fiat straight-four engine: 120 b.h.p. DIN at 6,000 r.p.m. is quoted, the same figure produced by the 1800 Beta Coupé’s engine at 6,200 r.p.m.; torque is increased from the Coupé’s 15.3 kg. m. DIN at 4,500 r.p.m. to 16.8 kg. m. DIN at only 3,500 r.p.m. A decrease in compression ratio from the Coupé’s 9.8 : 1, to 8.9 : 1, as employed in the Beta Saloon engines, is responsible for this emphasis upon torque rather than power. Otherwise the belt-driven twin-overhead camshafts, aluminium cylinder head with inclined valves and downdraught, twin-choke carburetter (a Weber 34 DATR/200 type in this case) are all familiar. The only radical difference between the transmission of the Monte Carlo and the other Betas is that the gear-linkage approaches from in front rather than behind ; the five-speed gearboxes with integral differentials are similar.
Curiously, while the lighter Monte Carlo shares the same 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and reverse gear ratios as the rest of the Beta range, bottom gear is slightly lower, at 3.750 to 1 instead of 3,5 to 1. A higher final-drive ratio (3.714 to 1 as against 3.929 to 1 for the 1800 Coupé) compensates for the choice of 13 in. diameter for those futuristic Pininfarina alloy wheels in place of the other Betas’ 14-in. wheels. Their 5½J rims are fitted with 185/70 HR CN tyres. In essence the all independent McPherson strut suspension is similar to that of other Betas, though there are differences obviously necessitated by the configuration. Lighter weight has brought a reduction in size of brake discs from 251 mm. all round to 227 mm., while the idyllic weight distribution produced by an engine squatting between the rear wheels has meant that servo assistance is needed only on the front brakes. In terms of overall package, the Monte Carlo has to be one of the most practical and functional mid-engined two-seater designs to be put into production. It has more room in its comparatively huge front boot (which heat from the brakes and front-mounted radiator makes an inadvisable place in which to carry the Cassata Napolitana home to tea) than even the Maserati Bora and felt roomier in the cockpit too. If the occupants aren’t too long in the legs there is room to stuff jackets and coats behind the seats and even a parcel shelf ahead of the sloping rear window as well as a facia glove locker. Space beneath the side-opening engine cover is so under-utilised, in spite of it being shared by the spare wheel, and accessbility so good that I can’t help wondering just when Lancia intend to fit the four-cam V6 Dino engine from the Stratos . . . or even the flat-12 Boxer engine. Now that would be a motor car and a half.
Perhaps one of the most attractive features of the Monte Carlo—and one which ought to make British Leyland and Lotus think again about their new fixed-head cars—is its availability in cabriolet or fixed-head coupé form, the former surely a must for the US West Coast market. This convertible facility, a Pininfarina patent, is absolutely brilliant, yet simple: instead of the “Targa” panel which has to be removed and stowed in the boot in the case of the Porsche Targa, Dino 246GTS and X1/9, there is simply a canvas top with two rubber stiffeners which rolls up and disappears completely into the roll-over bar. So neat!
Thanks to Fiat and Lancia I have almost become a regular guest in the Fiat-controlled Hotel Principi de Piemonte, Turin, to whence our party for the Monte Carlo introduction had been taken from London by the route I dread: air to Milan and then the long, dreary coach Journey from Milan to Turin. In the evening, dinner in the fascinating Lancia Bar in Turin, where dummy Lambda radiators and Lancia competition photographs grace the bar, drinks are taken in button-back seats set in Edwardian car body shapes, ancient Lancia advertising Posters decorate the walls and on this occasion a Lancia Stratos filled the showroom window. Behind the bar is a restaurant, though we ate in an exclusive, if musty, old wine cellar deep in the Bar’s bowels. The point is, this place is a profitable venture, open to the public, who pay to be indoctrinated in Lancia lore. Renault have a similar place in the Champs-Elysées, I believe, so how about making those expensive British Leyland showrooms in Piccadilly pay for themselves, Mr. Benn? Sorry, Varley.
Lancia value their history, the highlights of which are encapsulated in their splendid, if compact, Vincenzo Lancia Museum at the Turin plant. From the 18-24 HP Lancia Alfa of 1908 through the original Beta of 1909, Theta, Trikappa, Lambda, Dilambda, Artena, Augusta, Aprilia, Ardea, Appia, Aurelia, Flaminia, D24 Carrera, the 1955 D50 Formula One car, to Munari’s 1972 Monte Carlo Rally-winning Fulvia 1600HF. But the Stratos which won this year’s Monte to give the new mid-engined Beta its name is yet to be pensioned off into this hall of history.
We gathered at the Museum to be briefed by Cesari Fiorio, Lancia’s Competitions Manager, before heading out on a 139-km. route to Lancia’s recently-opened Verrone manufacturing plant, near Biella, in the new Beta HPE, an estate car version of the Beta Coupé, of which more elsewhere. The Monte Carlos awaited us at Verrone and a colleague and I cut our teeth in a bright red fixed-head coupé on the way to lunch at the Shaker Club on Lake Viverone. We were impressed, not least by the comfort of the cloth seats, standard in the fixed-head, but we coveted a soft-top (vinyl seats standard) in the sunny weather and swapped cars with a journalist who coveted our cloth. It was a mistake. Some 60 km. of very fast driving later the happy bark of the twin-cam engine deteriorated into a tractor-like roar when the exhaust manifold gasket or the flange blew. We’re not sure which because an over-enthusiastic Lancia man had broken off the the flimsy, plastic, engine-cover release lever in the driver’s door shut-face. Whichever, it caused the engine to lose its urge at the top end of the scale and our misfortunes were added to when, off route up in the mountains and 100 km. from our Turin destination, we noticed that the fuel gauge was dangerously low; unlike the other Monte Carlos, our second car had been round the route once in the morning, after which nobody from Lancia had be-thought himself to refill the 59-litre tank. Nor had we any lire . . . and we were running late for the return flight. We were not very happy as we feather-footed noisily along the autostrada into the Turin rush hour and, with the roof open, into a sudden thunderstorm.
Actually I wasn’t too unhappy, because the first 60 km. before the manifold incident had been part of my share of the driving and in them the Monte Carlo managed to create an impression which has been surpassed by few sports cars. It was not that the performance was electrifying, though it is certainly good (0-100 k.p.h., 62 m.p.h., is quoted as 9.3 sec. and the standing 400 m. takes 16 sec.), just that the exceptional handling and roadholding allied to a perfect driving position and splendid comfort made the car feel like an extension of myself. Such road cars, of which the latest Porsche 911s and the Dino 246 are two, are rare indeed.
Apart from being exceptionally comfortable, the Monte Carlo’s interior is neatly contrived and upholstered. The brightly coloured instruments, including sliding scale minor gauges, are exceptionally clear, the pedals and short gear-lever ideally positioned and Fiat-type steering column controls functional. Otherwise good visibility is spoiled in the three-quarter rear position by those fins. The engine is relatively noisy (pre-blown manifold) for a mid-engined car at low speeds, but this cacophony disappears astern as speed increases. The gearchange is very good, better than the Beta Coupés I’ve been driving recently, but the new bottom gear feels too low. Its only benefit would be for the traffic-light grand prix man, to overcome the effect of good rear end traction; the Beta Coupé can use a higher ratio because wheelspin acts as a clutch in heavy-footed starts. Speeds in the gears are: 1st, 45 k.p.h.; 2nd, 80 k.p.h.; 3rd, 120 k.p.h.; 4th, 155 k.p.h. The claimed maximum speed is “over 190 k.p.h.”. Nearer 200 k.p.h. with the roof closed is more likely. On the other hand, this 2-litre engine is totally untemperamental and flexible, an exotic car with the amiable disposition of a family saloon.
The rack and pinion steering is light, sensibly geared (unlike other Betas) and positive, the brakes magnificent in performance and feel though the pedal eventually developed slight sponginess. Cornering powers are exceptional and well within the limits of the present power output, indeed approaching Dino standards. Neither bumps nor wet patches in mid-corner seem to upset it. Characteristics are biased towards understeer and only some exaggerated driving on and off the throttle in second and third gears through a sequence of mountain bends could make the tail start to move at all.
Fiorio told us that he had plans for the Monte Carlo in competition once the Stratos programme had finished. Unlike the stark, light, Dino-engined Stratos, an homologation special if ever there was one and which Lancia refuse to sell to ordinary members of the public (though they are reputed to have a few hundred stashed behind the Turin factory), the Monte Carlo is a properly-appointed, practical road car. To make it fly in rallying it is going to require some fairly extensive help from Ferrari … as it stands the Monte Carlo is very much a poor man’s Boxer in concept and behaviour and for competition purposes perhaps my Boxer engine idea isn’t so ridiculous after all, if it can be homologated.—C.R.