The Lancia Beta Coupe 1600

WHEN I introduced the Lancia Beta Coupe to MOTOR SPORT readers in April 1974 after trying it in the Alpes-Maritimes I forecast, with prompting from Lancia, that it would sell in Britain for £2,700 to £2,800. In fact it entered the UK market at £2,350, an extremely competitive price for such a stylish, sporting coupe, made possible by the international currency situation. For little more than the price of an MG-B GT the sporting motorist could acquire a modern Italian thoroughbred, so we were hardly surprised when many of our enthusiastic acquaintances queued up to buy them, closely followed by our own J.W.

Prices are at the mercy of the currency crisis and as this is being written news has arrived of an increase from the current £2,450 to £2,677, prompting the question, “Is the Beta Coupe still good value?” It is now £240 dearer than Ford’s best value performance car, the 3000 GT, for example.

The same rise has upped the price of the Fulvia 1300 Coupe S3 (tested opposite) from £2,159 to £2,344, leaving us time to change the price on that already “cleared for Press” page, but not the comments which went with it. Good though it is, the Fulvia Coupe is now on the expensive side—until other makes catch up, that is.

In Italy the natives can buy the Beta Coupe in 1600 or 1800 engined forms, with the normal coupe body, the new HPE estate car shell or the Spyder, a convertible coupe with a hood arrangement similar to that of the BMW 2002 convertible. For the moment at least the British must make do with the 1600 Coupe, which is identical to the 1800 in all except engine capacity and output, final drive ratio, the use of a 200-mm. instead of 215-mm. clutch, and the fitment of SR instead of the 1800’s HR rated tyres. The British market 1600 is even fitted as standard with the 5 1/2J x 14 in, alloy road wheels which are attached only to the 1800 in Italy.

Mechanically the front-wheel-drive Beta Coupe is almost identical to the Beta saloon introduced in late 1972. But it is 105 kg. lighter, 295 mm. shorter, 40 mm. narrower, 115 mm. lower and 190 mm. shorter in the wheelbase. In both cases Fiat’s established and dependable twin-cam four-cylinder engine is used, fitted transversely and canted at 20 degrees towards the driver. Raising the compression ratio from 8.9 to 1 to 9.8 to 1 increases the power output from the 1600 saloon’s 100 b.h.p. DIN at 6,000 r.p.m. and 95 lb./ft. torque at 3,000 r.p.m. to 106 b.h.p. DIN at 6,000 r.p.m. and 99 lb./ft. torque at 4,500 r.p.m. for the 1600 Coupe tested. When the 1800 Coupe is marketed in Britain it will give 120 b.h.p. at 6,200 r.p.m. and 111 lb./ft. torque at 4,500 r.p.m. These engines are fitted with single, twin-choke, downdraught Weber or Solex carburetters, Solex in the case of our brilliant-red test car.

The Editor of our sister “weekly” Motoring News and I were full of enthusiasm for the Beta Coupe after testing together both capacity versions in the Alps. But there’s a world of difference between hurling a good-handling car round an arduous mountain circuit, the adrenalin flowing, both you and the car in their element, and flogging through commuter traffic, snatching a nifty short-cut through the maze of London back-streets or taking grandmother for a scenic Sunday afternoon outing. Not that grandmother would appreciate the restricted headroom in the back seat for her pillbox hat or the leg-room for her arthritic knee. The shaped rear bucket seats are comfortable enough, though, each with its own headrest. Several shortcomings manifested themselves in everyday use which had been obscured by that Alpine challenge. In particular the steering, which, at nearly four turns lock to lock, is far too low-geared around town, lacks adequate castor return and so necessitates rapid feeding on and off of lock, especially around those aforesaid back-streets. Yet it remains fairly heavy for parking, an exercise which is hampered by a tail-end totally hidden from the driver. Rapid getaways result in prodigious wheel-spin as weight transfer lifts some of the load off the front wheels. Torque reaction through the driveshafts under hard acceleration, particularly out of sharp corners, and between gears can create some pull on the steering and slight snaking.

Engine noise is another disappointment. The engine in the test car had been stripped and rebuilt immediately before my test because previous road testers had complained of excessive noise. Unfortunately something which is inherent cannot be cured so easily. When working hard the 1600 twin-cam shouts its presence with induction and mechanical noise, made worse on the test car by excessive tappet clearances, though J.W.’s engine is not much quieter. The inclined engine seems to use the bulkhead as a sounding board, so improved sound insulation would help.

Enough of criticism! To dwell too long on these few shortcomings does less than justice to this blatantly handsome, expensive-looking coupe. Like the more exotic Italian thoroughbreds, it is at its best when driven fast and properly. Under more favourable circumstances than highlighted above the damped, rack-and-pinion steering becomes light and very positive, although one must fight the torque reaction out of bends and directional stability is excellent. Ultimate cornering speeds are very high indeed, slightly better on our staff car’s 175/70 x 14 in. Michelin XAS than the test car’s ZX, the all-independent, McPherson strut suspension exercising good wheel control. It is very well-balanced for an f.w.d. machine, almost indistinguishable from r.w.d. on fast roads of gently sweeping bends, in spite of all the weight up front. Under normal circumstances it understeers, less excessively than most f.w.d. cars, and the front tyres have exceptional grip. Drive it hard enough on the right lines round the right radius bend and you’ll even find a touch of oversteer, something which can be artificially induced at other times by lifting off the throttle momentarily. Its stability, “chuckability” and tremendous adhesion make for a very fast car indeed on twisty “B” roads or fast main roads. And like the Fulvia Coupe, this Beta inherits astonishing fade-free, four-wheel “Superduplex” disc braking, slightly over-servoed on initial acquaintance. There is a pad wear/handbrake warning light on the facia. The ride is stiff, but not unduly harsh.

The five gearbox ratios are all indirect and nicely spaced, giving 31 m.p.h., 71 m.p.h. and 94 m.p.h. in the lower gears. A ratio of 0.925:1 fifth is technically an overdrive, but the low final drive sometimes suggests an even higher “cruising” ratio would be preferable. It would be interesting to find out how well the 1600 would go with the 1800’s higher final drive ratio. First and second gears on the test car were slightly difficult to select when cold though, but J.W.’s car is far worse in this respect.

The noise level is just about the only criticism to be levelled at this 80 mm. bore, 79.2 mm. stroke, 1,592 c.c. engine, which has its clutch, gearbox and differential housed in a single unit co-axial with the crankshaft. There is not a great deal of punch below 3,500 r.p.m. and a noticeable step in delivery occurs at 5,000 r.p.m., yet it is flexible for “pottering”, pulling down to the test car’s over-fast 1,100 r.p.m. tick-over in fifth. Though not to the same extent as the Fulvia, sensible gearbox use is needed for good efficiency. In spite of two gear changes, 0-60 m.p.h. comes up in 10.2 sec. Maximum speed is about 110 m.p.h. and 100 m.p.h. a perfectly happy cruising speed.

This Beta Coupe overflows with useful accessories: an oil level gauge in addition to oil pressure and temperature; a rechargeable torch (missing on the test car), underbonnet lighting, electric cooling fan, Unus air-horns, four excellent Halogen headlights, adjustable steering column, two-speed and intermittent wipers. But the plastic facia is fairly horrible and the instruments poorly calibrated. The velvet-covered seats of the test car were far more comfortable and held one in place far better than J.W.’s vinyl seats, but the backrests were too short for tall drivers. A deep, roomy boot is part of this sporting package.

Style and performance is not all that this suave Italian offers: used in heavy traffic, tested at maximum speed and on a long, fast country journey, this efficient, thrifty test car averaged 28.4 m.p.g., which compares well with J.W.’s 29-30 commuting m.p.g. There is a fuel warning light which flashes when about 2 gallons remain in the 11.2 gallon tank. If you hear stories of Betas being bad cold starters, ignore them. The test coupe, the earlier saloon and our staff coupe started instantly, though needed choke for the first mile.

This Lancia is not without its faults and impressed me less than at its introduction. Yet its looks, finish and all-round performance make it a very desirable machine. Already there seems to be a vogue for the car among those who have been BMW 2002 afficionados, a telling trend which is unlikely to be halted by the price increase. As a sporting, individualistic car one cannot really complain about its new price.—C.R.