Road Test

The Lancia Beta Monte-Carlo Spider

Mid-engine style with acceptable practicality, excellent handling and roadholding, but suspect brakes.

If the days of the sports car looked numbered in recent years, the Fiat group has done more than any other company to rejuvenate the image by producing a remarkably stylish, yet practical, range of mid-engine sports cars. The recent introduction of the Lancia Beta Monte-Carlo (the hyphen is Lancia’s style) on the British market completes the availability of Fiat’s mid-engine “set” in the UK: the Fiat X1/9; the Lancia Beta Monte-Carlo; the Ferrari 308GT4; the Ferrari 308GTB; the Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer. A mouth-watering collection with two things in common throughout: eyecatching, imaginative styling, pandering to the ego whether one’s budget is £3,000 or £25,000; and outstanding characteristics of road behaviour. The X1/9, which we praised so highly in the April issue, is selling in colossal quantities by sports car standards. The Monte-Carlo, the X 1/9’s big brother, for it was originally designated X1/20, must surely attract similar success, perhaps a final condemnation of Leyland’s decision to reject the mid-engine concept.

The Monte-Carlo, powered by a 2-litre version of the Fiat-Lancia twin-overhead camshaft, four cylinder engine, was designed and has its body built by Pininfarina, thus avoiding a conflict of styling with the Bertone X1/9 exercise. We first tried the Monte-Carlo in the Summer of 1975 and described it in the July 1975 issue, since when a number of improvements have been made. Most obvious is the fitting of windows in the previously solid fins running down from the roof to the tail on either side of the engine compartment. The visual effect is to create Maserati Merak-style flying buttresses, but the most important advantage is that this mid-engine car now boasts excellent three-quarter rear vision.

This strictly two-seater car has endearingly squat and chunky, wedge-shaped styling of surprisingly compact dimensions. It is only 12.5 ft. long, and 3 ft. 10.8 in. high though the pronounced wheel arch lips to cover up the fat, 185/70 HR-13 in. Goodyears take it out to a width of 5 ft. 6.7 in. Pininfarina front-end styling eschews the contemporary sports-car trend of “droop-snoot” with pop-up headlamps for a square tip to the nose of the wedge shape, in which powerful, rectangular headlamps flank a conventional radiator grille. It is a relief not to have the palaver of lifting and lowering and potential unreliability of pop-up headlights. The grille is functional, hiding a radiator which is fed and relieved by pipes carried to the rear in a central tunnel, through which cooling air for the engine compartment is ducted from a grille below the number plate. Additional small grilles on either side of the number plate feed cool air to the front disc brakes. A grey plastic nose piece and matching wrap-around bumpers protect either end of the car.

A usefully commodious boot offers 7 cu. ft. of luggage space in the nose. Within this fullycarpeted bay two unobtrusive lockers house, on the right, the battery, and, on the left, the Fiamm air horns and electric pump and container for the initially lethargic screenwashers. Lancia have made a rare concession to right-hand-drive cars by moving the lockable boot release handle to the right-hand wheel arch in the cockpit and ditto the engine cover release in the rear bulkhead. The boot lid needs dropping from a great height if the catches on either side of its rear edge are to close in unison. The louvred engine bay lid is hinged along its left-hand edge and held up by a stout prop. Unlike the X1/9 the Monte-Carlo doesn’t have a rear boot to complement the front and consequently there is a great deal of wasted space behind the transverse engine. The left-hand corner of this gap is taken up by the spare wheel and comprehensive tool-kit and jack, but it seems a pity that some sort of locker hasn’t been fitted to make use of the rest of the space. At least this means that the dull aluminium cam covers and plugs of the inclined engine are very easily accessible, as is the distributor. The Weber 34 DATR/200 twin-choke downdraught carburetter is reasonably easy to work on once the complex air-cleaner has been removed. Ahead of the engine lid, the almost vertical, sheltered, heated rear window keeps reasonably free from rain and gives a wide rear view mirror aspect, backed up by a mirror on the driver’s door. Further aids to good all round vision are the fixed quarter windows behind the occupants’ heads and those windows in the buttresses; the steeply sloping pillars of the bonded-in windscreen are occasionally obstructive, but all in all the Monte-Carlo has overcome one of the more basic hazards of a mid-engine concept. Consequently this car is easy to park, too, aided by the squared-off tail.

Porsche 911-like, the Monte Carlo is available in open or closed forms for the same price. The Spider version, as tested, has an ingenious Pininfarina patented soft top which rolls up into the rear roll bar section. In practice this contraption is disappointing, particularly to this writer, who can lower or raise the full soft top of his Alfa Romeo Spider in a couple of seconds without leaving his seat. This Monte-Carlo device demands that the driver climbs out of the car, walks round both sides of it to execute the rooffurling procedure and is rewarded by a hole in the roof no larger than a conventional sun-roof, which creates modest buffeting at 60 m.p.h. plus and intolerable buffeting at 70-75 m.p.h. plus. A knob in the cockpit ceiling releases a rigid section over the roll bar, which when hinged forward releases tension on the roof section. The front of the roof panel engages in a lip just above the screen rail, from which it is very difficult to unhook, a real finger nail-breaking exercise for ladies. Once free from the lip, the soft roof is rolled back and tucked in a channel in the roll bar, before the rigid rear section is closed over it. I would hesitate to call the Monte-Carlo an open sports car; it is more of a fixed head sports car with an over-complicated sunroof. The system does have the advantage of not devouring luggage space, as does the X1/9’s rigid Targa top when stowed, but on the other hand the X1/9 offers a proportionally larger open area without buffeting. However, the Monte-Carlo does offer smooth, quick-moving electric windows as standard, sensibly operable with or without the ignition.

To Lancia engineers there was nothing new about the mid-engine concept: their Stratos has carried all before it in International rallying, including the Monte Carlo Rally, in celebration of which victory the Monte-Carlo attracted its name. But the Stratos was a pure competition car, any road versions of it existing purely to conform with homologation regulations, with no concessions to everyday practicality. The Monte-Carlo extends the theme into a practical road car, while using many of the lessons learned on the Stratos. It uses McPherson strut front suspension with single bottom track control arms and a front tie-rod each side and an anti-roll bar. There are McPherson struts at the rear too, with wide-based bottom wishbones and adjustable radius arms. All four disc brakes are of the same 227 mm. size, operated by two separate hydraulic systems front and rear, only the front of which is servo assisted, of which more later. Highly attractive alloy wheels are standard.

The 84 mm. X 90 mm. 1995 c.c. engine is a development of that fitted to the current 2-litre front-wheel-drive Beta models. In Monte-Carlo form it gives 120 b.h.p. DIN at 6,000 r.p.m. (the tachometer is red-lined at 6,400 r.p.m.) and 121.5 ft. lb. DIN at 3,500 r.p.m. Its belt-driven twin-overhead camshafts operate two valves per combustion chamber in the aluminium cylinder head. The cylinder block is cast iron and the crankshaft runs in five main bearings. A 20-degree tilt to the rear puts the rearmost camshaft of this transverse engine just behind the wheel centre line, so that it is only just mid-engined. The five-speed, all indirect gearbox, in-line with the engine on its nearside, is borrowed from the front-wheel-drive Betas. The 3.714-to-1 final— drive ratio gives 19.7 m.p.h./1,000 r.p.m. in 5th. Hydraulic operation is used for the diaphragm clutch.

The Monte-Carlo’s cockpit is sensibly, almost plainly planned, while remaining adequately modern to complement the car’s advanced styling. There is too much plastic around though, the grey, plastic panel containing the facia vents being glaringly nasty. Some welcome relief would come from specifying the no-cost option of cloth seats, which should also remove the stickiness which the non-breathing plastic covers promote on long journeys. The facia is generously padded and an attractive feature is the thick buttresses at the forward edges of the doors, which merge flush against the facia corners. The door-handles are hidden beneath them. Instruments are tucked away behind a curved, reflection-free glass screen in a rectangular cowl. On the right is a vertical row of drum-type auxiliary instruments of commendable clarity, paired with warning lamps. At the top is the oil pressure gauge, beneath is the temperature gauge and at the bottom the gauge for the 13-gallon fuel tank, the lockable filler for which, mounted below the roll bar on the nearside, caused me great consternation when it broke in the locked position. The drum pulled out with the key, needless to say the tank was almost dry and I was in a hurry. Fortunately I managed to ease the car to my destination without running out of fuel and later was able to force open the filler cap with a screwdriver. The 8,000 r.p.m. Jaeger Italia tachometer, red-lined at 6,400 r.p.m. is centrally mounted and clear enough, but the matching 160-m.p.h. speedometer on the left is poorly marked and has a large proportion of its face masked by the steering column all the way from 20 m.p.h. to 80 m.p.h. from my seating position. The broad, yellow needles on both instruments are attractive and clear. Fiat rather than Lancia steering column stalks are fitted, a two speed and intermittent control for the twin wipers arms (efficient and correctly positioned for r.h.d.) and hesitant washers on the right and lights and winkers on the left. The main light switch is on the facia below the cowl. Switches for the heated rear screen and hazard warning are positioned at the top of the centre-console, alongside an ash-tray. Beneath this the test car could have had a radio, but didn’t, an omission which left me somewhat lost it’s surprising how dependent one becomes on the company of in-car entertainment. A clock is flanked by the heater controls. The electric window controls are mounted on the console between the seats.

The seats are extremely well-shaped and exceptionally comfortable, built upon plastic frames and with integral headrests. Only when the Monte-Carlo’s outstanding roadholding is used to the full do they reveal a certain lack of lateral support. They offer a very full range of adjustment, even for tall drivers. The driver’s seat backrest can be very conveniently adjusted by a knurled knob on the end of a substantial stalk on his right hand side, which looks so much like a handbrake that several have been broken by dockworkers on Monte-Carlos in transit from Italy. The real handbrake sits on the console between the seats, where it operates on the rear discs with only just adequate efficiency – no handbrake turns in this sports car, except on loose surfaces. The steering column is non-adjustable and the attractive wheel is less attractive in feel, for its rough-texture plastic rim becomes slippery with sweat when the driver is exerting himself, is too thin and the dummy stitching on’ the inside edge is rough and unnecessary. “Clompy” shoes are out with the Monte-Carlo, which has pedals grouped so very closely together that weltless driving shoes are desirable for comfort and safety. Toe and “side of footing” is easy. I found the brake and clutch pedal pads too small, particularly the clutch which, though operating modest pressure, made the ball of my foot ache in London traffic by concentrating the pressure on a small area. There is plenty of room and a foot rest for resting the clutch foot between changes, however. The carpet on the intruding wheel arch is sensibly protected from the throttle foot by a stainless-steel scuff plate. In fact the whole of the floor area is very neatly protected by moulded carpets. Inertia reel belts retract neatly into the rear bulkhead.

Stowage space is at a premium in the cockpit. A deep, illuminated under-facia locker is lockable in theory only: pushing the flimsy lid to one side allows it to fall open in spite of the lock. It is not a wise place in which to stow things like cameras in any case, for the spiky fluff lining moults and deposits itself everywhere. There is a TR7-type tray in the shelf above the rear bulkhead and additional room for stowage behind the seats.

A flick of the throttle activates the automatic choke and the 2-litre engine usually starts instantly. But it takes a long, long time to warm up and remains full of flat-spots for several miles. The test car had a permanent hole in the carburation, in fact, and a pronounced flat-spot step on progression to the Weber’s second choke. A disconcerting “death rattle” sometimes accompanied the first few strokes of the engine while the oil pressure built up. The gearbox didn’t take kindly to cold running either, second and first gears being particularly obstructive until the gearbox oil had warmed through. Thereafter the gearchange became positive and efficient in a noisy, clunky fashion, doing its job adequately without encouraging tune-playing like that of the Lotus Eclat Sprint. The gate is reasonably narrow and the lever placed within sensible reach of the wheel.

Though at times I yearned for the substitution of a Dino V6 engine behind me, the performance of the test car proved highly acceptable on the road and surprisingly good against the stop-watch for a 2-litre car turning the scales in kerb weight trim at 20.6 cwt. We considerably bettered Lancia’s own acceleration times and those of a weekly journal who had tested the same car with less miles on its odometer. Obviously the engine was beginning to loosen up when we took figures at 4,909 miles. It covered the standing quarter mile in 16.12 sec., accelerated from 0-60 m.p.h. in 8.15 sec. and 0-50 m.p.h. in 5.47 sec. Most mid-engine cars are difficult to take off the line quickly because of good traction: our test track’s shiny surface helped the Monte-Carlo spin its wheels to keep up the revs. Maximum speed matched the manufacturer’s figure of 118 m.p.h. First gear proved a little short at 31 m.p.h. at maximum revs. Second gave just over 52 m.p.h., the slightly distant third pulled a useful 76 m.p.h. and fourth 101 m.p.h. Often, down changes were necessary not so much because the engine was lacking in torque but because poor carburation flattened its power. Had the engine had a smooth spread of clean power and good throttle progression the Monte-Carlo could have been even more satisfying to drive. It recorded 21 to 23.5 m.p.g. under mostly vigorous driving and heavy traffic use.

The Monte-Carlo’s exhaust shoots a rasping rattle at the pedestrians whose gaze is inevitably aimed at this attractive and unusual little sports car. In the cockpit the noise mixture is a disappointingly poorly insulated mixture of engine buzziness from exhaust, inlet and mechanical directions. The long-stroke engine grows harsher as the revs rise. Once the car has settled down to a steady-throttle cruising speed on ninetyish the noise-level seems to subdue itself and conversation is possible without too much effort. There is little wind noise, but quite a lot of bumping and thumping from the tyres and suspension over slightly rough surfaces.

Of course a mid-engine car’s raison d’etre should be exceptional standards of handling and roadholding and in this the Monte-Carlo doesn’t disappoint, at least in the dry. It undersfteers, but the fat Goodyears hang on and on and, if a change of attitude is required, lifting the throttle puts the car on to oversteer without the tail trying to take aver the steering. Its wheelbase/track ratio is rather better than the squarish Stratos and its reactions consequently less violent: the wheelbase is 90.5 in. (Stratos 85.8 in.); front track 55.5 in. (56.3 in.); rear track 57.3 in. (57,48 in.). More power would enable the characteristics to be exploited with rather more excitement and satisfaction – the Monte-Carlo’s power to handling and roadholding ratio has a rather generous safety margin.

The rack-and-pinion steering is quick, light and precise, offers an excellently tight lock and helps the car respond reassuringly to quick changes of direction. At times the test car’s damping felt a bit weak, with some deflection and a hint of rear wheel patter over mid corner bumps. The car had a peculiar tendency to skip sideways a fraction over wet manholes on the straight. The ride is firm and slightly choppy, but the splendid seats ensure long distance comfort.

In the wet the handling is less confidence-inspiring, though traction, as in the dry, remains superb. The steering loses some of its feel at the first hint of a damp road, and the front feels light, but front end breakaway is more apparent round fairly slow and greasy corners and roundabouts around town than it is when pressing on on the open road.

But the real limiting factor in wet conditions is not the roadholding: the front brakes are the big worry and their facility for locking under far from abnormal pedal pressures is potentially lethal. Any form of panic stop has to be avoided, for the consequences are obvious and it pays to drive with considerable anticipation and to leave a larger than usual gap between the Monte-Carlo and the car in front. Though the brakes locked up on me in the wet a few times I avoided any disasters, largely because they had undermined my confidence in the car sufficiently for me to be driving at lower limits than usual in the wet, particularly into corners. Two highly experienced testers from other magazines have had terrifying losses of control because of this dangerous characteristic. Lancia must listen to screams of protest such as this, for the consequences could be a string of damaged Monte-Carlos across Europe – and I don’t think I am over emphasising the seriousness of this matter. Part of the problem is the usual Lancia/Fiat over-servo tendency – in this case on the front wheels only. The brakes lack feel, which doesn’t help and there seems to be insufficient weight transference to put sufficiently more than the static 42% weight share on the front wheels to increase tyre bite to overcome the sudden brake pad grip provoked by the over-sensitive servo. The X1/9, which avoids servo assistance, has none of these problems and I can’t help thinking that the immediate answer to the Monte-Carlo’s troubles is to throw away the servo. In the dry the brakes are excellent in performance, well up to the handling characteristics, but even so it is possible to lock the front wheels under vigorous braking.

Reflection in the steeply-raked screen from the top of the instrument nacelle – so subtle that I thought my eyesight was deteriorating at first – reduces clarity of vision in sunlight, under street lamps or in the face of oncoming traffic.

Another bad mark went against the heating and ventilation system in the test car, which proved totally inconsistent and, however I juggled the controls, always had hot air firing at my face when I wanted to warm my toes, or cold air all over. Prototype models (and the handbook) had individual manual operation of the floor well flaps; the current production model test car had this operation taken care of by a servo operated by a switch in the centre console. Though the servo could be heard to work its ettect was nil.

The Beta Monte-Carlo is well finished, ostentatiously stylish and at £5,927 fills a ready made gap in the sports car market, well below the cost of the Lotus Esprit and well above the X1/9, which I must admit I found more consistently satisfying and endearing to drive. There are other more conventional cars which must challenge it at a lower price though, including the TVR3000M and the Alfa Spider. It has its faults and the braking problem is a serious one but is very practical in sports car terms; has a high standard of handling, good performance and is an undoubted attracter of attention. Lancia must surely find themselves with more orders than cars. – C. R.