All round improvements to these good looking, sporting high performers
Since the Beta Coupe was introduced, in 1600 form to the British market, during January 1975 it has attracted a strong following. The fortunes of the Italian Lire are as dismal as those of sterling, so value for money has always been part of the attraction. An attraction complemented by a long list of standard equipment and the lively performance given by the d.o.h.c. ex-Fiat engine powering the front wheels. The 2-litre, longstroke version of that engine, appeared in the Beta Coupe-inspired range (HPE and Spider) for appraisal in LEID 121-b.h.p. tune last Autumn in Italy, but it is only in recent months that it has been more freely available in Britain.
So far as basic mechanics are concerned, the 2-litre engine is accompanied by no major changes, apart from the lowering of the final drive ratio in the five-speed transmission. RHD models cannot have the power steering that is such a useful part of the standard LHD specification. At £4,087 for the 2000 HPE and £3,598 for the 2000 Coupe (1.6-litre models are £380 and £409 cheaper, respectively) the bigger engine brings a flood of standard features, including sliding steel sun roof and electrically-operated windows for the door. When you think that you are already getting aluminium road wheels spirited Italian air horns; exterior mirror (mirrors for HPE); heated back screen (with third door, luggage covering blind and quickly removable slats for HPE); halogen lamps (load adjusting on HPE), and that expensively-tinted and laminated front screen, one begins to get an idea of Lancia’s current obsession for comprehensive standard fittings. There is still a lot more that is best left to the pleasure of catalogue browsers.
The basis of all Beta 2-litres—and the Montecarlo mid-engine model, which is expected here next Spring—is the 84 mm.bore by 90 mm.-stroke version of the engine that started life as Fiat’s 1400 Twin Cam for the 124 Coupes. Fitted with a single Weber 34 DATR (or Solex C34 TCIC) and operating on an 8.9-to-1 compression ratio, this four-cylinder yields 121 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. and an excellent torque curve, peaking at 2,800 r.p.m. with 128 lb. ft.
Both Coupe and HPE share the 3.785 final drive. On 5 1/2j by 14 in. wheels with 175/70 HR radials (Michelin ZX for test HPE and XWX for the Coupe) this gives 19.6 m.p.h. for every 1,000 r.p.m. in 5th gear. So far as the driver is concerned this means that an honest 80 m.p.h., which is 84 to 85 m.p.h. indicated, is a nice 4,000 r.p.m. cruising speed.
As well as making features like the 5-speed gearbox and transversely-mounted double overhead camshaft engine part of the specification, Lancia’s engineers are also able to boast the inclusion of four-wheel disc braking, and all-independent suspension, via well-located struts front and aft. At the back the strut concept does take away some of the space benefits conferred by front wheel drive, but the ride, particularly on the 7 in. longer wheelbase of the HPE—is an excellent cornpromise between sport and civilisation.
The HPE is actually even more of a mongrel than the normal Lancia-Fiat marriage of mechanicals featured throughout the rest of the range, for the HPE is a Beta Coupe up to the front screen pillars, is built on a saloon floorpan thereafter, with entirely fresh superstructure, including the large, telescopically-assisted third door. Compared to the Coupe there is an extra degree of equipment that is very useful in turning it into a very attractive Jekyll and Hyde character, which really does combine Coupe sporting inclination with saloon legroom. Those sleek looks do not allow you saloon car headroom though, and those above 6 ft. should treat my remarks with suspicion, until they’ve tried either HPE or Coupe. Lancia have scalloped out the front (and rear for the Coupe) seat squabs to allow a little extra headroom, but that which the seat man giveth, the sun-roof man taketh away!
The HPE’s wrap-around rear seat, with individually-folding forward rear seat backs does provide a cosy home for passengers, especially when the car is driven hard over twisty lanes. The load area behind the HPE’s seats carries about 9 cu. ft. of luggage, some of its capacity robbed by the spare wheel standing in the wing.
The front seats of both models now have a linkage that moves the squabs forward when the seat back is released. This is much better than the diabolical previous arrangement that required one to operate a nasty steel safety catch simultaneously with the seat back release—one placed on the opposite side of the seat back the other, of course—but it can lead to annoying rattles. The tendency to rattle is compounded by the individual seat back release linkages at the rear and the third door, though this was hardly moving at all on a 5,000-mile car. In fact the only annoyance at all was the motorway squeak from the folding rear seats.
The fold down action of those back HPE seats is individually controlled via a release knob placed on top of those intrusive rear struts, but one does have to pull out the individual seat squabs in order to get the seats fully flat. Then, their smart brown-carpeted surfaces offer a flat loading space, as well as protection for the back of the front seats, achieved via a further hinged section that extends up the back of those front seats.
Although the rear seating, in a patriotic olive green on our white demonstrator HPE, and in red on the similarly-painted Coupe, is improved on the HPE, the driving position still takes an unusually long time to get used to. There are fundamental shortcomings in the seating position for those of over 5 ft. 8 in., but there are plenty of owners of that height who, like myself, have become immune to rigours and find the car quite comfortable. After 30,000 miles in my own Coupe I found the biggest improvement I could make was the adoption of a small Abarth steering wheel (Motolita do a good one too), but I am forced to agree with colleagues who say that the steering column needs to adjust in and out, as well as for rake. Perhaps the real answer is for the Italians to study some of the European opposition a little more carefully and provide an “Export” driving position.
The 2-litre models offer a number of small refinements over the earlier cars that previous owners will appreciate. Notable is the substitution of a properly-engineered bonnet release, instead of the previous bent arm and wire device, and more logical arrangements to cover the propped-open position of the forward hinging bonnet. On the 2-litre models there is also an automatic choke, the hand throttle confusing many into thinking the car retains a manual choke and giving rise to complaints of poor warm-up (yes, in print!) whereas the alloy head, iron cylinder block engine is actually quite docile. Where the choke used to be there is a pull switch for the rear fog warning lamp.
The second stage of the twin-choke carburettor was particularly hard to fully engage until one gave an accurate impression of an earnest attempt to reprofile the floorboards. Then, the HPE provided adequate surge forward while the Coupe, burdened with 140 lb. less in sheet metal and glass is quite quick. The figures given in the data panel are for a Coupe. The HPE is obviously a bit slower, but in our experience the stopwatch only shows a half second, or fractions more in acceleration runs from rest to any speed between 30 and 70 m.p.h. Beyond that point the Coupe’s weight advantage and cumulative gains lower down the scale still only add up to a second, or less, all the way to 90 m.p.h. from a standstill.
Those fractions look impressive on paper, for the HPE is often on, or just about 10 sec. for 0-60 m.p.h., while the Coupe is recording 9 1/2 sec. times for the same exercise, but there’s very little difference on the road. For the future, Lancia enthusiasts might well like to have a fuel injected version of the present engine to give power and smoothness that would compare with BMW. The present combination of speed and economy is pretty fair with HPE providing 24.6 to 25.8 m.p.g. and the harder-driven Coupe 23.6 to 25.2 m.p.g.
The m.p.g. figures show a cross between family pottering and outright thrashing, the enjoyable latter showing the Beta’s strut suspension and four-wheel disc braking off to great advantage. The steering wheel may feel cumbersomely big, but there’s no denying the accuracy of the 3.7-turn lock-to-lock rack and pinion, and the amazing way that the car will follow a chosen line, be it over choppy B-road bumps or flat-out test track-ripples. I preferred the HPE’s combination of long-wheel base ride quality to the sometimes coarse pitches of the Coupe, but the HPE does lose a little of the agility that the Coupe will display in roundabout situations: literally a case of what you gain on the long swings with HPE you lose on the roundabouts.
Although the brakes are excellent, there are two criticisms that can he made. Some drivers found the servo action too fierce (this can be tricky in preparation for slow, damp, Corners) and others were a little worried by the way that the pedal action becomes “soft” when given really hard work to do, such as slowing repeatedly along a winding lane, or braking hard from motorway speeds to join a normal road, or roundabout.
Engine noise, like the gear-change, varies sharply on various versions of the Beta range. In these two areas you can quickly judge the real worth of your Lancia Dealer, for the good ones can make what was a rather unpleasant car into a super thoroughbred that really is a pleasure to drive. The risk of a baulky 1st gear is always present; easing back into 2nd before engaging 1st usually cures the problem, but there is really no reason why customers should find anything but a good clean change of ratios from this point on.
The HPE had a number of wheezy noises present in the engine, including a party piece of “groaning” at 4,500 r.p.m., but once over this speed, or when simply pressing on, you discover an engine that isn’t greatly different to the Twin Cam Alfa Romeo. The Coupe had a quiet engine that provided the creditable performance recorded in our performance panel.
Lancia obviously have listened to what customers have said, and have genuinely tried to improve a car that they could just have gone on selling in its original form. In 2-litre-trim you get an awful lot of equipment for your money, but that isn’t a fiendish plot to hide the worth of the basic car–as one might well charge of several rather more unscrupulous Contenders in the mass-production field—for the engineering concept has integrity too. If they decide to clean up the dashboard (still a maze of conflicting Styles and reflections) and charge an extra, £250 to quality control and extending the present miserly guarantee of 6 months then Alfa Romeo, BMW, and Triumph could find themselves fighting only for who has the biggest share of the remainder of the 2-titre sporting category. J.W.
PS.—For those who ask about our staff Beta Coupe 1600 I can confirm that it has covered 30,000 spectacular miles and that we will be running it for another 30,000. It is worth noting that Lancia (GB) have now extended the service interval to 6,200 miles, instead of the previous 3,200.