1977 Lancia Beta Coupé 2000
After nine years and 20,000 miles of relatively trouble-free motoring, I parted with my much-loved 1979 Citroën GS. My goal was an affordable entry into the Italian classic car market; the Lancia Beta range fitted the bill. There's nothing like a restricted budget to focus your attentions, equivalent Alfas were comparatively expensive. I've a soft spot for an Alfasud, but if anything, they're even thinner on the ground. The Beta coupé turned into the sole contender.
I knew I'd miss the unbreakable air-cooled flat-four of the GS. Driving through searing summer heat in the rush-hour traffic of Normandy towns, without the anxiety of overheating, is a huge plus point in an older classic. Hydropneumatic suspension isn't for everyone, but I'm a big fan. The Citroën SM is my dream car, but one that'll never come true. As an impressionable 12-year old I was won over by my father's brief ownership of a Beta coupé in Sahara Beige. The comfy contoured cloth rear seats were a serious step up from the hot brown vinyl of our recently written off Hillman Avenger.
The Beta range was launched in 1972, just three years after Fiat had bought out the ailing car firm. The development time-frame was tight, and finances were limited. A talented Lancia team designed the coupé, utilising the already tried and tested Fiat four-cylinder twin-cam engine that Aurelio Lampredi had created back in the mid-sixties. The car had an innovative suspension set-up, a Superduplex braking system using discs all round, and the bodyshell had front and rear crumple zones. It was a well-received car, and the range sold well. Production finally ended in 1984. I made the decision to buy a 1977 left-hand drive Beta coupé 2000 from an Italian car dealer based in Hampshire. A silver Lancia certainly wasn't my first choice, but the olive green nylon seat fabric was appealing. If your heart is truly set on a Beta, then solid structure is what you're after. The Betaboyz Forum has been really helpful, and their parts department invaluable. Spares availability hasn't been a problem.
The car had been in the UK for perhaps three years, and judging by the mileage and condition, had enjoyed a leisurely life in Florence. Solid and apparently unwelded, and importantly, was greatlooking underneath, not just on top. A deal was done on a warm September day. I happily drove away, but completed only a third of my 100-mile maiden journey; the remainder was courtesy of a recovery truck. It did take a while, some soul searching and a good deal of expenditure to fully resolve all its issues.
Many man hours were spent making good the underbonnet wiring, which was frail due to age, and sorting out the poor earths. With the fitting of additional relays to the headlamps, a new coil and HT lead set and replacement Weber carb with a manual choke (an autochoke Weber was the factory fit) I was up and running, but sensed the car wasn't performing as it should. A major overheating episode, resulting in a blown head gasket – a year ago now – ironically turned out to be a blessing, because it revealed a sorely compromised cooling system. A comprehensively modified cooling system was what the car desperately needed.
The cylinder head was sent away for skimming and the valves reseated. Thankfully the overheating hadn't caused any serious damage. New gaskets, cambelts and tensioners, and a Revotec electric fan, plus an in-head thermostat mod completed the cooling upgrades. It's incredible to think – and some sort of testament to the engine's robustness – that the car drove at all, let alone reasonably well, despite a woeful list of glaring faults. A fuel pump that was barely attached to the engine block, incorrectly gapped spark plugs, and a fuel tank full of fine rust particles to name a few. The latter necessitated the fabrication of a brand new steel fuel tank.
It feels great now to have clocked up 1000 miles in the car, and my confidence grows with each trip. The car begs to be driven, and is great fun to drive. Responsive and dynamic, and I love the fact that it's rare but not extraordinary. Younger 'old car enthusiasts' bounce over to me, inquiring as to what it is. They didn't live through the early '80s, Lancia's trial by media, and subsequent fall from grace. A marque only to be remembered for one thing: rust.
Plans for this year include a UK gathering to celebrate the Beta's 50 years since its launch. I'm hoping also to attend a similar celebration in France, and if I'm brave, Italy too. The next, and most crucial task is to thoroughly refresh the underseal, imperative for year-round UK motoring! Many thanks to Sussex Sports Cars of Lewes, East Sussex for allowing my dream to come true.