The Beta was available in a number of different body styles:
The first body style to appear, and the most common was the four-door berlina (sedan), with a wheelbase of 2,540 millimetres (100 in) and 'fastback' styling giving the appearance of a hatchback, although in fact it had a conventional boot like a saloon. This practice was common in the industry at the time as manufacturers deemed that hatchback designs would not be accepted in this market sector.
Late in the Beta's life, with assistance from Pininfarina, a drastically reworked three-box saloon variant was released as the Beta Trevi; the Trevi also introduced a controversial new dashboard layout with deeply recessed displays, which was also later used in the third series Berlina. Number built: 194,914 Berlinas plus 36,784 Trevis.
The second style to appear was a 2+2 two-door coupé with a 2,350 millimetres (93 in) wheelbase. The bodywork was developed inhouse by a Lancia team led by Aldo Castagno, with Pietro Castagnero acting as styling consultant. Castagnero had also styled the Beta's predecessor, the Lancia Fulvia saloon and coupé. Number built: 111,801.
The next version to be launched was a two-door convertible called the Spider (or Zagato in America). In brochures Lancia spelt the name with a "y" rather than an "i" possibly to differentiate the car from the Alfa Romeo Spider. The Spider used the coupé's shorter wheelbase and featured a targa top roof panel, a roll-over bar and folding rear roof. Early models did not have a cross-member supporting the roof between the tops of the A to B Pillars. Later models had fixed cross-members. The Spider was designed by Pininfarina but actually built by Zagato. Number built: 9390.
The Beta HPE was a three-door sporting estate or shooting-brake introduced in 1975. HPE stood for High Performance Estate, and then later High Performance Executive. This model had Berlina's longer wheelbase floorpan combined with the coupé's front end and doors. The HPE was also styled in house at Lancia by Castagno's team, with Castagnero as styling consultant. It was renamed the Lancia HPE (without the Beta) from 1979 and was discontinued in 1984. Number built: 71,258.
The final variant was the Pininfarina designed – and built – two-door Lancia Montecarlo (note that the vehicle was named "Montecarlo" written as one word, not Monte Carlo, one of Monaco's administrative areas). This was a rear-wheel drive mid-engined two-seater sports car that shared very few components with other Betas. Montecarlos were available as fixed head "Coupés" and also as "Spiders". The car was originally designed as a Fiat, a big brother to the Bertone-styled Fiat X1/9, and was initially called the X1/20 in prototype stage; it is therefore not related to the Beta by design, but used much of its components. First Series cars (1975–1978) were badged Lancia Beta Montecarlo. There was then a 2-year gap in production. The revised Second Series cars (1980–1981) were simply badged as Lancia Montecarlo. In the United States of America the First Series cars were marketed as the Scorpion alongside the rest of the Beta range. Scorpion was used because General Motors had already used the name Monte Carlo for one of their cars. The Scorpion name was a reference to Abarth. Number of Montecarlos built: 7595.
When Fiat acquired Lancia in 1969, the company had been without a Technical Director for a year, no successor having been appointed following the death of Antonio Fessia a year earlier. At the Beta’s launch late in 1972 Fiat chief Gianni Agnelli told journalists that Lancia’s output would be about 40,000 units in 1972 at a time when a volume of 100,000 was needed to cover the fixed costs involved in developing and building the cars. Lancia’s lack of profitability was also evidenced by the absence of replacement models under development at the time of the Fiat take-over, while the Lancia Fulvia, though much loved by enthusiasts, had been developed with little concern for making it cost-effective to produce: it had therefore been sold at a high price in correspondingly low volumes. The company’s new owner’s objective with the new Beta was to retain the quality image (and resulting price premium) of existing Lancias, while minimising development time and production costs by using in-house Fiat group technology and parts as far as possible. The project adapted a well-regarded existing Fiat engine, fitted transversely and driving the front wheels in line with Fiat’s investment in this configuration during the previous decade. The gear box was a development of a transmission unit then being developed by Fiat-partner Citroën for a forthcoming model of their own. Above all, and in contrast with the Fulvia, the Beta design was relatively inexpensive to produce in volumes significantly higher than those achieved by predecessor Lancia saloons.
The company chose the name Beta for a new vehicle to be launched in 1972. The choice of name symbolised a new beginning as it reflected the fact that the company’s founder, Vincenzo Lancia (1881–1937), utilized letters of the Greek alphabet for his early vehicles — such as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and so on. "Beta" had been used before, for Lancia’s 1908 car and again for a 1953 bus. Lancia had previously utilized the first letter of the Greek alphabet, Alpha, but this was not chosen for the new 1972 Lancia due to the obvious confusion it might cause with Alfa Romeo.
All versions of the car came with DOHC engines, five-speed gearboxes, rack and pinion steering, fully independent suspension using MacPherson struts in both front and rear with disc brakes on all four wheels. The front-wheel-drive models were available in a number of engine capacities ranging from 1.3 L to 2.0 L. As with a number of previous front-wheel drive-Lancia models, the engine and gearbox were mounted on a subframe that bolted to the underside of the body. However, in the Beta the engine and manual gearbox were fitted transversely in line. This Fiat-inspired configuration not only enabled neat engine bay packaging, but also, by tilting the engine 20 degrees rearwards, the Lancia engineers achieved improved weight transfer over the driven wheels and towards the centre of the car, as well as lowering the centre of gravity. The rear-wheel drive Lancia Montecarlo employed a similar layout except the subframe was mounted at the rear. On the front-wheel drive Betas, Lancia designed a particularly original independent rear suspension with MacPherson struts attached to parallel transverse links that pivoted on a centrally mounted cross member bolted to the underside of the floorpan. An anti-roll bar was fitted to the floorpan ahead of the rear struts with both ends of the bar trailing back to bolt to the rear struts on each side. This unique design went on to be used in later Lancia models. The design was never patented by Lancia, and consequently inspired similar rear suspension system layouts in other manufacturers' vehicles during the 1980s and 1990s. The different models all underwent various revisions and improvements over the years. Power steering specially produced by the German company ZF became available on certain Left Hand Drive models and was also used on the Gamma. Electronic ignition became available in 1978. Automatic transmission became available the same year; the Beta was the first Lancia manufactured with an automatic transmission factory option. In 1981 power steering also became available on certain Right Hand Drive models. Also in that year a fuel-injected version of the 2.0-litre engine became available on certain models.
The unusual dashboard of the Trevi and third-series Berlina, with deeply recessed dials and controls Late in the model's life Lancia released the Trevi VX, with a Roots-type supercharger fitted between the carburettor and low-compression two-litre engine; the Coupé VX and HPE VX followed soon after. These three variants were known as Volumex models and had the highest performance of all the road-going production Betas, with 135 bhp (101 kW) and substantially increased torque over the normal two-litre 200 N·m (148 lb·ft). The Coupé VX and HPE VX can be distinguished from the normal cars by the offset bulge on the hood which is required to clear the new air intake, a spoiler fitted below the front bumper and the rubber rear spoiler. They also have stiffer spring rates. Lancia produced 1272 Coupé VX, 2370 HPE VX and 3900 Trevi VX. Most were left-hand drive (only 186 right-hand drive HPEs and around 150 RHD Coupés were imported to the UK,however the car was also sold in some other RHD markets so exact RHD production remains unknown). Only one right-hand drive Trevi VX was made. A small number of Trevis were built to run on LPG rather than petrol (gasoline).
Lancia with Fiat elements
For some the Beta was not a Lancia but rather a Fiat. However, it should be noted that Lancia were allowed a surprising amount of autonomy from Fiat in the development of the Beta. The levels of technology in the Beta described in the previous section also highlight the sheer amount of bespoke engineering that went into the then new Lancia.
The main reason for the Fiat label was that despite its unique Lancia chassis, suspension, interior and bodywork, the Beta used a Fiat-based engine. It is important to note that the Fiat DOHC engine, originally designed by Aurelio Lampredi, who built engines for Ferrari until Fiat employed him, was one of the most advanced 4-cylinder engines in Europe at that time. It continued in production well into the 1990s and, in highly developed form, was used in performance road cars such as the Lancia Delta Integrale and Fiat Coupé. The Lancia engineers made changes to the engines fitted to the Beta range. These included a bespoke cylinder head which incorporated hemispherical combustion chambers, altered valve timing, new inlet and exhaust manifolds as well as different carburation. These modifications resulted in higher horsepower and torque figures for the engines as used in the Beta. In addition the mounting points on the engine block were different to allow for the transverse installation as opposed to the longitudinal installation utilised by the rear-wheel-drive Fiats. For these reasons the engines are not interchangeable between Betas and contemporary Fiats such as the Fiat 132.
The Beta was very well received by the motoring press and public when launched. The various models were praised for their performance and their good handling and roadholding. They were widely regarded as a "driver's car" with plenty of character. The Beta was competitively priced in export markets and managed to become the highest ever selling Lancia model up to that point.
Unfortunately the Beta gained a reputation for being rust-prone, particularly the 1st Series vehicles (built from 1972 to 1975). A widely circulated rumor states that the cars used Russian steel supplied to Fiat in return for building the Lada factory, however these claims have never been verified and the steel problems are more likely due to poor rustproofing techniques as well as the prolonged strikes that plagued Italy at that time than the metal's origin.
The corrosion problems could be structural; for instance where the subframe carrying the engine and gearbox was bolted to the underside of the car. The box section to which the rear of the subframe was mounted could corrode badly, causing the subframe to become loose. Although tales of subframes dropping out of vehicles were simply not true, a vehicle with a loose subframe would fail a technical inspection. In actuality, the problem affected almost exclusively 1st Series saloon models and not the Coupé, HPE, Spider or Montecarlo versions. In the UK (Lancia's largest export market at the time) the company listened to the complaints from its dealers and customers and commenced a campaign to buy back vehicles affected by the subframe problem. Some of these vehicles were 6 years old or older and belonged to 2nd or 3rd owners. Customers were invited to present their cars to a Lancia dealer for an inspection. If their vehicle was affected by the subframe problem, the customer was offered a part exchange deal to buy another Lancia or Fiat car. The cars that failed the inspection were scrapped. However, on 9 April 1980 the Daily Mirror and TV programmes (such as That's Life!) reported on the issue. There were false claims that the problem persisted in later cars by showing photographs of scrapped 1st Series saloons, referring to them as being newer than five and six years old. Other contemporary manufacturers (British, French, Japanese and German) whose cars also suffered from corrosion were not treated as harshly. This was possibly because Lancia was seen as a luxury car brand at that time and consequently expectations were high.
Ironically, Lancia had already introduced one year previously a 6-year anti-corrosion warranty - an automotive first in the UK. Whilst later Betas (2nd Series cars) had reinforced subframe mounting points and post-1979 cars were better protected from the elements, these issues damaged the whole marque's sales success on most export markets. However, thanks to its strong driver appeal, the Beta still enjoys a dedicated following today. Surviving examples make an interesting classic car choice for the enthusiast.
On the British motoring show Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson drove a 1981 Lancia Beta coupe through the middle of Botswana during a 2007 challenge. During the challenge, Clarkson successfully drove the Lancia Beta across the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan, making the Lancia Beta one of the first ever cars to cross the whole pan. Throughout the trip though, the car was a constant source of problems having been filmed breaking down multiple times. So much so that the last time it broke down during the special, just before finishing the trip, the crew refused to work on the car, calling it a "troubled child".
Giovanni Michelotti produced three concept cars on Beta mechanicals. Two were sedans based on the Berlina—one unusual in having four gull-wing doors -- the other was an open top two-seater based on the Coupé. In 1980, Giorgetto Giugiaro built a concept car on Montecarlo mechanicals, called the Medusa. Unusually for a mid-engined car it had four doors, and the body was shaped to have a very low drag coefficient for the time.
Lancia built one very special variant of the Beta themselves. The twin-engined Trevi Bimotore was used for tests related to Lancia's new four-wheel drive rally cars; it was powered by one Volumex engine under the hood driving the front wheels, and another in the back driving the rear wheels, with air scoops in the rear doors. The two gearboxes were linked, and an electronically controlled throttle replaced the mechanical system so the two engines worked together.
There are few records of Lancias ever being assembled outside Italy but, exceptionally, Betas were. It was announced in August 1976 that SEAT would commence Spanish production of the Lancia Beta. Three years later Beta production by SEAT indeed commenced at the company's recently acquired Pamplona plant, though only the Coupé and HPE lift-back versions were included. The arrangement was short lived from 1979 up to 1980 because of a falling out in the early 1980s between Fiat, Lancia's parent company, and the Spanish government over the increasingly urgent need for investment to upgrade the SEAT range. In 1982 Volkswagen became SEAT's major auto-industry partner, and under the new regime the plant that had assembled the Lancia Beta, SEAT Panda and SEAT 124 switched to building the Volkswagen Polo.