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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

Failing Greatly: The Story Of The Lancia Montecarlo

It may be hard to believe now that it's a coveted classic, but the Lancia Beta Montecarlo did not prove popular with buyers in the period. Still, its existence led to two successful racing programs for Lancia. Funny, given the Montecarlo wasn't supposed to be a Lancia at all.

The Lancia Montecarlo story started in 1969 when famed design house Pininfarina began working on the Fiat project X1/8. The market for traditional rag-tops like the 124 Spider showed signs of decline, and the X1/8 was to take its place in Europe and the United States. The first prototypes hit the road between 1970 and '71, after which the project was temporarily suspended.

Work resumed in 1972 under a new codename, X1/20, still as a future Fiat model. One X1/20 prototype was heavily modified by Abarth for participation at the 1974 Giro D'Italia, with a 3.5 liters V6 engine derived from the Fiat 130 mounted longitudinally and mated to a ZF five-speed gearbox. The unique prototype, known only as Abarth SE 030, finished in second place and was never used in competition again.

The Beta Montecarlo occupies a special place in Pininfarina's history, as the company's involvement went beyond the exterior styling

The Fiat X1/20 became the Lancia Beta Montecarlo one evening in February 1975, mere weeks before the launch at that year's Geneva Motor Show. The Lancia brand, with its premium positioning, suited the car best, and the Montecarlo moniker tied it to Lancia's rallying successes with another mid-engined car, the Stratos.

Despite the fact the Montecarlo had nothing to do with the successful Lancia Beta saloon and coupé ranges, it was decided to add the "Beta" moniker as well, to further tie the mid-engined model to Lancia's production cars.

The Beta Montecarlo was available either as a coupé or with a large canvas sunroof: those models were, rather inappropriately, called Beta Montecarlo Spider.

The Beta Montecarlo occupies a special place in Pininfarina's history, as the company's involvement went beyond the exterior styling, attributed to Paolo Martin. For the first time, the company engineered the car's steel bodyshell, considering upcoming American safety legislation, on Fiat's behalf.

That the Montecarlo's calling card has always been its looks is stating the obvious: it looks just as good today as it did upon its launch, over 45 years ago. A design classic in the truest sense of the word, almost a decade ahead of its time, also thanks to innovative solutions like the wraparound plastic bumpers and the windscreen glued flush to the body, both very much uncommon in 1975.

The interior of the example shown in the video is upholstered with elastic vinyl. Available in beige and blue, other than the red shown here, the material was standard equipment, but the seats could be finished in matching cloth upholstery at extra cost.

Yet it can be argued the Montecarlo's attractive "Ferrari-esque" appearance was both a blessing and a curse, as it promised speed and performance that simply wasn't there.

Mounted transversely behind the cabin, there was a 2 liters twin-cam inline-four engine derived from the 1.8 liters used on the Beta saloon via a new crankshaft that increased the stroke from 79 to 90 mm, while the cylinders' bore remained unchanged at 84 mm. Fed by a double-choke 34mm carburetor, the engine made 120 HP at 6000 Rpm.

It was, and arguably still is, plenty enough power to have fun with a lightweight, balanced sports car like the Montecarlo, whose center of gravity stood at just 43 cm from the ground. Yet people expected more, especially given the car's price, and left the cars gathering dust in the showrooms.

Although the little mid-engine Lancia did nothing for the company's balance sheets, it would serve as the basis for two unrelated but very successful racing programs.

Production of the Lancia Beta Montecarlo at the Pininfarina factory was interrupted in May 1978. At that point, less than 6000 cars were made, and the model's future hung in the balance, following its failure on the all-important American market.

Baptized "Scorpion" to avoid a legal clash with General Motors over the Montecarlo name, the Federalized version of the mid-engined Lancia differed quite substantially from its European counterpart.

The large impact-absorbing bumpers did the Pininfarina lines no favors, and the twin round sealed-beam headlights were mounted on rotating pods to comply with headlamp height regulations. But what really killed the Scorpion's chances Stateside was its gutless 1.8 liters engine, rated at a measly 81 HP. The Scorpion was retired in 1977 after only 1800 cars were produced.

Production of the Beta Montecarlo resumed in January of 1980 after nearly a two-year hiatus, during which the model stayed on Lancia's price list despite no new cars were being made.

The new models were simply called "Montecarlo," without the "Beta" moniker. They were easily identifiable by the glazed buttresses and the front end incorporating Lancia's new corporate grille, first seen on the 1979 Delta hatchback.

Apart from the adoption of electronic ignition, nothing changed in the engine compartment. Lancia's engineers focused their attention on handling and braking: the larger 14" alloy wheels were shod with Pirelli P6 tires and allowed the fitment of larger brakes, which, weirdly, no longer had power assistance.

However, it was too little, too late.

Production of the Montecarlo "series II" was terminated in September 1981, but the last examples could be purchased new until as late as 1984.

Although the little mid-engine Lancia did nothing for the company's balance sheets, it would serve as the basis for two unrelated but very successful racing programs.

The Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo was presented in 1978 and used by the "works" Lancia team in the World Championship for Makes.

Thanks to lax Group 5 technical regulations, little from the production Montecarlo was retained for the racing version. Leading racing outfit Dallara reworked the production monocoque and suspension extensively, and the bodywork developed in the Pininfarina wind tunnel bore only a slight resemblance to the showroom model.

Thanks to a new 16-valve cylinder head and a massive turbo, the engine produced over 400HP and propelled the Beta Montecarlo Group 5 to two world championships in 1980 and 1981.

The Beta Montecarlo's central "tub" was then used as a base for the Lancia Rally, better known with its Abarth codename of "037."

Not much else was retained, as the front and rear sections were substituted by tube frames to fit the completely new suspensions and drivetrain.

But that's a story for another time...


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