When Fiat purchased Lancia in 1969, the company it had acquired was an ailing one.
So, when the time came for a new D-segment saloon to replace Lancia’s staple model, the Fulvia, something cost-effective was needed – or, as Autocar put it on 1 November 1973, something that “radically changed Lancia’s design, manufacturing and marketing policies”.
That car was the Beta, the first new Lancia under the watchful eye of its fellow Turin townsman, and in order to turn the company’s fortunes around, it employed a wide range of Fiat parts.
The Beta had in fact gone on sale in Continental Europe in October 1972, a right-hand-drive model did not go on sale for another year, at which time we got to drive it for the first time.
It was available in three states: 1400, 1600 and 1800. Each had a Fiat-derived inline-four, transversely mounted twin-cam petrol engine, with the model numbers corresponding to the respective cubic capacities. The entry-level motor’s output was 89bhp, the middle’s 107bhp and the biggest’s 118bhp. We tested the latter.
This was mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, borrowed from Citroën, itself a fellow Fiat subsidiary at the time. Drive was through the front wheels.
The Beta’s suspension, meanwhile, was of the MacPherson-strut type for all for wheels, with wishbones for the fronts and transverse arms for the rears, and coil springs all round.
“Another departure from traditional Lancia practice,” we noted, was the adoption of rack-and-pinion steering.
Introductions aside, off we went.
“Having had appetites whetted by the model’s advanced specification, prospective buyers will be keen to learn how it behaves on the road,” we said. “With a few minor reservations, they will not be disappointed.”
In ideal conditions, we achieved a top speed of 109mph in the Beta, the precise figure claimed by Lancia itself.
“It is significant that maximum speed is coincident with the peak of the power curve,” we reported, but, frustratingly, “whilst such gearing is ideal from the all-out performance viewpoint, it does rob the car of the ability to cruise unobtrusively at wide throttle openings. Anything more than 95mph on the clock involves considerable fuss."
Our attempts to test the Beta for acceleration came in the pouring rain, and so any attempt at a full-throttle capriccio bore nothing but “furious wheelspin”.
In a more measured method, we achieved a 0-30mph time of 3.8sec, 0-60mph in 10.7sec and 0-95mph in 33.1sec; a performance in which we considered the Beta to have “acquitted itself extremely well”.
The gearbox we also evaluated with positivity, although it wasn’t called into action as frequently as we may have expected due to the engine's “pleasant flexibility”.
Fuel economy was decent, too: “Despite being driven brutally hard, the test car averaged 24.3mpg”.
When compared to its (somewhat ironic) rival, the Fiat 132 Special 1800, the Beta came out on top for top speed, acceleration and fuel economy.
However, the Beta’s engine was comparatively slow to warm, and “the general level of mechanical noise was higher than expected for a car in this class,” reaching a fortissimo at 5000rpm, “despite having an electric cooling fan”.
When it came to ride and handling, we found that “inevitably, the concentration of mechanical components at the front has resulted in considerable front heaviness”.
However, partly due to “fairly low gearing” of the steering, “the Beta was reassuringly stable, no matter what the road conditions”.
“The Beta’s balance and general behaviour are greatly dependent on the amount of power being used. Even in the dry - fierce getaways result in considerable wheelspin, a considerable squat and a tendency to veer to the right.
“Under next driving conditions, the Beta’s steering self-centres quite vigorously.”
However, “less predictable was the behaviour on tight right-hand bends”, where startlingly “application of power causes total loss of self-centring action,” compounded by the fact that “lift-off results in a sudden and violent return to the straight-ahead”.
“Such a blow-by-blow account might give the impression that the Beta scores badly in terms of handling, but this is by no means the case once the driver has adjusted to the model’s peculiarness,” we concluded, and that it “was found that most impressive averages are achieved over give-and-take routes”.
The ride had an “air of comfort,” although stiff damping made for appreciable firmness at lowish speeds. Still, the Beta “ironed out the roughest of roads,” and along with its “sumptuously comfortable” seats, we thought would be “an attractive proposition for a great many people”.
Wind noise and road noise, too, were impressively muted.
Brakes seemed too sensitive at first, but actually, 200lb of pressure was needed before we could make the car slide, with progressive fade. “Such characteristics are fine for those who drive briskly and are aware of the pattern,” we reckoned, but “it was conceivable that some drivers could be caught napping”.
Inside the Beta, we were impressed with the 1800’s “comprehensive equipment and luxurious trim” – large, fabric-trimmed seats.
Aesthetically, although the fascia was of a clean design, with “a dominating speedometer and tachometer,” we did criticise “the abundance of instrument and warning lamps”.
In terms of practicality, the Beta offered “better-than-average leg room, decent head room and large door openings”. The boot, meanwhile, was “truly vast” and “of a useful shape”.
The “standard of construction”, too, was excellent. “Seldom have cars been produced with such narrow and regular margins,” we beamed.
We concluded by saying: “Without doubt, the Beta deserves praise for its spaciousness, comfort and the quality of its finish. It is also commendable to drive, although not everyone will like its handling characteristics. Overall, however, the Beta represents excellent value for money."