Middle Management

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By Stuart Grant

Despite a long and proud history, the 1960s saw Lancia haemorrhaging large sums of cash to stay afloat, and it was left up to Fiat to put things right. In October 1969, the Italian automaker made a successful bid to take over Lancia and thankfully kept pushing the distinctive Lancia image that had been created by innovative, stylish design and a healthy dose of competition focus (the likes of the rally-winning Lancia Stratos springs to mind in this period). But as we know, motorsport success often costs bucketloads and doesn’t always do wonders for the bottom line…

What the firm needed for the 1970s was something with the ‘right’ sporting Lancia flavour that would sell off the showroom floors in relatively decent quantities to ‘regular’ road users – something to go head-to-head with the likes of the Triumph TR7, Alfa Romeo GTV or Datsun 240Z. The answer, bucking the front-engined trend for entry-level sports cars, stemmed from Fiat’s 1300cc Fiat X1/9.

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Pininfarina was roped in to design a replacement for Fiat’s ageing 124 Coupé and began work on project X1/8 – a midmounted V6. But on the grounds of cost, design X1/9 by Bertone, featuring a midengined four-pot, got the go-ahead as the replacement. Although sporting a small cubic capacity, the lightness, performance and agility ensured that sales impressed the men in suits.

Of course, the next thought was that with a bit more power, even more units would sell. For this, Pininfarina’s X1/8 project was pulled back onto the drawing board, only by now the global oil crisis had seen fuel prices rocketing. For this reason, the 3-litre V6 idea was binned in favour of a 2-litre four-cylinder, and the project was re-numbered X1/20. For 1974, X1/20 was badged as Fiat Abarth SE 030 and went racing. This motorsport foray came to a halt at the end of the year and the Abarth SE 030/X1/20 programme was passed on to sibling brand Lancia with the intention of making a two-seater sports car superior to the Fiat X1/9.

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Pininfarina’s X1/20 was unveiled in March 1975 as the Lancia Beta Montecarlo and ran alongside the firm’s front-engined Beta four-seater coupé on the showroom floors, but as the pair shared very little in the way of mechanicals, Montecarlo production was handled entirely by Pininfarina.

The Beta Montecarlo, in both coupé and sliding fabric open-roof format, made use of a low-slung monocoque fitted with independent MacPherson strut suspension and disc brakes on all corners, while Fiat’s 124 Coupé 2-litre twin-cam engine formed the heart. This unit was mounted transversely behind the cockpit and mated to a five-speed gearbox driving the rear wheels. All combining to propel the 970kg Italian to the 100km/h mark in just under 10 seconds and on to a top end of 195km/h, with the real trump card being a beautifully balanced and precise handling package.

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Although low to the ground, getting into the Beta Montecarlo didn’t require any extraordinary contortion skills and once inside, the cabin proved surprisingly spacious and comfortable, with impressive build quality, fit and finish. A fuel consumption of less than 10 litres per 100km kept the fuel-conscious happy, too.

Interest and demand were high, sales rolled in and it all looked good for Lancia. But then, in 1978, the brakes were put on to Beta Montecarlo production… ironically when owners found their cars unexpectedly locking up the front wheels. Lancia halted production to sort this and a few other niggles out. The brakes were remedied by removing the servo unit, and for good measure calliper and disc dimensions were increased. To counter poor rearward visibility, glass panels were fitted to the rear buttresses and a few other aesthetic updates were carried out. The revamped, second series Lancia Montecarlo (Beta was dropped from the naming convention) launched in 1980 and from January 1981, South Africans could purchase one from importers T.A.K. Motors for R24 000. If a local buyer had another R2 000 burning a hole in his pocket, T.A.K. could bolt on an Alquati performance kit. This kit saw the replacement of the standard twin-choke Weber 34 DATR 4/250 carb with a pair of twin-choke Weber 40s, the fitment of a special manifold, wilder camshafts and freeflow exhaust system.

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CAR tested one of these in 1982 and found that with an extra 10% of engine grunt, the 0-100km/h sprint improved to 9.1 seconds. Fuel consumption increased, of course, as did the exhaust noise, but it added to the sporting character. The tester raved: “In modern parlance, the Montecarlo is a state-of-the-art design by maestro Pininfarina, and wears its ‘PF’ crests with distinction and pride. It’s a very exclusive sort of car, and only about 100 or so units will be available in South Africa each year. Not only is it tremendous fun – and a real pleasure – to drive, but it turns heads everywhere. It’s that sort of car!”

As if such glowing reports weren’t enough of a brag, Lancia Montecarlo owners could claim to have a car with some race and rally skills, thanks to the antics of the fire-breathing Group 5 endurance racer and Group B rally Lancia 037.

The Group 5 Montecarlo Turbo was the first racing car entered by Lancia in eight years when it debuted at the 1979 Silverstone Six-Hours race. A silhouette car, the Montecarlo Turbo only shared the centre section of the body with the production Montecarlo. Power came from either a force-fed 1429cc or 1773cc four-cylinder generating between 440 and 490hp. It scooped the 1979 World Championship for Makes in the under 2-litre class and followed this up with the overall 1980 World Championship for Makes and 1981 World Endurance Championship for Makes titles.

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Similarly, the Lancia Rally 037, Lancia 037 or Lancia- Abarth #037, named after its Abarth project code SE037, was a silhouette car loosely based on the Montecarlo. Again just the centre section was carried over. The rest of the body panels differed (with a large percentage made from Kevlar) and steel tubular subframes were used back and front. The 037 kept with a rear-wheel-drive layout but changed the mid-mounted Fiat 131-derived engine from transverse to longitudinal location and fitted a supercharger. When it debuted at the 1982 Rally Costa Smeralda in Italy, it was good for 265 horsepower but as the Evolution models followed, this figure rose to 300 and then 325.

With Germany’s Walter Röhrl and Finland’s Markku Alén its principal drivers, Lancia took the 1983 World Rally Championship Constructors’ title and in doing so wrote itself into the history books as the last two-wheel-drive World Rally Championship winner – the Audi Quattro took the title in ’84 and Peugeot’s 205T16 4WD in 1985.

Lancia parked the 037 and developed its own 4WD Delta S4, but it didn’t stop road-going Lancia Montecarlo owners from proudly marking their mid-level sports cars’ pedigree with stickers celebrating motorsport success. Today, a solid Montecarlo offers a true mid-engine Italian experience for pretty decent bang for your buck. The only problem is that with total production of both series 1 and 2 models coming in just shy of 8 000, finding one is no walk in the park.

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Vehicle supplied by www.sportsandgtclassics.com


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