Two seats, a mid-mounted twin-cam engine and Pininfarina styling? That’ll be a Lancia Montecarlo, then. We examine the underrated 1970s sports coupé.
Fiat’s 1975 medium-sized sports model was the Lancia Beta Montecarlo. They didn’t arrive in the UK until 1977, and then only briefly because early models had ‘issues’ – mainly with the brakes – and Lancia took the car off the market to redesign it. It came back as a Series 2 model (now called Lancia Montecarlo) in 1980 and was still being sold into 1983, although production ended in 1981. There were both solid-roof and Spyder models, the latter with a targa-like design.
1977 LANCIA BETA MONTECARLO
Power (bhp@rpm) 120bhp@6000rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 125lb ft@3400rpm
Top speed 120mph
0-60mph 10sec (Series 2: 8.6sec)
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
You don’t need us to tell you that in the 1970s Italian cars had a reputation for early rusting – the Montecarlo was no exception. It’s most noticeable in the tops of the front wings, at their lower edges where they meet the bumper, in the bottoms of the door skins, and around air intake grilles. A closer look may reveal rust around the bonded-in front and rear screens, too. You will need to take the glass out to treat this properly.
Less readily visible will be rust in the floorpans, so lift the carpets. Also check for ripples caused by accident damage. The front bulkhead can rust, too. Look under the back of the car to check the state of the rear crossmember; more robust aftermarket replacements are available. Examine the suspension strut mounting towers front and rear. Weak front edges to the door frames can cause doors to drop, and bonnet catches can fail.
The engine is Fiat’s much-respected 2-litre twin-cam, which shares its block with other Betas, but not much else: heads, camshafts and distributors are different. Series 2s have more mid-range torque and a Marelli electronic ignition. If starting’s a problem, check the engine earth lead.
The camshaft belt must be changed every 30,000 miles or earlier, so check when it was last done. Look for oil leaks from the back of the engine (it’s transverse, remember) where the block and head meet. If the oil pressure gauge gives a worryingly low reading, there’s a good chance that the relief valve has stuck, but make sure of this diagnosis before opening your wallet to buy.
A lot of engine noise gets into the cabin because the unit is mounted just behind the seats, which won’t suit everybody. Try before you buy.
The Series 1 cars had a bizarre braking arrangement with a vacuum servo that operated on the front wheels only. With the engine weight behind the cabin, it’s no surprise they suffered from premature front brake lock-up. Many owners disconnect the servo, but this does make the brakes rather heavy. Specialists can offer a variety of remedies which can give the car the brakes it always deserved. The Series 2 models had a revised system with larger discs, wider tyres on bigger wheels, and an anti-roll bar at the front only. They are generally considered to have much better braking and roadholding.
The gearbox doesn’t usually give trouble, but the change can be slow. Any imprecision in the selection of gears will probably be caused by worn bushes in the linkage. Another weakness is the rear wheel bearings, which don’t last long. It’s best to get a specialist to fit new ones, as special tools are needed.
The dashboard is disappointing, as it’s all plastic with generic Fiat group elements
– not what you might expect in a car like the Montecarlo. Seats are more comfortable than they look, with cloth, vinyl or leather upholstery. The vinyl seems to suffer most and is prone to split seams (so some owners have re-upholstered them in leather). An odd quirk is that the seat frames themselves can also break. The Spyder models have a flexible, targa-like roof panel which rolls up for stowage in a cavity within the rollover hoop. As you might expect, it’s prone to leaks. The rubber straps that stiffen it can also break.
Buy a Montecarlo for its sharp handling and balance, coupled to good, though not exceptional, performance. You might also take to the Montecarlo because of its rarity – there were only 789 Series 1 RHD cars plus 452 Series 2s and not all of them came to the UK.