1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo - how does just 772 miles on the clock feel?

1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo - how does just 772 miles on the clock feel?

This exceptional Lancia Beta Montecarlo has covered just 772 miles in 42 years. That means we’re able to appreciate its charms just as it came out of the factory in 1978 Story by Peter Nunn. Photography by Michael Ward.


MONTECARLO LIKE-NEW LANCIA

1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo How does just 772 miles on the clock feel? Mummified Monte.


1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo

Extraordinary. Unrepeatable. Amazing. All words that rightly describe the Pininfarina-shaped Italian classic that you see before you. This red Lancia Beta Montecarlo is in such stunning, time-warp as-new condition that it is, quite simply, unlike any other example you will ever see, anywhere.

There are some immaculate and pristine Montecarlos out there but this Lancia is unique. Its story begins when it was first registered in the UK way back on 1 February 1978. Look inside today, more than 40 years later, and you’ll find one big surprise. The odometer is reading 772 miles. It’s no secret that low-mileage cars hold a particular fascination for certain sets of collectors – understandably so – and TEG 100S takes ‘low’ to a whole new level.

1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo

Up close, you look at the Lancia in a combination of wonder, surprise and perhaps even a tinge of sadness. After all, those years of being cooped up and going nowhere do elicit a sense of frustration and wastefulness. It’s offset by the fact that this is, effectively, a factory-fresh right-hand drive Montecarlo.

We caught up with it at McGrath Maserati, which is offering it for sale as a fantastic opportunity for one lucky devotee. And unlike some ‘as new’ classics that have been left standing for years, this one drives, is on the button and ready to go.

Appreciation has steadily been growing for the Montecarlo in recent years. It’s a model with great design but a troubled reputation has kept it under the radar for too long. Wind back to 1972 and Fiat had come up with the X1/9, a delicate mid-engined funster that proved a big hit. The X1/9 was a buzzing 1.3/1.5- litre gem, yet clearly left room for a bigger mid-engined model in the line-up. Enter a new project, known internally at Fiat as X1/8, then the X1/20 and also the Tipo 137. The idea was to have Pininfarina design and co-develop a new sports coupe which would then be badged either as an Abarth or Fiat. Management then had one of its periodic about-turns and decided to reroute the programme to Lancia. Thus was born the low, sleek Beta Montecarlo coupe which made its debut to widespread acclaim at the 1975 Geneva Salon.

1978 Lancia Beta Montecarlo

Here was a smart, compact, modern two-seater with a 2.0-litre ‘Lampredi’ twin cam mounted transversely, driving the rear wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. The junior exotic looks married a squared-off front end with sloping rear buttresses and an elegant profile that has aged really well. The Montecarlo buyer could choose between fixed-head coupe or spider, the latter with targa looks and a roll-back roof section. It was not all sweetness and light, though. When new, critics opined that the cabin looked and felt a bit cheap and that overall, the car lacked a bit of character. Boasting 120hp and with a 0-60mph time of 9.8 seconds, the Lancia was quick enough but not outrageously fast. With MacPherson struts at each corner, the Montecarlo’s handling was well balanced, but there was one big problem: front brake lock-up, an issue so serious on wet roads that Lancia pulled the car from the market in May 1978.

Remarkably, in 1980, the Montecarlo returned to production, now with its front brake servo removed as a simple cure for the locking brake issue. Also new were a minor restyling and larger 14-inch wheels. It had also lost the ‘Beta’ part of its name, the Series 2 known simply as the Lancia Montecarlo. Yet by June 1981, production had stopped for the second time after a run of just 7695 examples, according to Lancia doyen Wim Oude Weernink.

Which brings us on to this particular Montecarlo (chassis number 0003452), an exceptionally original RHD first-generation model. This car, it transpires, was bought new by a farmer in Cambridgeshire for his wife. It had covered all of 380 miles when, unfortunately, she passed away. The farmer then parked the Montecarlo up on axle stands in one of his barns and simply left it. Andy Heywood of McGrath Maserati takes up the story. “An enthusiast in Leeds placed a ‘wanted’ advert in Exchange & Mart in 1989 seeking a Montecarlo, and was contacted by the farmer in Cambridgeshire who had since remarried and was under pressure from his new wife to sell the car. A deal was agreed and the car was taken to Leeds, after which it was enjoyed sparingly and carefully during the next few years.”

The low-mileage Lancia’s fame spread. It even made an appearance in The Sun on 28 November 1997, when the paper’s estimable motoring correspondent Ken Gibson ran a few paragraphs on the car. At that time, the odometer read just 619 miles.

By August 2009, the Lancia was on the move again, sold to the director of a helicopter company in Shoreham, West Sussex. The new owner had previously owned several Montecarlos in his student days and now wanted an excellent example to cherish. He took upkeep of the Lancia very seriously, stationing it under cover in a corner of a heated garage, using it very sparingly. It would be trailered to a local garage and MOT station but that was about it. The mileage remained minuscule.

The next owner from Maldon, Essex acquired the car in June 2017 and later that year, it underwent extensive reconditioning via a local engineer. All the usual things you’d expect from a car in long-term storage were looked at and replaced: brakes, clutch master cylinder, cambelt, plugs and tyres. The carb jets were also cleaned and the cooling system flushed. The Lancia still remained stunningly original and complete and continued not to be driven on the road. A Maserati enthusiast subsequently bought it in December 2017 but he put up for sale again due to his decision to move house, to a new property with reduced storage. It’s a rainy Friday morning when I view the Lancia together with McGrath’s Andy Heywood. There’s absolutely no question of driving the car, of course. Instead, it’s a fascinating and somewhat eerie walk-around of this unique Italian time machine. Here is a Montecarlo that – perhaps uniquely – has never had any welding work done. There’s no sign of any new paint, either. It really is a miracle of Turin. This is a Series One car with those distinctively stylish 13-inch alloys but curiously it has no brake servo – so maybe this should be referred to as a Montecarlo Series One-and-a-Half.

As with many Italian cars, you gain pleasure just by looking at it, soaking up those often quirky individual details. The side-tilt engine cover, for instance (a Lancia speciality); the instrument cluster with its revolving barrels for oil pressure, water temperature and fuel; the door catches under the arm rests. It’s all deliciously Latin and unconventional.

The Lancia’s pristine cloth-trimmed interior is just amazing. As Andy confirms, it would be easy enough to do bodywork if need be, but to match that interior with all its factory fresh 1978 trim parts would be impossible.

Aspects like this are reflected in the car’s £25,000 asking price, which to me actually seems quite reasonable. You certainly couldn’t restore one to this condition for that price. “The way we priced the car was based on condition rather than the low mileage,” says Andy. “What would you pay for the best Montecarlo? That’s where we are really. So whoever buys it is not necessarily paying a premium for the low mileage thing.”

From my time working on What Car? magazine, I remember the Montecarlo from new with great affection. It was fun and fast and oozed style. But that was the early 1980s. How about TEG 100S, today? Does it drive like new?

“It does,” Andy replies. “It’s really tight. The gear linkage needs a bit of de-seizing, as it’s a bit slow to push through, but apart from that, it all feels nice and tight. The engine is responsive: you switch it on and it sits there ticking over quite happily.”

So what happens now? There’s been a lot of interest in the car. One guy rang up and said he wanted to go touring in Italy in it with his wife. While that would be a dream, the Lancia would immediately lose its low-mileage uniqueness after a trip like that. Just as we went to press, Andy called to say that the Lancia has in fact now been sold to a UK-based collector who is intending to use it only very occasionally.

A couple of small jobs were done to it, including getting a fresh MOT, but it’s now on its way, on to the next stage in its storied, sheltered life. Andy concludes: “I think it proves that the classic car market is still riding the storm of Covid-19 but also that the best cars will always find a buyer.”

Engine has seen some very light restoration. Andy Heywood (below) is one of very few people ever to have driven this car. Interior trim is so perfect that it could just have come from the factory. It’s utterly irreplaceable.  

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