I'm tired of people claiming to be uber-gearheads just because they own dumb cars. Spending way too long to do a simple service on your French or Italian auto doesn't make you a gearhead; it makes you an idiot.
There is no place in my heart for a stupidly designed machine. I depend on engineers much more intelligent than myself to design a simple machine that my dumbass can easily take care of. It is well known in the automotive world that Italian cars are nightmares to maintain. I hate nightmares and I have chosen for some years to steer clear of these Italian sirens. However, when a 1975 Lancia Beta Coupe popped up on the Richmond VA Craigslist for $1200, the lure of a running Italian classic or under a grand was too much to say no to. Jeremy Clarkson drove one of these cars across Botswana so they couldn't be that bad, right? With low expectations and little knowledge of Italian cars I summoned my car guy buddy Tru-Stu (gear heads rarely travel alone) to come inspect this rare Italian ride.
Engine 1.8 DOHC I4 (carb)
Horsepower 118 bhp
Transmission 5 speed man.
Weight 2100 lbs.
The owner of the Lancia was not in town to assist me with the test drive. Earlier in the day I had talked to him about the history of the car. The story goes that he bought the Lancia a few years back from a man in rural Virgina. The rural Virginia owner was selling it because he couldn't drive a manual. He had ended up with the Lancia after someone in New York owed him money and couldn't pay him back (thanks for another story Craigslist). The owner finally instructed me that he left the keys in the ignition and the door unlocked, "so feel free to look!"
Amazingly the Lancia fired up on the second try. After a few minutes of a 2000 r.p.m. engine warm-up session, it was time to go. To be honest, the clutch had some opportunities. If someone told me the flywheel and clutch disc had both been made of Italian silk throw pillows, I would absolutely believe them. Pulling out onto the main road, I gently brought the car up forty miles per hour. The car drove alright, but it never approached anything near what I would call fun to drive. There had to be more. I took the car down a cul-de-sac and turned it around. The following section violates every punctuation rule in the English language. However, this was the best way I could describe the feeling:
First gear. I pop my foot off the clutch. I hit 4000 r.p.m. in first gear. Woah. That engine was coming alive. Dead clutch in. Move the shifter to second. Dead clutch out. 3000 r.pm. Foot to the floor. 4000 r.p.m. This feels good. 5000 r.p.m. Holy shit. Tru-Stu tells me to be careful. I call Tru-Stu a bitch. Foot still on the floor. 6000 r.p.m. Ahhh!!! Forte!! Accelerando!!!!!! End of cul-de-sac. Could someone please pass me some red wine and a cigar? I'm ready to join la cosa nostra.
The Lancia was surprisingly quick. Its carbureted dual–cam engine produced a sound that was nothing short of exotic. The noises this car is capable of making are more intoxicating than I would imagine a cocaine and ecstasy margarita being. Its engine serenade made me understand how that ugly, fat bastard Pavarotti was still able to get laid. The svelte curb weight of 2100 lbs. made it feel agile and responsive in a manner that no new car can match. No power assist meant no steering pollution. The shift linkage felt great. The owner stated it was a 5-speed, but I was only able to find four forward gears. Maybe 5th gear was on holiday in Spain. It didn't matter, with this car you never really feel the need to upshift. Always keep it in the revs. Always.
Initially I wasn't impressed with the Lancia's looks. However, after experiencing the aural sex that is the engine, the exterior lines on the Lancia began to grow on me. It's unique anymore to see a car with flat body panels. The Lancia has many subtly elegant flat surfaces. The downside to this is that flat body panels almost always get dings, dents, scrapes, gashes, scratches, etc; lets call them body zits. After 35 years, the Lancia had accumulated a pubescent amount of body zits. The exterior design itself is not overly showy, but people on the road stop and ask you what kind of car it is. In that way, the Lancia is kind of cool and exotic.
The Beta Coupe exceeded my expectations. It was so smooth, so delicate, so wonderful. I was in love and I had to have it. I called the owner and told him I wanted to buy the car. He then informed me that he did not know if he wanted to sell it. I was left in Lancia limbo. Upon hearing about the Lancia, Tru-Stu's father placed a frantic phone call to me recanting horrific tales of valve adjustments on early DOHC motors. Did my sweet love have hidden flaws? When the owner finally emailed me back a month later wanting to sell the car, the money for it had already been spent on a '73 roundie 2002. The Italian love I pined for was nothing more than another instance of noncommittal motor lust. But in the end the Lancia taught me that even a one drive stand can still be one of the best drives you'll ever get to have. Arrivederci my love.
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