THE BETA MASTER
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a favorite novel of Humanities professors forty-five years ago, he described a future utopian society. The members of the ruling class were called Alphas, and enjoyed lives of luxury, privilege and contraception*. The bulk of the society was made up of Betas, and like the lower classes of every age, they were the ones who actually got things done, worked hard and got dirty. Given this almost-universal reading assignment, the social commentary may have influenced Lancia when the Italian company developed a tough little car in the late 60s and chose Beta as a name to imply those hardy working class roots. Or, maybe it was because Alfa was already taken. Whatever, the Lancia Beta was a pretty decent car, but full of typically Italian spotty quality control and some strange styling characteristics, but like the proverbial blind date, it had an endearing personality and appealed to a certain lunatic fringe.
The Beta—decorated with a nicely-styled chrome rendition of its Greek-letter namesake on the trunk lid—was reasonably sporty and shared the 1.8-liter, twin-cam four-cylinder engine from the Fiat Spider. They were mostly made in a 2-door coupe configuration, but there were also some station wagon-like hatchbacks and a weird little half-assed convertible called the Scorpion. Those who were stung (sorry) with one of those, got a coupe whose roof had been replaced with a Targa-type removable panel and a baggy snap-on vinyl-structure-with-plastic-window contraption instead of a rear glass. With both items of “weather protection” removed, you had a mostly open car with a wide roll-bar thing over your head. They leaked like sieves, but were considered pretty spiffy and every one I have ever seen was black.
About sixteen years ago, I needed an inexpensive, economical car to commute to work in and began snooping through the classifieds to see what several hundred dollars would buy (I said it had to be inexpensive!). Older domestic lumps, while no doubt reliable, held little appeal and most imports were far too costly. However, I spotted an ad for a 1975 Beta coupe that was well down into three figures--at a time when a similar-vintage BMW 2002 was three times as much. The fellow on the phone, after a pause, commented that I was the only one who had ever called about the car, but he got his thoughts together and offered a somewhat biased opinion that it was in “pretty good shape.” His directions led me to a trailer park in rural Boulder County, where the subject Lancia tried to hold its head high amid the shabby ambiance.
Resplendent in a bilious greenish-yellow (original paint!) with brown seats, the car was actually in quite decent condition throughout, although the owner made no bones about the fact that the car’s Italian charms impressed him not at all and he needed a pickup truck instead. He even had two titles for it; one from Colorado and another from Nebraska! It seemed to run well, albeit smoking a little, but a dirty offer was made--and accepted--and the car covered the ten miles from Louisville to Broomfield uneventfully. On getting it home, I took stock of what I had and was quite impressed. In comparison with the relatively pricey 2002 mentioned above, the Lancia had a twin-cam engine, a five-speed transmission, leather upholstery, alloy wheels, and front-wheel drive that would be beneficial all winter. I changed the oil, replaced the cam belt and began commuting fifty miles each day, enjoying the Beta’s peppy performance, nice handling and brazen exhaust note. The instrument cluster had a Latin-Disco-Buck Rogers design theme, punctuated with more real instruments than the Bavarians chose to provide, too. However, the speedometer had locked up at 79,999 miles, so divining how far you had gone, or how quickly you were doing so, was left up to the tach and intuition. After a couple of weeks, it became evident that the ‘little’ exhaust smoke translated into a quart every other fill-up, but cheaper, higher viscosity oil trimmed that back to every third one.
I rather liked the little car and even buffed a nice shine into the paint one weekend, but after about a year of reasonably faithful service, improved circumstances allowed a move up the automotive ladder and the Lancia once again appeared in the newspaper. Like the former owner, I wondered if the phone had gone dead, but after a couple of weeks it rang late one night. A Southern drawl asked if the “Lance-e-ah” was still available. When I affirmed, he said, “I thought it would be.” This fellow lived in Louisiana, but worked on an oil rig somewhere in Montana. He had a couple of other Betas back home, and seemed to know all about the cars, but didn’t seem particularly curious about this one’s strengths or weaknesses. He just asked if it ran “all right,” and not much else. Explaining that he was going to be headed back to the bayous in a couple of weeks, he asked if he could send the money for the car and leave it with me until he came to get it. “Sure,” I said.
A few days later, a money order for the full amount arrived in a rumpled envelope, addressed in pencil, with a note that he’d call and let me know when he was coming. Another couple of weeks went by and again, late at night, the phone rang and the drawl said he was leaving Montana after work the next day. Some other oil field workers who were from Denver would drop him off….about 4:00 AM! He would then leave immediately for Louisiana, planning to drive non-stop. I looked around the side of the house to see if the car was still there, charged the battery and checked the tire pressures. I put a couple of quarts of oil in the trunk and had the title notarized. I set the alarm for 3:30 the next morning and sure enough, not long after that, heard a truck pull up outside. It had started snowing, but the big bearded fellow wrapped in a hooded parka didn’t seem to notice. He also never glanced at the Lancia sitting in the driveway. He just stuffed the title in his pocket and asked how to get to I-25. He climbed in, started it up and disappeared down the street in a $600 car he had never seen before, whose hood he had never opened, and in which he was beginning a 1500-mile trip--in a snowstorm--through some pretty sparsely populated regions. I went back to bed marveling at his trusting nature. A few days later, late at night, the phone rang and the adventurer said he was home, bathed and shaven and that he had had a nice trip. The car had run fine and used less oil than his two other Betas—each of which had been bought and driven home the same way. After three months on the oil rig, his idea of relaxation was an adventurous road trip home in a cheap, unknown, goofy Italian car!
-- Bill Orth --