The history of four world-leading Italian motoring brands
From the most emblematic models to the most successful, revolutionary people, and the most significant events, this section illustrates and celebrates the cornerstones of Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and Abarth.
Alongside the sedan, coupé and spider already in production, in 1975 came an original three-door coupé with a large goods compartment, which was also suitable for families: the Lancia Beta HPE – which stood for “High Performance Estate”, now known as a shooting brake.
The use of the term "shooting brake” in the automotive field began in English-speaking countries – especially in the UK – in the 1950s and ’60s. It was used to identify sports cars in terms of performance that were nevertheless equipped with a large and accessible goods compartment, appreciated most of all by golfers to store their equipment. The name refers to the use, at a time when a horse and carriage remained a widespread mode of transportation, of the strongest-willed horses to tow heavy wagons, which would then have curbed their excess of enthusiasm. More recently, the term has come back into vogue to describe low-lying, streamlined sports cars, equipped with a convenient door to access the large goods compartment.
In the early 1970s, the Lancia Beta was the first model to be launched after the brand had come under the aegis of Fiat. Designed at the Fiat Centro Stile, the hatchback made its debut at the November 1972 Turin Motor Show, and was followed a year later by the Beta Coupé. With its shorter wheelbase, it was designed by Piero Castagnero, the creator of stylistic features of the Fulvia Coupé that became winners in both rallies and dealerships. The Beta family was entrusted with the difficult task of replacing the Fulvia range while it remained in production, where it continued in the coupé version until 1976 after its unexpected victory in the January 1972 Monte Carlo Rally.
The Beta family used a modern chassis, equipped with independent MacPherson-type suspension, usually only used on the front axle, whereas it could be seen on all four wheels here. The front-wheel drive was powered by engines derived from Fiats, following the architecture of the glorious “Lampredi twin-shaft” fitted to the sportiest Fiat 124s and the 125, soon to be replaced by the new 132. The Lancia versions of the engines were revised to deliver greater power and therefore maintain the differentiation between the two brands, including in terms of their technical specifications, as well as when it came to aesthetics, equipment and finishes.
In 1974, Pininfarina developed the coupé into a street-legal version known as Spider, which was then put into production by Zagato. To create the HPE, the Turin coachbuilder took a longer floor, from the sedan, and extended the entire front of the coupé to the doors. From that point, they modified the angle of the side windows in the rear, raising them slightly, but above all changed the rear pillar to extend the roof and create a trapezium to follow the tilt of the large tailgate. This was the hallmark of the Beta, part coupé and part family car. The tailgate, hinged on the roof attachment, had a thin frame that broadened to end at the waistline, suggesting a spoiler. The interior of the large rear windscreen featured a Venetian blind that filtered and protected items in the boot and beyond from sunlight. The motif of the Venetian blind was taken up in the exterior, up to three-quarters the height of the rear pillar.
In the interior, the dashboard and front seats were taken from the coupé, whereas the rear was different from both the sedan and the coupé. The back seats were split in the middle, as were the backrests, with the ability to fold them down individually. Part of the backrest remained an integral part of the sides, where it continued with a slight curve to the side. The two fold-down seats formed a single surface with the rear of the goods compartment. The modularity of the system enabled drivers to transport long loads on one side alone yet still fit in three people, including the driver. By pushing the front seats forward and unlocking the backrests, the compartment could be extended into a comfortable bed for two.
The result was a highly original coupé with the load capacity of a station wagon, elegant and sporty as per Lancia tradition, plus that versatile modularity that would only later be revived in vehicles for multiple passengers.
Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1975, the Beta HPE followed the steady developments of the sedan, coupé and spider over the years. In 1981, series 4 came to be, with the most marked sporty connotation to date, with the acronym that became H.P. Executive. From 1983, it was spearheaded by an engine equipped with a 135-hp volumetric compressor.
The first 1975 version was available with two engines: 1.6 and 1.8 litres, with respective outputs of 103 and 111 hp. In December that year, the entire Beta family was revamped, including the latest HPE: certain details were changed, from the grille to the wing mirrors, and all the interior trims were modified, but most of all, the more powerful 120 hp two-litre engine arrived to replace the mass-eight. The 1.8-litre Beta HPE only remained in production for the US market, once a system had been installed to reduce emissions: the output dropped to 90 hp and almost 1,500 units were exported to the United States.
Again in 1978, the entire Beta range underwent a restyling: for the HPE, it was time for series 3. The engines remain unchanged in their displacement: the two-litre fell by 5 hp, sacrificed on the altar of reducing consumption, with three-speed automatic transmission available on request. In this series, the biggest changes were in the interior: the dashboard was completely redesigned, with clearer instruments and lights; the shape of the seats was now more comfortable and ergonomic, and the upholstery was revamped again. The modifications to the exterior involved the grille, where the double round headlights were no longer covered by the same pane of glass. The price rose, partly as a result of the high inflation rate at the time: at 8,148,000 Italian lire, the Beta HPE 1.6 was one of the most sophisticated and expensive mass-six coupés of the time.
With series 4 in 1981, the family coupé changed its name, becoming the Beta H.P. Executive, to emphasise its renewed sporty features. The wording appeared in full on the new brushed chrome band across the lower part of the tailgate. The mass-six was unchanged; the two-litre benefited from an electronic injection system, giving it 122 hp while still reducing consumption. Externally, all the mouldings took on a matte black colour and the grille, as in all Lancia production cars, formed a trapezium with a central stripe to recall the radiator shield of the glorious models of the past, from the Aprilia to Aurelia, and others. As in the coupé version, the fabric seat upholstery was changed, where a chequered design was adopted for the central band.
In 1983, one year before production of the Beta H.P. Executive ended, came the most powerful version, recognisable for its rubber rear spoiler and the acronym 2.0 VX, standing for Volumex: the volumetric compressor that enabled the two-litre unit – with its compression ratio lowered to 7.5:1 to support the pressure of the turbocharger – to deliver 135 hp. Lancia selected a positive displacement compressor over a turbine, for greater readiness from low revs. At the time, turbo engines suffered a great deal from a lag in delivery, while offering greater power at high rev rates. Even so, the volumetric compressor could provide an immediate accelerator response, with vigour at all speeds. The experience gained with that system led Lancia to choose the two-litre Volumex again for its racing car: the road version for the Lancia Rally type approval and the Group B version, better known as the Lancia 037, for competition, which went on to win the World Championship for Makes as the only rear-wheel drive car in an era of the emergence of turbocharged all-wheel drive racing cars.
The innovative Beta, first the HPE and then the H.P. Executive, marked that decade for Lancia with an original sporty feel, characterised by its change in ownership that led to a great expansion of production with many more models than there had been in the past: from the compact Delta to the Gamma flagship, also available as a coupé. The Beta alone, in addition to the initial hatchback, coupé, spider and HPE, had also become a three-volume sedan with the Trevi, which would remain in production until 1984.
From Estate to Executive, the story doesn't end there: the acronym HPE returned to become the third incarnation of the letter E: electric. The Pu+Ra style manifesto has become the Pu+Ra HPE concept car, the synthesis of which will be electric technology and the design of future Lancias. From the innovative Beta HPE, the concept car takes up not only the acronym, but also certain details that fully exemplify the concept of sportiness combined with elegant practicality. These include the rear window with its enveloping horizontal lines, reminiscent of the Venetian blind structure that featured in the 1970s Lancia Beta HPE, but with a contemporary flair.
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