Thursday March 1, 2018
Some cars effortlessly exude an air of good living - fine wines, Belgian chocolates etc. – just as there are those vehicles that seem to have been created for the purpose of making the driver feel like a pauper. In the late 1970s, a Lancia Beta HPE was definitely in the former category, a three-door coupe that was completely at home at a yachting marina surrounded by sun-shade wearing playboys. At least that was the image my younger self had of this splendid machine and it is one that has endured over the years. In fact, the Lancia was indeed an exotic machine at that time. The 1970s was the first decade to really see foreign cars make an impact in the UK but while you might have seen your local GP or solicitor drive a Beta 1600 Berlina, a HPE had the ambiance of one of those ITC “International Men of Mystery” series.
Lancia had unveiled their Beta Coupe in 1973 but it did not arrive in Britain until 1975, the year that the HPE (“High Performance Estate”) made its bow. The two models were complementary, with the estate aimed at motorists who craved all that the shield-shaped badge implied – but who also needed space for a quartet of occupants. From the front they were almost identical but the HPE was actually based on the floor pan of the saloon, which meant for a reasonable back seat without any aesthetic sacrifice.
By the end of 1975 the ultimate HPE was the 2-litre version and for your £4,087 you gained instant prestige plus electric windows (these were a real talking point in mid-1970s Britain), a sliding roof, tinted glass and – the detail that long-fascinated me, a blind to shade the luggage compartment. If this were not enough to impress the neighbours, your new Lancia was also fitted with five-speed transmission and a transverse DHOC engine. There was also a dashboard that crossed the dividing line from ‘stylish’ to ‘surreal’
As to the HPE’s rivals, the BMW 2002 Touring had ceased production in 1975 while one obvious local alternative was the Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV 2.0. You might also have considered a VW Scirocco or a Ford Capri Ghia Mk. II while a major British contender was the Reliant Scimitar GTE. In 1976 Car magazine compared the car from Tamworth with its Turin competitor, concluding that ‘We are dealing here with two unusually good if expensive cars’. They ultimately opted for the Lancia on the grounds that it would please the driver continually with ‘its lively, even inspiring engine and its simply marvellous handling and road holding’.
Later examples of the HPE gained a more ergonomic fascia and the option of automatic transmission. From 1979 onwards it lost the “Beta” prefix and two years later it was available with fuel injection. By 1983 the E now stood for “Executive” and there was now the rather amazing “Volumex” with an engine-driven supercharger; Lancia believed that this set-up would be so flexible that the motorist could have the choice of enhanced performance or better fuel consumption over the standard model. In the words of Motor Sport, ‘It is however on winding roads that the system comes into its own’.
The Lancia HPE ceased production in 1984 and today they are, if anything, even more exclusive than when they left the factory. One final memory – when they first appeared in this country, some owners immediately started wearing their sunglasses indoors and saying ‘Ciao’. In my own experience this line was rarely effective when uttered in a Hampshire accent…