1-of-75: 1981 Lancia Beta Zagato Spyder Special Edition

When they are in good physical and mechanical health, the Lancia Beta Zagato provides one of the most enjoyable motoring experiences that you are ever likely to have in a front-wheel-drive car. They are a relatively rare find in the US, and this is partly because they were imported in very limited numbers. The fact that many of them succumbed to major rust problems didn’t help their cause, meaning that finding a good one today is a bit of a rarity. This particular Zagato shows some promise, and it is being offered for sale at a very affordable price. It is located in Stateline, Nevada, and has been listed for sale here on Craigslist. The asking price for the Lancia has been set at $1,749. I have to say thank you to Barn Finder Ikey H for spotting this Italian classic for us.

The build process for the Beta Zagato Spyder would have to rate as one of the most convoluted in automotive history. Whilst Lancia essentially built the base car, coachbuilding firm Zagato was tasked with converting a regular Beta Coupe into the Spyder. This process involved the car making the trip from the Lancia factory to Zagato and back again a total of four times. The end result was a beautiful little car that always garnered plenty of attention wherever it went. The Zagato was only sold in the US between 1975 and 1982, with a break in sales during the 1980 model year. Sales figures during the final 2-years only accounted for 791 cars, and while that made them a fairly rare car, a mere 75 examples of the Special Edition were built during those final years. This is one of those cars, and it isn’t clear just how many survive today. This one generally looks to be quite reasonable, although the owner doesn’t do the car any favors with the photos that he supplies. It has received a repaint in its original Black at some point, and while it is hard to see, the owner does state that while it wears a few dings and marks, it is generally in pretty reasonable condition. Of course, rust is the greatest enemy of these cars, but given the fact that it has spent its life split between California and Nevada gives us cause to be optimistic on this front. The owner states that he only uses the Lancia during the warmer months and that the car is very clean, especially in areas such as the underside and the engine bay. These are the most prone areas of the Zagato when it comes to rust, along with the area where the front subframe bolts to the car. If those areas are solid, then the next owner could be onto a winner. The top is said to be new, which is also a real bonus because these can be expensive to replace. As far as external body hardware and trim are concerned, the vast majority of this is shared with its Beta Coupe sibling, so replacement parts are relatively easy to locate.

The general rule of thumb is that a black-on-black car will always look quite classy, and this Lancia would seem to support this theory. The vehicle offers 2+2 seating, but the rear seat is really restricted to a children-only zone unless an adult contortionist is willing to occupy that space. The interior presentation and condition are well above average for a Zagato, with the leather upholstery on the seats, along with the door trims and other upholstered surfaces looking extremely good. The dash is free of any real flaws, while the plastic is also in nice condition, and seems to have avoided the sort of deterioration that can plague these cars. It’s a bit hard to be 100% sure, but I believe that the Spyder might also be fitted with air conditioning. Given where the car has spent its life, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is the case. In addition to the leather and the possibility of A/C, the vehicle also comes equipped with power windows and an AM/FM/8-track player.

Powering the Lancia is a 1,995cc fuel-injected 4-cylinder engine, producing 108hp. The engine’s power then finds its way to the front wheels via a 5-speed manual transmission. This car does offer us one of those “good news/bad news” scenarios. Over the past 2-years, the owner has spent a considerable amount of money on the car. In fact, this amounts to more than the asking price for the vehicle. Amongst the components replaced have been the battery, the alternator, and the entire ignition system. The electrical systems on the Zagato can be a bit on the troublesome side, so this is part of the good news. The owner says that the car runs and drives very nicely, which just adds more to the positive side of the ledger. The bad news is that when he brought the Lancia out of Winter hibernation, he discovered that he can no longer engage reverse gear. This could be something as innocuous as sticky or faulty linkages, or it could be a sign of larger problems within the transmission itself. The only way to be sure would be to have the car inspected. If the transmission does require replacement, the news is not as bad as you might think. Obviously, sourcing a new replacement would be both extremely difficult, and quite expensive. However, I have had no problems locating really good secondhand units, and they are in plentiful supply. You could take your pick from nearly a dozen that I have managed to find. Some of these are even offered with a replacement warranty, and none of them were priced above $500. If this is the path that the next owner needs to follow, then replacing the clutch would also be a pretty wise move. This will only add another $200 to the bill and would be money well-spent.

If I’m really honest here, this 1981 Zagato Spyder is a car that I would love to get a look at in person. It shows a lot of promise, and if it is as rust-free and solid as the owner indicates, then that is nothing but good news. Even if the transmission requires replacement, it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. These aren’t a car that commands enormous sale prices, but values are beginning to increase, meaning that nice examples have no problems changing hands for figures in excess of $7,500. If it is solid, then it has to be a tempting proposition at the asking price.


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  1. DAN

    75 too many

    Like 2
    • JohnD

      Just because it is rare doesn’t make it good. In fact, logic sort of dictates the opposite . . . .

      Like 2
  2. CJinSD

    “When they are in good physical and mechanical health, the Lancia Beta Zagato provides one of the most enjoyable motoring experiences that you are ever likely to have in a front-wheel-drive car. ”

    So you’re saying you’ve never driven a Honda or a MKII Golf or Jetta. I also don’t think the Zagato was ever sold in the US opposite the Scorpion, which means it didn’t arrive here until at least 1978. I’m pretty sure the Zagato was actually only sold in the US in 1981 and 1982.

    “Modern Problems” captures the joys of US Lancia Beta ownership a little too accurately. I like the looks, and I like the tunability of the FIAT twin cam in smaller displacements, but this is going to be more of an expensive hobby than a sports car. A 124 Sport Spider might provide more driving enjoyment and less time spent chasing issues and parts.

    Like 2
    • SubGothius

      He did say “one of the”, not “the only”. Have you ever driven a Lancia Beta/Zagato in good condition? I’ve had one as my daily driver for over 15 years and 35k miles now (of 150k total on the odo). It’s certainly more fun and engaging to drive than any VW or Honda I’ve driven (including a MkII Jetta), corners as if on rails no matter how hard I push it, zero torque steer despite the transverse FWD drivetrain (thanks to clever engineering), and compared to any car of comparable vintage anyone I know has had, it’s been more reliable and no worse to find parts for (thanks in no small part to much Fiat parts commonality), tho’ it does help my wallet that I got the Haynes manual and learned to do my own wrenching.

      The Beta was the first mass-production model to follow the overall engineering formula that eventually “won” the industry worldwide: FWD, transverse powertrain, 5-speed trans, strut-based fully independent suspension w/ multilink rear, rack’n’pinion power steering, 4-wheel disc brakes. Few cars had any of that, let alone all of that, when the Beta debuted in 1972, nor many more by the time it retired a dozen years later. It’s the most thoroughly “modern” classic car one can still afford to buy and maintain affordably.

      As for import numbers, they imported just over 2,000 carb’d Zagatos for ’79, none for ’80, and nearly 800 with Bosch L-jet FI for ’81-82 combined, which latter are the ones to get for best power, reliability, and all-around drivability. They also started galvanizing the bodyshells sometime in mid-’81. I’m dubious of the “1 of 75” claimed for this black’n’gold SE livery; that’s some hearsay that keeps getting passed around with no documentation to back it up that I know of, tho’ we do know they imported a Limited Edition (LE) of exactly 500 in similar livery for ’79.

      Like 8
  3. Myron Vernis

    These are cool cars. There were several for sale at Retromobile this year including a special edition still wearing Florida tags. Most had been sold by the end of the weekend with prices north of €10k.

    Like 2
  4. jo6pac

    They do use salt on the roads in this area. Just saying

    Like 1
  5. Mike Hawke

    As a former owner, it is a great car. Better than a Fiat Spider with surprisingly more power. The price looks good, but the ad inspires little confidence. Sounds like prices are moving up in Europe…which will bring up prices here regardless of opinions stated in this post.

    Like 2
  6. Rick

    A few of my customers had these cars. Ther were absolutely terrible. I could count on one of them being towed in every month.

    Like 1

      Sounds like they need a better mechanic.
      I have a few of these as customer cars and I work on everything from Appia’s to Integrale’s, and they don’t get towed in. Yes they are a bit of a PITA to work on compared to say a 124. But really they are not that bad. Fuel Injection and ignition is Bosch, same as a ton of BMW’S and Porsches of the day. Steering is ZF.
      The early ones did rust but no worse than datsuns or Hondas. The later ones were not bad at all.
      In 1981 and 82 they were probably one of the best FWD sporty coupes out there. VW was running the rabbit and the GTI wasn’t even available. The Lancia was a much better car than it, the VW was still just a cheap economy car then. The 1980 Honda prelude was nicknamed the Honda quaalude, as it was very bland and forgettable.
      They are not bad little cars to drive and can easily stay with modern traffic.
      Oh the most likely reason it will not shift into reverse is the shifter bushing. You can get a kit with all new bushings and rods for about 125 bucks and it will restore the shifting to like new.

      Like 6
  7. t-BONE BOB

    At this price, it looks like someone will get a great deal.

  8. chrlsful

    Good make (had the LB coupes ‘back then’).
    These ‘rarer’ ones have been catchin my eye now (not back then).
    Need more info on trasnmis…

  9. Zagato8182

    I totally agree with the positive comments made by the true Lancia enthusiasts. They know the car well and understand the engineering of this rare car. Let us not forget that many cars of the 80’s era were not rustproofed at all. It was offered as an option that many did not chose. Although Lancia has certain rust issues and some minor mechanical problems in those days, it was not alone in the fact that other imports were either worst or equal with issues. By the way this car was also a much better looking car than its competitors. I blame the poor sales to terrible marketing and lack of parts resource.
    Today, you can get just about any spare part you want ….New or used. The value is increasing for a fully restored one or a pristine well maintained original. I comment on these posts to informed the public correctly and not to bash on any car brand. Not one car manufacturer was perfect in what they built in those days. So, anyone can buy this car and spend a little to enjoy it. I support the brand and sell spare parts for over 30 years now (via Ebay and emails ) and still going.

    Like 1

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