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Cool Italian Project: 1981 Lancia Beta Zagato

Lancia is an Italian manufacturer that has produced some pretty amazing machinery throughout its lifetime. The company’s reputation for building strong and potent vehicles that have secured numerous World Rally Championship crowns is legendary, but their reputation for building great road cars has never been as strong. That is not to say that all Lancias are dogs because driving a fit and healthy Lancia is one of the greatest of driving experiences. This 1981 Beta Zagato could potentially be one of those cars, but it will need someone to revive it, as it has been parked for many years. It was originally imported into British Columbia, Canada, but has now found its way to Montagu, New Jersey. It is listed for sale here on eBay, with a BIN price of $3,500.

If you were ever to try to summarize the life story of Lancia in two words, then the words chaos and confusion would probably feature highly on the list. It is these two words that probably explain why this little Zagato is listed as a 1980 model, when in fact, it is a 1981 model. For the 1979 model year, and in an attempt to comply with US emissions laws, Lancia introduced a new engine into the Zagato range. Their intent was to then install fuel-injection for the 1980 model year, but quality problems meant that Lancia took the decision to scrap the 1980 US model altogether and return in 1981 with the upgrades in place. This particular vehicle is one of those 1981 models, and I have to say that it looks to be in pretty decent condition. There doesn’t appear to be any visible rust issues to speak of, but being a Lancia, it is the invisible issues that the next owner will need to be aware of. I sound a note of caution here because while the body looks good, photos of the engine show the air cleaner covered with a healthy coating of corrosion, which would motivate me to give the car a very thorough inspection. Having said that, if a Beta Zagato has lasted this long, then the chances are pretty good that it is a solid car. The cabriolet top will require some attention, as there is at least one tear in the material, and the rear window isn’t so much cloudy, as opaque.

Under the hood was what all the fuss was about with the Zagato in 1981, and what also caused the company to not officially import any cars into the US in 1980. Lancia introduced the 1,995cc 4-cylinder engine into the Zagato range in 1979. This replaced the previous 1,756cc engine and boosted power from 83hp to 87hp. Once this larger engine had been fitted with fuel-injection for the 1981 model year, power jumped to a far healthier 108hp, although even that figure was not set in concrete, because different departments at Lancia actually quoted slightly different figures. The engine in this Lancia sends its power to the front wheels via a 5-speed manual transmission. This is the moment where we get to those words that can send pangs of dread through the heart of any classic car enthusiast. This Lancia “ran when parked.” However, it has been parked for many years, so it isn’t clear just how healthy the car is. The owner doesn’t even mention whether the engine turns freely, so you may need to prepare a list of questions to ask the owner if you are considering buying this car.

There had to be a silver lining somewhere in amongst the clouds that we’ve seen to this point, and the interior looks like it is going to provide the silver. If you discount a couple of cracks in the dash pad, the interior of the Zagato presents surprisingly well. The leather on the seats looks like it will respond nicely to a dose of conditioner, while the rest of it looks like it is in surprisingly good condition. If the “wind in the hair” experience that the Zagato provides isn’t enough for you, then you also get power windows and air conditioning.

Don’t think for one moment that the negative things that I’ve written here indicate that I don’t like the Lancia Zagato, because nothing could be further from the truth. They are a wonderful little car, and the fuel-injection that was introduced in the 1981 model gave the car a performance boost that it truly deserved. This one is potentially going to need a fair amount of work, but just how much will depend very much on what a personal inspection uncovers. If an inspection reveals that the car is solid and essentially rust-free, there is every chance that you could be onto a winner. One other factor makes this little Lancia a car to think about long and hard. The Beta Zagato was not what you would call a sales hit in 1981, and a lot of this was attributed to the car’s high price. In fact, worldwide sales of the Zagato between 1978 and 1982 was a paltry 2,076 cars, and it isn’t completely clear how many of those cars came into the US. That potentially makes this a relatively rare car, and well worth considering for a restoration project.


  1. Ike Onick

    Lancia Beta Zagato Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!

    Like 2
  2. CJinSD

    Did anyone here see “Modern Problems” with Chevy Chase? It’s a primer on Lancia Beta ownership.

    Like 1
  3. Larry Smith

    I have a 82 Lancia Zagato that i have restored, rebuilt the engine new clutch,a& a little bodywork,it had no rust ,but a few small dents , they are fun cars to drive ,but they are not fetching what they should ,at the moment $3000-3500 seems a fair price.

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  4. Danh

    Visiting Italy now and I have to say, it’s cool to see all the Lancias driving around!
    But, they are all modern. Haven’t seen a single vintage one yet. As a former Flaminia owner, I can understand why! The older cars, when running well, are fantastic drivers!! Viva Lancia!!

    Like 1
  5. Paul Duce

    There where and are lots of lovely older Lancia’s there, but because of the lack of corrosion through their climate, so many have been brought to UK, or gone over to Northern Europe, where they did rot in the past through those countries climates like any car would. Going to pop on a few pictures of ones we have or have had ourselves directly here in UK from Italy. classics-cabriolets.com

    Like 0
  6. Wayne

    Who ever buys this. DO NOT attempt to start it until the timing belt is replaced. You will be very sorry if you do.
    I like driving these. I don’t like maintaining them. Has some good times in Beta Coupes

    Like 2
    • SubGothius

      If the timing belt looks fine on inspection, with no obvious wear, fraying, or cracking, it’s probably fine at least for a test fire-up, though you will want to start any actual driving with a belt of known age and mileage.

      Belt changes should be done every 30k miles; some add “or 3 years, whichever comes first”, but that’s not specified in any factory publication I’ve seen, so a visual inspection at 3 years should be fine, just to be safe.

      I wrote up the full timing belt replacement procedure on the Lancisti forum here (scroll down, and you may need a login to see the reference photo):

      It’s not a difficult job, just a leisurely afternoon’s work, though it helps to have small hands, given the way everything’s tetrised into the engine bay.

      Like 1
  7. Mark

    Yes – I owned 1982 Lancia – over 12 years fun car and no recalls or problems.
    Somebody offer good $$$$ and I sold.
    I still have some new parts including removeable tops – roof

    Like 0
  8. Paul Duce

    Have tried to load pictures as have done in the past, but now no way to do so.

    Like 0
  9. SubGothius

    Given the surface rust on the air box, the fact the rest of the body appears mostly rust-free (aside from surface rust where the paint has failed) may indicate this is one of the late ’81 models when they started galvanizing the body shells. That said, a close look at the undercarriage is advised, a shame we don’t get any photos of that in the listing.

    This leather upholstery responds very well to an oil treatment like Leather Honey or mink oil (liquid, not the boot paste), which can get it looking and feeling nearly new by the time it drinks up all the oil you can feed it. It’s got a lovely glove-like hand when properly cared for but can get dry, shrunken and coarse when neglected, though that’s largely reversible with care.

    You can still get a Dash Cap™ and/or DashMat™ from AccuForm and Covercraft, respectively. Replacement ragtops are still readily available, at various price points and levels of quality. The good kind are made by Robbins, run about $350 from TopsOnline for vinyl or $300 more for Stayfast fabric, or you can get a cheap Stayfast top for about $350 on eBay.

    The engine is basically the same as found in a Fiat Spider, just turned sideways driving the front wheels, and the FI system is standard Bosch L-jet, which any shop acquainted with Euro models of this vintage should be able to troubleshoot if needed. Power is more than adequate for spirited motivation of the ~2700 lb. curb weight. For DIYers, all the advice you could need is available from fellow enthusiasts on the Lancisti forum and Lancia Beta Appreciation Society group on Facebook.

    As for the Beta platform generally, it’s one of the most “modern” 30-40 year old classic cars you can still find and maintain affordably, as the first mass-production model built to the complete engineering formula that ultimately “won” the auto industry worldwide — FWD with a transverse DOHC engine mated to a 5-speed transaxle, 4-wheel disc brakes, strut-based fully independent suspension with a multilink rear, rack and pinion power steering. All of those features can be found in nearly any econobox nowadays, but few cars had any of that, let alone all of that when the first Beta debuted in 1972, nor many more by the time it finally took a bow a dozen years later.

    Not that a Beta drives like any sort of econobox, mind you. The ride is supple, somehow managing to be refined yet taut at the same time, and handling is fingertip-light, communicative, and responsive, with neutral understeer past the limit arriving as an even, progressive and controllable 4-wheel-dift wide of the line (rather than nose-heavy plowing). “As if on rails” never meant so much until I got mine — fling it into any corner fast as you dare, steer in a bit tighter than you want and ride the drift out to your desired line, lift throttle and/or trail brake to scrub speed and lock it in, then stomp on the gas and blaze onward with nary a chirp from the tires.

    Like 0
  10. t-bone Bob


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  11. victor dohleman

    What parts do you still have?

    Like 0
  12. Mark

    I have :
    A/c compressor
    Valve cover gasket
    I will check tomorrow for more parts
    What you are looking ?
    I’m in Michigan
    I owned Lancia Beta and worked on Italian cars
    I have Fiat spider 73 with original fiber top and some parts also

    Like 0
  13. Lee Pritchard

    I have a 1981 Lancia Zagato been garaged since 1997 and it is in great shape only had to rep[lace the fuel pump and it started right up and runs great! I realize I need to replace the timing belt and tension bearing before driving. I also have it stuck in 4th gear because the shifter bushings all deteriorated and I have new ones to install on the way from John in Georgia. Any tips on where to find the timing belt and tension bearing?

    Like 0

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