Featured: After A Decade Of Hill Climbing, This Mechanical Engineer Still Chooses The Lancia Montecarlo

After A Decade Of Hill Climbing, This Mechanical Engineer Still Chooses The Lancia Montecarlo

Avatar By Marco Annunziata
October 9, 2020
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Photography by Marco Annunziata

Some call it the rich man’s Fiat X1/9, others, the much poorer man’s Lancia 037, but I think it’s simply an approachable and relatively affordable entry into mid-engine motoring. The Lancia Beta Montecarlo’s legend has it that one night in February of 1975, Gianni Agnelli, Renzo Carli (from Pininfarina styling center), and Sergio Pininfarina met in front of the prototype of the X1/20 to weigh in on whether the project should go forward.

They are all there, only Paolo Martin is missing, the car’s main designer. They talk animatedly about the concept, and at some point Agnelli leaves and comes back a few minutes later with a Lancia grille in hand, modifies its shape a little, and applies it to the prototype. As the story goes, he said the X1/20 can very easily become a Lancia, since Fiat already had the X1/9.

Regardless of the veracity of that tale, the owner of this Montecarlo, Stefano Ferrari, has a passion for the Lancia brand that dates back to his childhood. His grandfather had a dozen or so Lancias and a few Fiats in his garage as rentals for his customers, and he always told Stefano that Lancia technology was the best in the world. “I learned to read and write on my grandfather’s Lancia manuals! Most of the children wrote something like ‘mom’ or ‘dog’ as their first words, but he taught me to write things like ‘bore’ and ‘distributor’ instead!”

For this shoot I met Stefano, a mechanical engineer and former racing driver, at the garage where he keeps his Montecarlo. This is not his first example of the model, as he used to have a red one that he’d prepared for local hill climbs and the like. As he told me, “The Lancia Beta Montecarlo was a car quite easy to develop into something competitive,” whether that be a weekend toy for someone like him, or a Group 5 silhouette car that the factory works team built (well, that was a bit beyond anything in production, but you get the gist).

The name Montecarlo is a tribute to the winning tradition of Lancia in rallies in Monte Carlo, most notably with the Stratos. The extraordinary Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo that was built for Group 5 carried the Lancia motorsport success onto the circuits, too, winning the World Sports Prototypes Championship twice in a row, in 1980 and 1981. The road car shown here is more or less a distant relative of that monster, but they share some important DNA, and the road version performs more than admirably in its role as an accessible mid-engine car. Fun to drive, easy to own, isn’t that what people always say is missing from the automotive landscape?

“I remember that I was following with great interest all the news from the car shows, especially Geneva and Turin,” says Stefano, “I knew that a sporting car from the FIAT group with a mid-rear engine setup was gestating at Pininfarina back then, and I was very curious. When the new Lancia Beta Montecarlo was presented at the 1975 Geneva Motor Show I couldn’t wait to see one on the street, and a few months later I had the chance to. I was delighted! At the beginning of 1976, an acquaintance of mine bought a nice red one, and I had the opportunity to try it out.

“The car was to look at and a pleasure to operate, but the performance—apart from the handling and roadholding—was not what you would call ‘staggering.’ The 120hp output was too low in relation to the weight of about 1000kg, and the braking system was not the best. I remember that the Fiat X1/9 had great success, but it cost much less and had 1300 and 1500cc engines. In other words, it would have the same power problems. The only alternative to the Montecarlo was perhaps the Porsche 914, but without the expensive six-cylinder, it was no rocket.”

He never stopped liking the looks and overall packaging of the car though, and many years later Stefano became the owner of a first series Lancia Beta Montecarlo (the second series dropped the “Beta” moniker” which he kept for almost 10 years between 2007 and 2016. He was never going to leave that one stock, and he went about setting it up as a Group 4 Gran Turismo Competizione, to compete in the events of the Italian Classic Climbing Championship 2000 class, winning his group in 2015 and 2016.

Our Lancia enthusiast was born in Brescia in 1951, a city with a great motoring tradition. His maternal grandfather was chief engineer of the Italian Air Force during the First World War, and in 1920 he opened a mechanical repair and rental workshop which brought him in contact with important Brescian personalities in the automotive sphere, like Count Aymo Maggi, one of the founders of the Mille Miglia.

In fact Stefano’s grandfather prepared several cars for the Mille Miglia, and from an early age Stefano was fascinated by those racing cars he saw in his grandfather’s garage and photo albums. The young Stefano swore to himself that he would be a mechanical engineer and driver one day. And he followed through! In 1960 his dear grandfather passed away, and around this time Stefano’s family moved to Tuscany. After high school, the family moved to Bologna, where Stefano worked on his mechanical engineering degree.

“As a young man my parents and my girlfriend did not want me to race, and therefore I had to join and participate in the racing society in secret. I obtained my racing license and started doing some hill climb races with the rental cars of my driver friend and Abarth tuner, Giampaolo Caroli, who also taught me the fundamentals of sports driving,” Stefano recounts.

Many years later, in 2011, after retiring from his faculty teaching job, Stefano was able to fully devote himself to his racing, but he also kept us his activity as a trusted consultant for engine specialists and restorers in the area.

“I did the setup of my Montecarlo Group 4 car and managed to win two historic Italian hill-climbing championships in the 2000 GTS class,” he tells me, “The chassis design is really excellent, with incredible torsional and flexural stiffness values for a production car. This allowed Pininfarina to be able to use the central part of the stock body to design and build the racing derivatives, winning in their respective world championships; the Beta Montecarlo Turbo Group 5 for the track, and the 037 for rallying. You need great competence, passion, and a good amount of money you’re willing to spend to prepare a historic car to compete in Group 4 Gran Turismo Competizione. All aspects of the car are involved in the upgrades allowed by the FIA form #3074; chassis, engine, suspension, brakes, gearbox, weight, all of it. We were able to go from 120hp to 192hp, and from 987kg to 865kg of weight, so it changed the personality of the car in a major way. It was just marvelous to take it to the first race and see the results of our work, and as a driver and engineer I was completely happy with it!”

Among the competitions Stefano did in his former Montecarlo, one of his favorites was the so-called “hillclimbing university,” the Trento-Bondone, 17 kilometers of curves and hairpins that leave very little room for larger cars to breath over the 1400 meters of rising elevation.

When Stefano decided to slow down with his racing and sell it, he immediately set out in search of a well-preserved street-legal Montecarlo to keep in the garage with his Lancia Beta, a rare blue 1800 coupé from 1974. The red Beta Montecarlo is now in France, in the hands of a rally driver who keeps running it as it was meant to be. Today Stefano is content with regularly driving the Montecarlo pictured here. With the experience with his modified racer behind him for now, he is able to appreciate the stock car in a way that he probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Stefano’s Montecarlo is a very well preserved 40-year-old car. There are just a few modifications on the car, and all of the absolute quality, many done by himself. It has 6”-wide Maserati 14” wheels to replace the original 5.5”-wide 14s, and he’s wrapped them in semi-slick tires. He’s also fitted an electric fuel pump with a pressure regulator and switch instead of the mechanical pump, added an exhaust system he designed and had built by a specialist craftsman in stainless steel with a 4-into-1 manifold and sports silencer (a total weight savings of 9kg, he says). He’s also installed a Nardi steering wheel, and to give the brakes a bit of a boost he uses Ferodo Racing 2500 brake pads. Like I said, it’s not nearly as extensive as his previous build, but it’s perfect for what he wants out of the car.

“My Lancia Montecarlo is a second series metallic gray coupé that was registered in Verona in February 1980 with chassis 0004285, one of the first examples of the 1123 coupés that came out of the Pininfarina factory in Turin. The engine is the 1995cc twin-cam Lampredi design of FIAT origin, but adapted by Lancia to a transversely oriented rear-mounted location. I bought it about a year ago, and I really like driving it on our state roads like the Aurelia and the Cassia.

“Driving the standard Montecarlo is really intuitive and satisfying. The relative lack of power avoids dangerous exuberance, but it’s still quite fun to drive. People call these momentum cars for good reason. The handling is truly remarkable for what it is, and even on the motorway it defends itself well against faster traffic, and it has a nice cruising pace with no excessive noise. It’s a comfortable car to live with, and it’s always up for some fun when we find tighter roads. But the thing that gives me the most satisfaction today is to make a lot of heads turn when I drive it around. Unfortunately, for reasons that can only partially make sense, the Lancia brand no longer has the same prestige it once did among young people. I am very saddened by that, but this car always manages to make me happy. It’s a connection to my past, and I hope it can inspire somebody else as well.”

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Always liked this car!