VHS OR BETA?
by bill orth
In Aldous Huxley’s fictional Brave New World, the ruling class was called the Alphas, and they enjoyed lives of luxury and privilege. The rest of society was made up of Betas, and like the lower classes everywhere, they were the ones who actually got things done, worked hard and got dirty. These are also the names of the first two letters in the classical Greek alphabet and have been utilized by various manufacturers to name aspiring products over the years. Alpha, in contemporary culture, has come to denote dominance in men and dogs and was also chosen one hundred years ago to christen one of Italy’s first automotive families. (Italians rarely use the letter ‘h’, and this may be why Alfa Romeo was spelled as it was) Beta’s turn came when Sony’s new video device needed a name and also when a secondary Italian motorbike manufacturer blessed their mopeds with it. Sony lost the video war to VHS and the scooters failed to make the cut as well, but Lancia, another long-standing Italian auto maker, developed a nice little car in the late 1960s that combined utility and sporty characteristics and modestly named it Beta. Perhaps because of those hardy Huxley-ian working class connotations, or perhaps as a candid appraisal of the car’s merit—or maybe it was just because Alfa was already taken. Whatever, the Lancia Beta was a pretty decent car; full of then-typically Italian spotty quality control and some strange styling characteristics, but like the proverbial blind date, it had an endearing fun loving personality that appealed to a certain lunatic fringe.
The Beta—decorated with a nicely-styled chrome rendition of its Greek-letter namesake on the trunk lid—was reasonably sporty and shared a nice lively 1.8-liter DOHC engine with the Fiat Spider. They were mostly made in a 2-door coupe configuration, but there were also some station wagon-like hatchbacks and a strange little targa/convertible called the Scorpion. Lancias were imported into the States by FIAT, and sold through most FIAT dealers until tightening safety & emission standards (and Japanese competition) drove them back to Italy. Those orphans thus marooned on our shores then depreciated even faster and most succumbed to rust—except in dry places like Colorado!
About twenty years ago, I needed an inexpensive, economical car to commute to work in and began snooping through the classifieds to see what several hundred dollars would buy (I said it had to be inexpensive!). Older domestic lumps, while no doubt reliable, held no appeal and weren’t economical, but most imports were far too costly. However, I spotted an ad for a 1975 Beta coupe that was well down into three figures at a time when a similar-vintage BMW 2002 was three times as much. The fellow on the phone, after a pause, commented that I was the only one who had ever called about the car, but he got his thoughts together and offered an opinion that it was in “pretty good shape.” His directions led me to a trailer park in rural Boulder County where the subject Lancia tried to hold its head high amid the shabby ambiance.
Resplendent in a bilious greenish-yellow (original paint!), the car was actually in quite decent condition throughout and it was sitting on a nice set of Michelins. The owner made no bones about the fact that the car’s Italian charms impressed him not at all and it was somewhat murky exactly how he came to have it. However, when asked for some paperwork he produced two titles for it; one from Colorado and another from Nebraska! It seemed to run well, albeit smoking a little, so an offer was made--and accepted--and the car covered the ten miles from Louisville to Broomfield uneventfully. On getting it home, I took stock of what I had and was quite pleased. In comparison with the relatively pricey 2002 mentioned above, the Lancia had a twin-cam engine, a five-speed transmission, leather upholstery, alloy wheels, and front-wheel drive that would be handy all winter. I changed the oil, replaced the cam belt and began commuting fifty miles each day, enjoying the Beta’s peppy performance, nice handling and flatulent exhaust note. The instrument cluster had a Latin Buck Rogers design theme, but was punctuated with more real instruments than the Bavarians chose to provide, too. However, the speedometer had locked up at 79,999 miles, so divining how far you had gone, or how quickly you were doing so, was left up to the tach and intuition. After a couple of weeks it became evident that the ‘little’ exhaust smoke translated into consumption of a quart of oil every other fill-up, but cheaper, higher viscosity oil trimmed that back to every third one.
I rather liked the little car and even buffed a nice shine into the paint one weekend, but after about a year of faithful service, improved circumstances allowed a move up the automotive food chain, and the Lancia once again appeared in the newspaper. Like the former owner, I wondered if the phone had gone dead, but after a couple of weeks it rang late one night. A Southern drawl asked if the “Lance-e-ah” was still available. When I affirmed, he said, “I thought it would be.” This fellow lived in Louisiana, but worked on an oil rig somewhere in Montana. He said he had a couple of other Betas back home and seemed to know all about the cars, but wasn’t particularly curious about this one’s strengths or weaknesses. He just asked if it ran “all right,” and not much else. Explaining that he was going to be headed back to the bayous in a couple of weeks, he asked if he could send the money for the car and leave it with me until he came to get it. “Sure,” I said.
A few days later a money order for the full amount arrived in a rumpled envelope, addressed in pencil, with a note that he’d call and let me know when he was coming to pick up the car. Another couple of weeks went by and again, late at night, the phone rang and the drawl said he was leaving Montana after work the next day. Some fellow oil field workers who were from Denver would drop him off….about 4:00 AM! He would then leave immediately for Louisiana, planning to drive non-stop. I looked around the side of the house to see if the car was still there, charged the battery, checked the tire pressures and put my remaining oil in the trunk. I set the alarm for 3:30 the next morning and sure enough, not long after that, heard a truck pull up outside. It had started snowing, but the big bearded fellow wrapped in a hooded parka didn’t seem to notice. He also never glanced at the Lancia sitting in the driveway. He just stuffed the title in his pocket and asked how to get to I-25. He climbed in, started it up and disappeared down the street in a $600 car he had never seen before, whose hood he had never opened, and in which he was beginning a 1500-mile trip--in a snowstorm--through some pretty sparsely populated regions. I went back to bed marveling at his trusting nature and a few days later, late at night, the phone rang and the adventurer said he was home, bathed and shaven and that he had had a nice trip. The car had run fine and used less oil than his two other Betas—each of which had been bought and driven home the same way. After stints on the oil rigs, his idea of relaxation was an adventurous road trip home in a cheap, unknown, goofy Italian car that was named after the second letter of an ancient language.
-- Bill Orth –