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Cars you didn’t know you want: Lancia Montecarlo

An Italian mid-engined coupe designed and built in-house by Pininfarina? What’s not to love?

Originally designed by the famed Italian styling house as a replacement for the Fiat 124, the project became a Lancia when Fiat pulled the pin on the project in 1974, opting instead for the Bertone-designed wedge on wheels, the X1/9.

The original 1969 design called for a 3.0-litre V6 engine but the oil crisis of the mid-1970s saw that enticing power unit replaced by a smaller 2.0-litre inline four for what was now, the Lancia Beta Montecarlo.

The original Montecarlo made its public debut at the Geneva motor show in 1975. It was the first car made entirely in-house by Pininfarina. Performance wasn’t especially scintillating, the 2.0-litre Lampredi four-pot offering a meagre 88kW. Mated to a five-speed manual transaxle, the Montecarlo slinked from 0-100km/h in a smidge over nine seconds. Top speed was a claimed 190km/h. Not exactly supercar-like performance.

But, what the automotive gods taketh away, they giveth back too. Thanks to its mid-engined layout, the Montecarlo offered a beautifully balanced chassis with excellent handling. A kerb weight of just 970kg helped too.

Available as either a coupe or a spider, the Montecarlo’s distinctive design included buttresses tapering back from the b-pillar and an unusual, if practical, side-opening engine cover.

The second-generation Montecarlo, introduced in 1980, brought a move to glazed buttresses to aid rearward visibility, larger 14-inch alloy wheels, larger brake rotors and calipers, while under the cool side-opening ‘bonnet’, the 2.0-litre four received a tickle up too, with a higher compression ratio, Marelli electronic ignition and new carburettors. The result was a torque bump (from 165Nm to 171Nm) over the first-gen car, although power output (88kW) remained the same.

A total of 7798 Monetcarlos were produced between 1974 and 1982, including those badged as ‘Scorpions’ for the US market where the Monte Carlo nameplate belonged to Chevrolet. Those aren’t astonishing numbers by any stretch, making the little mid-engined Lancia a pretty rare sports car today.

Perhaps its greatest legacy, however, remains the monstrous Lancia 037 Group B rally car, which conquered all before it to win the World Rally Championship for Manufacturers in 1983. Resplendent in its iconic Martini Racing livery, rally legends Walter Röhrl and Markku Alén won six of that season’s 12 WRC events between them in the Montecarlo-based 037.

To be eligible to compete in the WRC, Group B rules stated 200 road-going production models had to be built. That gave rise to the Lancia 037 Stradale, of which 207 were produced. The heart-achingly beautiful road-going Stradale (it's the red one in the gallery above) was powered by an Abarth-sourced supercharged 2.0-litre inline four with a healthy 153kW helping to propel the race-bred road car from 0-100km/h in 5.8 seconds.

Unsurprisingly the 037 Stradale, thanks to its scarcity and history, fetches big money these days, a pristine example going under the hammer for US$873,950 (A$1.3million) at RM Sotheby’s in 2019, a far cry from the $50,000 they cost when new in 1982.

The tamer Montecarlo meanwhile, hasn’t enjoyed the same appreciation, although good examples have sold for anywhere between $15,000-$45,000 in Australia in recent years.

Let us know what you think in the comments? Is the Lancia Montecarlo an overlooked classic? And what cars do you think belong under the Cars You Didn't Know You Want category? We've got a few more up our sleeves, but we'd love to hear your thoughts.

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