Nick Leviton was 10 years old when he accompanied his much-loved Uncle Peter on a mission to buy a Lancia Montecarlo.
Their search took them all the way to Devon to find a car that was rare even when it was new – a car that nearly 40 years later unlocks a treasure chest of precious memories.
Memories of being dropped off at school in what all his friends thought was a Ferrari, of blasts along the Military Road on the Isle of Wight, of road trips to car shows, of cleaning and polishing, and of a larger-than-life uncle who bequeathed the car to the one person he believed would cherish the Lancia as much as he did.
Nick, now 48, has more than fulfilled his late uncle’s wishes, maintaining one of the last Montecarlo Spyders to roll off the production line in astonishingly original condition – only the brake linings, tyres and cam belt have been changed since 1983.
Not rusted to oblivion
“You have to look after it,” says Nick, who keeps the car in an air conditioned cocoon. “Unfortunately the Montecarlos weren’t built to last. It’s an original Lancia that’s not rusted to oblivion and still looks as good as it did when it was brand new.
“I’ve not washed it for 10 years and it’s never out in the rain. When it does go out I then spend a couple of hours dusting it down and polishing it before it goes back in the garage. My wife, Sophie, thinks I’m a loony but says ‘that’s your only vice so I will let you have that one’.
“My mechanic knows to keep it dry if I bring it in to have any work done. He’s got Ferraris, Maseratis, a 246 Dino there, but when I turn up it has to stay inside.
“He knows how sad I am about it because of the sentimental value – he looks after it better than his own F40, as he’s pointed out to me on many occasions!”
Back in 1981 the Montecarlo was already out of production when Peter Ashton, a documentary and TV commercial director, set his heart on buying one after selling his beloved Jaguar E-Type.
“He’d always owned E-Types and exotic Lotuses, but he decided his series 2 roadster E-Type needed massive restoration and he was not going to try to finance that bottomless pit,” says Nick, who runs a facilities management company.
“He decided to sell it, which was a big wrench for him, and he was left with a decent pile of cash. He was 50 and was slowing down a bit work-wise, so could not afford to buy something more exotic but still wanted a nice car.
It looks like a Ferrari
“He was trying to make a decision as to what he wanted, and had all these car brochures on his desk. He received one from the Lancia Motor Company and I said ‘it looks like a Ferrari’ in my squeaky little voice at the time.
“He test drove a Porsche 924, but it was generally awful so he didn’t get it, thank goodness. I convinced him the Montecarlo was the one.”
The hunt for a Montecarlo was anything but simple, especially as Peter only had eyes for a red one.
“They’d just stopped production of the cars,” says Nick. “He was looking everywhere and could not find one. There was a dealer in Waterloo not far from his office in Soho, but they could not get him one for love nor money, and he was going to give up.”
A weekend trip to see family in Devon changed everything, with Peter’s cousin, Michael, flagging up a Montecarlo for sale in the local dealership. There was only one problem – it was black.
“All his cars up until then had been red, and he didn’t want a black one,” remembers Nick. “But because he couldn’t find one anywhere he eventually said ‘OK, fine, I will buy it.’”
It’s worth remembering that the reason for the Montecarlo’s scarcity was not excess demand; quite the opposite, thanks largely to the Lancia Beta rust scandal.
“Lancia’s reputation was preceding it with the Beta, and they were not selling very quickly,” says Nick. “This one had been sitting in the show room for a few months by then, so he got a good deal at £5,500.”
The car came with “every extra going”, including air conditioning, and Peter requested a range of upgrades including Tarox disc brakes, an Ansa four-branch exhaust system, twin Weber carburetors, and an upgraded cam.
The Pininfarina-designed Montecarlo’s development was a tortuous one, starting in the late 1960s as a planned replacement for the Fiat 124 Coupe, and almost derailed entirely because of the 1970s oil crisis.
“It was developed alongside the X1/9, codenamed X1/8, but it was scheduled to have a 3-litre V6 engine, and nobody was going to buy a 3-litre Fiat sports car in the middle of an oil crisis,” says Nick.
“They went ahead with the cheaper X1/9, which had no such problems with a 1.3-litre engine.”
The oil crisis resulted in a scaled-down, 2-litre, four cylinder powerplant, and the car now codenamed X1/20 was built by Pininfarina themselves in prototype form as the Fiat Abarth SE 030 for the 1974 racing season.
When Fiat terminated the Abarth SE 030 programme, the car was left in limbo.
“Pininfarina had spent so much time and effort, but Fiat was going to scrap the project, so they said we’ll build the production car ourselves – they’d never done it before,” says Nick.
“The panel gaps are dreadful – you can put your fingers in them. Pininfarina built it as though they were building one of their pre-production test cars.”
The car was handed to Lancia, owned by Fiat since 1969, and launched as the Beta Montecarlo – a premium alternative to the X1/9.
Early sales were strong, but serious brakes issues scared buyers away and production was halted in 1978 after three years.
“Unfortunately, and typical of Lancia, they decided it needed servo assisting on the brakes but put it on the front – in a rear wheel drive, mid engined car with no weight on the front,” says Nick.
“As soon as you touched the brakes in the wet they’d lock up and you’d spin into whatever solid object was waiting for you.”
After a two-year hiatus the car was relaunched, unsurprisingly without the Beta prefix given its rusty legacy, and with uprated brakes now without the troublesome servo assistance.
The car was a boy’s dream
This was the car that Peter Ashton hunted far and wide to buy, with his 10-year-old nephew in tow.
“The car was a boy’s dream,” says Nick, still living the dream nearly four decades later. “It made all the right noises. It sounded brilliant, like a Ferrari when it started up – boom, boom, boom – and it looked great.
“About a year after he bought the car, he’d take me down the Military Road on the Isle of Wight. Three miles of perfectly straight road, and we’d roar all the way down there at 2am – absolute fun.
“When I was a teenager my uncle would drop me off at school and all my friends used to think it was a Ferrari – I never told them any different. We’d roar off down the road making a wonderful sound. It was a lovely car to be around and still is.”
For the first couple of years of his ownership, however, Peter largely kept the Lancia hidden away in his Beckenham garage.
“He used it only occasionally, mainly because it was black, and because he had other cars, a Scimitar GTE which he loved, and an MG Metro to race around town before it rusted to smithereens,” says Nick.
After two years, Peter decided to get the car resprayed to his favoured red.
“He said ‘I’ve had enough, we are going to get it resprayed’,” remembers Nick. “He then proceeded to spend a couple of months trying to find a spray shop who would do the job to his requirements.
“He found one down in Tunbridge Wells called Silverline, so he took the car down there and met the guy and showed him the brochure he still had which showed the car in red.
“He was going away to New York for two weeks, and when he came back he wanted it to look like the brochure.”
It looked absolutely fantastic
There was one exception, however, as Peter wanted the boot lid power bulge to remain black, as opposed to the body colour, in homage to a Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer.
“It looked absolutely fantastic,” says Nick, from Sanderstead in Surrey. “That was in 1983. Since then it’s not been touched, apart from the tyres for safety reasons, brake pads and cambelt.”
That throaty, original Ansa exhaust is still going strong, albeit after a few running repairs.
“My mechanic, Peter Ward of Autofficina in Epsom, said it would be cheaper to buy a new four-branch stainless steel exhaust than have this repaired,” says Nick.
“But I said ‘it’s an Ansa, you can’t get them anymore. Why would you not want to keep an Ansa?’ He said ‘you’re mad’, but it’s brilliant.
“He also gets the old gas for me for the air con and gives it a quick recharge. It’s not like a modern climate control system – the air conditioning pump is something off the back of an old fridge. It’s massive.
“Because the car only has 125bhp, I’m driving along with my son Zechariah and if he presses the air conditioning button you can feel the car slow down as it drains the power. You have to turn the air conditioning off so you can overtake!”
When Peter, a founder member of the Lancia Montecarlo Consortium, died in 1997, he left the Lancia to the boy who had been with him when he bought it and shared his love for the car.
“It was quite nice he left it to me,” says Nick, one of five brothers. “He thought I was the only person he knew that would give the little car the care and attention it deserved.”
And, being a Lancia of a certain age, it needs plenty of care and attention, with Nick restricting his driving to just 14,000 of the car’s total of 51,000 miles.
“Because of the emotional connection I didn’t want to put too many miles on it,” he says. “It’s not always possible to find parts so I get very worried about getting a knock or a ding.
I always park it where I can see it
“If we go out to a restaurant I always park it where I can see it – I sit there looking at it, keeping an eye on it! It’s slightly different at a car show, where there are lots of people around with a similar interest.”
Each year, weather permitting, the car gets an outing to Auto Italia, the Italian car day at Brooklands Museum, as well as meetings of the 96 Club, which meets in Belgravia once a month.
“People get fascinated by them, particularly at the Italian car day,” he says. “They say ‘what’s this, I’ve never seen one?’ It’s nice to explain to people what it is – they’ll spend hours talking to me about it.
“One chap at 96 Club spent an hour and a half talking to me about it, and then I realised he had turned up in a LaFerrari! He’d got this beautiful car but was fascinated by my Montecarlo.”
As well as being a star in its owner’s eyes, the Montecarlo has made two cameo appearances in The Bill, in 2002 and 2007, after the show’s location manager flagged Nick down on the industrial estate in Mitcham where the police soap was filmed.
“A friend had a Rolls Royce garage on the Merton Park Industrial Estate and for about a year I stored my car there and would go down every other weekend to give her a run,” says Nick.
“I was doing my usual test run around the estate when the location manager waved me down and said ‘lovely car, we need a fixed prop of a sports car for one of the episodes’.
“It was part of a scene about someone who’s stealing sports cars to order, with Tony Stamp leading him back to a store of cars. There was the Montecarlo with its rear end sticking out of the garage.
“Five years later it was used again, this time as a car bought with drug money!”
Nick hopes his 13-year-old son Zechariah, while not as car-obsessed as his father was at the same age, may one day take on the mantle of caring for the Lancia into a third generation.
“He hasn’t got the car bug at the moment, but he is interested enough to come along to the events with me,” adds Nick.
‘I kept hold of dad’s car’
“He didn’t know his great uncle so he doesn’t quite understand the emotional side, but maybe when he’s older and his dad’s car has been around for 30-plus years he will have the same interest. It would be nice for him to say ‘I kept hold of dad’s car’.”
In the meantime, Zech (pronounced Zach) enjoys winding his father up about the car’s future fate.
“He says ‘when you go I will be driving it around having a great time’, and he asks me if he can take it out when he’s 18 and passed his test,” says Nick. “I say ‘No way! When I’ve seen you drive for a few years you can have a go.’
“Even though he does like to joke I’ve already said to him he will be getting the car, but I’m not going to tie it to him. If and when that time comes, hopefully it will be worth a great deal of money, and if he needs to sell it to buy a house, then do it. I will be gone, that’s fine. He has to make sure it’s right for him. If he doesn’t have the passion for it or doesn’t want to be anchored with it, then I’d like him to find someone who will treasure the car.”
The last word in the story of a car that means so much goes to Uncle Peter himself, at the end of one last journey to his beloved Brooklands.
Ghost in the machine
“I decided to take him for one last drive in the Montecarlo to Brooklands to scatter his ashes,” says Nick.
“I parked the car in the paddock on a weekday, there was no-one around, and left it there while I walked up Test Hill and spread his ashes where a little cafe used to stand in the 1920s.
“Suddenly, down in the paddock I could hear the Montecarlo’s alarm go off. I walked back down and it just kept going, lights flashing and everything, but as I entered it the paddock the alarm shut off.
“When I opened the door, and this is absolutely true, I went to flick the alarm switch and it was in the off position. Since that day the alarm has never gone off.
“My uncle was not religious at all, but my mother is and she says that was his spirit saying goodbye. Literally, a ghost in the machine.
“It would have been typical of him – he was a very idiosyncratic character, and we loved him.”
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