As you may recall, there was a bit of a four-wheel drive thing going on in the 1980s. It was single-handedly started by Audi and copied by Porsche (959), Ford (Sierra XR4x4), VW (Rally Golf), even Citroën (BX GTi 4x4), all in the name of high-speed handling. Without them, and the rallying success story they ultimately spawned, there’d be no Subaru Impreza Turbo or Mitsubishi Lancer Evo today.
Lancia had a go, tentatively at first, with the Delta HF Turbo 4WD in 1986. But when the Integrale version arrived two years later, a legend was created. No four-wheel drive saloon is as much fun to drive, full stop. And that includes the Audi Coupé Quattro.
Today, British Lancia fans are in a bit of a quandary. After pulling out of the UK market in 1993, the Italian marque was due to return this year with the new Delta – until the economic downturn changed their minds. It’s a rebodied Fiat Bravo, undistinguished except by its odd styling. Engines, suspension, dashboard – they’re all Fiat. Those Lancia fans will think back to such past Lancia glories as the Aurelia and Flaminia of the 1950s and ’60s and want to weep – Lancia used to build cars as charismatic (and expensive) as Aston Martins. Nowadays the company clings on to survival, but at least it is clinging on.
Most of us won’t remember much about Lancia’s pre-Fiat glory days. What we do remember is that little square-edged hatchback from the late 1980s, the one that scored six successive World Rally Championships from 1987 to 1992, and thrilled a generation of hot-hatchers – and we’ll conveniently forget its roots in a 1979 Milanese designer shopping trolley, itself based on the floorpan and simple strut suspension of the Fiat Strada. You know, the one designed by computer, built by robots and ‘bought by morons’.
No moron ever bought an Integrale. You see, in the UK it wasn’t such an obvious choice, despite the performance promise of its 2.0-litre turbo engine and its four-wheel drive handling prowess. The thing was available only in left-hand drive, as if in a deliberate effort to keep it exclusive. But it’s worth getting over the shock of having to sit on the wrong side. This car was tailor-made for British B-roads.
You’ll have to get past an initial impression of shonky build quality too, yet somehow that seems to suit the way the Integrale drives. It doesn’t rust in the way of the 1970s Lancia Beta, but this is no Golf. There’s a brittle-looking dashboard ahead of you that rattles over bumps, the doors feel tinny and shut with a slam, not a clunk. But start the engine, engage first and grab that steering wheel and you’re keyed4 into the road, well aware that every connection between you and the tarmac is as permanent as you’ll need.
The Integrale bridges the apparent dichotomy between precision and looseness. It’s focused yet scrabbly. As the rather uncouth turbo four-cylinder snarls, whoops and screeches ahead of you, you plot a course with unerringly accurate steering, full of feedback that’s gloriously undiminished by the slim-rimmed, airbagless Momo wheel. The gearchange is steely rather than Fiat-rubbery. And the grip at each corner is just phenomenal.
But this is no Audi-style point-and-surge device. It’s soulful, feeling as if there’s so much grip available that it really doesn’t need to use it all. It just casually grasps at the road, skimming along rather than getting over-embroiled with it. The result? Every road feels like a rally stage, mainly thanks to the permanent 47:53 front:rear torque split, and also an unforgiving ride that crashes over ruts and bumps. But few cars will get you quicker from point to point, or make you smile so much.
Whichever of the four series of Integrale you’re driving, the experience is much the same, differing only in the ferocity with which you attack the horizon. The first 8v cars from 1988 offered an ample 185bhp from their Lancia Thema-sourced engine, upped to 200bhp with the 16v in 1989 – and, let’s face it, we needed cheering up as boom turned to bust, a plane exploded above Lockerbie and 36 people lost their lives in the Clapham train crash.
In 1991 we were cheered further still, as the bulging wheel arches became even bulkier to cover a wider track, the bodyshell was strengthened (again) and power increased to 210bhp. That was the Evoluzione. A final fling from 1993 to 1994 brought the Evo 2, with 215bhp, 16in wheels (they seemed big in those days), a catalyst and air conditioning. When the Evo 2 died, Lancia’s presence in the UK went with it. The rest – Y10, Dedra, Thema – had already withered away, and we never even saw the next-gen (now last-gen) Delta.
Back in 1998, CAR tested the original 8v Integrale against the Toyota Celica GT-Four. The Integrale won. ‘It shapes up as the performance bargain of the decade,’ we said. ‘At the price, there’s nothing to touch it.’ How much? £15,455. A sign of the times – remember, this is two decades ago. But even the Celica cost five grand more, and CAR likened the Integrale’s performance to that of a Porsche 911 (a snip back then at £36,358).
And the giant-slaying 8v Integrale was merely a calling card. There was more to come, as we know – but we need to know where it came from, too. Lancia introduced the 165bhp Delta HF in 1986, the final year of Group B rallying, and the Lancia competition department’s Claudio Lombardi and Cesare Fiorio spotted its potential for the next year’s Group A category and managed – just – to homologate it in time. Miki Biasion won the 1987 Monte – the first rally of the season – and Lancia began its six-year domination, with the nimble little Delta taking over from the bulkier Audi Quattro.
Barely halfway through that season, Lombardi and Fiorio realised the Delta’s old bodyshell wouldn’t cope with successive engine and suspension upgrades. So back came Giugiaro to beef up the delicate body he’d designed a decade earlier, and the Integrale – translating as ‘complete’ or ‘ultimate’ – was born.
These days it’s the later cars that dominate the market. Everybody wants an Evo 2, partly because its classic status was assured during production so a greater proportion have been better looked after, and partly because of its iconic bulldog looks. It’s the ultimate Integrale, and the youngest too – though none is less than 14 years old. That puts the earliest cars, now 21 years old, into bargain territory. And a cheap, scruffy 16v will offer you lots of thrills for a lot less cash.
‘You’ll never find a good Evo for less than £10k,’ says Steve Smith of Integrale specialist Walkers Garage. ‘Any less and they won’t have been cared for, with high mileages. The sky’s the limit for a really exceptional one.’ The sky? Well, £40k, and an easy £30k for good special editions. Early ’Grales can dip as low as £1000, but they’ll be parts cars at that price.
British-market versions carry a premium because their history is more easily traced, but these are mechanically robust cars if well-maintained. ‘We’re still looking after a 300,000km [190k miles] car that’s on its original turbo and bottom end, with just a recon cylinder head,’ says Smith. Parts supply is good, though new panels are becoming scarce. Thankfully, the ’Grale doesn’t self-destruct in British Winters, though rear arches, chassis rails and the roof’s trailing edge are vulnerable. Transmissions are rally-bred and as tough as you’d expect, though the Ferrari-engined Lancia Thema 8.32 clutch bears the brunt of all that traction and will be sacrificed by too many enthusiastic standing starts. And how could you resist?
There’s clearly still a lot of love for Lancia, even if the new Delta doesn’t exactly live up to its forebear. Yet.
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