REvisiting a hero - Lancia Delta Integrale

Lancia Delta Intergrale EVO2

In 1987 when I was just 14 the Delta Integrale burst onto the rallying scene, dominating for years and eventually providing Lancia with six manufacturer’s World Championships. By this stage the car bug had already bitten hard, I was regularly driving mum’s Mini up and down a muddy lane on our farm and I’d started poring over magazines to glean as much automotive info as possible.

My ambitions were somewhat limited. I was looking forward to getting my licence in 3 years time but had no illusions on what I would be driving; that would be my mum’s car and she was just in the process of buying a new one. For a spotty teen, cars like the Integrale were unattainable on so many levels that my lust was confined to trying to convince her to go for the higher engine and trim levels of a Fiat Uno. In those days Fiat had a chip on its shoulder about having better performing engines than it’s contemporaries and so decided to differentiate the model range by horse-power as opposed to engine size. The Fiat Uno 45 for example was a 900cc, 45hp dredger. If I was particularly lucky I might persuade mum to get herself the muscular 55S (1.1Litre), there was even a fierce 75SX version (1300cc’s, practically a muscle car) complete with black plastic sill trims but this 75hp monster was beyond reach. Ok, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, my point here is just to try and make you understand that if even a 1300cc Fiat Uno made me drool, you can imagine how much I worshipped cars like the Integrale when I was a boy. This really was the stuff of dreams!

Predictably mum eventually bought herself the Uno 45 shitter but fast-forward a few years and in 1992 after a prolonged campaign I managed to convince my father to buy himself a Lancia Thema 16V Turbo. This may not seem like much of an achievement but I mention it for two reasons; firstly my father is the kind of driver who previously chose an armchair Ford Scorpio over a Sierra Cosworth as a company car and secondly the Thema used the motor from the Integrale! In his wisdom he lent me the Thema a few times so I so have some prior experience of the engine and it packed a real punch, even in a big saloon like that.

Lancia Delta Integrale Red Front Picture

Right, finally back to the Integrale then. Despite being familiar with the engine I’ve never actually driven a ‘Grale’ so it I was delighted to find that my friend Jago (who previously sold me Smokey the Giulia Spider) had recently purchased a lightly breathed on 16V. Seeing it reminded me just how much I love the look of these cars. The Integrale is endowed with bulging wheel arches, air louvres and fat bumpers that wrap around to meet the wheel arches at front and back. I know the HF heritage is the little elephant symbol but to me this Delta just looks like a wonderfully squat little Pig. I love it. For a short video and walk around on this car please click here

How many times have I read that Italian cars of this era have the structural integrity of a crisp packet? I don’t know, but I bet that saying was invented for this one. Integrales are famously bendy, so much so that there is not much point stiffening any one point with a brace as the flexing will just move to another point in the car. Despite this the handling is pretty legendary, as I found out when I took it for a spin. I said before that this example was “lightly” breathed on but that was not really true, it has a modified EVO II engine and lots of other bits including the wider EVO front suspension. Essentially it has been brought up to EVO II spec with the engine further breathed on.

Although the interior looks like it has come out of a kinder egg the driving position seems ok to me, odd given I’d heard derisory reports of the Delta being afflicted with the Italian long arm/short leg syndrome. True, the steering wheel angle is a bit truck like but that does not get in the way, the gear change falls nicely to hand and the Recaros are comfortable. Minor controls are a whole other thing though, for example the window switches are hidden under the side of the seats so it took me a good minute to find them while on the move. The heating controls are made out of Nutella jar tops, really oddly designed and the whole dash reminded me of a 1980s Fiat Panda. Oddly the indicator stalks are made of metal and way more solid than the flimsy plastic items used on my 911 but aside from this quality was clearly not a strong point. Which is fine since the Delta is all about the driving, and what an experience that is.

Lancia Delta Integrale InteriorLancia Delta Integrale Interior

We set off through Surrey and on towards Box Hill, the closest route with a few bends, Jago following in my M3. I was quite concious that this was not my car and was initially acting with a modicum of restraint but this went out the window when on the very first roundabout the M3 suddenly filled my mirrors, Jago slewing sideways towards the kerb and a rapidly approaching Jaguar saloon. I guess he must have turned the traction control off! My fault really as I had told him it was pretty boring with it on.. I braced myself for the inevitable BANG but in a fit of rabid arm twirling he miraculously saved it.

Once I'd stopped laughing the first thing that struck me was that this blown four cylinder actually sounds really good, it burbles and growls with an aggressive change in tone as it picks up. I guess this should come as no surprise since it is a development of the legendary Fiat twin cam engine by ex-F1 engine designer Aurelio Lampredi. The twin cam was released in 1966 and was so ahead of its time it continued to be used till 1999. Obviously there is lag but it’s easy to keep the turbos spinning making the engine fantastically punchy through the gears. Predictably not much happens at low revs, boost starts to spool up around 2700 but the engine only really starts moving at 3000 and the real shove comes in at 4K. The gear change is quite long but has just the right weight and has a positive and easy throw. The first time I pressed on the brake pedal however I almost soiled the already grubby Recaros, there is a huge amount of travel before anything happens and for someone used to systems with more immediate bite it initially comes as a bit of shock. Once tuned in to this the brakes actually turn out to work pretty well and are really easy to modulate than the trigger happy modern systems I am more used to.

I know it sounds silly to say but this really feels like a rally car from the driver’s seat, that short, squat stance gives the car brilliant agility and playfulness, the steering has great feedback and you can really feel the car wanting to go where you point it. The Delta is blessed with great traction and is pretty neutral on the limit but push past this and it will eventually gently under steer. This particular car has recently been fitted with new BC coilovers so the geo needs fettling but once that is done I would imagine even the small on limit under steer could be eradicated.

Lancia Delta Integrale at Box Hill, Surrey, UK

This drive really makes me lament the end of production for the series 1 Delta in 1994. This spelled another downward spiral for Lancia. The second and third generations were bloated jokes, quality was better but the cars were not really competitive and lacked a halo model like the Integrale. A soft two wheel drive HPE version supposedly took up the mantle of hot Delta for the second generation with Lancia giving up sporting pretentions altogether on the horrid third model. The latter was rebadged as a Chrysler and imported to the UK where they seem to have sold about three. According to Fiat, Lancia is supposed to be a luxury brand so there is no room for a sports car , maybe they should have a look at what Mercedes has done, the AMG models dont seem to have hurt it's image as a luxury maker. Sad to see that Lancia has become little more a badge engineering exercise for Fiat.

I had an absolute ball driving this thing, it is so playful, visceral and fun. It is a car that is really much more than just the sum of its parts. Who would have guessed that a pretty unremarkable hatch originally released in 1979, twinned with 4 wheel drive and a twenty year old engine would have produced such an iconic car? It did not disappoint in any way, save perhaps for the way it’s made me look at my E46 M3. I got into it after the road test in the Lancia and it just felt like a lifeless, spongy boat, fast yes but just so dull in comparison. Anyone want to swap an immaculate M3 for a nice Intergale?

Hero. Met!

Car: Lancia Delta 16V (EVO II Spec)

Clarksonism: It’s more fun than an afternoon in the sauna at the Playboy Mansion

Engine: 16-valve 2 L injected 4-cylinder, balancing shafts.

Power: 212 hp (This engine estimated to have a fair bit on top)

Top speed: 220 km/h (137 mph)

0- 60: 5.7 secs

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