Lancia Delta HF Integrale

In the first in a new regular series for Motor Sport, we drive one of Lancia's legendary Deltas on the road and take a look at its competition heritage

Words: Rickard Heseltine. Photography: Ian Dawson

Stealthily, and by degrees, it morphed out of all recognition, an innocuous shopping kart performing a supercar cover version. The Lancia Delta HF Integrale — rally colossus — came, saw and obliterated all comers, then was consigned to the revered but obsolete ranks of motor sport royalty while still in its prime: six straight constructors' titles and then it was killed off shortly thereafter. There should have been a national day of mourning.

When introduced in 1979, there were few pointers to the Delta becoming a performance icon. Square-rigged and inelegant, with tepid Fiat Strada underpinnings, this hatch was anything but hot. Sure, it was recipient of a Car of the Year gong the following year (the inherently dire Talbot Horizon being the preceding beneficiary) but competition involvement seemed improbable.

Fast forward to 1986 and rallying had suffered a hammer blow as FISA scrapped plans for its Group S category (for pure-bred prototypes where just ten replicas needed to be made to appease homologation) as well as abruptly calling time on Group B: in the light of Henri Toivonen's fateful accident on the Tour de Corse, these mid-engined blunt instruments were deemed too fast and too dangerous. New regulations called for production-based Group A cars for '87 on, Lancia being quick off the mark with its Delta HF 4x4 using experience garnered from the monstrous S4.

With 165bhp from its 2-litre twin-cam turbo four, and an advanced all-wheel-drive system, the HF romped to the 1987 World Championship of Makes crown. A year on, the Integrale arrived. So an extra 20 horses, 224Ib ft of torque and a larger Garret T3 turbocharger. Blistered arches embraced fatter tyres and grey 15-in alloys, the 56/44 front-to-rear torque split imbuing it with preternatural levels of grip. Capable of 0-60mph in just 6.6 seconds, and on to an aerodynamically blunted 133mph top end in road-going spec, this was a peerless point-to-point car. This new strain of Delta dominated the 1988 season, taking 10 victories from 11 rounds, and comprehensively sewing up the world title well before the end of the campaign.

No time for resting on laurels, though. For the following year, Lancia introduced a new 16-valve variation to be run alongside the existing eight-valve car. Identifiable by its prominent bonnet bulge, other obvious deviations were wider wheels and tyres. With the torque split changed to 47/54 front-to-rear for better handling characteristics on asphalt, it made a successful debut in the Sanremo Rally, production cars now punching out 200bhp at 5500rpm (and now touching 0-60mph in 5.7sec).

More was to come. The 210bhp Evolution model arrived in October '91. Even wider tracks front and rear meant the already outré wheel arch extensions became larger still (now a single pressing as opposed to fabricated). The front MacPherson strut top mounts were raised for better wheel articulation, new grilles sited in the front bumper to dissipate under bonnet heat build-up and an adjustable roof spoiler was added above the tailgate to add downforce. Apparently. By the following January, Lancia had introduced the first of a bewildering raft of limited editions to the roster, the Martini-liveried '5 World Champion' celebrating the Integrale's fifth consecutive WRC triumph. By the end of the year, another title had been lifted. Enter Integrale 6 with turquoise stitched alcantara trim added to the mix. Yummy.

With works involvement in rallying having ended in 1992, the Integrale was on borrowed time. The ultimate iteration arrived in '93 with an uprated version of the enduring 2-litre four (now 215bhp) and mostly cosmetic and detail improvements along with more small-run rarities (including the imaginatively titled Final Edition). In November '94, the Integrale entered into the past tense after 44,296 had been made. Not bad for a homologation special.

While special stage-vanquishing saloons such as the Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Evo may have latterly eclipsed the Integrale in the public's affection, at least to the PlayStation generation, the Integrale's reputation remains near mythic among rally types. Few cars command greater reverence than Lancia's boxy world-beater.

And with good reason. Yet regardless of its peerless competition pedigree, the Integrale remains an outstanding road car. Admittedly, the steroidal arches and cubist outline are always going to polarise opinion. Same too for the '70s throwback dashboard and cheap-as-chips switchgear. Build quality was always marginal, torsional strength being a mite lacking, but then the Integrale was based on a 1.3-litre commuter shuttle. Get past all that, and head out on to a deserted back road, and the car's true character emerges.

Even now, some 20 years on since it first entered our collective consciousness, driving an Integrale is an education. Acceleration in this '92 Evo makes you smile inanely, as does the accompanying metallic, zinging rasp. It's happiest at high revs where it's smoothest, while the gear change initially feels a little fluid against the stops but with plenty of gate-spring assist. With the turbo spooling at around 3000rpm, the surge from 50 to 80mph is visceral thanks to colossal torque.

Traction is, of course, benchmark stuff, at least for its age. The Integrale doesn't feel like a front-wheel-drive car with a modicum of rear-wheel assist. Instead it becomes more neutral the harder you press on, with astounding agility. It finds footing where other cars unearth only wheelspin. There's a sense of invincibility here, defying laws of physics without any understeer, oversteer, on-the-roof malevolence.

A situation abetted by the steering which is uniformly lucid. The car's ride quality is better than you might expect; no thump, thump over calloused asphalt even if the mock suede-trimmed Recaro buckets are unyielding. When you do feel a bump, you know it. That said, the actual seating position is decent enough thanks to the adjustable-height wheel, so no need to adopt the expected simian driving stance.

There really is so much to like here. The beauty of the Integrale is that it's such a fine all-rounder. There's enough straight-line performance to bait most supercars and dexterity to humble them all when roads get twisty. It's practical, too, even if the 4WD gubbins do encroach a little on the boot's carrying capacity. Add in enough soul to keep you interested, and it's clear why anyone who really, truly, enjoys driving, still rates it.

If nothing else, the Integrale deserves veneration because it made Lancia relevant again. Even if parent company Fiat did its best to unravel the marque's reputation for innovation through a mixture of indifferent models and cack-handed approach to rust prevention in the '70s, with the Stratos, 037 and S4, it did at least do its best to remove some of the tarnish through motorsport. With the Integrale, it went one better: a rally winner within reach of the everyman. That's why it remains five right over crest-tastic.

Competition victories
1987 (HF 4WD) Monte Carlo, Portugal, Acropolis, Olympus, New Zealand, Argentina, 1000 Lakes, Sanremo, RAC. Manufacturers and Drivers champions (Juha Kankkunen)

1988 Monte Carlo, Sweden, Portugal, Safari, Acropolis, Olympus, Argentina, 1000 Lakes, Sanremo, RAC. Manufacturers and Drivers champions (Massimo 'Miki' Biasion)

1989 Monte Carlo, Portugal, Safari, Tour de Corse, Acropolis, Argentina, Sanremo. Manufacturers and Drivers champions (Biasion)

1990 Monte Carlo, Portugal, Tour de Corse, Argentina, Australia, Sanremo. Manufacturers and Drivers champions (Didier Auriol)

1991 Safari, Acropolis, 1000 Lakes, Australia, Sanremo, RAC. Manufacturers and Drivers champions (Kankkunen)

1992 Monte Carlo, Portugal, Tour de Corse, Acropolis, Argentina, 1000 Lakes, Australia, Sanremo. Manufacturers champion