Simply the best?
May 1986: we were privileged to be at the Sardinian launch of a motor car that changed the results sheets of World Championship rallying, and proved to be remarkably able and practical on the road.
At the time, Lancia only expected to make 3000 Delta 4x4s, but when news came through of the abolition of Group B as the formula for World Championship events in 1987, Lancia swiftly (in mid press conference!) announced production of the requisite 5000. Today’s test Delta HF integrale is the fifth edition of a line that has sold over 30,500 units, and one which has racked up more than a quarter of all Delta sales in 1990.
The 1986 Lancia Delta HF 4WD had ‘only’ 165 bhp in road trim, but as Lancia’s first 4×4 motor car it gathered prestige via domination of the World Rally Championship. It also perked up interest in the Delta range as a whole, selling 5298 copies in its own right.
Next came the extended wheel arch integrale; ‘integrale’ is the common Italian designation for 4×4 because Audi swiped, and in 1980 registered, the best Italian label: quattro. This Delta retained the eight-valve, dohc two-litre of ’60s Fiat origins, albeit now revised from a Thema base to include twin counterbalancer shafts, turbocharging overboost and 185 bhp. It sold more strongly than ever, 9841 cars being manufactured between November 1987 and 1989’s introduction of the 200 bhp/16-valve version, which preceded the test car. The eight-valve unit was cleansed with an exhaust catalyst and remained on sale into the ’90s for particularly tricky markets, such as Switzerland (where it’s known as the ‘kat’ variant).
It was the 16v version of the 1979 debutante (the Delta was elected Car of the Year in 1980) that sold best of all, hitting 12,860 examples from spring 1989 to its late 1991 replacement by the current HF integrale, our subject here.
The latter offers a number of vital technical changes which have proved enormously effective in 1992 World Championship Rallying. The (deep breath) Abarth-assembled, Jolly Clubrun, Martini Racing Deltas won both opening rounds of the 1992 manufacturers’ championship. Frequently we find that what works on the track, or special stage, is a noisy pain in the bottom for the public highway. Yet our 500 miles in the UK with one example and 150 in France were a delight. The Delta has its drawbacks, but you cannot buy more driving pleasure than the latest Delta offers and keep a steel roof over your head . . .
Even by the standards of these distressed times, Lancia sales are at a low ebb, but the Delta no longer has the job of pumping up the volume. Just 150 HF integrates, all in LHD with five-door bodies, are scheduled for the UK in 1992. No other Delta derivatives are currently listed. Post-budget, the HF has dropped £1001 from £24,250 to £23,249. The only options are metallic paint at a sniff over £182 and the combination of black leather trim and air conditioning which demands £1576.92; neither was fitted to the test car. When we tested the Lancia, its principal British market opponents were the 220 bhp Ford Sierra RS Cosworth four-door at £21,380 and the Toyota Celica GT 4×4 at £24,777, or the 205 bhp Carlos Sainz Limited Edition of the latter, of which only 440 were available. By the time this test reaches your gaze the 227 bhp Escort Cosworth will be more relevant opposition than the Sierra. We have borne in mind the driving characteristics of both RS Fords when writing this, the Sierra RS sharing garage space for a week with our test Lancia.
The basics of the Delta remain those of 1979’s five-door hatchback, one that was originally designed in the conventional transverse engine, front-drive fashion. Beneath those bluff lines, Lancia wrought a 4×4 conversion of exceptional worth that has kept much of the basic hardware in use since 1986. Heart of the system is an epicyclic gear central differential which has its action modified by a Ferguson patented viscous coupling. At the rear, Lancia had a look at what Audi was playing with in Group B competition and adopted the Torsen (torque sensing) limited slip differential, but whereas Audi finally employed the American planetary gear sets and star wheels to act as the central differential power split monitor, Lancia stayed with Ferguson and used the Torsen at the rear, where it remains to this day.
What has changed over the years is the basic front-to-rear power split deployed on the roadgoing Lancias. The original eight-valve machines, and today’s eight-valve ‘kat’ emission special had a slight front-drive bias (56 per cent front, 44 per cent rear). The 16v version changed all that to 47/53, a split that is still employed in 1992. The 16v brought the option of Bosch ABS electronic anti-lock braking and this feature — which was adapted with great care to Lancia’s requirements and works well on the loose — is standard for the latest HFs in Britain. The 1992 specification also covers enlarged disc brakes, Brembo aluminium twin piston calipers and an eight-inch servo replacing the previous seven-inch hardware.
The biggest engineering changes in the 1992 edition are the significant stretches in front and rear track (54/60 mm respectively), which also increases the overall girth of the flared wheel arch body. In fact these principle dimensions are now similar to more obvious supercars. The Delta is now just 3.6 in thinner than a Lotus Esprit!
The Lancia is startling to behold on the street — rather as if you were seeing it through a fairground mirror — but the fattening process has allowed the factory cars a tremendous reduction in special stage times. It has also significantly reduced cross country times for the production vehicle. (Who else but an Italian car company would specify a saving of four seconds per kilometre over twisty, wet tarmac in its introductory PR spiel? In the dry, the same ground should be covered 1.5 sec more quickly!)
Yet Lancia logic is impeccable. Who needs top speed today? In performance terms it is much more useful to be able to consume cluttered tarmac with phenomenal acceleration and consummate agility.
Accompanying the explosion in width are replacement front suspension components, lower wishbones now offering the kind of box-section construction that most manufacturers homologate in the more radical Group A cars. Lancia struts and bushes are also strengthened by unspecified means. Spring rates are up and the complete strut is attached to the body at a point about half an inch higher than before. Open the forward hinging bonnet and there is a beautifully crafted aluminium bar to stitch both front strut towers together, thus considerably enhancing both front end body strength and the accuracy of suspension geometry under extreme duress. There is more, particularly in the crafty use of anti-roll bar links and larger capacity dampers, but the message is the same. Lancia has uprated this machine in line with the lessons it has learned as the dominant force in World Championship rallying over the past five years.
The rear suspension work is also extensive, embracing replacement transverse arms, fatter struts, uprated springs and dampers (working over a longer travel), fresh geometry for the anti-roll bar and reinforced uprights.
Complementing the suspension moves are detail changes to the power steering pump and rack, an oil cooler added to the system that will be most valuable in Group N (production based) competition.
Wheel rim widths are up just half an inch, but a five-stud location is now necessary and the alloy wheels are of a totally new design, although they support the same tyre dimensions as before. A get-you-home spare is, unfortunately, also necessary.
As is the fashion for the latest evolution or limited edition homologation cars, a modest power bonus is offered. Lancia quotes 210 bhp instead of 200 (although the handbook resolutely quotes the old 16v figure), available some 250 rpm further up a scale that has a limit of 6200 continuous rpm. Maximum torque value remains the same, albeit a further 500 rpm onward.
Lancia credits the extra power as being sourced via a 6 mm larger diameter exhaust system, one that ends in a single oval rather than the twin exhausts beloved by earlier edition Delta owners. Other key motor statistics, such as the two-litre capacity, 8:1 compression, Garrett T3 turbocharger and Langerer and Reion intercooling are quoted as before, along with one bar (14.2 psi) maximum boost. We found that the 1.2 bar overboost facility was still present, usually reporting at 3000 rpm and gradually absenting itself thereafter.
At maximum speed (shown as 148 mph rather than the honest 132 it was achieving!), boost had slipped back to 0.6 bar at a continuous 5700 rpm (the rev counter was accurate to within 100 rpm) while oil temperature was being maintained at 100 degC and water temperature at 90.
The Lancia remained notably stable at this speed, even though the three-position back wing was on the lowest of three spanner-adjustable settings.
Initial impressions of the 3300-mile red demonstrator are mixed. Despite the presence of a former BMW Motorsport manager at Lancia, quality seems to be as mixed as ever. The red paint looked wonderful, the HF galloping elephants emotive, but the door shut gaps were prodigious by current standards.
Unique external features include the wide use of Allen heads in the fuel filler surround and more intake slots (most netted) and vents than any other production car. In fact, the front is just one giant one-way system for cooling air to enter and exit. Any vacant space is set aside for effective quadruple Hella headlamps and underbumper Carello auxiliaries.
Open the bonnet and there are beautiful castings, some Japanese-style technical boasts (“Lancia Turbo 16-valve” shouts the alloy rocker cover), but the rubber pipe feed between intercooler and Weber Marelli induction is perilously clamped by a jubilee clip, a worrying contrast to the purposeful braided lines linking the oil cooler into the Lancia’s heartbeats.
The cockpit is still a mess of riotous colour schemes and masses of instruments. An octet of Veglia (‘vaguely’ seems more apt) dials sport yellow digits and needles on a black background. The cabin is still enlivened by the presence of drilled throttle pedal and droopy ventilation, but the grey roof lining was a comforting touch of class. Standard electrical equipment covers a drowsy steel sunroof panel, four side windows and Grundig stereo system. As a reminder of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a car check graphic was nostalgic, but not so useful as four-door central locking.
At the Momo three-spoke wheel (adjustable for rake), the Delta overcomes all prejudices about Italian driving positions and its 13 year-old outline. The Delta HF has the sheer ability to consume any winding road, on any surface that will take a modern motor car, more rapidly, and more satisfyingly, than any production car made today, with the possible exception of the Escort RS Cosworth. We say “possible” because our experience of the Escort is limited to overseas, and we know how deceptive first foreign impressions can be. But there is no doubt that Ford has made a major advance with the first production presence of genuine downforce aerodynamics in a production car.
Where the Lancia scores so heavily is in its innate communication skills with the driver. The rapid steering (just under three turns lock-to-lock) is perfectly weighted to inform without chattering and twitching about every dip and camber in the road. Dry road adhesion on P700Zs is so outstanding that the long standing deficiencies of the front seats in occupant location become a scandal. It would be a bold driver who overstepped the enormous limits supplied in dry conditions, but the Lancia proved worryingly less competent both in the wet and on a dry handling circuit. In the latter case we had two drivers check the Lancia’s closed road competence and both found that the HF was not so keen to display its prowess in privacy as it was on the public road.
On the queen’s highway it is an alert and responsive companion, second to none. Give it a closed track and a Group N Nissan for company and the driver has to battle with very heavy understeer to utilise all the available grip. Our experience with every edition of the Delta has always left us entirely satisfied with the slippery surface margins provided, but the latest HF was notably easy to slip out of line. In power-off situations you have a front-drive car in character; it reverts to a soggy understeer, which can build to such proportions that a definite change in plan is called for. Disappointing.
We have not driven the Escort RS in similar circumstances, so we do not known if they have managed to get their Pirellis to work in these conditions; we do know that the Sierra 4×4 on Bridgestone’s ER90 is impressive on slippery surfaces, so Lancia could take a cold look at what Pirelli is providing. Or could such manners originate via significantly stretched front and tracks perhaps upsetting the basic balance of the Delta?
Complementing a chassis that absorbs bumps readily above town speeds (it is awesomely able above 50 mph) are a magnificent set of Boschmonitored anti-lock disc brakes. The ride is not as amiable as before when below 35 mph but, considering the modest wheelbase, competition intent and 50 per cent aspect ratio tyres, it is perfectly passable.
In the Group A competition variant, extended wheel travel has apparently removed much of its previous skittish ‘go-kart’ jinks. World class drivers have all commented warmly on its ability to set faster times with less effort. At the test track the Delta did not quite match the factory claims of 137 mph maximum and 0-62 mph in 5.7 sec, but we were very pleased that its performance was at least the equal, or better, than had been recorded by other independents. A 0-60 mph time of less than 6 sec is still impressive to experience, and (allied to the Lancia’s stubby outline) makes it an exceptionally wieldy overtaking device for British use. Those with a taste for figures may note that the Lancia is substantially faster than the 330 bhp Aston Martin Virage at sub-70 mph speeds. Lancia and Aston record much the same acceleration times in the 70-110 mph band, showing that the old Lancia body cannot overcome a substantial weight advantage at speeds beyond the British legal limit. The Delta is somewhat the ultimate ‘speed limit special’, although the aerodynamics are not so poor as you might suppose and it is only beyond 100 mph that sustained cruising becomes downright draughty. We also did rather better than others in the consumption of cheaper unleaded fuels, but it is worth cautioning owners that the mph and mileage recorders are amongst the most inaccurate we have tested in the last two years. A 19-22 mpg band is the true figure for a Delta utilising its considerable capabilities, not the 26-plus mpg indicated by an uncorrected mileage check.
Reliability, or lack of it, is always a key question asked of Lancia drivers. Aside from sundry squeaks and rattles (most from the old dashboard) our UK example had no operational problems in our custody. The French loaned Lancia was smoking heavily on its return, but was running well. We think it had the same sort of problems as the Cosworth Ford breed can get at the test track, oil failing to drain away from the top half of an engine under pressure and making a visual display that is alarming, but not life threatening to its mechanical health.
Simply the best in homologation engineering, the dated Delta is the definitive example of a pedigree classic car that just happens to be in production. The Delta HF integrate in its latest guise has obvious faults, many to do with its age. Yet no admirer of Italian sporting cars should be without one, and it could make converts of us all.