Five go mad in stages

We have driven the five finest works Lancias in the world. In part one of his report, Matthew Franey goes into battle with the Fulvia, Stratos and 037

In 1992, after clinching its sixth consecutive World Championship for Makes, its 10th in just 18 years, Lancia did the unimaginable — it pulled out of world rallying. To win for the sake of winning provided no addictive urge, the adrenalin rush that produced the Fulvia, Stratos, Rally 037, Delta S4 and Integrale was gone.

To drive just one of the original works cars is a dream. I have driven all five, not simply around the block but flat out, on tarmac, gravel and in the forest. I have two people to thank for that. One is Signor Gino Macaluso, the man who makes Girard-Perregaux time-pieces and proud owner of this unapproachable collection, and the other Cesare Fiorio, without whom not a single one of them would exist.

The son of Lancia’s head of public relations, Fiorio established the HF Squadra Corse team in the early 1960s, when Lancia’s contribution to motorsport was at an all-time low. Fiorio’s team was an amateur outfit with mere pretensions of professionalism. All it needed was a car to show its potential capabilities and in 1963, at the Geneva Salon, Lancia unveiled the Fulvia.

A staid-looking four-seater, the original Fulvia was powered by an innovative narrow-angle V4 engine which, in GT-trim won its first major rally, the 1965 Rallye dei Fiori. Not long after that victory, Lancia took over Fiorio’s fledgling outfit, but kept the young Italian as its boss. It took him until the end of1968 to unveil his real masterpiece, the 1.6 HF.

Powered by a brand new engine producing 132bhp, a new five-speed gearbox and limited slip-differential, Harry Kallstrom clinched both the RAC Rally and the European Championship for Lancia. The Fulvia continued to win rallies, even though the 1970 and 71 seasons were relatively barren affairs, but it was in 1972 that the car brought the glory Lancia so desired. Sandro Munari took a long awaited victory on the Monte Carlo, and the Fulvia also won in Morocco and San Remo. With these triumphs came the coveted International Rally Championship for Makes and a place in the history books.

Looking over the small, stubby car, the Fulvia is remarkably unprepossessing. Although resplendent in the specification and livery which Munari used for his Monte win, the 1.6HF is that breed of rally car which reveals the origins of the sport.

Ignore the red and black Squadra Corse paint and underneath sits an early ’70s road car. Race seats and missing carpet apart, inside it differs little from showroom-specification.

The door slams like a regular road car and as you settle into the upright plastic-padded seats there is little to betray the car’s true heritage. In front, three ordinary pedals are visible through the wide-rimmed wheel. On the face of the large Veglia rev counter, the 7000rpm red-line no more than hints at this car’s true purpose.

Depress the light clutch, catch the dog-leg first gear and ease away as if you were simply heading out into the Turin traffic. Once on the move, though, you soon realise that this car had a very different agenda.

As the Fulvia puts its power down through small front wheels, the car tracks nervously across the road. Every camber change causes the car to change direction dramatically, and steering that’s generously described as light but vague does little to help. Constant correction is needed to stay on line and as you aim at the next apex it is more through luck than judgement that it’s clipped. Yet it grips well and, allied to the torquey engine, small prods at the accelerator prove more useful at determining direction than the wheel. Brake hard and the Fulvia sheds speed respectably but no more.

Forsake the asphalt for gravel if you want to find the Lancia’s true strengths. Sliding on the loose surface, the steering-‘s vagueness is no longer an issue. Here, a flick of the elbows and prod of the brakes are the order of the day, loosening the rear end and sliding the car through the turns. Suddenly it is beautifully precise.

I have no idea how quick the1.6HF is. They regularly hit 100mph in RAC trim but speed is an irrelevance here. The Fulvia was the benchmark by which future Lancias were to be judged. Handling, engine, reliability the Fulvia had it all, and for his next trick, Fiorio would have to build something pretty special to beat it. It was called Stratos.

The Fulvia’s successes in 1972 had brought a temporary halt to the development of Lancia’s beguiling new sportscar. At the 1970 Turin Motor Show, Bertone had unveiled the sleek concept car to gasps of admiration but less by way of serious contemplation. All, that is, except Fiorio. Promoted to Lancia’s marketing manager, the Italian saw in those outlandish lines the way forward for his programme. It would be a full four years before the rally results started to flow fast and his perception paid off.

By the end of its life the Stratos had competed in hundreds of world and European events and won 62 of them. A hat-trick of world titles went its way between 1974 and 1976 and the publicity generated almost singlehandedly fed the marque’s promotion machine for nearly a decade.

Following on from the Fulvia, the ‘flying wing’ design of the Stratos was an undoubted head turner, but the true reasons for the success of the midengined car go rather deeper than that. High on the list is the engine, a much modified competition version of the quad-cam, 2418cc engine found in the 195bhp Ferrari Dino 246GT and under the nose of the Fiat Dino. By the time this car was built in 1976, it had over 270bhp mounted in a rigid steel cage behind a stiff monocoque housing the driver. A Lancia fivespeed straight cut gearbox hung directly off the back of the engine and, with double wishbone suspension at the front and simple struts at the rear, the Stratos was powerful, nimble and, above all, quick. Sure it was nervous too, but world-class drivers used this to their advantage and felt it was a car to make the most of their talents.

Sliding into the Stratos now, the car which Raffaele Pinto drove to third on the 1976 San Remo Rally, you couldn’t imagine a greater contrast to the Fulvia. Just a few seasons younger, the Stratos is light years ahead in detail, cockpit design and driving position. The cabin is tiny and unlike the Fulvia, where you sit bolt upright, here you are almost prone. The feeling is that of a single-seater racer, with your feet disappearing into a tiny pedal box and small steering wheel at arm’s length.

Even when settled into the natty brown corduroy buckets, the rake on the windscreen ensures your helmet is pressed firmly against its trailing edge. A very small, stubby gear lever is positioned too far away and the clutch is tank heavy.

Mercifully, the Ferrari engine lets the Stratos pull away cleanly. The noise is infectious and if it alone had reflected how the Stratos would drive, you’d be pushed to find a better car. Hard on the power out of a tarmac hairpin the Stratos promises so much. Those garish yellow wheels spin viciously, flicking the car sideways as you wind on the opposite lock, watch the rev counter climb towards 7,500rpm then grab second. But the gearbox is heavy and notchy and as the car gains speed into a quick lefthander, it understeers towards the far side of the road. Only a quick lift off the throttle gets the nose back on line, leaving you with the impression that the weight shift from back to front could see you swapping ends all the way into the cornfield.

The steering is quick and precise but is a handful to the uninitiated. At high speed the gearbox throw seems actually to get longer and if you can’t double declutch to change down, get out now. Hard on the brakes the Stratos slows impressively but as you scrabble to find a lower gear with the weighty back end snaking around, you expect a mighty moment at any and every moment…

I am meant to love this car. It is a true icon of its time. A world-beater, a ground-breaker, a head-turner. But if it wasn’t for that Dino engine, I’m not sure I would ever climb back in. It’s just too nervous to be approached with anything other than extreme trepidation at such early acquaintance. Given all the time in the world and the talents of a Munari, doubtless its legendary charms would be clear to see. Right now, however, it remains a car built by specialists for specialists.

By 1978 Lancia itself had left the world of rallying, the Squadra Corse Lancia team being wound up by its Fiat paymasters who wanted its entire empire to compete under one banner. The Stratos would continue to be rallied by private entrants for many more years, but the rallying world would have to wait five more seasons for Lancia to return to the fray;

In the meantime, the company had built the Lancia Beta Monte Carlo sports racer, a mighty 420bhp machine using a 1.4litre turbocharged engine. It was to become the basis of the next Lancia contender on the stages, the Rally Abarth 037.

Behind the Monte Carlo’s monocoque, Florio opted to mount a 2-litre in-line four-cylinder supercharged engine which was developed to produce in excess of 310bhp. A fivespeed ZF gearbox drove the rear wheels and big 12inch ventilated discs hauled it all back down again.

At first the 037 was an ill-handling nightmare. On the 1982 Tour de Corse Atlilio Bettega understeered off the road breaking both his legs, and team mate Markku Alen nervously eased his car home in ninth. It wasn’t until the far end of the season that Lancia’s Group B debutant began to show real promise. Against the four-wheel drive Audi Quattros on the RAC Rally, Alen drove like a man possessed, only a misfire dropping him to fourth at the finish.

With 12 months of development behind it, the 037 became a superb car on tarmac and Walter Rohrl began the ’83 season in fine fashion with victory on the Monte Carlo Rally, and added wins in both Greece and New Zealand. Men followed that with a Lancia whitewash in Corsica and San Remo. The world championship was Lancia’s once again.

The five year gap between the Stratos and 037 is evident everywhere on this classic 1984 Martini-liveried car. Scooped out, fibre glass doom snap shut around you and a tiny seat grips you tight. A minute Abarth steering wheel is thrust into your chest and your feet seem to rattle around on the floorpan. Pedal spacing, however, is perfect, with a heavy clutch backed up by a foot rest for the driver.

Aluminium heat reflectors line the dividing wall to the engine bay and a large vent in the roof funnels cool air in around your head. The rev counter registers an eye-catching 10,000rpm and next to it the supercharger boost gauge rests idly. But flick the ignition switch, punch the 2-litre powerplant into life and things change rapidly for the better.

The volumetric supercharger is driven from the crankshaft and the subsequent torque at low engine speeds is a revelation. In any gear the power just keeps pouring on. Behind you a rasping scream fills your helmet and the 037 blasts forward.

Flooring the throttle, your stomach is pressed into your spine, biceps tensed as you grip hard on the wheel. The 037 rockets towards a small yump gathering speed relentlessly as you flick through gears, the quick-shifting ‘box reminiscent of a modern racing transmission. I lift the throttle just to settle the car and my head is jarred forward as vicious engine braking snaps shut the visor on my helmet. The car slows as if I had just stamped on the brake pedal. I had gone nowhere near it. Everything about the 037 is so immediate, so direct that you expect it to be a daunting car to drive. It is not.

The steering is heavy but sabresharp. Turn the wheel a millimetre and the car responds. The 037 is about as reassuring a car as you can imagine and, on tarmac, its grip levels so high that it would take a rather brave or equally stupid, driver to exceed them. This car is currently developing about 300bhp. It felt more like 600bhp and I was using every one of them.

That the 037 would win just once on the world stage in 1984 is something of a travesty. But by then the march of technology had left the Italian machines behind. The rear-wheel drive Lancias could not live with the all-wheel drive Quattros and Peugeot 205s. Fiorio knew that if his beloved marque was to win in the second half of the 1980s he would have to make a considerable leap forward. Take one step forward the Lancia Delta. Next month: The most successful rally car of all time? On the stages in the Group B Delta S4 and Integrale. Our sincere thanks to Gino Macaluso and his stuff& Girard-Perregauxfor helping to make this feature possible.