This was the first year I can recall that photographer extraordinaire Martyn Goddard and I didn’t quibble over the car choice for our annual road trip. Martyn is a hardy Brit, totally fine with doing a thousand rainy miles in his Healey, top down all the way. I’m a soft American who’d prefer something like a 240Z with air-conditioning. But from our earliest brainstorming phone call, everything fell into line. “Hey, I’m thinking about maybe a Delta Integrale,” I said. “That’s fantastic,” he replied. “I was just talking with a friend the other day about borrowing his.”
It was probably inevitable we’d settle on this car eventually. Philosophical differences aside, we’ve both had a lifelong thing for Lancias; Martyn even ran an Integrale as his daily driver for years. Like Japan, Britain is an international hotbed of Integrale lust. As rallying’s most successful car ever from its most successful manufacturer ever, World Rally fans naturally love them, but so do hot hatch and budget supercar types. It’s become a style icon, a car that to this day still lures amateur photographers from the general public (not to mention video gamers) anywhere you park one.
Consequently, the rarer editions are already prime collector material. In 2014, when a major U.K. mag polled its readers for the “Car You Wish They’d Relaunch,” the Integrale came in second, behind only Britain’s own hallowed MGB. Another publication recently advised the faithful to buy one now, before the later-model, most coveted cars become eligible for import to America under the federal government’s 25-year statute and demand sends prices skyrocketing.
They might be right to worry. On purely automotive merits, the Delta Integrale is that rare combination of hooligan street racer and genuine, usable transportation. It’s well suited to U.S. conditions to boot. Behind the fat tires and turbo, the scoops and spats and spoilers and sub-6-second 0-to-60-mph time, it’s still essentially a workaday Lancia Delta. Introduced in 1979, the base Delta was Lancia’s answer to the first-generation Volkswagen Golf. It shared its platform with the four-door Fiat Ritmo (called the Strada in the States around the same time the Golf was called the Rabbit, the first time).
From 1972 to 1992, Lancia won the World Rally Championship title a still-unmatched 10 times.
Like the Golf, the Delta was a Giugiaro design, as practical as a pocket on a shirt. In typical Italian family car fashion, it offered a plethora of engine and performance upgrades, eventually including turbocharging, the ubiquitous Fiat Twin Cam engine, and four-wheel drive. As the Delta inherited the defense of Lancia’s rallying heritage in the late 1980s, those ingredients begat a seemingly infinite chain of homologation specials: from the Delta HF Turbo 4WD to the Delta Integrale and the Integrale Evoluzione, on up to 1993 and the final variant considered by many to be the ultimate expression of the range — the Evo II — the model we’ve scammed for our weeklong blast across Europe.
Well before we leave the driveway, I’m already coming to appreciate the Delta’s more mundane charms. Like its luggage space. Fold the rear seats and this desirable, head-turning, classic performance car can also easily stow Martyn’s photo gear, our various computers, rain jackets, and shaving kits — and still have room for a complete two-season wardrobe. Thanks to its boxy ’70s architecture, visibility is excellent all the way around. Its Recaro buckets are equally as supportive in real-world conditions as the straightjackets in certain contemporary rally-style production cars, but you don’t risk spinal injury getting in and out of them.
Admittedly, the Evo II’s Recaros are covered in imitation mouse fur (aka Alcantara) instead of leather, econo-box plastic is the prevailing decorative motif, and the dash quivers if you run over a discarded contact lens. It is, after all, the grandbaby of a ’70s Fiat. By the 1990s, however, the traditional Italian rust problems were in decline, the mechanicals nearly bulletproof. Swanky it ain’t; sturdy, friendly, and very, very useable it is.
Pick the right example and you can indeed have air-conditioning, too. And electric windows, at least for the front-seat passengers. It’s civilized and totally undemanding in the crawling, gritty traffic around the English Channel ports during our crossing interlude. At a quiet, smooth, legal-limit 80 mph on France’s vast cross-country Autoroute, it feels as though there’s another 100 left in reserve. In reality it’s closer to another 60 mph more, but the Integrale nonetheless easily justifies its giant-killer rep against all but the strongest of current competition on pure acceleration alone — never mind the quarter-century age difference.
Those who know the DOHC Fiat inline-four solely from the wheezing, emission-strangled derivatives powering the company’s last efforts in the U.S. wouldn’t recognize any Lancia version, let alone the 2.0-liter turbo in the Evo II. At anything above 2,800-3,000 rpm, the long-stroke motor’s inherent torque pretty well overwhelms any turbo lag. Punch the throttle and it immediately starts going strong and grows stronger until its 6,500 rpm redline. Drop a gear to start your attack from 4,000 rpm instead and, if you don’t vanquish every foe, you’ll get a helluva nice adrenaline buzz from trying.
For all its attractions as a vacation hauler-cum-ninja warrior, though, that really isn’t what the Integrale is about, and this becomes increasingly evident as we reach the southeast of France and start into the mountains. This corner of the Alps is home to the one rally everybody everywhere knows: the Monte Carlo Rally. Over the 20 consecutive seasons when Lancia officially contested the modern World Rally Championship — from 1972 to 1992 — it took home the title a still-unmatched 10 times, and took the Monte on 11 occasions, five of those with production-based Group A Deltas (plus one more with the silhouette body, tubular-frame Group B Delta S4 in 1986).
That’s quite a product-development program. The Monte wanders from one mountain pass, or col, to another, sometimes up, sometimes down, and every col seems a little different. While the Col de Braus near Nice offers a famous series of straight drag races between 180-degree hairpins — “lacets” in rally terms, which is French for shoelaces — some sections of the definitive Monte route, like the illustrious Col de Turini, wiggle and gyrate like that stuff under the microscope in junior-high biology.
Other parts of the Turini, meanwhile, are relatively open, wide, and fast. (As the Monte takes place in winter, much of the route is frozen for the race.) Some stages don’t change elevation at all. They merely charge along France’s narrowest, bumpiest, most-isolated cow tracks, seeking the perfect place for instant wheel amputation. Top speed doesn’t count for much, but any car that’s consistently successful here needs to be good at virtually everything else. And, by the way, they have to be road legal.
The Integrale, it turns out, is truly good at virtually everything else. Four-wheel drive is fabled for its cornering advantages; the trade-off is often numb, heavy steering feel and sluggish overall handling. But the Integrale is lively, with sharp turn-in, ample feedback, and grip to squash your guts against your ribcage. The posture is typically neutral as well, unless pushed into mild understeer with too much early throttle. Its steering is precise and nicely weighted, with a tight turning circle for quick direction changes should you miss a junction; in the pre-Evo cars it’s better yet, provided you don’t mind giving up a few horses in exchange. (You probably wouldn’t miss them, either.)
While 212 horsepower doesn’t sound like a lot these days, the Evo II’s response, torque curve, and gearbox always seem to deliver smoothly, progressively, and exactly when you need them. Its brakes are likewise powerful and easily modulated; they and the chassis won’t do anything strange if you get a tad too enthusiastic and need some, ahem, extra-late retardation. As a total package — from the balanced road performance to the excellent driving position to the compact size and maneuverability—the car simply makes me smile.
Headed back down the mountains at the end of three days of photography and col running, with Martyn at the wheel and the pop-off valve chuckling happily off a sheer Alpine rock face between upshifts—and probably both of us a little wacky from the altitude — we even go so far as to declare the Integrale the perfect car. At least it’s the perfect car for this trip and for the two of us. It definitely isn’t flat-out perfect; that’s just crazy talk. So don’t rush out and buy one and shoot the prices up, OK? Please, I haven’t quite bought one of my own yet.
Ask The Man Who Bought One
While the U.K. is a natural market for Americans looking to import a Delta Integrale, by reason of shared language if nothing else, the British owner of our subject car, Mike Pickles, explored less familiar territory. He bought his in Japan while there representing his storage-container company, Really Useful Boxes (hence the “1 RUB” on his license plate). He’s well satisfied with the Japanese experience, having been through it before when buying his designer Paul Smith edition Mini, but he stresses the importance of finding a good local sourcing agent.
Regardless of the seller, remember that stealing ’Grales for export is an established industry in some parts of the Mediterranean world and that — like any boy-racer automobile — hard miles and cruel hands are the rule, not the exception. Hop ups and street mods are also common, especially on Evos, and although not all are retrograde (Mike is perfectly cool with his aftermarket alloys and deep-dish Momo steering wheel, and, frankly, so are we), do educate yourself on what’s kosher and what’s not. For a balance of bang for buck — if less collector potential — look at middle-production eight-valve Integrales, the model Martyn drove: less power but just as much fun. Good hunting.