When asked “What is the greatest car ever produced?” there is only one country that can make such a car. It comes from a company that is not shy of failures. Maybe without these they wouldn’t have been so good when it came to the things that worked well?

By Tony Harrison – originally posted to Flickr as Lancia Delta Integrale Evo 2 IMG_9403, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4811977

Without this companies motoring passion we would never have had some great ideas that just needed a little more investing. They were engineers. They are also one of the greatest shames of motoring of the twentieth century. I knew at a young age the nation was good at everything automotive. In primary school we had to pick a country and present it in assembly. l choose this country purely because of its cars and one manufacture in particular. It’s in Italy that we find the greatest car ever to have been produced.

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The Lancia Delta is an utterly amazing car. The humble beginnings of the Delta are nothing special yet the illustrious history and development of the Delta should in reality make it a brand name like Mini, Beetle and 500. Launched in 1979, the Giugiaro designed body was crisp and clean. It had minimal fussing along the flanks that were a signature mark of Giugiaro’s Ital design studio. It was a sharp dressed car. A 5 door hatchback with sophisticated style.

The Delta followed a typical tradition for Italian car manufacturers of the 70’s and 80’s. On its launch it was a very important car that people hoped would carry the Lancia brand into the future following the disastrous recall of the Beta from epic rust around the subframe. To help in the costs and using a proven platform from new owners Fiat, it was based on the Fiat Strada though it shared very little with it. Even the Fiat based engines had Lancia developments in them and it used MacPherson struts all round instead of the single rear leaf spring of the Strada. The Delta won the coveted prize of Car of the year 1980.

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The risk of Fiat taking control of Lancia was that their ideas would be shaken out of the company and it would end up as badge engineering of Fiat products in a way Peugeot had done with Citroën. This was not to be. Those ideas were still in full flow at Lancia as we will see. Saab on the other hand did have some input into the development of the Delta’s heating system and between 1980-82 it was sold as the Saab-Lancia 600 in the Nordic countries. Already then the Delta is proving to be a little bit different.

Those engineers at Abarth that were all part of the Fiat group were quick to make their mark on the Delta with the 1983 launch of the Delta HF (High Fidelity) with a turbo. It wasn’t until 1985 that the turbo name was mentioned with the launch of the short lived Delta HF Turbo i.e. 1983 saw strange changes made to the humbler GT i.e with the cylinder head being spun 180 degrees and the exhaust now being at the front of the engine to aid cooling whilst also lowering the gravity of the unit.

We mustn’t forget Lancia’s rally program that was continuing while the Delta was being fettled. While the little hatchback was being made in several guises it was their 037 rally champion based on the Beta Montecarlo that was being watched on the international circuit. A car that was loosing rapidly despite its sheer speed ability to the all conquering Audi Quattro.

1985 was a good year for the Delta. Lancia had comeback with a double bang to the world rally championship with their Delta S4. A mid engined turbo and super charged road warrior with 4 wheel drive and almost 500 bhp from its 1800cc engine. The Delta shared nothing with the hatchback except for the name. Unlike the WRC offerings from Austin Rover, Peugeot and Audi, the Delta S4 didn’t even look like the Delta except for a hatchback type style body.

The Delta S4 was a beautiful brute in WRC. In its 12 races it won 5 of them. It could have gone on to do better if it was one little problem that it had. The Delta came with fatalities. In group B rallying it was a weapon of the road. A 4 wheeled killer claiming the lives of 29 year old Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto. Ironically a year to the day that Attilio Bettega died at the wheel of a Lancia 037. The writing was on the wall for Group B and the Delta S4.

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1987 started as a quiet year for Lancia. Numb from the latest fatalities they entered the Delta HF 4WD in the new standard Group A WRC. Lancia were the best equipped for rallying at the time. Over the 13 races that year the Delta won 9 of them. Not a bad start to a new chapter in world rally dominance. 1988 was even better with 10 out of 11 races being won with a Delta. However something hot was just around the corner for 1988. The Delta Integrale 8v saw Lancia engineers perform magic. The Delta HF 4WD had its fair share of problems and to combat these the Integrale sported bulging wheel arches allowing for bigger wheels and brakes to be used thus making the car even better on tarmac. As a road car it was only available in left hand drive form and would remain so until its demise.

The Delta was once again an unstoppable force and dominated the WRC until it started to see challenges from Toyota and Mitsubishi. So the engineers upped their game and launched the Delta Integrale 16v. To mark the occasion it was painted red with Martini stripes. By the second to last rally, Lancia had every award and trophy going so decided to party into 1990 by not partaking the last race of 89. However 1989 was not without a fatality for Lancia. Though not connected with the Lancia Martini team, the Delta cost the lives of Lars-Erik Torph and Bertil-Rune Rehnfeldt when Alex Fiorio lost control of his Delta at 90mph and ended up down an embankment.

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Between 1990 and 92 the Delta continued to be a dominating force but the writing was on the wall despite half the rallies won by a Lancia and again Lancia collecting a lot of trophies for their bulging cabinets. 1993 saw the Delta, no longer in Martini colours, take not one victory. A sad end to a car that gave 46 rally wins to Lancia in a just a few years.

The Delta Integrale continued as a left hand drive only road going car for another 6 years until its total demise in 1999. This was some 5 years after the original Delta hatchback had ended production. After 13 years in production, 1993 saw a new Delta being produced on the Fiat Tipo platform. You could be forgiven for thinking that you have never seen a new Delta before because in 1992 Lancia pulled out of the UK market. A day l remember well.

And so in 1999 the Delta story ended. It restarted in again in 2008 to 2014 when Lancia resurrected the name for the trilogy. These were then effectively badged as Chrysler Delta’s in the UK and I’ve not really got a good word to say about them. They cannot be unseen once you have seen them.

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And so the Delta story finally ends. From a little car with a big job on its hands to an all conquering race winner, the humble Delta became the greatest car of all time. At one stage you could get a Delta with a 1300cc or 2000cc engine and fuelled by petrol or diesel. Power outputs ranged from 75bhp to 500bhp. From 1983 to 1990 you could also get it in a 4 door saloon style called the Prisma. It offered 5 seat comfort and hatchback practicalities while also offering super car performance. Name me another car that can match those credentials?

There are many who still hold a passion for Lancia. Davide Cironi from Drive Experience on youtube who is one such man. Check out his homage to the Delta in over 16 minuets of pure glory below (also check out his other videos. The Lancia Theme 8.32 in particular).

Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli commissioned a one off 2 door convertible Delta Integrale for himself. You could take it into a multi-storey carpark, load it up with flat pack furniture and annihilate almost anything at the traffic light grand prix. Now I’d like to see you try and do that with your Lamborghini Gallardo!

The Lancia Delta. The best car in the world!