The Lancia Delta Integrale has a sporting pedigree that its rivals could only dream of.
Launched in 1979, the original Lancia Delta marked the beginning of a change in fortunes for the Turin marque. On the face of it, you’d have been forgiven for dismissing the new model as nothing more than a run-of-the-mill family hatchback. It was so much more than that, though. The Delta was a generational quantum leap, both in its overall design and in its technical and aesthetic qualities.
Legendary designer Giorgetto Giugaro turned out a modern take on two-box design thinking, with a strongly geometrical shape in which trapezium forms figured heavily. This concept proved hugely advantageous in terms of compactness and habitability, offering impressive amounts of interior space in what wasn’t a particularly big car. With modern mechanicals, a classic front-drive/transverse engine set-up and all-round independent suspension, the Delta made a name for itself from the outset – so much so that it was crowned European Car of the Year in 1980.
Things got a whole lot more interesting in 1982, when a four-wheel drive prototype was exhibited at that year’s Turin Motor Show, followed by a limited run of 200 Delta S4 models in 1985. In 1986, the Delta HF 4WD production model hit the showrooms, proving an instant hit with performance-hungry buyers. Powered by a supercharged version of the 2-litre engine employed in the Lancia Thema, it pumped out 165bhp. With that kind of potential on tap, it was only a matter of time before the all-wheel drive Delta, or ‘integrali’, was to be used as a competition tool and, in 1987, the car began its period of dominance on the world rally scene.
It ran away with the World Constructors Championship six years in a row between 1987 and 1992, racking up 46 outright victories, before bowing out after the 1992 Rally Sanremo.
Unveiled in 1989, the Delta Integrale 16v was ‘just’ another step up the evolutionary ladder, boasting 200bhp against the previous peak of 185bhp. More than two decades later, its reputation as a legendary driving machine is assured. Time to find out why it’s so good.
Climbing inside the Delta, its potential to scare the pants off you isn’t immediately apparent.
For instance, the light and airy cabin is almost family-friendly in appearance. Even the optional Recaro seats don’t give things away. They are extremely comfortable, with an impressive range of adjustment, meaning you’re able to settle on just the right driving position.
But once you have settled behind the height adjustable steering wheel, your eyes are immediately drawn to the impressive array of analogue instruments in front of you, aggressive with black quadrants and yellow figures, with more than a whiff of the aeronautical about them. This is a car that suggests speed. After firing up the beast, the exhaust note isn’t particularly invasive, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. This definitely isn’t the school run machine it first appears.
The Delta engine’s exuberant power output means that even without particularly remarkable aerodynamics, a top speed in excess of 130mph is achievable, though not on the public highway of course. The 2-litre turbo lump offers great hunks of torque as low down as 2000rpm, with plenty of positive response even when the turbo hasn’t fully spooled up, which doesn’t take long. Plant your foot in second gear, wait half a second, then bang! You’re instantly pinned back into your seat, an intuitive sensation that only increases as you find your way up through the close ratio gearbox, with genuinely thrilling performance all the way up to the redline.
Impressive as the Delta’s mechanicals are, the quality of its chassis is what really makes you sit up and take notice. The ride is necessarily firm, but not uncomfortably so, while the steering is never less than precise and offers exceptional control over wheel reaction. The presence of a Torsen self-locking differential means the rear wheels can fully exploit the share of torque they receive from the central torque-splitting differential, while the torque destined for the front wheels allows for spine-tingling acceleration without excessive oversteer.
The Delta has margins of control that result in an awe-inspiring driving experience, in a way that make it easily accessible to almost any motorist. This alone probably goes towards explaining its continued reputation amongst marque aficionados – it really is a thoroughbred racer which can just as easily be used on a daily basis.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Despite Lancia's unenviable reputation for corrosion, the Delta was never too badly afflicted by rust, while the Integrale's many add-on trim bits seemed to help prevent, rather than cause decay. There are a few vulnerable areas, notably the screen surround, trailing edges of the sills, front scuttle and bottom edges of the doors, tailgates, and the rear edge of the roof, where water can sometimes get trapped in the door shut. Also, check the door shuts for cracks in the body, especially on tuned, stiffened cars.
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Handling is key with an Integrale, and keeping one sweet can sometimes be a challenge. Front suspension bushes tend to last about 40,000-50,000 miles, while those on the rear trailing arms wear out sooner - bank on replacement every 30,000 miles, or less due to age. On Evo and Evo II models the front anti-roll bar drop-links wear quickly - cover a high mileage and this will be an annual job as you'll hear them knocking against the floorpan. Front brake pads are extremely prone to wear, especially if driven hard. Expect to replace the, every 15,000 miles or so. The rear pads will last a bit longer, but if you're covering a decent mileage and enjoying the car, chances are you're looking at a complete brake overhaul every two years.
With the 4WD system, the condition of an Integrale's clutch and gearbox is critical. They eat clutch cables, but a heavy clutch, judder as it's released or slipping under power are all signs that the clutch is on its way out. Unless you're brave or foolhardy, you're looking at around £750 to get it fixed by a specialist - something to factor into the price bargaining if a car you're looking at is otherwise in good fettle. The 4WD system means the odd clunk from the transmission shouldn't be too much of a worry when changing gear, but any constant chafing or grinding noise spells more serious deterioration of the gearbox.
Turbo life is approximately 80-90,000 miles, though there are many cars that are still running round on the original ones with a higher mileage on the clock. Such cars will probably be down on power, as blade wear on the turbine can render the turbo very inefficient resulting in reduced power and increased fuel consumption. Fitting a replacement isn't as scary as it sounds and can be instantly gratifying in terms of the reward it brings.
Like most European cars of the era, regular cambelt changes are absolutely critical - in the Delta it's needed every 24,000 miles on 16v models or 36,000 on 8-valvers. Even by the standards of the day, that's a pretty short interval, but it's also one not to be ignored as a replacement belt is significantly cheaper than an engine rebuild. If you cover a low annual mileage, once every five years minimum should be sufficient. Integrale 16Vs are especially sensitive to oil level - let it get too low and the big end bearing will seize, snapping the crankshaft in the process.
INTERIOR & TRIM
Interior parts are extremely difficult to get hold of these days, as there are practically no ordinary Deltas left and very few Integrales at breakers yards - the good ones are all in preservation and most of the hard-driven and fragile ones have been broken and pillaged already. Wear to seat trim, which is fairly common, will need the attention of a specialist trimmer. Other bits of damaged, loose or distorted trim may be hard to replace without lengthy club and auction site searches.
Integrales are not for the faint-hearted. LHD only, flaky electronics and high running costs are all part of the experience, but live with those and you'd be hard pushed to find a car with the same level of grip and power delivery. An instant classic at launch, even more so now.
Engine 1995cc/4-cyl/DOHC turbo
Torque 232lb ft@2500rpm
Top speed 137mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual