Lancia – Not fade away

Is there a future for Lancia in the current automotive landscape? Maybe not. But I truly, madly, deeply hope there is.

Sergio Marchionne died less than a month ago. He was CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for 14 years and, the experts say, saved Fiat from oblivion, then saved Chrysler from oblivion. Marchionne was a financial wizard, but he wasn’t a car guy to the core. It took him years to understand a lot of people love the history of brands and that they think about it when shopping for a new car. Otherwise, Alfa Romeo would surely be gone.

After rescuing the Fiat Group as a whole, the Fiat brand with the 21st century 500, Marchionne gave Alfa Romeo and Maserati a new lease of life with fresh, interesting cars. Ferrari, he needn’t worry, was and still is printing money. There was only one name on the Fiat empire Marchionne thought best left to rot in the corner: Lancia. So my question is: now that he is, sadly of course, gone, does Lancia stand a chance of a revival?

If you are a regular reader of this newspaper, you probably already gathered I am obsessed with Ferrari. However, although my passion for cars comes from a deep love for Maranello’s finest, the first specific model I can remember dreaming of is the Lancia Delta Integrale. The Delta was the dominant force in the World Rally Championship and seeing them thrown around by the best drivers of the time made quite an impression on a five-year-old.

When the Delta was born in 1979, however, it was as far removed from a rally champion as a Lancia could be. It was a simple, small family hatchback built to rival the original Volkswagen Golf.

Lancia had been making history on the rally stage for a while then. Victorious with the Fulvia in 1974 and with the Stratos in 1975 and 1976, it also became the last manufacturer to have won the rally world title with a car with only one driven axle; that was the magnificent Group B 037 and the year was 1983.

Competition got so fierce Lancia designed what is probably the most advanced rally car ever, the 1985 Delta S4. A Delta only in name, the S4 had a rear mid-engined four-cylinder engine pushing out 600 horse power to all four wheels. It was supercharged and turbocharged and it did the 0-100km/h sprint in 2.5 seconds. On gravel. In 1986.

The S4 won 1985’s last event, the RAC Rally, straight out of the box with Henri Toivonen at the wheel. The flying Finn also won 1986’s inaugural rally, at Monte Carlo, but he and co-driver Sergio Cresto died four months later in a fiery crash at the Corsica Rally. Within a few hours, FIA officially put an end to the Group B era and informed the teams that, for 1987, Group A would become the top rally category. One manufacturer had just the right car for it.

As if it knew what was coming, Lancia had launched the Delta HF 4WD in April 1986 and it duly homologated it for racing the next year. On many documentaries I have seen about rallying over the years, it’s common to see drivers of the time saying that on the Sunday the 1986 World Championship ended, they were driving 600 horse power crazy machines, whereas the next Monday, testing for the 1987 season, they had these small, slow, 300 horse power cars you could drive with your eyes closed.

And so it began a development war between constructors to make Group A cars go faster and faster, until they eventually became so advanced they were beating Group B car results on the same stages.

The thing is, for the first six years of Group A, the Lancia Delta didn’t give anybody else a fighting chance. On its various iterations – from the HF 4WD to the 8V Integrale, the 16V Integrale and the Evo – the Delta became the most successful rally car of all time and a true automotive icon, both as a racer and a road car.

I decided to dream with my eyes open and bought one in 2009. My first collector’s car. A 215-horse power, rally-bred yellow Integrale Evo II, the last variant of the model, built from 1993 to 1994, a decade-and-a-half after the Delta first made its appearance. It still amazes me how much you can love a bunch of nuts and bolts wrapped on a yellow suit almost a decade on, but I do, I love this car.

Sadly, it was the last Lancia that made small boys dream and grown-ups look like children when they see one go by.

Nowadays Lancia sells only the Y city car and only in Italy. There are no known plans to revive this once great name when that car reaches the end of its lifecycle. Is there a way to make Lancia financially viable again? I sincerely hope so. Imagine the news of a new Delta Integrale. A racing programme. Those gorgeous Martini stripes all over fast, noisy, spectacularly sideways Lancias again.

Lancia deserves not to fade away. And we deserve to see it live again.

By Guilherme Marques

Photos FCA Automobiles/Aníbal Marques