If you were a rally fan during the late eighties, you could be forgiven for thinking you had become trapped in a motoring equivalent of Groundhog Day. Every time you switched on the television or slipped a videotape into the VCR, it seemed that - bar a change of scenery - you would always see the same little car winning. It was a boxy Italian hatchback at that, and you could have sworn it had been designed at some point during the end of the previous decade. And you'd be right. It was the Lancia Delta Integrale, a Giorgio Giugiaro-penned five-door that had arrived in 1979. And here it was, swatting away all-comers on the world's rally stages as if it were invincible, ultimately taking six world titles in as many years and becoming the most successful rally car of all time.
The road car, meanwhile, just got madder and badder as time went on too, with even early eight-valve versions blitzing 0-60mph in 6.4 seconds - and people called the Golf GTI a hot hatch. But obviously it wasn't all straight-line speed - the rally success proved that. The car's 2.0-litre 8V, and later 16V engine drove the wheels through a far more sophisticated four-wheel drive system than the Audi Quattro's. It consisted of a centrally mounted epicyclic torque converter and Ferguson viscous joint, with a Torsen-type rear differential. Its party trick, which had been tried and tested by car journos and salesmen a number of times, was that on a day when it was pouring with rain you could wind the engine up to maximum revs, drop the clutch, and experience no wheelspin at all, just immense forward thrust.
The Delta just worked, and sagely Lancia decided against binning it for a newer model, instead tweaking and building on its excellence, ultimately giving the car a 15-year shelf-life. The road car had started life as the eight-valve Delta HF 4WD with 150bhp then 165bhp. This became the 185bhp Integrale 8V ('88 to '89), of which 7475 were built, and then Lancia created the 16V version ('89 to '91) which pushed out 200bhp. Then came the Evo ('91 to '94) which had a healthy 210bhp. Interestingly, despite its humble beginnings, left-hand drive only layout, and the fact that Lancia left these shores a long time ago, the Integrale is now as Exotic and desirable as some second-hand Ferraris.
I've seen quite a few Integrales but I never grow tired of watching one coming down the road, the blistered wheel arches giving it a road presence and rally refugee look matched by few. Today is a good day because when I turn up at top Integrale specialist Richard Thorne Classic Cars (www.rtcc.co.uk
) near Reading, there are three Evos sitting in the courtyard of these beautiful premises. There are Morgans and other exotica everywhere but the 'Grales really stand out. At first you think the riot of angles, shapes and surfaces on these cars is purely function over form, but they are so handsome I can't help thinking the designers threw in some flair for good measure.
Thorne knows everything about Lancias, having been responsible for bringing the first one into the UK when he owned Lancia main dealer Mike Spence Ltd in Reading. He tells me that the original set-up is so sweet that there is no point messing around or modifying them. The model I am going to drive today is a 1992 80,000-mile Evolution 1, which is a rare UK car. With white wheels this car shouldn't look just right, but it does. Special stage ready minus the sponsor's stickers.
Sink into the leather seat and the car feels very wide, which should be interesting on country roads with LHD. There's that odd ape-like driving position that actually doesn't feel at all uncomfortable, just different. On the move, you notice that the Integrale has one of the more characterful-sounding four-pots. It growls while the turbo whooshes and chirrups away, and at sane revs at least it doesn't sound at all rough. This car feels quick too, even by today's standards, and as you pile on speed over bumpy B-roads the car feels poised and incredibly stable. It is extraordinary.
The ride is not soft by any means but the Integrale just accelerates, brakes, and turns impeccably, unfazed by undulations and 100 per cent focused on getting you down the road as quickly and with as little fuss as possible. Even newer performance cars would become unsettled and flustered where this 16-year-old Lancia feels absolutely spot-on. It turns in with razor-sharp precision and there is so much grip and steering feel that you simply feed in more power and blast off down the road in search of another bend.
It feels extremely quick but fuss-free and when you come across a village, pottering along at low speeds is equally straightforward. The brakes are awesome too, hauling speed off the car efficiently. The gearchange is a little spongy but finding a ratio causes no drama and you barely notice it. There is a severe lack of compromises in this car. It is so easy to drive quickly and it feels rock-steady, covering miles at a rate that, quite frankly, it shouldn't be able to. No drama, no fuss, just lots of fun. It just seems so simple, but the reality is you have to be very very clever to be this good.