When Lancia Ruled the (Rally) World

That part of the world that doesn’t obsess over all things automotive only knows one thing about Lancia, that is if they have even heard of the manufacturer itself.  For those non-car enthusiasts who have heard of the Italian marque, when the word Lancia is uttered, the one thing that comes to mind is rust.

But before the corrosion problems that brought Lancia to its knees with its Beta car, Lancia was on top of the world, er, the rally world, I should say.  Not only did the company make some of the most attractive cars in motorsport history, the Stratos being regarded by some as being the best looking rally car of all time, but the marque found great success on the tight, unforgiving roads with people posing as barriers.

So, with that being said, I thought it best to briefly delve into some of the history of the great Italian marque, and reminisce on the cars that made the company’s success.

In total, Lancia has rounded up ten trophies for the World Rally Championship for Manufacturers and six titles for the World Championship for Drivers.  However, before the WRC rally scene was formed, Lancia took the championship in the 1972 edition of the International Championship for Manufacturers with the small, but eager Fulvia.

Lancia Fulvia

If someone told you to shut your eyes, said ‘Lancia Fulvia,’ and told you to describe what you were seeing, you’d probably imagine yourself clutching a thick-rimmed two-spoke steering wheel flicking the car around tight corners on a lonely road in the middle of a forest.  You would probably envision fearless rally fans scattered throughout the stage, standing mere inches from sheet metal moving in excess of seventy miles per hour.

The car you would imagine yourself piloting would be the Fulvia Series One 1.6 HF, the car designed to rid the quiet forest of its silence and instead replace it with a wheezing exhaust note and rocks being spat out from under the car.

The Series  One 1.6 HF saw very discreet changes to improve the car’s performance ability: the tires were slightly widened, the wheelarches were extended giving the car a more masculine appearance, and the ride height was lowered.  Small changes that ultimately turned the 1.6 HF into a no-nonsense machine.

Powering the machine was an acute 1,584 cc V4 engine that drove the front wheels through a five-speed transmission, the first five-speed to be used on a Fulvia.  In more ways than one, this car was a ‘last of its kind’ sort of car.  Non only did this car win the last championship to be offered by the International Championship for Manufacturers, it was also the one of the last FWD rally cars to grace the rally scene before the curtain dropped on the breed, granting FWD cars obsolete.  And after cars like the Saab 96 and the Austin Mini, that’s certainly something to be proud about.

The 1.6-liter engine, which, if you have not already noticed is the influence behind the title 1.6 HF, screams to a high 7800 rpm redline, certainly enough to tell the excited rally fans that you are on your way.  And while today 158 horsepower doesn’t mean much, on a narrow rally stage that was certainly enough to rocket the works rally-spec Fulvia to victory.  Standard road-going 1.6 Fulvias produced a friendly 115 horsepower.

While this car may not look it, this car dominated the rally scene in its day.  Collecting wins here, there, and everywhere, the Fulvia not only saw a Manufacturers’ Championship trophy, but it also delivered new additions to the trophy shelf for harry Kallstorm in 1969 and Sandro Munari in 1973.  A storied history would be an understatement when speaking of this little car.

Lancia Stratos

When most people think of a rally car, they think of a berserk hatchback with enough changes to the body that it still resembles the road-going version yet it can also make a Transformer’s legs tremble.  However when Nuccio Bertone’s final wedge-shape masterpiece was given the go sign on its first rally stage, it was clear that Lancia had decided that hatchbacks just weren’t going to be able to get the job done in the rally world.

Honestly, I think this car has the most beautiful shape in rally history.  The Stratos takes the shape of Italian supercars of the 1970s and pairs it with the necessary features of function in order to be successful in the rally world.  And successful it was, as the Stratos went on to win (bear with me now) eighteen WRC rallies, the 1974 Targa Florio, the 1973 Tour de France, the 1974, 1975, and 1976 rally championships, and the Monte Carlo Rally in 1975, 1976, and 1977.  And that’s just to name a few.

Driving the rear wheels through a ZF five-speed manual gearbox was a 2.4-liter Ferrari V6 engine.  With Lancia’s rally experience coupled with Ferrari power, how could those wins not be expected?  The V6 breathed through three Weber carburetors, allowing the engine to punch out a respectable 280 horsepower at a high 7800 rpm.  The Stratos had an incurable addiction to revving.  Meanwhile, 203 lb-ft of torque ensured that the car could make it up any hills that the Stratos could encounter on a stage.  In 1984, racing circuits also saw a turbocharged version of the Stratos which produced a hefty 350 horsepower, while Group 5 racers could make a scary 480 horsepower.  But this story is about rally cars, not circuit racers.

However the real circuit to success was not the powerful Ferrari-supplied engine, it was the compact design.  The wheelbase?  A mere 85.8 inches.  The length?  A short 146.1 inches.  Certainly short enough to to squeeze its way through the tight corners of the world’s rally stages.

A Lancia Stratos is like no other car in history.  Being the first car to be built from nothing strictly for rallying, Lancia put the competition car first and worried about the homologated versions later.  And that makes this car extraordinarily special, that started a new trend of rally car design that lasted throughout the Group B age but seemed to die off after the abolishment of Group B and the turn of the century.  Nevertheless, this car was absolutely epic.

Lancia 037

Group B.  The sole thing that proves that danger equals exciting motorsport, as controversial as that may sound.  The quick whistle as air rushed through the turbo system ricocheting off the trees, crowds gathered so close to the track that drivers swore they were mad, insanely powerful cars soaring so high off of jumps that birds got jealous.  This was Group B, the 1980s era of motorsport that the Lancia 037 was born in to.

While not as sleek and sexy as the Stratos, the 037 was designed to win, just as the Stratos.  This new collection of rally cars, titled Group B, allowed the manufacturers to build only 200 road-going cars, enabling the manufacturers to focus more on the rally car and less on the road car.  Sound similar to something else?  I think so.  Therefore, the 037 race car was astonishingly close to the car that could be bought for a pretty hefty price.  Pininfarina was responsible for the design of the car, still throwing in a sense of style in the shape of the 037.

Lancia decided to ditch the V6 power plant that drove the Stratos to its numerous victories, and instead dropped a 2.0-liter supercharged I4 engine driving the rear wheels in the middle of the first cars.  Keeping in tradition to high-revving, wailing engines the 037 punched out 255 to 280 horsepower at 8,000 rpm for the first generation of 037s.  The second generation of the car produced anywhere from 310 horsepower to 325 horsepower, while the final version of the 037 saw a power hike to 350 horsepower thanks to a cooling system using the injector volume.  In short, the 037 was never short on power.

To help get more out of the straight-four engine, Lancia decided to use a supercharger instead of natural aspiration.  Realizing that turbo lag will get you nowhere on a rally stage, Lancia opted for the supercharger in place of a turbocharger in order to eliminate turbo lag and improve the car’s throttle response.

Unfortunately, even with all this power under the car, the 037 was not as successful as Lancia and its supporters would have hoped.  The 037 only saw six wins in the WRC, although the car did see victory at the Monte Carlo Rally and the Acropolis Rally.  The car was in Group B, remember?  Competing against the likes of Audi’s insane S1 quattro, there’s a good reason why this car didn’t dominate like its predecessor, the Stratos, did.  037 fans and aficionados can, however, brag that they at least won the big ones.

Lancia Delta S4

Although the 037 was well below many’s expectations and desires, Lancia had some things going on behind the curtain that they felt could bring back that dominance they had experienced with the Fulvia and Stratos.  So when the 037’s days were done, the Delta S4 stepped on to the scene and took its place as Lancia’s Group B racer.

In comparison to the styling of the other Lancia rally cars, this car is well, to put it nicely, a bit of an ugly duckling.  It’s not completely hideous, but it’s certainly not beautiful.  However, it does have quite the ‘I mean business’ look about it.

However, when this car was designed good looks was not a thing of priority.  Winning was the goal, and this car certainly had what it takes from an engineering standpoint.  While the S1 quattro is known as the car that revolutionized rallying with its successful use of all-wheel drive and whatnot, the Delta S4 used AWD as well, just without the successful bit.

Don’t blame the lack of success on the car, drivers, or team, however, as fate is the reason why this car didn’t realize its full potential.  The car won its first Group B outing and from then on dominated the rally scene.  It was not to last, unfortunately, as on a clear day in 1986 at the Corsica Rally, Henri Toivenen, the man who drove the S4 to victory in its debut race, and his navigator Sergio Cresto barrelled down a mountainside in the thick woods below, causing the car to erupt in to flames.  The two men burned to death.

After the horrifying incident, Group B began to be questioned on whether or not it should continue.  And after more drivers and spectators were killed by the exciting but dangerous cars, Group B was banned altogether.  The Delta S4 cemented its spot as the biggest ‘coulda-woulda-shoulda’ of motorsport history.

Driving all four wheels of the S4 was a 1.8-liter I4 engine that, get this, was both supercharged and turbocharged.  The reason behind this was to decrease the low-rev turbo lag  common with turbo chargers and to increase the power in the high-rev range.   The engine was electronically fuel injected and, as a result of all these ingredients, made 480 horsepower at 8,400 rpm and 361 lb-ft of torque 5,000 rpm.

That kind of power on a twisty, unpredictable road that the car’s width is nearly too great for seems like it would be impossible to control the car.  But yet, the drivers were able to flick these astonishingly powerful machines through a dense forest that caused them to realize that they were, in fact, claustrophobic.  Certainly not for the feint of heart.

While forgotten by some, and unheard of by others, Lancia is the reason behind some of the coolest cars of history.  But there have been no other Lancias with a higher cool factor than those that sprinted through dense forests and forgotten roads.  These cars created a godly image of those that dared sit behind the steering wheel and drive these cars beyond the limits.

Today Lancia may have the image of a defunct auto manufacturer, the image of rusting cars, but to enthusiasts, Lancia is the most successful rally manufacturer of existence.  The creator of the most dominant and machines of rally history.  Sure, the Audis were better and faster than Lancia’s Group B cars, but they didn’t have the same character as the Lancias, and certainly not for as long.  What can be said of Lancia in the rally world?  Who says performance can’t be attractive?

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