Reader dream drive: Lancia Delta Integrale

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by Ben Field |

Classic Cars reader Brian Ward told us his top ten classic must-drives. We gave him the keys to one of them – a Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione

he village garage has a neat row of modern Fiats on its forecourt. But behind this lurk some very different animals. The low, muscular Lancia Delta Integrales appear restless in the showroom. They look ready to pounce through the window, take chunks out of the Fiats and plunge into the surrounding countryside on a reign of terror.

My nose is pressed to the glass. I’m captivated by the lines and sheer charisma of these rally-bred beasts. I’m not alone. Two Fiats down is a man adopting the same pose. His name is Brian Ward, Classic Cars’ reader and sender of a List rich with performance cars. Today, one of the cars behind the glass is Brian’s to use and the surrounding North Yorkshire Moors will be his playground.

The glass on intimate terms with our noses belongs to Walkers Garage, Integrale Central for more than 25 years. These days, proprietor Steve Smith balances a busy Fiat dealership with sales, service and upgrades of their more hardcore Italian brethren.

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Steve has lined us up one of the very last Integrale Evo IIs, a 1994 Dealer Collection model in Pearlescent Candy Red. ‘It looks sensational. I particularly like the line over the boxy wing and raised bonnet – motor sport heritage just seeps out of it,’ says Brian.

The Evo exits Walkers Garage with less drama than I had imagined. There’s no pouncing or plunging, and the assembled Fiats remain intact. That’s because it’s being driven out by Steve, who has spent more time in (and under) Integrales than most.

The exhaust is a quiet hum, the engine note barely audible at these low speeds, but the wild styling of the Integrale, accentuated by its eye-boggling colour, starts building the excitement. Brian climbs in, lets the left-hand Recaro envelop him, grasps the thick Momo steering wheel and takes in the rest of the interior. ‘Modern cars feel more and more like you’re sitting in a post box and peering out through the slot,’ says Brian. ‘The Integrale has such a large glass area in comparison. It feels bright and airy in here, and there are no thick pillars to create blind spots. It seems even smaller than it does from the outside – you can’t see all the bulges.’

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We trickle away from the garage, Brian getting a feel for the Evo’s controls, gently bringing the engine up to temperature. The Evo gets a good slurp of super unleaded at Busby Stoop filling station. The tiny, dash-mounted starter button re-fires the engine and Brian points the boxy bonnet towards the moors. With the engine warm, he exercises the Evo’s throttle for the first time. ‘It pulls incredibly well,’ he says. ‘On paper 215bhp doesn’t seem like much these days, but the Integrale is so much lighter than modern cars with similar power outputs. It’s an easy car to drive fast, like an Impreza in that sense, but the Evo feels so much more alive than the Subaru.

‘The ride quality is superb,’ Brian exclaims as we roll the bright red Integrale through Thirsk, North Yorkshire’s pothole capital.

‘On these rough British roads, you feel the suspension will never run out of travel, no matter what surface you encounter.’ He’s right – the Evo feels like it’s riding on a different road altogether.

Coxwold marks our entry point to the moors. In minutes, we’re in a series of bends past Byland Abbey, an ethereal sight in the morning mist. ‘Having 205-section tyres sounds really narrow these days,’ says Brian, ‘but in the Evo this translates into a predictability on the road. Once well used to this car, you could really enjoy a little controllable oversteer through sweeping bends like these. Corners, after all, are one of the last bastions of driving fun.’

Purple heather bisected by swooping tarmac, and about three cars an hour. On a weekday the moorland above Helmsley is a driver’s dream. We pull in to a layby for a break. ‘I like the way the cooling fan pumps back the sweet smell of the hot engine,’ he says dreamily.

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While Brian comes round from the near hallucinatory effects of the Evo’s scent, we swap seats. Through the Momo wheel six dials face me, the speedo and rev counter both writ large on opposite sides of the facia. The revs go clockwise like a regular counter, but zero is over at the three o’clock position with 3000rpm in the six

o’clock spot, right in front of your eyes. It’s as if the rev counter is saying this is where the fun starts. It doesn’t lie – by the time the needle hits 3000rpm the Evo’s engine is in the thick of its power band. The exhaust note, so subdued at idle, develops a satisfying rasp and the car just takes off. Acceleration in a lightweight four-wheel-drive car like this is so different from the host of similarly powered hot hatches that proliferate now. Powerful front-wheel drive cars still get all torque-steery when you ask them to put their power down quickly from a standstill. But the near 47:53 torque split in the Evo keeps the car straight under hard acceleration.

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Short throws of the gearlever through the close-ratio gearbox keep the engine in the sweet spot between 3000rpm and 5000rpm. The engine will rev higher, but on the road there’s no need.

It is very easy to maintain high speeds in an Integrale. Grip in corners is so strong that as long as you can see the exit point, dramatic deceleration isn’t necessary ­– the car will hang on tight and see you through. Steering is reassuringly weighty. It is power-assisted, but only just enough to help at parking speeds. Out on the road, it’s just you, the steering wheel and a quick rack. Hallelujah.

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Rally car suspension is so much better suited to fast driving in the UK than the overly stiff, ultra-low stances shared by most cars coming under the common banner of ‘performance’. Give these tarmac tasters a racetrack and they’ll be just fine. But on the mish-mash of surfaces that you’ll find on a 100-mile cross-country sprint, the long-travel, well-damped suspension of an Integrale is always going to make for faster progress. In return for its smooth ride, the Evo expects smoothness at the controls. The short wheelbase makes it frisky under hard braking, while rough inputs at the steering wheel will quickly upset its otherwise immaculate poise. It may be easy to drive fast, but the Integrale still demands respect.

Ears pop as we descend from Blakey Ridge. Brian points the Integrale down one of the minor valley roads that will bring us eventually east and back towards Thirsk. This is rally country: hairpin bends, sharp climbs and steep drops, fords, grass and gravel.

Stone walls hem the car in either side; lucky it’s nowhere near as wide as those arches would have you believe. Brian reflects on his time with the Integrale while a herd of sheep interrupt this special-stage fantasy. ‘When you see an Integrale prowling the road, all that latent aggression, scoops and spoilers, you expect the car to be a fire-breathing monster. In standard form it isn’t – I could spend all day at the wheel without feeling the worse for wear. You can go fast when you want, but the Evo doesn’t punish pootling, either. I think I’d change the exhaust for something with a little more growl and I’d fix that adjustable roof spoiler in the fully upright position – just like the rally cars – and to hell with the extra drag!’

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Back at Walkers Garage, Steve Smith greets us. He’s climbing out of his overalls, a smudge of oil on his nose. ‘Did you have a good day, lads?’ he asks, as if we’ve been out at the park, returning home tired and euphoric after a day’s play. Come to think of it, that’s not so far from the truth.

This feature was originally published in 2014 as part of our long-running series The List, in which we put a Classic Cars reader behind the wheel of one of the cars in their top 10 list for the day. Find the latest instalment in the current issue__.

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