Some drives are undoubtedly more memorable than others, and last summer I had the best drive of my life. It was the penultimate year of my degree and I’d spent a year abroad in Austria “studying” law at Innsbruck University. Pay attention to the inverted commas as most of the year was spent skiing and developing a taste for German and Austrian beer. I had my Lancia Delta Integrale Evo II with me, a rather generous gift from my father who had owned it for the previous 10 years.
It’s safe to say that a good car event is all about the location and the quality of stock on display. The organisers of the Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza are well aware of this. Held in the peaceful gardens of the Villa d’Este and set against the gentle backdrop of beautiful Lake Como and the surrounding mountains, this has become Europe’s premier concours for both the setting and the vehicles it attracts.
It turns out Innsbruck is not too far from Lake Como, so I booked a hotel and fired up the ‘Grale. The concours and the accompanying RM Sotheby’s auction were spectacular events but the drive back was something I will never forget.
There are two routes back to Innsbruck from Lake Como, the boring way back east towards Milan then north into Austria all along Autostrade and Autobahn, or there is the fun way, north along the emerald lake and then into Switzerland over twisty mountain passes, through St Moritz before eventually crossing into Austria; this was the kind of journey I had brought the Lancia Delta to the Alps for. Up to now, the journeys had been boring motorway slogs that barely tested the capabilities of this World Rally legend. Years of reading ‘Evo’ road tests accompanied by unbelievable photography and watching cinematic masterpieces on YouTube had left me itching to drive some twisty mountain passes. I set off from Cernobbio with the hope of making it back in time for a late-night Schnitzel.
The first section of road along the lake was slow. The single-track road with a solid white line offers no opportunities for overtaking and so you are stuck at the pace of the slowest moped ahead. In any other setting this would be galling but with a view of the lake it is hard to be annoyed or in a rush to go anywhere. The Integrale, however, was not so happy doing 20mph in 35-degree sunshine and the refreshing cool of the intermittent tunnels along the lakefront offered some much-needed respite for both the car and driver.
Most people know the story of this car but it is worth repeating to underline the hero status of the Integrale. The Delta Integrale traces its roots back to the 70s Delta hatchback designed by Guigario to compete with the VW Golf. If there were such a thing as a “cold hatch” this would be it – it was not until the HF Turbo came along in the early 80s that the Lancia Delta heated up.
At the time Lancia was competing in Group B rally with 037s before the Quattro forced manufacturers to 4-wheel drive prompting Lancia to develop the monstrous Delta S4 for the 1985 and ’86 seasons. When Group B was banned following the deaths of Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresta at the Tour de Corse in ’86, Lancia turned to their little Delta HF Turbo hatchback to go rallying in Group A, and so the Lancia Delta Integrale was born. Lancia had taken all they had learned from the S4 and put the same 40-60 4WD system into the little hatchback. With Juha Kankkunen and Markku Alén at the wheel the Delta Integrale dominated the 1987 season winning 7 of the 11 rounds. The car then won the next 6 WRC championships on the trot up to 1992.
Continuing my climb into the mountains began soon after reaching the northernmost tip of the lake. By now impatience had begun to set in, as I found myself several cars behind a Belgian caravan that was creeping up the hairpins of the Passo di Maloja into Switzerland. With no speed to create good airflow into the ‘Grale’s 6 radiators the temperature gauge was well into the red and everything smelled very, very hot. 1990s Lancias are not exactly known for their reliability and I feared being stranded perched on a mountain holding up the single file traffic snaking down behind me. The summit and some flat straights couldn’t come soon enough and when the first sight of some clear road appeared I spooled up the turbo and exploded past the Belgian caravan with clear road towards St Moritz.
Turbo lag is an issue with Integrales, as it is with any 80s/90s turbo cars but the power comes in a rush at the top end that is exciting and addictive and is a real feature of the car. Shortly before I left the UK, Walkers Lancia had done a fantastic job to get it into top mechanical condition and the car pulls really strongly. The dyno tests following a thorough service had confirmed it was putting out the full 220bhp from factory and the geometry was perfectly set up, the alignment of these cars is delicate and needs frequent checking.
Now in St. Moritz and back to village speeds along the lakefront I had some time to really admire the surroundings. The chairlifts, packed during the winter sit idle and forlorn on the bright green mountain pasture. The evening sun reflected back off the snow still covering the highest peaks.
Coming out of St. Moritz the speed picked up and the road becomes twisty once again. Here, for the first time, I truly understand what this car is about. The 4-wheel drive system and the crazy wide track, (the reason for the flared arches) lets the car hang on through the fast sweeping bends. Being 4-wheel drive, the car is more likely to understeer if you demand too much of it rather than snap into a big rear-wheel slide but all it needs is a gentle lift off the throttle and the nose will tuck neatly back in to the corner. If you really push it, you can get some fun lift-off oversteer moments on the way into a corner but this is not the fastest way down the mountain. The car is much happier if you find an aggressive rhythm dropping a gear into the corner, heel and toe on the brakes, chuck it in to the bend and feel the tyres and suspension load up and mash the throttle early before the apex to get the turbo boosting up for full power onto the next straight.
Inside, the wing back Recaro seats hold you firmly in place as you pull what feels like some serious Gs. Much to my surprise, the seats were incredibly comfortable on the 17-hour journey from Oxfordshire to Tyrol. The cabin is dated and far from luxurious but this was never supposed to be a luxury car. If you own an Integrale you soon come to terms with the squeaks and rattles of the interior trim, it becomes part of the excitement whilst reminding you of the frailty of this 90s Italian sportscar. The lack of air-con in a jet-black cabin and 35-degree Swiss heat however was not the most enjoyable experience. The original leather Momo Corse steering wheel began to absorb the sweat caused by the heat and the adrenaline of the fast driving, the cracks in the leather remain in the wheel today and now serves to remind me of this fantastic 5-hour drive through the Alps in the summer evening sun.
Crossing into Austria, the roads opened up into the equivalent of fast British B roads and as the light began to fade and I settled down for the final hour back along the A12 into Innsbruck, just in time for a Schnitzel.
Words & Photographs by William Stoneham