Reader Submissions: Driving My Dream Car Duo: The Lancia Delta Integrale Evo And BMW E30 M3

Driving My Dream Car Duo: The Lancia Delta Integrale Evo And BMW E30 M3

Petrolicious Productions By Petrolicious Productions
September 29, 2017
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Story by William Guillouard
Photography by Kyle Sheridan

Some people say you should never meet your hero, but what about two at once? The cynic will say you’ll find twice the disappointment in such a scenario, so I must be crazy to have gone a step further and purchased two of my dream cars.

A car guy born in France as part of the so-called Generation X, the cars I longed for were products of the times I lived in. My poster cars were shared with plenty of others in the early 1990s, but the Ferrari F40, Porsche 959, and the lasting impressions of the Countach were more or less destined to be hung on my walls rather than parked in my garage. They captivated me and my contemporaries with their speed and sound and style, but they only lived in our imaginations, for unless your family was involved in oil, capital markets, or drugs (legal and otherwise!), these cars were simply too expensive.

Those were the kings of the supercars, but in terms of the motorsport I grew up with, Formula 1 was by far the most popular. Again though, it was something we admired from afar, as there were no practical ways to interact with these cars aside from watching them—there was nothing even semi-comparable that you could drive on the road. Which brings us to the other discipline that we loved: WRC, the World Rally Championship.

A bit earlier, in the mid-‘80s, Group B was the end-all be-all of hectic competition, and it represented a surge of technological advancement that characterized the top forms of racing in the decade. It was the time of flame-spitting Audi Quattros going airborne one weekend and turbocharged F1 cars wringing out absorb power from their small-cc engines the next. It was a new period of motorsport, and one that was fraught with tragedy along with the engineering progress. In the world of rallying, this came to a head in 1986 at the Tour de Corse when Toivonen and Cresto perished after an unfortunate accident in their Lancia S4.

That signaled the end of Group B for the following season, and it was replaced with the tamer but still quite quick Group A. Lancia again showed its dominance in this new classification with the Delta Integrale HF, which was much closer to its road car form than the almost wholly bespoke S4 that it replaced. These new cars were slower than their predecessors, but they offered a relatability factor their wilder brethren could not. They looked like cars you could buy and drive on public streets, and their homologation versions were very desirable. My favorite was the Evoluzione I version of the Delta Integrale (the final homologation version of the Delta, as the following Evo II was never campaigned by the factory in racing), for what’s not to love about a turbocharged 2-liter with 16 valves and four-wheel drive and 210 horsepower? It was technologically exciting then, but it also looked the business. The blockish, brutish, angry bulldog look is a paragon of 1980s design, and I never tire of looking at the aggressive box-flare fenders and purposeful twin headlights perched astride the no-nonsense front grille adorned with the HF elephant logo. Aside from its steroidal form and the adjustable factory-mounted rear wing, my favorite piece of the exterior might be something as mundane as the turn signals. It was common for Italians and manufacturers elsewhere to borrow parts from the bin when constructing their homologation sports cars, and Lancia borrowed the turn signals from the legendary Ferrari F40. 

But any millennial with a passing interest in historic motorsport can tell you that (well maybe not the bit about the Ferrari blinkers!), and if you go into the details the car only becomes more interesting.

How does a Lancia engineer get more air into the cramped engine bay? Why not replace the solid headlight frames with mesh surrounds instead? And another question, how many other cars do you know of that have radiators for cooling the steering fluid? These details abound. For instance, for the first 200 of these cars built, there is a water reservoir mounted in the trunk behind the spare tire that is connected to…nothing. However, look closely and you’ll find some tubing and a spraying mechanism aimed at the front of the radiator. Why was it not functional in the street car? Well, Lancia was required to homologate this system for their rally cars, but no one at the FIA told them it had to actually work in the production versions!

There’s more. The dash is littered with gauges such that it resembles a plane cockpit rather than a car’s, and the tachometer needle travels counter clockwise, further alienating the experience from the norm. Also, both the speedometer and tachometer never go down to “0,” even when the car is at rest. It’s a fast car, and this little bit of symbolism is not lost on me! It would travel to 62mph in 5.7 seconds—though that is the factory figure that was never matched by journalists—which was decidedly quick for its contemporaries. A few comparisons for context: the Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9 did it in 8.2 seconds, the Porsche 944 2.7 in 8.1, the Camaro RS 5.0 in 8.1, the Mercedes 500E in 5.6, and the 964 C2 in 5.7 as well. Point being, it could keep up with a tier of performance cars that you’d never expect a hatchback to be a part of.

Of course, the fastest times in controlled conditions are not the only barometer of speed, and the all-wheel drive system proved the Lancia could be just as formidable regardless of conditions on the track, or whatever the track consisted of: tarmac, gravel, snow, whatever. 

The result of all this on the racing end of the Integrale’s lifespan? Between 1987 and 1992, the car won 46 rallies and six constructors championships outright, humiliating the competition and becoming by far the most dominant force in the new rallying regulations. In turn it became the dream car of any WRC fan from the period, including me.

So the Lancia was definitively a ’90s dream car of mine, but along with the charming mascot of Lancia HF (High Fidelity) on its grille badge, there was another elephant in the room, in my mental shrine of boxy dream cars from that decade, the first BMW M3.

While the Delta was decimating its rivals on the dirt and gravel, the M3 was on its way to becoming the world’s most successful touring car racer. Also like the Delta (at least the Integrale and other homologation models), the M3 was built to race first and as a road car second. BMW needed to make available at least 5,000 units to the public in order to compete in series like the DTM, and these cars were significantly modified in contrast to the regular version of the E30-generation 3-Series. The motorsport-focused M3 sported flared box arches, a wild rear wing, and even a more sharply raked rear window. In all, almost every body panel save for the doors, hood, and roof was changed for the M3. The powerplant also received a significant re-working, and the 2.3-liter inline-four was basically an M1 motor with two cylinders lopped off, AKA a very high-performance mill. Called the S14, the motor in street guise made anywhere from around 190 to almost 240 horsepower depending on the trim level (the car would go through two Evolution forms).

Unlike the Integrale though, they made plenty of M3s. By the end of its production around 17,000 were built, so it’s not a rare car by the numbers, but considering how many were wrecked or turned into race cars (and then wrecked!), it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find clean unmolested examples. The ones that have survived though are joys to drive if you wring them out far enough into their rev ranges, and the European-spec cars especially so, what with their dogleg gearshift patterns and a 1:1 5th gear ratio, plus the boost in power from not having a catalytic converter.

Now that I’ve given a little background on these two cars and why I was attracted to them, I’ll do my best to answer the question of whether they live up to their hype. Though they have their similarities in regards to their geneses in racing, the two could really not be more different otherwise: turbocharged vs naturally aspirated, four doors vs two, 4WD vs RWD, Italian vs German, and their driving temperaments are also very unique from each other.

I’ll start where I left off, with the M3. The seating position first and foremost is excellent. You feel good just getting in. Yes, it’s an interior littered with black plastic and bulky buttons of its day, but it’s very ergonomic and intuitively laid out. Unless you need a heated massage (looking at you, S Class owners!), it’s a perfect place to sit and drive from.

Then you start it up. The idle is a bit irregular, sort of like the lumpiness of a V8 but in a four-cylinder guise and with its own unique noise. It feels like you’re in something designed for racing before you even move an inch, and then when you do start actually driving it, the first thing you’ll notice is the clutch action; it’s light, but still present, and it makes it simple to shift quickly and with confidence. The gear change moves through the pattern with some notchiness, but in a car like this I think that should be welcomed. It gives a sense of purpose.

Then you come to the first curves in the road. The steering is power-assisted, but it doesn’t feel artificial, and there’s a reason people have sung such high praises of this car’s roadholding abilities and its ability to communicate that to the driver. Here you turn the wheel and you really do feel like you’re controlling the whole car and not just giving inputs to a system you aren’t really much of a part of. It’s very undiluted. The suspension is perhaps softer than one might expect coming from a modern perspective, and at the ride is surprisingly comfortable for a car of this nature. The body will lean and rock through the corners, but it still never feels like its anywhere near what we might call wallowing. It’s still a nimble and agile thing.

OK time to do a little acceleration test. You floor the pedal, and… nothing happens. You watch the slow struggle of the needle as it passes 2,000RPM, 2,500, 3,000, 3,500. Okay, now things are changing, something is waking up. In the second half of the tach the S14 casts off inhibition and pulls eagerly to the 7,300RPM redline. To drive this car quickly requires the kind of sounds from the motor that usually mean “shift,” but once you get used to letting it wind up like it wants to, it’s a pleasure to stay in the power in the turns. Passing on the highway might require you to drop down two gears rather than one, but this is quickly thrown to the back of your mind when you have the car in its element, which is a winding road and driver willing to push.

So what is my opinion on the car overall? After reading/watching so many good reviews, hearing 1,000 times that it’s “God’s Chariot,” and seeing people having more respect for an E30 M3 than a holy book, my expectations were high to say the least. But they can be met in the right circumstances. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with a lot of corners, downhills, uphills, cambered turns and the like, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this very capable chassis, otherwise you may be disappointed by the performance on open roads or even worse, on the highway. I enjoy the car as a whole though, as does my young daughter who I often take for rides with me. The car is comfortable enough for her, not too loud, has A/C, and she can open the rear windows from her car seat in the back!

And now for the Integrale. In my case the expectation for this car was even higher than for the M3 because I’d dreamt about the Lancia for 25 years!

So, you open the door and get in after giving the body one last look. The driving position is not like the German car, it’s more like “long-armed Italian driving,” if I had to give it a phrase—perfect for an orangutan, but for most of us human beings it’s a bit awkward. However, visibility is terrific thanks to the very thin A-pillars and the high seating position that feels a bit SUV-like. Perched inside for the first time, I was expecting to find an interior constructed from very low-quality materials that would look nice for the first few months of ownership before falling apart, but the truth is it seems every bit as quality as the BMW. Again though, black plastic all over the cabin isn’t something that turns me off from a car. Like the bank of functional rather than fancy gauges on the dashboard, it’s the kind of thing you love or hate I think.

Time to get it in motion. The gearbox and overall transmission setup is noticeably more sluggish than the M3’s first of all. To get the most from this ‘box you really can’t be too gentlemanly with it, as it seems to perform best when shifted with force and arrogance. Once in gear and going down the road, the first stab of the gas pedal reveals an absence of thrust at low revs, but if you let it climb long enough you’ll hear and feel the whoosh of the old school single turbo, and it’s a sensation not unlike that of a 930 Porsche. It’s off and then it’s on, and you can’t help but grin like a kid when that change happens. It’s certainly a faster car than the M3 then, but what about in the corners?

This is where the car surprised me the most. Somehow, the Lancia feels even more capable than the BMW when the road stops being straight. It’s possible that this is due to the four-wheel drive, or to the reduced wheelbase in comparison to the M3, but whatever it is you can’t think about it too long while you’re having this much fun in a car that most people will associate with their FWD hatchback economy commuters.

As you’d expect in a car bred to rally, the suspension travel is pretty long on the Integrale, but it also comes in handy on the poorly maintained American roads I drive it on. Potholes you just fly over rather than crash into. It takes a big lean into a corner, but once it takes its set it just holds it until you tell it not to and you repeat the process over and over again in the esses.

Now, back to its construction. If the interior is as good as the M3, how about the exterior? I’m not talking about in terms of design—that is amazing—but instead its quality and construction. It makes one wonder if the same orangutan the seats were adjusted for was also picking out the steel and painting it. Never in my life have I seen a car with rust like this one had. It’s good to stay up to date on your tetanus shots if you plan to work on this car, and even the littlest jobs on other things become very involved when you’re dealing with a homologation special made in Italy! For instance, did you crack one of the F40 turn signals? This is how you replace it:

Step 1: Remove the wheel
Step 2: Remove the wheel arch liner, bottom and top pieces of course.
Step 3: Ask a young child or tiny adult to jam his arm and little hand inside the fender to squeeze the two side prongs on the lamp housing inwards
Step 4: Change the turn signal and put everything back together in reverse.

I had my trusted mechanic change my starter motor once, and it was a 10-hour job that required the removal of the alternator, the steering arms, sway bar links, power steering components, and anything else in the way. He returned the car to me after that slog with a look that said “Never, ever come back to my shop with this car.”

In summary, the Integrale is your mysterious, passionate, but expensive Italian mistress that can be hard to please sometimes; you never know what is going to happen, but you’ll have a lot of pleasure or pain, or both at the same time! The M3 is the reliable German, solid, reassuring, and always there for you when the Italian kicks you out!

So what is the best car of the two? The one that lives up to its hero status best? The answer is: get both, if you can. It’s the rational answer, but it might not be the best idea for your marriage!

At the end of the day, forget about everything I wrote, forget about my own experiences with both cars, forget about the good and the bad sides to them. I think beyond any tangible metrics or impressions the thing that’s most joyful is just being able to own the cars I dreamt of when I was younger. Pick any cars that fit that criteria, and find a good example to drive the snot out of, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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