Martini On The Rocks: Coaxing A Historic Lancia 037 Rally Car Onto The Ice In Austria
Photography by Will Broadhead
An unexpected phone call often kindles the first flame of an adventure, and such a call reached me just after the new year. It was my good buddy Alex, head honcho at DRIVE Coffee.
“Dude, can you make it to Austria in a few weeks? Want to roll the dice again with the 037 at the Ice Race GP in Zell am See?” The question cleared the fog away from the remains of my hangover and sparked a flutter of excitement in my stomach that I prayed would stay there. “Yes!” was my immediate response, and that’s when the trouble started…
The 037 we’re looking at here is the Monte-Carlo-Rally-winning car from the 1983 race, driven to victory that year by the legendary Walter Röhrl. We had taken the car to the Bernina Gran Turismo in Switzerland a few months prior (pictured below), and in doing so experienced first-hand the problems of running a highly-strung Group B-spec machine that had seen little to no movement in the thirty-odd years since its famous victory.
My views of the Swiss Alps that weekend were predominantly framed by the letter box windows of the workshop we had found ourselves in, trying everything we could think of to get the old girl going. She eventually came good, and thanks to the fog clearing at the last minute, we finally managed to make a single run up the course, bathed in sunshine and with the Lancia singing like the superstar she is. A Hollywood ending after a weekend of strife, but lightning couldn’t possibly strike twice, could it?
No, the mountains of Kaprun would be kinder to us, they had to be. We knew the car was capable of running well, and we’d ironed most of its teething problems during the Bernina, so we could surely turn up and with a bit of massaging run the car in the legends’ parades, sharing the icy track with Walter Röhrl, who would be driving one of his Audi Sport Quattros—seeing the two cars together would delight any fan of motorsport, especially those that want to make Lancia great again.
The only foreseeable hurdle was finding the right spikes to fit the Lancia’s oddly-sized wheels, or else scrounge up a set of more conventionally-sized spares that we could bolt on instead. The latter option was chosen, some spacers were sourced, and as I waited to board my flight to the ice from London I chuckled at the thought of Alex dropping off four wheels at the baggage check at LAX.
It was great to see the 037 again once we were trackside in Austria, the striking lines of the car instantly command a sort of reverence that only really serious rally machinery can inspire, and in the iconic Martini livery the car was bound to draw a crowd as she rolled off the truck. We were surrounded by excited fans, politely jostling for a better position to catch a glimpse. The car was of course the last rear-wheel drive machine to win the WRC (and not for lack of all-wheel drive competition, either), and the Pininfarina design— with the Abarth 2.0L supercharged engine proudly displayed under the rear hatch—still sits fondly in the memories of rally fans. Indeed, for the duration of the weekend, the car was never without a trail of admirers in her wake. Unfortunately, though, all was not well in camp DRIVE Coffee Racing.
First off, the spacers that were supplied with the car for the wheels wouldn’t fit over the spindles. The Austrian Alps aren’t necessarily known for an abundance of machine shops either, and it looked like it could be game over before we had even begun. Thankfully events involving classic cars like these evoke the spirit of the paddocks of yesteryear, and competitors would rather see “rival” machines running than not, and so somewhere in amongst the awnings and trucks that stretched across the frozen landscape a set of spacers were found.
Sadly, this was but the tip of our iceberg. During transit, the battery of the car had run flat and despite being assured that it had run the day before, the car would not fire. Plugs were changed, fuel and fluids were checked and topped, batteries were swapped in and out, and multiple attempts were made to bump start, but this haughty mistress of a machine refused to accept the cocktail of oxygen and fuel that was being offered to her. Dejected, frozen, and resentful after a day of trying whatever we could think of, we disappeared into the night, sulking off like scorned lovers. Just like in Bernina, the Italian lady was calling the shots.
Day Two on the ice, and Alex and I head to the paddock with renewed determination. We kept the car in the warm environment of the heated truck and worked alone without the mass of inputs and advice received the day before. While all of the friendly hands and advice that we’d received the day before was tremendously appreciated, sometimes too many cooks can spoil the broth.
Left with some room to think and breathe, we started with the basics and ran through it methodically, soon finding that the plugs that had been screwed into the Lancia’s Abarth cylinder head had the incorrect terminals on them. Under the cold afternoon sun, it was the moment of truth, time to see if she would start. The starter motor still wouldn’t engage though, and with the slick surface of the ice not providing much purchase for a speedy push, a vehicle was needed for a tow.
Somewhat appropriately, the Lancia Delta Integrale of Sebastian Glaser would do the honors, the Group A car providing velocity for its forebear. It was a bizarre scene, and as the pair reached the point where they would soon run out of road, the 037 fired in a frenzy of noise and visible exhaust, a racket very nearly drowned out by the cheers of those watching it all unfold on the ice. With no time to lose, the car was driven straight to the track—as luck would have it just as the legends parade for the day was starting. The timing was perfect, but a complete accident, and despite not having his helmet with him Alex was waved onto the track to the delight of those wedged in around the walls of the course.
The two laps that he got were not the most flamboyant, and sadly were also not with Walter Röhrl, but after all of the effort that had gone into get the car running at all, it was tremendously cathartic to see it moving under its own volition. Once the motor had fired, it never missed a beat and sounded beautifully raucous, with the signature rin-tin-tin engine note that is more reminiscent of a 500cc Grand Prix motorcycle than a four-cylinder four-stroke. It sounded like a bird of prey, and running far too rich as she was, there was no lack of scent to accompany the noise. A beautiful tableau.
Make Lancia great again? Hell, this car never stopped being great and it’s still here. I hope whatever her future holds, she will find herself in the company of someone just as enthusiastic as Alex, who will put just as much effort in to using her as her makers intended.