My Journey To Find The Most Atypical Italian Supercar: The Lancia Delta S4 Stradale
Photography by Mario Escudero
As I’m sure is the case with most of you reading this, I have been a car enthusiast for most of my life. However, growing up in Peru in the 1980s meant I didn’t see the types of vehicles that kids gravitate towards—a low-growth, inflationary economy in a country with high import taxes does not typically result in an abundance of sports cars on the street. There were glimpses of the rare BMW or Mercedes-Benz, but the typical transportation of the time was handled by the likes of Volkswagen Beetles. There’s nothing wrong with those cars (or with liking them), but it’s safe to say that adolescent minds aren’t as captivated by the successes of mass production as they are by fast, loud, low-volume Italians, for instance.
My father wasn’t infatuated with automobiles to the same extent that I was, but he had plenty of capacity to appreciate them, and I credit him with fostering my budding interest as a six-year-old child utterly fascinated with how an internal combustion engine worked. He would patiently explain the basics and later the intricacies of the four-stroke system, and he would also buy issues of Popular Mechanics to give me even more to chew on (I loved these magazines, even if I did roundly ignore any content in them that I deemed “non-car”).
By the 1990s, the Peruvian economy was improving, and around this time my dad purchased one of the first Hyundai Elantras. It wasn’t a sports car, but the Mitsubishi-derived 1.6-liter could wind up to a rather dramatic 7000rpm—he wasn’t keen to redline it, but I certainly had my fun in this car when I learned to drive. The rarer European imports also became more prevalent in the 1990s and early 2000s, and I found myself most attracted to the sporting BMW models that started to appear with more frequency, namely the E36 and E46-generation M3s.
But by far the most memorable and most exciting sighting during this period was a Ferrari F355. I was out with a few friends during a quiet evening when my taste in cars became forever cemented in the products of Italy—the red ones in particular. I was mesmerized by the low, wide, and exotic-sounding machine with its cockpit awash in the interplay of streetlights and the bright green glow of the Ferrari’s backlit gauges. It was unlike anything I’d seen outside of a magazine.
I had always been interested in the mechanical aspects of the cars I counted as my favorites, but fine engineering coupled with elegant aesthetics is even better. I doubt anyone would disagree with a statement as simple as that, but there are some machines that don’t need to exude beauty in a traditional sense to win over enthusiast hearts and minds. The Lancia Delta S4 is a prime example.
Road-going sports cars like the aforementioned F355 all but consumed my affections, but I don’t know any self-respecting fan of fast cars that don’t leave room to appreciate motorsport. For me it was Group B rallying. Formula One is all well and good and technologically mind-blowing, but the short-lived period of Group B in the WRC was an equally astounding display of cutting edge engineering, driver talent and bravery, and outright spectacle. Pulling astronaut-grade G-forces through a paved circuit corner is one thing, but accelerating from 0 to 60 in the two-second range on dirt before being hurled over a jump with a landing strip lined by trees and human beings is just mental on a different level.
The top teams’ efforts all duly warrant their own fan clubs, but I was particularly drawn to the Lancia factory’s cars. The 037 being the last rear-wheel drive champion amongst the inevitable all- and four-wheel drive takeover was remarkable, but the follow-up to it was even wilder in my eyes. The supercharged and turbocharged Delta S4 epitomized the lengths that teams would go to when developing competitors for the Group B rulebook (which was one of the most liberal in all of modern motorsport history, I would say), and despite the tragic loss of Henri Toivonen and his navigator Sergio Cresto at the 1986 Tour de Corse, it is one of the most fascinating racing cars ever built. Its not pretty in the way a 250-series Ferrari is, but as far as form following function goes, the Delta S4 is gorgeous. Brutal and purposeful, it is the anti-frill automobile. To call it a hot hatchback is like calling Lewis Hamilton “kind of quick.”
Though it shares the name and a semblance of the base-model Lancia Delta road car’s aesthetics, the S4 was about as generally “outright” as racing cars get. The WRC legend is a tubular space frame chassis with a mid-mounted, twincharged motor capable of well over 500 horsepower, all sheathed in lightweight composite bodywork that made no airs of being beautiful in its pursuit of atmospheric manipulation. To drive one of these race cars in period was to be supremely skilled and almost incomprehensibly fearless.
Because Group B regulations mandated some 200 road-going versions of the rally cars to be produced and offered for sale to the public, I am proud to call myself an owner of this Lancia Delta S4 Stradale. But as completely as my mind was set on owning one, it wasn’t a simple process to find the right one. There are also not many to choose from, considering the prevailing wisdom that Lancia never built the full required 200 cars in the first place, and most estimates put the surviving number today under 70.
I started my search in earnest around 2014 when I moved to Torino, but the first handful that I came across were not in the best operating conditions, and I had to pass up a rare silver example—I was set on a red one, but the eventual buyer of that beautiful car and I became friends, and still stay in touch trading stories and acquired knowledge and unmetered enthusiasm for these special cars.
After test-driving a handful of S4 Stradales, I finally came across Max Girardo and Davide De Giorgi in London, and they pointed me to the car that I would soon after get to call my own. It was located not far from me on the outskirts of Turin, and so I took a brief drive to see the car and meet the Baldi twins (who should be familiar names to anyone familiar with the tight-knit S4 community).
The Baldis were eminently inviting and kind-hearted (and not at all in the unctuous manner of used-car salesmen), and after being impressed by the condition of the S4 under their care (these two worked on the rally cars in the period, and today possess a combined knowledge of the Group B and Stradales that is unmatched), we went out for an unpretentious lunch at a nearby restaurant. Never before or since has a €5 starter, plate of pasta, and a drink tasted better. I was in love with the car and the people. I worked hard to be able to afford this car, but I’ve also never felt luckier. I simply could not dream of a better scenario to acquire a car I’d idolized for decades.
Does it live up to that hype? In short, absolutely. It forces you to pay attention in every regard. Its looks are arresting, and the seriousness conveyed by its form prepares you for a driving experience that requires your utmost focus. The Alcantara-clad interior heats up quickly and stays hot, the orchestra of mechanical noises from the supercharger, turbocharger, and every other high-strung piece of this wonderfully puzzling car is part of an overall sense overload that comes with driving the S4 on the street. It’s not comfortable, and even in the highest altitudes of the Alps you’ll be soaked in sweat, but it is even more perfect than my years of fantasizing could have predicted.