The Fourth Letter

The relative conventionality of the Delta dismayed marque aficionados in 1979, but it would go on to embody marque values of both performance and commercial longevity far beyond its seemly narrow remit. 

(c) Weilinet

The old guard was falling away. After a decade on sale, Lancia’s entry level Fulvia Berlina ceased production in 1973. The patrician compact saloon had proven a modest commercial success in its native Italy over that period, appealing to those who had both the means and the discernment to appreciate a such a finely wrought and technically noteworthy vehicle.

But while its mechanical specification left little to be desired, the level of complexity it incorporated would not square with that of Lancia’s new owners, who were masters of cost-control. Furthermore, its uncompromisingly rectilinear three-volume style had become widely viewed as outdated.

While legions of Lancisti will most likely swear to the contrary, Fiat Auto’s initial intentions towards Turin’s shield and flag were broadly speaking, honourable. After all, it was not as though the Turin car giant had inherited a vibrant, forward-looking carmaker when they were handed the keys to the Borgo San Paolo works in 1969.

What Fiat appointed engineer, Sergio Camuffo discovered to his dismay was a diminished, demoralised, and broadly antagonistic engineering team, a range of well wrought, but long-in-the-tooth models and no forward product plan. What former engineering chief, Antonio Fessia had been doing throughout the previous decade remains a question worth asking.

The 1972 Fiat-financed Beta (in 1400 cc form) did offer a replacement of sorts for the Fulvia, but was a visibly larger car, unsuitable for many Italian customers – especially those in cramped medieval towns and cities. But it was only with the advent of the Fiat X1/38 programme (Ritmo) that the gap in the market could be appropriately addressed.

The Y5 (Delta) programme was initiated in 1975 as a joint venture with Saab, but the new entry-level model from Chivasso would be no technical tour-de-force a la Fulvia, instead employing the crash structure, floorpans, powertrains and front suspension from Fiat’s 1978 C-segment Ritmo, in order to keep costs under control.

However, engines (shared versions of the Lampredi-designed in-line four in 1.3 and 1.5 litre form came in a higher state of tune than their Fiat counterparts, while the independent rear suspension was of a more sophisticated design derived from that of the Beta and Gamma models and was (then) unique to Lancia.

Another issue facing Camuffo upon his arrival was the fact that Lancia’s centro stile had also been defenestrated. Lacking the requisite skills and manpower, the bulk of body styling was subcontracted to consultants (in this case Ital Design) and it was not until 1977 that Mario Maioli was appointed by Fiat to lead a reconstituted Lancia style centre.

Both contemporary yet formal, Giugiaro’s body shape (which also dated from mid-decade) would prove a synthesis of his so-called ‘folded paper’ styling themes, most notably the 1973 Asso di Picche and the 1976 Medici II studies, exhibiting a subtle wedge shape, strongly delineated feature lines along the flanks and crisp, sharply tailored surfacing. The bluff nose treatment and abruptly cut-off tail lent the car both practicality and a purposeful mien – the former also alluding to Lancia’s past.

A number of stylistic compromises however would be imposed upon its creator – Saab for instance allegedly insisting the rear tailgate opened to bumper-level, necessitating a vertical tail lamp treatment, in opposition to the horizontal treatment favoured by Giugiaro. Additionally, following his appointment in 1977, Maioli commissioned a number of independent carrozzieri to produce a new corporate grille treatment – Maioli subsequently having to ‘convince’ maestro Giorgetto to accept Pininfarina’s selected proposal.

Another notable stylistic element was one which made its mainstream debut with the Delta and did much to elevate the design above its peers was the use of integrated body-coloured moulded plastic bumpers, an innovation which would prove widely influential. The Delta would also combine interior features not previously featured in compact cars, like air conditioning, a split folding rear seat, a height-adjustable steering wheel and a high degree of creature comfort, with top line models being fitted with lavish Ermenegildo Zegna check upholstery.

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The Delta’s shape might not have appeared quite at the cutting edge in 1979, but it was Giugiaro’s finest compact hatchback design of the era, certainly since the Volkswagen Golf five years previously. And like the seminal VW, it does seem in retrospect that Lancia could simply have updated and reimagined Giugiaro’s basic lines in a similar manner over generations, such was the design’s assurance and visual appeal.

The Delta was warmly received by the press, motor journalists lauding its style, its comfort and its road behaviour. Perhaps the primary criticism was a lack of outright verve, although this would in the fullness of time be addressed. Car’s Ian Fraser drove an early car in November 1979, lauding its “great refinement” and “considerable dignity“. “A swift, civilised and competent car“, he told readers, “the Delta covers the ground with the relaxed ease of a much larger vehicle“.

Yet despite this early-life endorsement, Car would relegate the Delta to also-ran status, stating that it “missed the mark somehow“. One aspect which did not endear the car to journalists or owners alike was that it was neither terribly well assembled, nor particularly durable – so while the fittings and fixtures may have been to Lancia specification, the componentry and assembly was very much to Fiat standards. Corrosion resistance too, despite input from Saab, remained an issue in damper climes.

Versions with the Beta-derived twin-cam unit arrived in 1982 with a 1.6 GT model, followed by a turbocharged HF version the following year, a reflection of Lancia’s competition activities. But as the Group B rally era came to an abrupt end amid mounting fatalities in 1986, the Delta became the sole focus of Lancia Corse – in Group A form, the four-wheel drive 2.0 litre turbo HF model (already homologated as a road car) quickly morphed into perhaps the most potent rally winner of its era, bearing a nameplate which would become immortal.

And while the core Delta really should have been pensioned off by 1989, such was the Integrale’s dominance, visual appeal and iconography amongst enthusiast and auto-journalist alike, the incumbent model line was not only spared in deference, but achieved a notable sales lift by association. 1991 saw a final facelift (its third) before finally bowing out in 1994, after 15 years in production.

(c) classicitaliancarsforsale

The first fully rationalised Lancia, the Delta perhaps fell greater victim to the disdain of Lancisti upon its arrival in 1979 than any post-takeover product before it, yet it would prove to be, not only the longest lived, but probably the most successful, least tainted and in retrospect, best regarded.

Indeed, it could be said (in Integrale form) to have utterly transcended the sum of its humble parts to become one of the most feted and desired latterday Lancia models of all. Being fourth isn’t always an undesirable outcome.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

36 thoughts on “The Fourth Letter”

  1. What a great car this was. I remember the HF Turbo i.e. like it was yesterday.
    As I grew up, I always wanted one of these in red one day.
    I currently have an Alfa Mito Veloce and I think this is as close as I am going to get to the Lancia hot hatch experience.
    I love Italian cars and simply refuse to drive a German sheep-machine.
    Putting a badge on a car does not give it character.
    Many thanks for this post Sir.

  2. The Delta really was a lovely piece of design. It is just perfect from the front and side aspects. Only from the rear does it look a little compromised, possibly a result of Saab’s insistence on a full-depth tailgate. The vertical rear lights are fine, but the black plastic number plate recess, flanked by the reversing lamps, looks a bit heavy-handed. There’s also a horizontal step in the tailgate just below the rear window, which looks like an overhang from Giugiaro’s prototype, where the glazing is full-width and deeper. This step isn’t deep enough to suggest a deliberately recessed window, similar to the facelifted Beta, so is rather superfluous:

    All that said, Giugiaro’s two proposals for horizontal rear lights in the photo above don’t quite hit the spot either. Incidentally, was the Delta the first European car to have fully integrated body-coloured gloss finished bumpers? If not, then what was?

    I owned a Delta for a couple of years in the mid 80’s, a three year old car bought second-hand. It was a nice drive and the interior was a cut above other contemporary mainstream C-segment hatchbacks. It was reliable too, although a rust blister soon appeared in one of the rear door skins, notwithstanding the six-year anti-corrosion warranty that Lancia introduced after the Beta rust debacle. My claim under the warranty was rejected because the previous owner had missed one of the annual (charged for!) inspections.

    1. If I remember correctly Europe’s first car with body coloured fully integrated bumpers was the Porsche 928, two years before the Delta.

    2. Yes, of course, the 928 was the one. Thanks, Dave

    3. Dave is of course broadly speaking, correct, but on a minor technicality, the 928 bumpers (I believe) were of a different construction and were considerably more integrated into the bodywork. They perhaps had more in common with GM’s Enduro(a?) bumpers fitted to some Pontiac models some considerable time earlier. One could of course also cite the Renault 5, but again, these were of a different constitution and were not body-coloured.

      On a side note, those design sketches for Y5 are a delight, especially the interiors.

      Oh, and welcome to Wast. Thanks for stopping by…

    4. The Porsche 928 bumpers were made from a soft(ish) polyurethane material originally developed by Hoechst for Kaessbohrer travel buses. These bumpers were meant to be kind of self healing by jumping back to their former contour after a hit. US market 928s had self healing substructures the rest of world models didn’t have.
      Delta bumpers were made from hard GRP and cracked when hit.
      The Renault 5 (14) bumpers were also made from hard polysomething and cracked.

    5. If I recall correctly, the Austin Maestro and Montego were the first British cars to have high gloss body-coloured bumpers. The material was extraordinarily brittle, so much so that, at its first service, the mechanic dropped a screwdriver on the front bumper of my Montego company car and it punched a hole straight through the top surface! The back bumper split from side to side after, I assume, someone nudged it in a car park.

    6. Hi Dave, I guess they do, although in the case of the lightweight 911’s at least, I wouldn’t want to put them to the “bump” test!

  3. The fabulous Car Design Archives feature an exhaustive collection of Delta design drawings, which I urge anyone interested in the subject to study:

  4. Fascinating stuff, thanks, Christopher. Thinking some more about the Delta, it’s a slight shame that the large bonded(?) front and rear screens seen on the prototypes didn’t make it through to production. The traditional rubber and chrome glazing, with radiused corners, look slightly at odds with the sharp geometry elsewhere. I can’t recall whether bonded screens were simply unavailable back in the late 70’s, or just too expensive for a mainstream car.

    1. Daniel,

      I don’t know, but I remember Ford made a big deal about the Sierra having bonded screens in 1982, so maybe the technology simply wasn’t available in the 1970s.

    2. The above photo of the Delta’s rear gives the impression that the recessed part of the hatch was meant to be covered by a glued in rear window.
      Bonded screens became common practice in the late Seventies but Italian manufacturers struggled with production processes.
      Alfa used glue on both the ‘Sud and Alfetta and both reverted to rubber seals very quickly because the production process never worked in Pomigliano and the Alfetta’s glue wasn’t very durable.
      Lancia and Fiat also used bonded glass and experienced all kinds of problems, mostly leaks. Therefore it would be plausible that for the Delta a late decision was made to use a conventional rear window with minimum alterations to the sheet metal.

    3. The Citroën CX had a bonded rear screen in 1974. The car had many weak pints and questionable production solution, but I’ve never heard that this screen has been a source of problems.

    1. Unlike the 9000, it looks that Saab’s heart was never in this venture. The car was, bizarrely, marketed as the “Saab Lancia 600” with the standard Lancia front grille and badge:

      It looks as though they didn’t want their name associated with the Delta, so why give it a SAAB model number?

      While Googling (is that a verb?) “Saab 600”, I came across this intriguing image:

      I don’t know if it’s a real prototype or just a photoshopped image, but I quite like it!

    2. Saab got a small car out of it, the 600. Saab was perennialy out of money, owned by the Wallenberg industrial family, and grown out of the airplane business without really any ties to the rest of the car making world. Besides the 99 from the late sixties which carried them all the way to the 90’s their only small car was the 96 that had its roots in the late 40’s. They simply didn’t have the money to design a completely new car from scratch on their own, and ties with another car maker was inevitable for their survival. The Saab-Lancia 600 was a desperate attempt, and it fooled no one in Sweden either.

      But the way, that 600 car posted is an obvious Photoshop of the Saab 90, their last stop gap entry in the cheap car market, a Finnish built carburetted two door 99 with the rear from the 900 sedan.

    3. Hi Ingvar. Sadly, I suspected as much. Regarding the 90, I always had a soft spot for it, regarding it as essentually a 900 in a rather more compact package:

      The example above is rather nice, with those smart Minilite style alloy wheels.

      Even if it’s a “cut-n-shut” at least it’s 100% Saab, whereas the 600 is precisely 0% Saab.

    4. Quite like the look of the photoshopped “Saab 600 Turbo”, as for the actual Lancia-based Saab 600 it is unfortunate Saab were never in a position to even slot their Slant-Four into the car let able to update the engine so it could be mounted transversely into the 600 (apparently the engine had to be redesigned just to slot into the GM-derived Saab 900 NG).

  5. Thanks for this article! I always had a soft spot for the Delta. I think I’m just a sucker for angular shapes, and if they come with a convincing stance like in the Delta, even the better. While I respect the success they had with the several HF evolutions, and I can understand how enthusiastic people can be about them, I like the purity of the standard versions most. I’ve never actually looked at the interior options they had, but this piece here makes me want to investigate this. The pictures provided look promising.

  6. Also a fan of the Delta’s angular / boxy styling, the only criticisms would be the lack of a 3-door hatchback or for the related Prisma the lack of turbocharged Integrale (+ EVO, etc) variants and a (Maserati Biturbo / Ghibli II style) 2-door three-box coupe.

    While it would have been a difficult task to directly replace the Fulvia, perhaps it was a mistake not to develop a smaller Beta-derived successor in terms of dimensions that carries over the styling of the Lancia Beta Coupe / HPE.

    1. The beta coupe actually was shorter than the two door Fulvia. Why should they have made an even smaller/shorter coupe? The beta two door 1,400 pretty mch replaced the Fulvia 1,3 S and was the best selling coupe version by far.
      Italy wasn’t ready for bigger engines at that time.
      Big engines cars were a luxury largely unknown in Italy and afforded only on export markets.
      Why should they have built versions that sold in even smaller numbers than the four door saloon?
      No Italian customer would have bought a two door saloon. Italian manufactuers (and French as well) weren’t eager to sell four door versions for nothing.
      If you want a Delta coupe, get yourself a Zagato Hyena.

    2. The Hyena leaves a lot to be desired, it is a bit redundant saying Italy was not ready for bigger engines when the Delta and Prisma eventually both received 2-litre engines, whereas the latter did not merit the 2-litre Turbo engines like on the Delta.

      It can be argued whether the Delta needed a 3-door hatchback yet it would have both increased the appeal as well as maintained some visual links to the Delta S4 long after the latter was discontinued, the development of the Automobili Amos Lancia Delta Futurista retromod would suggest the lack of such a variant to be a big oversight.

      If 2-door saloon coupes were not in demand in Italy than why did Maserati bother developing the Biturbo coupe / Ghibli II / Shamal?

      A Prisma Integrale Turbo 4-door saloon or sporty 2-door coupe that features a similar Delta Integrale / Evo body-kit and 237-250 hp outputs (via Delta “Evo 3” Viola one-off and Hyena), would IMHO have made for a very tempting accessible 4WD alternative to the more expensive yet potentially visually similar Biturbo / Ghibli II or comparable RWD rivals of the era like the BMW M3 (E3o) and Mercedes 190 Evo / AMG.

      Will concede you are right on the Beta coupe via the 2-door Fulvia, the point am getting at is that the former’s attractive styling deserved to be used beyond the coupe and possibly on a smaller 2/4-door model instead of being superseded by the attractive angular / boxy styling of the Delta / Prisma.

    3. Contrary to popular belief car manufactuers aren’t members of the Salvation Army and therefore have to earn money which means they need products that sell. As soon as they see a business opportunity they can afford they will use it.
      This might tell us that a two door Delta wasn’t a viable business proposition (after all, Alfa offered two door non-Ti ‘Suds very late and these are the rarest of all ‘Suds which means they didn’t sell). A one off showpiece with two doors twenty years after the model went out of production doesn’t prove anything except its own existence.
      Italian customers didn’t want or need two litre cars – there was no market for two litre cars in Italy after the economic collapse of the early Seventies. That’s why Alfa waited several years to build what seemed an obvious version of the Alfetta, the 2,000. Alfa’s 1,300 Junior coupé/spider versions and the 1,400 Giulietta and beta saloons weren’t there without reason and they were by far the best selling versions (more than ninety percent of Giulias were 1,300 versions).
      Sales numbers of Fiat Ritmo Abarth 125/130 TCs weren’t overwhelming.
      Lancia at least tried to make a two litre Delta with the HF 4WD which just happened to be there when Group B rallying was stopped. Sales numbers of this version only (kind of) took off after their successes in sports and the transfer of development from Lancia to Corso Marche. Integrales of all kinds were more or less homologation specials and should be considered as such.

    4. While in some cases I can see the appeal of a 3-door variant over the 5-door in many cases, I don’t think anything could be added to the Delta when getting rid of the rear doors. The delicate rhythm of the windows and the solid C-pillar look so right, I don’t see how this could be improved with what would probably be a longer front door, a single long rear window and a slimmer pillar.

    5. Never mentioned anything about Italian market customers wanting 2-litre cars nor anything about 2-litre Delta’s / Prisma’s appearing earlier, only for the Prisma to carry over the turbocharged engines and body kit from the Delta Turbo models.

      A vaguely Ghibli II / Biturbo inspired 2-door Prisma coupe might appear to be an unnecessary variant yet am looking from the perspective of making the Prisma as well regarded as the Delta, especially in tandem with more potent turbocharged 4-door saloon models to better compete with likes of the BMW M3 (E30).

      Fiat is hardly the salvation army however despite its issues during the 1970s, it was most certainly big enough to have at least considered a 3-door Delta for markets outside of Italy as a more upmarket alternative to the Ritmo/Strada.

  7. Also a fan of the Delta’s angular / boxy looks, the only criticisms that come to mind are the lack of a 3-door hatchback as well as the lack of Integrale Turbo (Evo, etc) versions of the related Prisma and in the case of the latter the lack of a Biturbo/Ghibli II inspired 2-door three-box coupe variant.

    At the same time in terms of appearance with the Beta coupe / HPE, perhaps it was a mistake not to develop a smaller Beta-derived model to directly replace the Fulvia as an early precursor to the Delta.

    1. My mistake, thought previous comment disappeared instead of being uploaded.

  8. Thanks for this report and all these great comments. As an 80’s child rather than a mature sophisticate the Delta was always my first Lancia-love. I think part of the mystique was that by the time I was interested in cars it was the cooking Delta’s that predominated whilst, where I lived, the plain-Jane ones were the unicorns; an inversion of the motoring norm!
    I can only really remember seeing one “Ordinary” Delta. It was in Manchester in the mid 90’s and was on a W plate [1980-81??], it had the dished silver wheels from the 1500 but a big central grill badge like on the prototype photo’s. I’ve wondered ever since if the grill from pre-facelift Beta’s or later “Lancia” Y10’s was a straight swap for the Delta’s grill? Also worth saying that the prototype photo’s show that it was, in my opinion, the best looking option that made it to production that doesn’t always happen.
    Regarding “What SAAB got out of it” I think I can see elements of Scandinavian design in some of the cabin proposals, there are suggestions of Unico chairs and one of the tube instrument binnacles makes me think of 1970’s B&O amps, like the Beomaster 3400. Not very practical though and considering the “Quirks” of the Ritmo/Strada that made it through to production, I wonder whether the Delta cabin ideas were vetoed in Trollhatten or Turin?

  9. Tube instrument binnacle from Giugiaro’s 1973 Audi Asso di Picche.

    Which also might have influenced this:

    btw, The term “cooking” caused me many a furrowed brow when I would read it in “Car” since “cooks” is/was [American?] slang for “hot and fast”. In this context it’s apparently derived from “cooking wine”, i.e. cheap and basic.

  10. Getting Off Topic – not Delta, but definitely Lancia

    The July issue of German old car magazine Oldtimer Markt has a story of a number of Lancias, mostly Flaminias, rescued from a farm yard after the owner’s death. Even if you don’t speak German the photos alone are worth buying the magazine.

    1. That seems to be an issue with broader DTW appeal. Just look at that Jimny!

      I’d also be interested in reading about Kopper’s Fiat 130 (a German/Italian detective in the longest running German crime series, ‘Tatort’; he used to drive this 130, and apparently in the last episode with his participation the original car was destroyed, causing quite some turmoil in the German ‘Oldtimer’ scene).

      Probably going to buy this issue, although I usually don’t read motor press any more. The standard magazines with their German- and supercar-bias are of exactly zero interest for me, and those dealing with old cars rarely feature stories that aren’t a bit redundant.

    2. Oldtimer Markt is one of the few motoring magazines worth reading but caring for oldish vehicles only. For new cars Austrian auto revue is recommendable also (but not only) because of its particular Austrian sense of humour. Their highlight is ‘the interview that very nearly happened’.

      The Fiat 130 you mentioned is famous in 130 aficionado circles because it is a unique vehicle from the Fiat Heilbronn HQ management fleet. It has unique leather upholstery, electric (BMW sourced) mirrors and a well documented history. The new owner reported that it was in far worse condition than it looked and that after the horrible TV crash he had to replace the bonnet and driver’s door and the rest was salvable. The biggest problem seemingly was reshaping the bent sill which needed truck sized equipment because the sill was so stiff – something I definitely wouldn’t have expected on a Fiat.

      The article on old Lancias shows twenty or thirty old Lancias with five of them being Flaminia spiders most of them irreversibly absorbed into the underground. It’s a pity to see those cars in their horrible condition. Maybe that simply is proof that some Lancia owners are lunatics…

    3. Yes, auto revue is also one of my favourites, and thanks to my working close to the Austrian border, I sometimes buy one if I’m on the other side. Unfortunately, Swiss shops never have them.

  11. Delta mk 1 cars were around a lot to be seen, also the 4 door version, the Prisma. Was there a caravan version? Now it is difficult to spot one. Yesterday it was a yellow Delta 4WD the one with the bulged bonnet, in beautiful condition. Cars like this are in the hands of enthusiasts. There is one in daily drive condition, if I find it again, I will send you the picture.

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