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.
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 Furthermore, its uncompromisingly rectilinear three-volume style had become widely viewed as outdated.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.
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.
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.