Gavin Conway drives two great performance icons of the ‘80s – Classic Sports Car
The car came at me over a shallow left-sweeping crest. Reckon it was travelling at about 100mph, which was interesting on account of it being sideways at the time. Wonder how he’s going to handle the fast approaching hairpin? Oh, now that was impressive; a quick right-flick, drift into the turn broadside and then climb back on to the power as the pops and crackles subside. All four wheels jet-spray us with snow and gravel as the car weaves and bounds back into the cool green forest. A moment of glory that is a Lancia Delta Integrale at full cry on the RAC Rally.
No stranger to victory on the RAC, the Integrale delivered six Group A World Rally Championship titles between 1987 and 1992. With the likes of Kankkunen, Auriol and Biasion at the wheel, the tough little Lancia dominated rallying and spawned one of the world’s truly great sporting saloon cars.
And another moment never forgotten. Approaching Goodwood’s scary Madgwick corner at well over 90mph in a red M3 Evolution. Autocar’s then deputy road test editor at the wheel, me riding shotgun. We crest the ridge and the M3′s tail begins a progressive slide. Driver’s seen it coming because the car told him about it. A dusting of opposite lock, and the M3 settles and sets without a trace of bad manners. Balance – and driving – the like of which I’d never seen.
If the Integrale road car was evidence that racing improves the breed, then BMW Motorsport’s fabulous M3 was confirmation. Homologated for international Group A and N competition, the M3 has garnered a huge number of track victories since Roberto Ravaglia became World Touring Car Champion in 1987. The M3 takes an entirely different route, through, eschewing the turbocharger and four-wheel drive of the Integrale; predictably, M3s were thrashed by Integrales on anything other than tarmac. Fair enough, but elsewhere, the M3 proved a fantically capable racer. They have always figured in European championships and in 1988 and M3 took the British Touring Car Championship with Frank Sytner driving. You’ll know something is up when an M3 Evolution – launched in 1988 – fills your frame. The visual cues are dramatic, but they all serve a purpose. The larger rear window is more steeply raked than a standard 3-series, and the SMC-plastic bootlid and spoiler assembly sits 1.6in higher than the standard car’s. That helps airflow over the body and also generates a little downforce to combat aerodynamic lift at very high speeds. The steel wheelarch blisters are there so that a racing M3 can accept rims up to 10in wide.
Things are no less intense under the bonnet. When development started on the M3′s engine in the early ‘80s, it was decided that a ‘six’ would be too heavy for the balance needed for a racing BMW, so a ‘four’ was engineered using BMW’s six-cylinder engine as the starting point. By 1988, the M3′s massively durable 16-valver had evolved into a 220bhp 2302cc powerplant that will happily spin to its 7250rpm rev limit. In short, the power to back up the look.
Advertising its potential even more stridently than the M3, the Delta Integrale packs huge road presence. The bodyshell that is it based on may be 20 years old, but by the time the 16-valve HF Integrale appeared in 1989, its worked-out shape had reached Muscle Beach proportions; along with wider-wheels and tyres, the Integrale gained a swollen bonnet to accommodate the new engine. And the changes in ’89 went far beyond the cosmetic, too. As well a 200bhp 16-valve 1995cc turbocharged powerplant in place of the old eight-valver, the Integrale’s four-wheel drive system was retuned so that 53 per cent of the drive was sent to the rear wheels, as opposed to 44 per cent on the previous ‘Grale. That meant sharper response and less understeer on the limit. And stiffer suspension reduced body roll.
We are attracting attention. Spearing along the M27 at a legal pace, we watch as a police cruiser passes, slowing dramatically at the sight of our convoy, sullen faces looking long and hard. An M3 followed closely by an Integrale is plainly a moving violation looking for a place to happen. These two may be 10 years old, but they are still fantastically quick by any standard. An Integrale will reach 60mph in a shade over six seconds, with the BMW behind by a couple of tenths. Top speed for the BMW is just under 150mph with the ‘Grale managing 130mph. But those numbers don’t begin to tell the story; across country on sweeping A-roads and technically challenging B-roads, only a handful of modern cars will stay with this duo. And even fewer will be as entertaining along the way.
The BMW’s door lets out a satisfying, multilayered thunk as it shuts behind me. Massively supportive seats firmly embrace, three-spoke steering wheel offering fine view of tach and speedo, heavily sprung gearlever offering up a dogleg first. The driving position is just about perfect. As the BMW begins to roll, the engine note starts out a bit lumpy, but soon smooths out to a metallic basso. At 400rpm in third the M3 goes very, very hard. At 5000rpm in third, when it feels like it can’t possibly have any revs left, it gives you another 2000. Amazing. Through high-speed corners, the BMW’s balance is uncanny, thoroughly adjustable on the throttle and completely reassuring. The car moves around, communicating, teasing. It’s a precise tool but without being clinical about it.
The Integrale is right there, covering every move the M3 makes. It’s a very different character, though. The Garrett T3 turbo uses a smaller turbine than the eight-valve Integrale for better response, less lag. There isn’t much lag, to be fair, but you still get that ‘turbo movement’ when the engine gets enough puff on to deliver an almighty shove. It’s not a particularly linear response, but while that trait can be pretty frightening in old 911 Turbos, the Integrale is so massively secure that it just isn’t a problem. Through slower corners, you’ll find yourself getting on the power incredibly early and, with that rear torque-bias, a little amusing oversteer is not out of the question. The steering is precise, with even sharper turn-in than the M3, and the Integrale can cover challenging ground at a stunning rate. But while the ‘Grale is demonstrably quicker point-to-point than the M3, it does feel slightly less involving.
Inside, the Integrale’s cabin is more chaotically laid out than the M’s but some of the earlier car’s foibles have been sorted. The tacho’, for example, starts at 3 o’clock so that the wheel rim doesn’t obscure the numbers. And like the M, the ‘Grale’s seats are wonderfully supportive. Which is a good thing because the amount of grip on tap from those 205/50VR15 tyres is simply huge.
The M3 and Integrale were only ever produced by the factory in left-hand drive. Don’t let that put you off; lhd doesn’t get in the way of a truly great driving experience. And with good examples of each going for less than £10,000, they approach affordability. Not bad for a car that will go sideways through a forest at 100mph. Or one that will get you through Madgwick in quite some style.