The Legendary Lancia Rally 037
Even though it left the sport over three decades ago, Lancia remains to this day the manufacturer that won the most championship titles in WRC's history.
Each of these ten titles has a remarkable story behind it, yet Lancia's 1983 triumph is perhaps the most fascinating one.
It is a classic "David vs. Goliath" tale, whose protagonist is the mid-engined Lancia Rally, better known by its project number, 037: the last two-wheel-drive car ever to win the World Rally Championship.
The winds of change
Our story begins in 1980, a truly seminal year in rallying history.
FISA, the international governing body for motorsport, devised a new regulatory framework that would take effect from the 1982 season, based around the so-called Group A, B, and N.
Homologation in Group B required the production of just 200 road-going cars for sale to the public, while a further 20 cars would be so-called "evolution" models that maintained the base car's general characteristics but were quite extensively modified for racing purposes.
Meanwhile, at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show, Audi presented the revolutionary Quattro, a turbocharged coupé equipped with permanent four-wheel-drive, a technology that had until then rarely been seen outside the realm of military and off-road vehicles.
Audi began competing with the Quattro in the World Rally Championship the following year, and it quickly became apparent that four-wheel-drive was the future of rallies.
That left the Fiat Group, the winner of the 1980 championship with the 131 Abarth, in a difficult position.
With no chance of developing and building a four-wheel-drive contender to Audi in time for the 1982 rally season, the engineers at Fiat's racing arm Abarth had no choice but to do what Italians do best: get creative.
Abarth's men designed a light, nimble mid-engined car around proven technology, easy to work on and quickly repairable between the rally stages.
The Lancia 037's chassis was constituted by the center section from the Beta Montecarlo (known as the Scorpion in the USA) and bespoke front and rear sections made from small-diameter steel tubing.
The engine, placed longitudinally behind the passenger compartment, was an evolution of the two-liter, 16-valve twin-cam inline-four cylinder already used on the 131 but equipped with a Roots-type supercharger that Abarth manufactured in-house. The road cars' engines made 205 HP at 7000Rpm, while the rally cars produced around 260 in their first outings and well over 300 by the end of 1983.
Power went to the rear wheels via a ZF 5DS25 five-speed manual gearbox, the same found on cars like the Maserati Bora and De Tomaso Mangusta, with a limited-slip differential.
Thanks to the use of proven technology and existing components, the Lancia Rally 037 went from drafting table to racing homologation, with the 200 road cars lined up for the officials' scrutiny outside Lancia's Borgo San Paolo factory, in just 21 months between July of 1980 and April of 1982.
The 20 "evolution" cars, equipped with a larger supercharger, a more robust engine block, Kugelfisher mechanical fuel injection, and a host of other improvements needed for racing competitiveness, were then homologated in August of the same year. These were never intended for sale to the public, and all became rally cars.
The Lancia 037 made its debut in the World Rally Championship at the 1982 Tour De Corse, but, despite hardly breaking new ground on the technical side, the Lancias still suffered quite a few unexpected retirements due to unforeseen technical issues.
Lancia's 1983 championship bid started with an unexpected win in a Monte Carlo Rally characterized by the scarce presence of snow and ice except for the top of the various hills. That was partly because Lancia's team manager, Cesare Fiorio, sneakily had the roads sprinkled with salt in an attempt to melt most of the ice.
The Lancia team then executed lightning-fast tire changes during the stages to replace the slick tires with studded ones to tackle the remaining snow on top of the hills.
If necessary, the trick was repeated while descending, where the snow again left space to clean tarmac. This way, Lancia took home a truly incredible win, with Walter Rohrl first and Markku Alén second.
Apart from the snow-packed Swedish Rally, where Lancia didn't even participate because the 037s stood no chance against the Audis, competition between the two teams remained fierce throughout the season.
However, Lancia ultimately prevailed in the manufacturer's championship with two rounds to spare, thanks to spectacular wins in Corsica and Italy but also thanks to Audi itself, which ran into technical problems in Greece and New Zealand, two rounds where it would have been at an advantage over Lancia.
Lancia's title defense for 1984 rested on the 037 "Evo 2," equipped with an engine enlarged to 2.1 liters of displacement, a more robust block casting, a new supercharger, the deletion of the rear bumper, and many other detail improvements.
However, by then, there simply was no amount of heroic driving and cunning strategic decisions large enough to stop the growing tide of four-wheel-drive competition.
The pretty but outdated 037 lost to Audi in 1984 and to the new Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 in 1985, its final works season. Indeed, during its WRC career the "Evo 2" model of the 037 only managed a single win, with Markku Alén in the 1984 Tour De Corse.
The 037's long overdue replacement finally arrived at the 1985 RAC Rally, and it was a very different animal indeed: the Delta S4 was a genuine technological tour-de-force and, on the back of its formidable performance, Lancia was back on top of the game, only losing the 1986 title battle to Peugeot by the tiniest of margin before the Group B era was abruptly brought to an end following a series of deadly accidents.