Lancia Delta GT i.e

The word "rally" conjures up a number of images, mostly political leaders shouting furiously at
their supporters, or protesters gathered together under badly-spelt and poorly-painted banners. But it also has a connotation with cars, and not just any old cars but the most furiously powerful vehicles ever devised, cars that make your blood curdle, that make your muscles clench, that drag your skin away from your face as they claw another horsepower out of their fearsome engines.

Rallying, in motorsport terms, is the most aggressive form possible, demanding drivers to throw one-tonne machines down roads so narrow the navigator has to breathe in. On one side of that road will be a towering rock face of punishing, unforgiving boulders; on the other a sheer drop to the valley floor below. The car will have to scrabble its way across sand, gravel, mud, snow and asphalt to finish mere seconds in front of its rival, and that's if it finishes it all. Mechanical failures and serious accidents are common.

In that way, it has a lot in common with driving through Warsaw, whose residents feel that every stretch between traffic lights is a rally stage, to be completed in the quickest time possible. If that means bombing along at over 100km/h in the city centre, then so be it, and the pedestrians had best scatter if they know what's good for them. With bone-shattering bumps and crumbling asphalt, the city streets are unforgiving, and many a driver has shattered the alloy wheel of his company sedan in one of the capital's notorious potholes.

The Lancia Delta takes all of this in its stride. It would chew up the Polish roads, spit them out, then laugh. It might look like a mud-encrusted flaky white hatchback to you, but in its veins runs pure vitriol, a manic desire to be hurled sideways around corners, flicked this way and that around bends, and slid right on the edge of tolerance across the most inhospitable of terrain, for that was what it was designed for.

I can tell, you don't really believe me, and it's not hard to see why. The blocky little lump parked on a main street in Warsaw is someone's urban commuter, a disposable chunk of Eighties metal that slogs the same tired route day in, day out. No-one would really believe this was a thoroughbred stallion, let alone a warhorse. If it weren't for the chunky headlights and chrome grille, you could even kid yourself it was a Seat Ibiza, and I wouldn't hate you too much for saying something so insulting. After all, all cars of that period look the same. Or they do if they've been designed by Guigiaro.

Responsible for both supercars and superminis, Guigiaro pioneered the "folded envelope" concept whose angled wedges would dominate car design for more than a decade. Car upon car can trace their lineage back to his desk, including a large number of the rotters that litter Warsaw's streets today. The entire Seventies production of Volkswagen, including the Scirocco, Passat, Jetta and Golf are his ideas, if you're looking for someone to blame, along with Poland's Pride, the FSO Polonez. But when he wasn't sketching out the shells for shopping-trip slugs, he was designing some of the most magnificent cars of the time, including the BMW M1 and Audi Quattro, whose name is synonymous with the word "rally".

The Quattro and the Delta are only a year apart in age, with the little Lancia first seeing daylight in 1979 and the acclaimed Audi rolling out one year later. And bloodline aside, their initial designs give them little in common, but both found themselves competing head-to-head in the international stage, for in 1982 was another birth; Group B rallying.

Group B was the classification for the most brutal, powerful and comprehensively crushing racecars ever designed. I won't bore you with the details, but the rules were extremely lax as far as races go. Manufacturers had to produce as few as 200 examples of their given car in rally format, and while there were four classes for engine size, power limits were non-existent. Every year saw more and more power squeezed into the tiny frames, and the results were frightening. Lancia themselves produced the Delta S4, a four-wheel-drive ball of fury with 480hp kicking under the bonnet that launched its driver, Henri Toivonen, to a number of rally wins and, ultimately, to his untimely death in Corsica. After just four years, Group B was abandoned for simply being too powerful.

While that Group B variation was the most powerful Delta, it bore little in common with the main production cars. The far more famous model was the Delta HF Integrale, a leviathan of motoring that dominated world rallying for the five years after Group B finished, claiming 10 wins of 11 races in 1988. Its many guises masked a 2.0 engine that, in its final evolution, produced 212hp as just a standard roadcar, although the cars are so tuneable that its not unheard of to achieve more than double that figure, since Deltas are still raced today.

The GT i.e was the most perky model of the most mundane form of the Delta. With only a 1.6 engine up front and no turbo, the meagre engine bay was instead filled with the historic Fiat twin-cam engine, just like the bigger Fiat 132. The i.e tags denoted fuel injection, a desperate attempt to squeeze a few more horses from that engine, and in that manner give the Delta a whopping 107hp; not the sprightliest of cars, but the best available without resorting to rally-level modifications, and in that way your average commuter can feel like he's having a rally experience, without having to pay for one.

Those rally versions are now serious collectors items, with the Integrale variants carrying astronomical pricetags. But those non-supercharged, non-turbo'd, two-wheel drive cars received less than supportive views from the suburban press; its angular form was all too similar to a slew of other city hatchbacks with similar racing pedigree, and with such lowly underpinnings it was unable to cash in on the international renown of its sportier variants, and couldn't hope to compete in the showrooms in the way it did on the rally stages.

For a car that enjoyed a Car of the Year award at its birth and a twelve-year production run, these early Lancia Deltas are a surprisingly rare sight on the streets, especially in a country where every road is a mixture of asphalt and gravel. But for the Empress of the Rally, it has at least one admirer in Warsaw and, seeing her here, at least one more.