27.12.2004 Christmas special: 25 years of the lancia delta - the ultimate pocket rocket rally extraordinaire 

This year marks a quarter-century since the launch of the original Lancia Delta, probably the marque’s best-known model in recent memory and apart from the Y10 / Ypsilon family, also its most successful. Given that 2004 also marks a decade since the last Delta Integrale rolled out of Maggiora’s Chivasso factory, it seems an appropriate time to recall the life and times of Lancia’s belated replacement for the Fulvia, a car perhaps best-remembered as the most successful rally car of all time.

The story all started back in 1975 when Fiat and Saab started a joint development effort to develop a compact luxury hatchback, known as the ‘600 Project’. Internally known by Lancia as the ‘Y5’, Giorgetto Giugiaro was approached to develop the new compact hatchback architecture, which resulted in a pleasing and groundbreaking 2-box design. Lancia’s collaboration with Saab also resulted in the development of new rust proofing techniques.

The design process by Giorgetto Giugiaro shows how the Delta's nose evolved from the modern Pininfarina range (Gamma, Beta Montecarlo) to its own character.
Jointly developed with Saab, the Delta marked a new era in hatchback design. Rust-proofing techniques from the Swedish manufacturer helped preserve the robust image of the Delta over the years.

The reason for the Fiat-Saab joint venture was due to the oil crisis, which had started to choke European producers by the mid-seventies as a result of higher production costs and stiff competition from Japanese imports.

The Delta was launched in September 1979 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, and with Ermenegildo Zegna designer cloth upholstery as standard, it soon won over the hearts of fashion conscious people looking for an affordable car.

Marketed through Saab in Sweden as the Saab-Lancia 600 between 1980 and 1982 (yes, with Saab badges), the program went on to spawn the ‘Type Four’ project, which resulted in the Saab 9000, Lancia Thema, Fiat Croma and Alfa Romeo 164 (known during development as the 156!). Saab also marketed the Lancia A112 alongside.

The Delta’s brilliant design soon paid off, with the hatchback scooping up the prestigious European Car of the Year Award in 1980. Fending off competition from the Opel Kadett and Peugeot 505 (369 points versus 301 and 199 respectively), the front-wheel drive Delta was a clever take on the small-medium hatchback segment.  

The Audi A3 was touted by its maker in 1996 as being the first ‘prestige’ hatchback, but what was the Delta if not exactly that?  In the same way that all luxury 4x4s can trace their ancestry to the original Range Rover, the recent wave of hatches with a prestige nameplate, such as the A3, BMW 1-Series, Mercedes-Benz A-Class and even the Alfa 147, can all trace their ancestry back to the original Delta.  Widely praised at launch as a very neat contender and an integral part of the continuing turnaround of the marque under Fiat ownership, the launch of the ‘littlest Lancia’ coincided with a Europe-wide trend for downsizing, a trend set off by the oil crises of the seventies – people wanted the comfort and refinement levels of a luxury car, but also something that was easy to park in cities and economical at the petrol pump. 

Early on in its life, in 1982, a Delta also achieved a significant milestone when it became the last car to roll off the production line at Fiat’s world-famous Lingotto plant (of ‘The Italian Job’ fame).  

Lancia’s fourth letter of the Greek alphabet may have been based on humble Fiat Ritmo underpinnings, but the Giugiaro-penned shape was elegant and the interior appointments luxurious for the time.  

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