Group B’s most legendary Lancia was its last rear-wheel-drive champion

The world of motorsport witnessed a convergence of legends in 1982. That year, the FIA introduced Group B—the dangerous, near-unlimited class that fostered some of the fastest and most powerful cars ever to hit dirt, an era spoken today with awe, reverence, hushed tones. Lancia, whose Stratos had won three consecutive World Rally Championship Constructors’ titles, introduced the 037 in partnership with Abarth. Martini Racing, for its part, placed its famed livery across this new Lancia, forging one of the longest-lasting sponsorships in rallying history.

A collaborative effort from design firm Pininfarina, chassis maker Dallara, and Abarth engineer Sergio Limone, project #037 began in 1980 as a tube-frame silhouette racer that resembled more a spaceship than anything else, let alone the mid-engine Montecarlo on which it was loosely based. The 037 shared virtually nothing with the production Montecarlo save for the center section dimensions; it was a purpose-built, Kevlar- and fiberglass-bodied Group B terror, operating at the zenith of Lancia’s rally experience.

Underneath the massive one-piece, skyward-opening, carbon-fiber bodywork was a 2.0-liter Fiat Twin Cam four, designed by famed Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi and turned longtudinally. Lancia tacked on an Abarth Volumex Roots-type supercharger to avoid the lag of a traditional turbocharger, and later added Bosch Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection. Evolution 1 began with 265 horsepower routed through a five-speed gearbox and self-locking differential, but by Evolution 2 in 1984 it was producing closer to 325 hp from 2.1 liters. In a car that weighed barely over 2000 pounds, the 037 could more than hold its own against the soon-to-come Ford RS200s, Porsche 959s and Ferrari 288 GTOs that would define Group B as an insane, all-out, no-holds-barred class.

1983 Lancia 037 at Monte Carlo in '83
1983 Lancia 037 at Monte Carlo in ’83 Michael Sheehan/

But the 037, despite all this advanced tech, had one thing that was about to go out of style in Group B: rear-wheel drive.

The coming of Quattro

Another legend of the class, Audi’s Quattro redefined the sport in 1980, becoming the first rally car with all-wheel drive. It was a revelation. Once they figured it out, drivers found it supremely confidence-inspiring; you could stand on it and the car would go where you wanted it, no matter ice, snow, or gravel. All-wheel-drive excelled on every slippery surface. Despite the fears that it would be too complex and too heavy, nearly every driver agreed all-wheel drive was the future of rallying. Just ten days after it was homologated, the Quattro won its first outing it ever entered, the 1981 Janner Rally in Austria with Franz Wittman.

“The car gave you so much confidence that you thought you could fly,” said Michèle Mouton. She would become the first woman to win a WRC eventAt the 1981 San Remo Group B Rally.

1982: Audi clinches the Rally World Championship for Manufacturers
1982: Audi clinches the Rally World Championship for Manufacturers AUDI AG

A showdown was emerging. Audi overcame early reliability problems to win the championship in 1982, sweeping seven out of 12 events with Mouton, Wittman, and Finnish driver Hannu Mikkola. Rörhl, driving an Opel Ascona 400, won the driver’s championship. That year, Lancia placed ninth.

Let the good times Röhrl

After winning the driver’s championship for 1982, Rohrl’s team fired him.

Turns out, while he was busy preparing for the Monte Carlo Rally, cigarette sponsor Rothmans asked Röhrl to film some promotional spots. Röhrl didn’t smoke, and he didn’t want to promote smoking. He clashed with Opel team manager Tony Fall, and he told Fall he was hired as a driver, not an actor.

Soon, Lancia scooped up Rörhl to drive the 037 against Mikkola and Mouton at Audi. With his rear-drive experience honed at Opel, he felt at home. And with nothing to prove, he could afford to selectively concentrate.

“I did not want to be world champion anymore, the excitement was too big for me,” he would reminisce, years later, for German magazine Welt. “I just wanted to ride my favorite rallies: Monte Carlo, San Remo, Corsica, Portugal, Greece. That was okay for Lancia.”

1983 Lancia 037 front view
1983 Lancia 037 Michael Sheehan/
1983 Lancia 037 rear
1983 Lancia 037 Michael Sheehan/

1983 Lancia 037 interior
1983 Lancia 037 Michael Sheehan/
1983 Lancia 037 engine
1983 Lancia 037 Michael Sheehan/

Lancia’s team principal was Cesare Fiorio, who as legend tells it was an Italian Smokey Yunick: he knew all the tricks. “If you want to compete in motorsports, you have to know the rules you have to face,” he said in a segment for Amazon’s The Grand Tour. “You must try to be a bit clever.”

The 1983 season started, as always, with the Monte Carlo Rally: seven days and 30 stages of ice, where Fiorio knew that the Quattro would dominate. So Fiorio ordered 300 tons of salt delivered from Italy, then secretly spread it across the track from the team truck; he convinced the French authorities to help salt the roads, because, he advised, think of the safety of the spectators! When the 037 started, it went four kilometers before switching its winter tires to slicks. The pitstop cost a minute, but it was worth it: by some estimates, Lancia led the Audis by 11 minutes. Röhrl and co-driver Christian Geistdörfer dominated 11 of the 31 stages.

A racing season is a numbers game: it’s all about the points. Rack them up at the events you know you can win, and take a knee when it gets too daunting—no need to break the car or place low. Lancia skipped the Swedish Rally, placed third at the Rallye de Portugal, and then skipped the Safari Rally after that. But in Corsica Lancia knew it could handle the smooth, dry dirt of the Tour de Corse. So it entered a whopping four cars, believing that no matter how well Audi did, it would place at best fifth. No matter. Both Audis retired with reliability problems, and Lancia savored a 1-2-3 finish.

1983 Audi quattro A2, Group B
1983 Audi quattro A2, Group B Audi Sverige

The rest of the season was a close battle. Röhrl won at the Acropolis Rally, then the Rally New Zealand. Mikkola and co-driver Arne Hertz took the Audi to the podium in Argentina, then at the famous 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland. Here, Mouton’s Quattro caught fire. Following her teammate Mikkola’s advice, she put it out by driving into one of the 1000 lakes.

The last race Lancia entered was at home in Italy, in San Remo. With 58 grueling stages covering 775 kilometers it was the longest rally in Europe. San Remo was loathed for its dust, the great equalizer: after one car left the staging area, it would take an entire minute for the dust to settle. Take off before then and you couldn’t see a thing. So at the starting line the Lancia team fiddled with their seatbelts, adjusted their fireproof suits—and then took off.

Röhrl and the 037 hit their stride. Here, the car was a dream—it was so fluid, so perfect, that he could place it anywhere on the road, he do anything, and “nobody could beat me.” In yet another 1-2-3 finish for Lancia, he placed second. “It was precise like a Formula racing car,” Rörhl told Car and Driver. “That was the one I liked the most.”

Lancia skipped the last two events; Fiorio and company didn’t need to go. They won the 1983 Constructors’ championship over Audi by just two points.

1983 Lancia 037 profile
1983 Lancia 037 Michael Sheehan/

Rear-wheel drive’s day was done

Despite his love for the Lancia, Röhrl left his perfect car behind for 1984 and went to Audi. He saw the future. “With the 037 I had one of the most beautiful rally years of my life,” he told Welt, “but I also noticed that it cannot be done without the all-wheel drive.”

The 037 soldiered on for another two years, slipping every year in the standings. Eventually, Lancia figured out AWD. Midway through 1985, Lancia introduced the S4, its last gasp in Group B, which would dissolve as a class by 1986 following several driver and spectator deaths.

In 1987, Lancia’s Delta Integrale HF competed with a three-differential system, packing a Ferguson center and a Torsen rear differential. It won its first outing in Monte Carlo, with Italian Massimo ‘Miki’ Biasion behind the wheel, before going on to claim six more victories and its first championship in Group A (the FIA’s then-new highest echelon for international rallying). By the time the company bowed out in 1991, the Delta had racked up 46 victories and six consecutive WRC championships.

Gone but still adored, the wild 037 was a bridge between eras that won’t soon be forgotten.

S/N 305

As with many legendary race cars, you can own a Lancia 037 if you’ve got the scratch. In fact you can buy the very car we’re talking about, serial number 305, which may be the most important Lancia rally car of its generation. It was piloted by Röhrl himself, it won the 1983 Monte Carlo Rally, and it was the first Lancia rally car to wear its Martini stripes. For non-rally nerds, it may be difficult to imagine how earth-shattering this car was—and how it isn’t in a museum, but in a private collection, owned by mere mortals.

Its history traces back to January 5, 1983, the day it was first registered by Fiat. After its season, it and a few other now-obsolete 037s wound up in the hands of a Giuseppe Volta, whose shop helped support the 037 program. He restored it sometime in the mid-1980s and passed it on to a Greek collector in London, who kept it until 2015, before commissioning it with Coys of Kensington. At the Blenheim Palace auction in July 2015, it was Lot #179, where it sold for an unknown price.

Now in Germany, it is being sold through the website, and the price is 995,000 Euros, or best offer, though if you have to ask, you probably shouldn’t. The listing states helpfully that it is “user-friendly and predictable to drive.” Or, as Röhrl once said on Amazon’s The Grand Tour: “The Lancia is a perfect thing.”

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