Cars: Feast your eyes on the ugly old car worth US$1m

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on June 13, 2019.

The Lancia Delta S4, nicknamed ‘Stradale’, has two doors, two seats and a hatchback rear end. Photos by Bloomberg

The rear half of the S4 opens like a clamshell to give mechanics easy access to the engine during races.

The S4 is a five-speed manual car with supercharging, turbocharging and all-wheel-drive. It does not have a radio.

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HERE is a contender for the loveliest ugly car you have ever seen.

The Lancia Delta S4’s quilted-together clamshell body looks like an early IBM computer, or a maroon conference-centre telephone from the 1980s, belying its almost godlike status in certain circles. The rig achieved notoriety in the Group B racing series, global rally competitions during the 1980s that birthed some of the fastest, most powerful and most sophisticated cars ever made.

The Delta S4, nicknamed “Stradale”, is also revered for its extreme rarity. Just 200 of them crossed the production line from 1985 to 1986. Of those, many met their demise — in part due to a notorious propensity to combust on impact — during races, while others were secretly crunched by the factory for reasons unknown.

Phillip Toledano, the British artist and car aficionado who owns the 1985 S4 that I drove late in May in New Jersey, said his research shows 64 left in the world.

“With the S4, there’s this romanticism in the proximity to legend,” Toledano said. “Group B was so unhinged, and it was the ultimate representation of that mentality. In their day, these cars were doing zero to 60mph (96.56kph) — on gravel — in 2.3 seconds. That was faster than Formula One cars.”

Toledano bought his S4 three years ago from a shop in Japan. He had previously owned a Lancia Stratos and a Lancia 037 Rally, but he was taken with the idea of owning the champion that Lancia had developed to compete with the dominant Audi Quattro.

The one he found, chassis No 10, was in near-perfect condition, with just 2,500km on the odometer. The original “orgy of Alcantara” fabric, as he put it, remained intact, splashed all over the interior seats, doors and ceiling. It even had the original Martini Racing floor mats and Plexiglas windows that slide open sideways for quick access during races. That same commitment to expediency also explains the odd way the car splits in half as you lift the entire rear end: Repairs during Group B racing came frequently and on the fly, so it made sense to make it as easy as possible for mechanics to get at the tangle of pipes, hoses, pistons and cables lodged underneath all the honey-coloured Alcantara.

“At the time when it was racing, it was the most advanced car out there because it was supercharged and turbocharged and had four-wheel-drive,” Toledano said. “These are technologies we see now, but at the time it was an incredible amount of engineering. And the crazy thing is in the 1980s, you could buy these things. They were cheap.”

These days, not so much.

At an RM Sotheby’s auction in April, a 1985 Lancia Delta S4 Stradale in the exact colour as Toledano’s was sold for €1.04 million (US$1.17 million or RM4.89 million), up considerably since a different 1985 S4 took US$423,000 at Bonhams in August 2018.

You can buy its sister model, the four-door Lancia Delta Integrale, for far less — and far less prestige. Bring a Trailer lists some online for anywhere from US$30,000 to US$70,000.  

The values of both are rising, said Hagerty spokesman Jonathan Klinger.

“The appeal of the Group B rally cars — such as the Delta S4, Renault R5 Turbo, Peugeot 205 T16, Ford RS200 and Audi Sport Quattro — is the wild performance contained in a body that looks vaguely like an econobox, but wider and with more vents and wings,” he said.

According to the Hagerty Price Guide values, the value of the more common Lancia Delta Integrale Evolution 2, for instance, has increased by 60% from 2016 to now. A similar rise is expected for the S4. “The RM sale could be a sign that values are on the way up for the Delta S4,” Klinger said.

Driving the legend

Get behind the wheel of the four-cylinder, 500-horsepower (hp) coupe, and it is easy to see how it earned its reputation. (Combined with a lightweight Kevlar body and thrust-y transmission, its plucky little engine produced racing feats that would become legendary. Lancia still holds the record for the most world rally championship victories of any automaker, while the Delta model line in particular remains the most successful ever to compete in rallying.) The short gearbox shifts smoothly and quickly. The steering is so precise and nimble, and the car whips so thrillingly, that even the kindest pilot will become an instant aggressor drunk on power and dopamine.

The brakes, of course, are less than attentive. They feel spongy even when you stomp on them. And while the headroom and shoulder room inside will facilitate even helmets for drivers, the footwells narrow down to a single-leg size towards the front of the car. (You are sitting directly over the gas tank, a deadly combination for anyone in the S4 on major impact.) But who needs brakes when you are racing anyway? Good drivers know that winning is just about weight and momentum management.

The best thing about the S4 is that as you drive, you are never “off-boost” — you have access to immediate and intoxicating engine power at all times. That is because as you press the gas, the supercharger fills in where the turbocharger is not, eliminating the moment of lag that turbo engines infamously proffer.

How does it sound? Like an old buzz saw operated by a maniacal gardener. The whole neighbourhood will know you are coming.

“It’s just so exciting to drive,” Toledano said as we stopped at a gas station to switch drivers along the Jersey turnpike. He paused to snap a photo of the car with his cell phone. “See, my hands get shaky when I drive it! It’s all the adrenaline. I love it.” — Bloomberg