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Top Gear’s coolest racing cars: Lancia 037

The 037 was an adept rear-drive rally car and a cult road car icon, too

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The early 1980s loom large when it comes to rally cars for a crushingly good reason – it was the unrepeatable, unsurpassably brilliant Group B era.

This was a time of high-speed techno madness, but, better still, car manufacturers had to homologate 200 cars for road use in order to qualify for the WRC. Audi Quattro SWB, Metro 6R4, Peugeot 205 T16, Ford RS200 –take your pick.

We’d happily have any one of them – yes, even the Metro – preferably on a private island getaway with a dozen special stages and an unlimited supply of high octane fuel.

Then there’s the Lancia 037. Yes, we know this is supposed to be a list of coolest racing cars, but this week we’re in street mode and entering the back door stage right on full opposite lock.

In Stradale (aka street) form, the 037 is surely the prettiest of all the admittedly bombastic Group B road-legal spin-offs, a chiselled slice of pure Italian mid-engined lunacy, with hungry wheelarches, flared bodywork and mostly ill-fitting Kevlar-infused fibreglass body panels. This isn’t just a cool car, it’s one of the coolest things ever.

Lancia in 2016 is a distressingly diminished commodity, but back in the day it had a brand pull and allure to match BMW. Not only was the competition world changing, the 037 also had the tricky task of replacing the Stratos, Lancia’s Ferrari-engined triple-world championship WRC ballistic missile.

Its development was entrusted to Abarth, now part of the Fiat empire and enjoying huge success with the 131 saloon in world rallying. Pininfarina was hired to design it, Dallara to finesse the chassis and set-up. This is a holy trinity of Italian automotive forces, and a miracle ensued.

Let’s stick with the Stradale for a moment. Like that other quirky Lancia, the Beta Monte Carlo, the chassis consisted of a central tub with steel spaceframes at the front and rear. It had double wishbone suspension, Brembo brakes and Kugelfisher fuel injection.

Its supercharged 2.0-litre engine was based on the 131 Abarth’s, and good for a piffling-by-modern-standards 205bhp, although with only 1170kg to haul along, performance was vivid enough. Top speed was 140mph, 0-62mph 5.8 seconds, since you ask.

The engine was mounted longitudinally, rather than transversely, while the 037 was notably rear-drive. In competition form, it debuted at the Costa Smeralda in 1982, initially touting 280bhp (increased to 300 and then 325bhp in the later evolution), but there were teething problems that lead driver Marku Alen couldn’t magic away, and ’82 was really a prelude to the 037’s big score.

Walter Rohrl, 1982’s driver’s champion, joined Alen at Lancia for 1983, and the Martini-liveried 037 won the opening round in Monte Carlo before racking up a further four overall victories.

Audi driver Hannu Mikkola shaded Rohrl to ultimate driver’s honours, but Lancia was the victorious constructor – and significantly, the last to triumph in a rear-drive car. Four-wheel drive would soon be the only way to go, and Lancia’s answer would come in the form of the brutish, super- and turbocharged Delta S4. TG.com has sampled one of those, and it’s the most violently accelerative car we’ve ever been in. But that’s another story…

Lancia 037 (in comp spec)

Years: 1982-1985

Notable drivers: Walter Rohrl, Marku Alen

Engine: 2.0-litre, four cylinders, supercharged, 300bhp

Key moments: winning in the 1983 Monte Carlo rally. If it’s the Stradale you’re talking about, simply seeing one is a key moment

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