Curbside Classic: 1982 Lancia Rally 037 Stradale – Group B-List Stardom Attained

Even people like me who know next to nothing about rallying know that those crazy speeds on gravel and snow can only be achieved with 4WD. But there was a time, before the Audi Quattro, when two wheels could steer and the other two would push, and that was that. The last such car to win a WRC title was the Lancia Rally 037.

Back in the ‘70s, there was an incredible racing machine called the Lancia Stratos. It utterly dominated the European rally car scene between 1974 and 1979 – so much so that even within Fiat, who owned Lancia, the Stratos’ success ended up ruffling a few feathers. Fiat wanted something with their name on it and imposed the Abarth 131, but a number of privateer-run Stratos stubbornly remained there.

The Fiat 131 had had its time, though its Lampredi-designed 2-litre DOHC engine was good enough to be carried over to the next project, which Abarth pushed on with very quickly. The FISA rules for the WRC were going to be changed again for the 1982 season, starting with allowing 4WD drivetrains to compete. But unlike Audi, Abarth did not have enough time to design a rally car with such a drivetrain, so a stopgap car would need to be fielded for the first few rounds of the new Group B.

One of the new rules for this new category was that 200 road-legal cars had to be made (and sold) for homologation purposes. This was far less than in Group A, where 5000 cars had to be produced, and thus the design could be a lot more bespoke. Working under the direction of Sergio Limone, the Abarth team devised a new mid-engined car, internally dubbed SE037, using a tubular frame and built around the central body shell of the Lancia Beta Montecarlo.

The suspension was also new, with double wishbones all around, including a twin shock absorber setup at the rear. Unlike the Montecarlo, the engine in the 037 was longitudinal, so that there would be enough room for the suspension and to enable better access to the transmission – the same ZF 5-speed transaxle used in the BMW M1.

The Lampredi 2-litre was given an Abarth-made supercharger, churning out 255hp in its initial state of tune for the track cars. This was upped to 280hp when the Weber was replaced by a fuel injection system in 1983. The 200 Stradale cars like our CC had a de-tuned engine, good for 205hp.

Up front, there was just enough room to have a spare tyre, a jack and a spanner or two. Well, it’s not meant to be a long-distance GT, obviously.

Even as the year 1981 was coming to a close and the 037 was nearing completion, the matter of the car’s identity remained unclear. Internally, this was a pure Abarth project, but the marque, absorbed by Fiat ten years prior, was always hyphenated with something else.

In the end, the fact that the central portion of the body was hewn from a Lancia model was enough to push the car’s grille to bear the famous shield badge, though a few scorpions would also adorn the sides for good measure.

The design was made in-house by Abarth, then brought over to Pininfarina for a few “refinements.” Head designer Leonardo Fioravanti was allegedly appalled by the 037’s looks, but did as he was told. The Lancia grille was stuck on the front end; the road cars got rear lights off the Beta Montecarlo, whereas the out-and-out rally cars got smaller round ones from the old Fiat 850.

Our feature car was given all the right decals and paintwork to look like a rally car, but it’s certainly not one of those. The tell-tale signs abound, but if there are any lingering doubts, they will be removed by taking just one look inside. Corduroy seats with red piping are not usually seen in rally cars…

There are a few other differences between the Stradale and the pure rally car, but not clearly visible. The structure is identical, but the rally cars’ front and rear ends are made of very light polyester resin panels, whereas the Stradale is made of Kevlar with glassfiber reinforcements. Combined with a far more comfortable cabin, the Stradale is heavier by about 150kg.

So how did this mid-engined wonder fare in the new Group B? Well, there were a few teething troubles for 1982, leaving Audi to capture the championship title, with Opel coming in second place and Nissan a distant third. But for 1983, it all came together for the Lancia team: the car was behaving well, the top 1982 driver Walter Röhrl was in the driving seat (along with Markku Alén) and the stars aligned to give Lancia the title – by a whisker. This was to be the last time a strictly RWD car would win the WRC.

In 1984, Lancia fielded a slightly improved 037 with a 2.1 litre engine good for over 300hp, but Audi were unbeatable – Lancia only finished one race in first place. And the following year was the advent of the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, and by this point the 4WD Lancia Delta S4 was taking over within the Martini Team as well.

The Group B madness was stopped abruptly when, by 1986, the body count had climbed to alarming levels. It had been a wild ride, with many firsts along the way. And the last RWD winner in the rather peculiar, but not unpleasant, shape of the Lancia Rally 037. Good way to end this “Thoroughbred Week,” I guess. Let’s see what next week brings us!