The Integrale causes a similarly unnerving effect on fellow road users…
When first spotted in the rear-view mirrors most motorists assume the Integrale to be nothing more than another hatchback. But there’s a point (about two car lengths back and six inches to the right of their centreline) where the Integrale’s front seems to distort and bulge in their mirror, to the accompaniment of that ‘well ‘ard’ unblinking stare from the four headlights, and you can see the driver have their own Billy Crystal moment. Doesn’t matter how quickly or confidently they were driving before, or what they’re driving, you can see them visibly squirm in their seat and then move, apologetically, into the inner lane.
You get pretty adept at it over time. Five car lengths, four, three, two…slight blend to the right…pause…and through we go. Most satisfying. And none of the need for that ‘self-important-prat-coming-through’ flashing of headlights so beloved of BMW drivers that usually only succeeds in ensuring that the car in front clings to the outside lane like a Scotsman clinging to a pound coin and adjusts its speed to 69.9 mph…
This ability to intimidate cars out of the way is one of many things that, together, ensure that the Integrale’s ‘real world’ ground-covering ability remains as potent and unmatched today as was ever the case. True, there are some very obvious features of the car that help explain this away (‘proper’ four wheel drive and a 2-litre turbocharged engine, for example), but plenty of others that are maybe less immediately apparent: excellent all-round visibility afforded by Giugiaro’s clean hatchback design, compact ‘chuckable’ dimensions afforded by same, handling limits that are so much higher than the average driver’s that inevitable ‘Mama!‘ moments of misjudgement are shrugged off by the car itself, and (and this is where it really scores over its rivals) people actually let you of side turnings! With Lancia having been out of the UK market for more than ten years now, there is none of the ‘Don’t think for a moment I’m letting you out in that!’ mentality that affects other motorists when they encounter Porsches, Ferraris, or BMWs (again).
‘Ah yes!’ you cry. ‘But aren’t you overlooking a teensy-weensy Achilles-heel of an impediment – to wit, it’s a left-hooker?’ Well, to be honest, until you mentioned it, I’d kind of forgotten that it was. True, if you’ve never driven left-hand drive before, it’s a bit of a novelty for the first….oh, I dunno…ten miles? After that (and I’ve had this Integrale for six years now) it’s no longer an issue, and instead simply becomes ‘Where I sit when I’m in me ‘Grale, innit?’ In fact, I seem to remember that even in those first ten miles, it wasn’t locating the gearlever or positioning the car on the road that took conscious effort, it was simply that the rear-view mirror wasn’t where you expect it to be (that, and the fact that to this day I still occasionally, and embarrassingly, return to the wrong side of the car at petrol stations…)
A criticism often made of left-hand drive cars on UK roads is that they make overtaking unnecessarily difficult. This is only really true if your idea of overtaking consists of tucking right up against the back end of the lorry/bus/van in front, and then swerving into the opposite lane, checking the coast is clear, and flooring it. On the other hand, if you didn’t go to The Numpty School of Overtaking, and prefer instead to hang back, gently move out, and then accelerate, you have no problem (true, I wouldn’t particularly care to drive an underpowered left-hooker on UK roads, but the Integrale’s mid-range punch means that as you’re passing the back of the lorry/bus/van, the experience from the driver’s seat is similar to that enjoyed by Han Solo as the Millennium Falcon makes the jump to light speed…)
I have however discovered one thing that can endow the Integrale with the overtaking ability of a supertanker in dry dock: sitting Mrs P in the passenger seat. The problem is that I know what an Integrale-sized overtaking gap looks like: small. The Memsahib, used to driving around in the family wagon, doesn’t. Imagine you’re on a long straight road like the A1 and you’re just outside London. Now imagine that another car is coming down the A1 in the opposite direction and has just crossed the border from Scotland into England. Well….well, I guess you get the picture. It would be bad enough in any car, but of course in a left-hooker your nervous passenger becomes guinea pig, seeing any oncoming traffic first as you edge out and….WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME!?!?!? After a while the domestic grief means you give up trying, and spend the rest of the journey staring at the ‘How’s My Driving?’ sticker on the vehicle in front, rueing what might have been (with Integrale Evo II front seats now swapping hands for anything up to a grand apiece, you’re also acutely aware of the trade-off between short-term overtaking gain, and long-term fingernail grip-damage to Alcantara covered bolster cushion).
In fact, the only time I’ve ever made ‘spirited’ progress cross-country with Mrs P in the passenger seat was a few years back when England United were playing somewhere called France in a game of Association Football. On a glorious Summer’s evening, on roads that were emptier than Mark Webber’s trophy cabinet, we flew along for mile after mile with nary a murmur of complaint from the old girl as she responded to my command, doing exactly as she was told (hang on, I think I’m getting confused between the ‘Grale and the wife here).
The Integrale also shines on the track. This site’s esteemed Managing Editor has long berated me for not furnishing him with shots of the ‘Grale in extremis (conveniently overlooking the technical problems inherent in simultaneously driving the car and standing by the roadside armed with a camera) – leading many to believe that the car spends its life tucked up in a studio doing interviews for Hello. However, last Summer I did get to enjoy hooning around the sprint track at Curborough in the company of other Integrales, and Lancias in general, at an event staged by Club LanciaSport. This was a truly excellent event for three reasons: the short twisty nature of the track was well-suited to the Integrale’s punchy dynamic characteristics; fellow Integrale owner and pro photographer Nick Lukey (www.nslphotographics.com) was on hand to record the event and supply the photos that accompany this article; and the sun shone!
All in all, the Integrale has few equals. It really is a car for all seasons, and six years on I still struggle to think what I’d ever replace it with. I did at one point become rather smitten with a o – but it belonged to a chum of mine, and he’s got a beard (sorry Adam!).
For now though, and for the foreseeable future, I’m sticking with the ‘Grale. In the words of Ferris Bueller: “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend you get one…”