One of the most outrageous competition machines ever built, a mighty 1983 Lancia 037 rally car, rushed past us, its exhaust snorting and popping as it hunkered down the coastal Florida highway on its way to Amelia Island.
I stepped on the gas of the 1969 Lancia Fulvia rally car I was driving and it roared to life, the tiny 1.3-liter V4 engine pumping out a surprisingly high level of intensity. This was thrilling, piloting one of Lancia’s great historic race cars that had done battle on some of the world’s most-famous and treacherous rally circuits.
The glory days of Lancia rally racing were on the road and headed to the recent Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, four generations of the champion cars driving in convoy from Jacksonville to Amelia. The cars are part of the collection of Jacksonville rally enthusiast John Campion, who was taking them to the concours to be shown as part of this year’s Exotic Rally Class.
Sure, he could have trucked them in, as most people do with their rare competition cars, but the ebullient Irish-American businessman has his own way of doing things with a flair for showmanship. So he arranged to have the four wicked racers drive under police escort on the back roads that run through the marshy seaside, some 30 miles in all.
Best of all, at least from my perspective, Campion offered me the chance to drive one of them. I chose the Fulvia for two reasons: First, I love these cars, and when would I get a chance to drive an all-out factory race version? Second, I’m rather on the tall side (six-foot-six) and the Fulvia was the only one that would accommodate me. Case closed.
Campion, the executive chairman of APR Energy, has a terrific collection of mostly European sports cars and race cars – Ferraris, Alfas, Porsches and the like – but the Lancia rally cars are what seem to speak to him the loudest. As he tells it, his passion for World Rally was cast when he was growing up in rural Cork, Ireland, where the sport was a national favorite.
He even recalls the exact moment it clicked.
“I’m 13 years old, with my dad and my brother,” Campion said. “It’s 7 o’clock in the morning, the sun is rising, the mist is coming up through the trees. And we hear this screaming sound. A Lancia Stratos flies out of the mist, sideways, in the air. I never forgot that. It was like it came from another world. That for me, that was it.”
The ultra-exotic 1976 Stratos was driven by none other than Irish rally star Billy Coleman, Campion learned. Many years later, after Campion had made his fortune in America, he searched for the Stratos that had started it all for him.
“I tried to buy that very car, but it was crashed four different times and there was nothing left of it,” he said.
But he did find another 1976 Stratos, a factory-built race car that had been used by a private team, and that’s the one he bought. It is an aggressive-looking thing, all flares and scoops and air foils, with a stance that seems poised to strike.
“That is gorgeous,” Charles Lennon, one of my fellow guest drivers from Ridgewood, New Jersey, said during a stop on the sand along an inlet. “When that car came out, it was just so over the top.”
The Fulvia and the Stratos were the earliest cars of the group, the ones that had forged Lancia’s reputation as a World Rally champion. The 037 represented the next generation. This one was a multiple rally-winning example of the fire-spitting supercharged Group B cars of the 1980s, when an 037 became the last rear-wheel-drive car to win the World Rally Championship.
The fourth car, an all-wheel-drive 1988 Lancia Delta, came after the Group B racers were banned, and it ruled WRC as one of Lancia’s most-successful rally cars, winning six manufacturers championships and 46 rally victories, a record that still stands.
Before we left Campion’s compound in Jacksonville, he warned us all to be cautious when driving the competition machines: “You guys are not used to driving these cars, and they can be dangerous.”
He also noted, “These are old rally cars, and they will break.”
Already, he and a crew that included his brother, Edmund, had spent much of the early morning hours getting the cars in order for the trip. The Fulvia, for instance, was running hot, so Edmund had stopped at Pep Boys for an electric cooling fan that they attached to the radiator with zip ties. It worked just fine.
The Delta was not so lucky. At about 10 miles into the tour, it suddenly started blowing gales of thick smoke from its tailpipe. We all pulled over to see if anything could be done to fix it, but it apparently had blown a seal in its turbocharger, so it was done for the day. Campion called for a trailer, which toted it the rest of the way to Amelia.
Much of the drive was at modest highway speeds, the lead patrol car keeping us in check. But at one point, the police closed down a mile-long bridge that curved over a strand on the sparsely traveled road and let us go at it.
We crossed that bridge three times, ripping though the gears, the shrieking exhaust notes sounding over the marsh. The 037 was as wildly powerful as advertised, and the Stratos looked like some kind of extra-terrestrial beast.
And the Fulvia sang a full-throated song of past triumphs as I enjoyed the magic of the moment.
A few days later, the sight of the four Lancias lined up on a grassy knoll at the Amelia Island Concours brought it all back again.