Lancia Stratos

I was quite frankly relieved to climb out of Alex Moore’s Lancia Stratos — my shoulders were stiff, my gear-changing arm ached, and my fingers were numb with the pummelling through the steering wheel. And I was hooked. As soon as I had straightened up, an intense compulsion to leap into it again gripped me — to subject the ears to that blood-curdling wail, the body to that powerboat buffeting, and the senses to mere fleeting images of the ordinary world. For driving a Stratos is not an ordinary experience. The metaphor of the jet-fighter returns irresistibly as hedges peel away on each side of that semi-circular screen, and the alarmingly narrow flightpath unravels before the invisible nose of the machine.

It was built for one purpose only — to beat all other manufacturers in the international rally field and give Lancia the World Championship for Makes. It did that in 1974, 1975 and 1976, and despite being replaced in the Fiat I Lancia group’s promotion strategy by the more commercial Fiat 131 Abarth in 1978, continued to win at international level for several years, including a fourth victory in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1979. That was its only purpose, and the fact that homologation required 400 cars us be built was simply an expensive headache for the company. But that same requirement meant that a few lucky enthusiasts, two or three hundred at most, were able to buy a car which not only performed like a racing car, but looked sensational too.

Those striking lines are the work of Beetone, who unwittingly landed themselves the project by presenting an astonishing car at the 1970 Turin Show using Lancia Fulvia V4 mechanicals. That vehicle, called “Stratus”, caught the imagination of the Lancia competition team under its boss Cesare Fiorio just at the time when the need for a purpose-built mid-engined rally-car had become undeniable, and while the old Fulvia engine was inadequate, Lancia’s recent acquisition by Fiat allowed them to tap the resources of Ferrari, also by now part of the giant Fiat empire. The fruit of this corporation composite was revealed at the Turin show of 1971.

Only the name Stratus was carried forward; the new body was beautifully balanced and broke new ground in styling terms, using a narrow semi-circular cabin on top of a broad wedge with almost flat front wheel arches. While these elements had already appeared in 1969 on a Bertone project for an open 2-seater, the Autobianchi Runabout, that was nothing more than a show-car. But now the Carrozzeria were proposing to build hundreds of these stubby coupes — and with Ferrari engines! It seemed like a fantasy, but in Fiorio’s eyes here was the perfect power-unit. The 2.4litre V6 had been in relatively large-scale production to power both Ferrari and Fiat Dinos, and in the former utilised the ideal transverse layout with a five-speed gearbox. It was a strong unit with plenty of tuning potential, though obviously expensive, and for a while Lancia management played with the idea of offering the car with a Fulvia V4 or Beta 4-in-line engine to broaden its marketing prospects. Possibly to allow for this scheme, the figure of 1,000 units was mentioned at Bertone, where the shells were w be manufactured, but estimates of the final number assembled range from 430 to 490. II seems extraordinary now that many of these sat unwanted at the Lancia plant for several years after assembly, which started in 1974 and finished the following year, and that the Stratus was listed as available new as late as 1978, but the oil crisis had hit high-performance cars, and after all, the Stratos fell short of its supercar rivals from Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche if you worried about noise or comfort.

It was engineered to be tough and to cope with very rough surfaces. Thus the structure centred around a steel cockpit of great strength with a forward frame to carry the front suspension and a rear cradle for the engine suspension package, leaving the fibreglass outer body-panels unstressed. These, when tilted open for maintenance, show just what a compact chassis the Stratos has, its short 85.8 in wheelbase only slightly overhung by its 12 ft length. Many parts from Fiat group were used — some obvious such as the X1/9 doorhandles, and some less visible, like the Lancia Beta struts at the rear. The fabricated front suspension used a strong transverse arm and a brake reaction strut to form the lower of the two wishbones, while the bottom of the rear strut was located by a reversed wishbone and reaction strut. All suspension settings were fully adjustable. With a radiator in the nose and a full sized spare behind that, the private owner must be grateful for the small boot in the tail which will take a weekend’s luggage, but together with the enormous door pockets this makes the car quite useable.

Between 16 and 21 Stratos are thought to be in Britain, but amongst all examples of the make, that owned by Alex Moore of Bedford is unique. Instead of the 190 bhp of the standard car, with its Weber carburetters, it boasts a four-valve head with Kugelfischer fuel injection which results in 265 bhp at 8,000 rpm. Add to this fully rose-jointed suspension and works rally pattern magnesium alloy rims with huge Countachsized Pirelli P7s, and the result is one of the most exciting road machines imaginable.

Although 24-valve engines were used by the Lancia team, Moore’s car sports a rare big-valve set-up, developed by an Italian hill-climb team, which he purchased to replace the 12-valve heads. The car was bought by him in standard road trim in 1979 with only 1,854 km recorded, but in 1980 the original 12-valve engine was replaced by a competition 12-valve unit including a Group 4 gearbox. However, when spares and components from the Italian hillclimb team became available, Moore’s company, Rosso Corsa Ltd, started to rebuild it to a much higher specification. Although purchased at different times, the injection system and the 24-valve heads proved to be Part of the same unit, which made the reassembly slightly easier. The whole system, though, was an unknown quantity, even for Rosso Corsa, who specialise in Ferrari and Stratos restoration. (Interestingly, the company are currently rebuilding a prototype 24-valve engine which Ferrari built for the Dino but did not produce.) Certain items had to be specially made, including pistons from Cosworth, while oil cooling is by air rather than the water system used on the team cars.

Drive ratios can be changed easily on the close-ratio competition ‘box, and a tripleplate clutch drives to a ZF limited slip differential. Mounted on the magnesium alloy wheels (8 in front, 12 in rear) are P7 tyres, the fronts being 205/50 VR 15 and the tears an enormous 345/35 VR 15. Carrying a proper spare is out of the question, so a “spacesaver” of 18 in diameter sits in the nose; it also improves the airflow through the twin electric fans behind the front radiator.

As the car was intended for some hill-climbing, the suspension was rebuilt to tarmac specification, all rubber being eliminated, and a high-ratio steering rack fitted. The interior was also refurbished, the original flimsy carpeting replaced, soda new dash made with a more legible layout.

All this work took place in 1984, and when the Strains was finally ready in January of this year, Motor Sport was invited to drive it. For a long-time enthusiast of the model this was a rare opportunity, and I have to say that my heart quickened as Alex Moore rolled the lime green projectile out of the Rosso Corso premises, a one-time laundry in the village of Bromham, Beds. It readily burst into clattering and whirring life, and after a gentle warming-up of a few miles with its owner at the wheel, it was my turn to slide across the wide sills into the tall narrow bucket seats. Plugging in the four-point harness, I looked around.

The driver sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the passenger in the middle of the vehicle, a long way away from the bulging side panels. Like all Stratus, it is left-hand-drive; the nose is invisible, and so is everything behind that cannot be squeezed into the view of the tiny door mirrors. The interior mirror gives a close-up of the air-cleaner. A stiff clutch pedal is balanced by a very heavy throttle — is it going to prove a horror in traffic? But no, we move off easily enough, feeling incongruous amongst Cavaliers and Metros. Before long, that quick steering asserts itself — glance toward the further mirror and the car follows, risking catching a kerb or bollard with those huge projecting wheels. The stiff gearchange responds best to double-declutching up as well as down, and the car prefers to potter through town in fourth rather than be kept in the lower gears. It all seems quite uncritical — until a multiple stall at the traffic-lights brings me down to earth again. Can it be that this is going to prove a disappointment?

No. At last we find open roads, and the little car comes alive. Intake and cam noise accompany each gearful of acceleration. Trees and traffic blur in the slanting side windows, while you concentrate fiercely on steering. Imagine throwing away the wheel and grabbing a steering arm in each hand – that is how responsive it feels. In the corners it is perfectly weighted, sketching out every camber, but you can guide it just as well with .the right foot -even with the tyres gripping perfectly the nose flicks in if you feather the throttle. There is an odd contrast between the delicate wheel movements and the sheer effort of pushing the lever through the gate. But if your choice of gears was right, and you kept the throttle open, it corners with utter confidence – no roll, no drama, just time to glance ahead and snick the next gear home without a pause in the headlong rush. The occasional car seems to shoot backwards towards us and is swallowed up in the wail of exhaust after a squint in the mirror and a twitch of the wheel. A touch on the horn offers notice of our intended overtaking – the pop-up lights are too slow for flashing. This is a car which feels safe on the road, not just fast. With its great reserves of power, grip and braking, its driver can allow good margins of safety in all situations – at least in the dry: a surprise tight bend suddenly proves that a Stratos will understeer if provoked. On wet roads, presumably, a great deal of skill is going to be called for.

For once, passing through the odd small town is welcomed as a chance to get one’s breath back, but although the Ferrari engine is not exactly temperamental, its gaping twin 35mm inlet valves make car and driver impatient to escape again, even though after several glorious hours, my muscles are beginning to complain. The Stratos does not pretend to be comfortable; it was and is a competition machine, with minimal sound-proofing (wonderful!), a hard ride (of course), and few comforts.

Few distractions, in fact, from the business of covering a lot of ground in a short space of time – but preferably in short bursts. It would be difficult to drive this car all day in the way it deserves to be driven. Sheer exhilaration helps to cover up the effort of changing gear, fast and positive but stiffening up as it gets warm, the ringing in the ears of that characteristic twin-cam noise, and the continual sudden changes of direction up, down and sideways. Now, as then, there are cars which are faster, smoother, quieter, and certainly easier to drive, but this is a challenge, a sort of Formula 1 Lotus 7.

Alex Moore has made good some of the rather scrappy original details, such as the windscreen surround which he has replaced with a neat aluminium one, and has had to fabricate an exhaust system which looks a little agricultural under the slender tail. But the vital element is undoubtedly that engine. Stretching the needle around to 8,500 rpm (still leaving 500 revs in hand before the cut-out) will propel you to 61 mph, with successive ratios giving 86, 109, 136 and a theoretical 167 mph; having felt the pull at high revs I imagine that stability (or the driver’s nerve) is going to fade before the engine does, whatever the actual top figure.

Heading homewards is the worst sort of let-down. Tea-time queues and traffic-lights conspired to replace adrenalin with bile, when all I wanted to do was aim the little green projectile along some moorland road. Like a thoroughbred hunter, it resented being reined in, and it made me feel like a champion jockey, but in the same way it would probably appreciate being wound down slowly, as would I… One final blast back to Bromham and it only remained to thread it carefully between a pair of gateposts and reluctantly switch off. What remains is the recollection of just how intense the various sensations were; it is at its best under full throttle, nervous in light braking but foursquare when the 10 in. vented discs are really biting. Although unservoed, braking effort is nothing compared to the other pedals, but it is only on stepping out of the car that one realises how tiring it can be. Nevertheless, I can only envy owners of these eye-catching machines their access to a sort of motoring drug which must be hard to kick.

This was the first of the “homologation specials”; it was simple, sturdy, and effective, and surviving examples continue to be so. Engine work is costly, panels are rare, windscreens extremely precious, but most owners drive and enjoy their slowly appreciating toy. How easy will it be to keep a Ford RS200 or Lancia’s own Delta S4 running in 10 or 20 years time? And will I have saved enough to buy a Stratos by then? – G .C.