The works rallying career of the Stratos was short-lived but unforgettable. These days a few brave souls still rally this ‘museum piece’, for which fans are forever grateful
By Richard Heseltine
You had to see it to not believe it. Implausibly low, angular, chiselled, more sculpture than road car reality, Carrozeria Bertone’s Stratos Zero show queen rendered onlookers speechless when unveiled at the 1970 Turin Salon. Stylist Marcello Gandini had conjured a lightening bolt of wonderment – a car in which there was just one door, which also handily doubled as the windscreen. Fashioned around parts robbed from a Lancia Fulvia, it was derided by the motoring media with US mag Road & Track’s correspondent Cyril Posthumus being perhaps the politest doubter. ‘The Stratos is beautifully executed – many feel its designer should be likewise!’ he opined.
But for all the negative ink, there were some – let’s call them futurists – who took it seriously. Chief among their number was Cesare Fiorio. Steeped in marque lore (his father Sandro was the firm’s PR chief), this sometime Lancia Appia Zagato racer co-created HF Squadra in the early ’60s, which morphed into the Turin firm’s official competition division in 1965 (Lancia in turn was assimilated by Fiat four years later). Fiorio and his crew were enjoying success with the front-wheel-drive Fulvia coupés but his thoughts had already turned to building a new rally weapon; something bespoke and built for the purpose. Bertone’s berserk dumbfounder provided the kernel for the Stratos HF as we know it: rallying’s first – and greatest – supercar pin-up.
Of course, Lancia’s brave new world wasn’t the first small-series, mid-engined rally car, Ford beating it to the punch with the GT70. Except the Blue Oval never really got behind this intriguing curio as it didn’t do anything any better than the Escort. Fiorio, however, followed through after Lancia chief Pierugo Gobbato swayed a sceptical Fiat board into believing the Stratos was more than mere folly. The difficult bit, they reasoned, would be prizing an engine from the desired supplier. Ever since he’d first evaluated a Dino with a view to rallying one, Fiorio had been smitten with its compact V6 engine – and he wanted it for the Stratos. There was just the small matter of persuading Enzo Ferrari to release some. The notoriously contrary autocrat agreed readily, much to Fiorio’s surprise.
Fast-forward to the 1971 Turin Salon and the definitive outline, if not the finished car, was ushered in on the Bertone stand. Finished in a retina-scorching matt orange, this tiny, wedge-shaped projectile was another Gandini masterclass. With its helmet visor-like wraparound windscreen and stubby proportions, it didn’t really fit the perceived image of a rally car per se. In fact, it looked unlike any other car, period.
By February 1972 a mulatto was being tested with Gian Paolo Dallara contributing substantially to the car’s development. Then came the big reveal. Having battled the suits at Fiat all the way, Fiorio and Gobbato had gambled on the Stratos being a winner, and in November ’72 the model made its competition bow on the Tour de Corse. The car was quick but Sandro Munari retired the event’s talking point with broken rear suspension. In April of the following year he claimed the Stratos’ first scalp on the Spanish Firestone Rally.
With one hurdle leapfrogged, there was now the small matter of building the car in sufficient volume to appease the rule makers. Stratos production began in October 1973 with the steel hull and glassfibre panels being fabricated, painted and trimmed at Bertone’s facility in Grugliasco, Turin, before being transported to Lancia’s Chivasso factory for final assembly. In July ’74, Fiorio wrote to the Italian sporting body the CSAI claiming that 500 cars had been built to satisfy homologation requirements (in reality only 150 or so had been completed…), and four months later the car was granted Group 4 status by the FIA. By this time, former Ferrari alumnus Mike Parkes had rigorously set about honing the car further.
And, before the Stratos was, cough, legal for the World Rally Championship, it had already won six major events that season including the Targa Florio (then no longer a round of the World Sportscar Championship). Munari claimed the first WRC win at Sanremo and the die was cast. The factory Lancia squad and Munari kicked off the 1975 season with the first of three consecutive Monte Carlo Rally wins and claimed honours elsewhere thanks to a roll-call of aces such as Bernard Darniche, Björn Waldegård and Markku Alén (although tellingly none managed to score in UK forests). There was even time for a few circuit forays, bewinged, turbocharged evolutions on the theme tackling the Le Mans 24 Hours, albeit without much in the way of success.
Yet the Stratos’ function as Lancia’s frontline weapon proved short-lived. In the autumn of 1977, it was effectively ‘retired’ due to the intervention of Fiat’s marketing people: a Fiat product – something that actually resembled a production car – doing the winning would be more advantageous they reckoned, and with the 131 Abarth they had just such a car. The Lancia and Fiat competition departments were merged under the same roof at Abarth’s Turin facility as greater emphasis was placed on the box-arched Fiat. Production of the Stratos had officially ended in May 1975 after 457 cars had been made (502 chassis were apparently completed), although the last wouldn’t be sold for a further three years.
Yet predictably the Stratos didn’t stop winning. Works appearances were sporadic, due as much in part to homologation requirements that insisted on the use of 12-valve engines rather than 24-valve items, as to corporate imposition. Alén took the final factory Stratos WRC victory on the Sanremo in October 1978. Darniche’s upset win in the following January’s Monte Carlo classic aboard a privateer example proved it still had legs, although by then the model’s Group 4 homologation had elapsed as works development ebbed. In October ’79, ‘Tony’ Fassina drove his Jolly Club entry to victory on the Sanremo to claim the model’s last-ever WRC triumph, although remarkably the ‘Strat’ was still running at the front as late as 1982 when Fabrizio Tabaton triumphed on the Elba Rally, a round of the European Rally Championship (the Stratos having won the series in 1977 and 1978).
So mission accomplished then, this beyond legendary device in time paving the way for the 037 and Delta S4 that carried the Lancia name to further rally success in the ’80s. Yet neither of these cars married otherworldly beauty, sonic intensity and crowd-pleasing magnetism so completely as their template. Even as a road car, the Stratos remains memorable, and mostly for all the right reasons. Sure, you have to contort yourself to a neck-cricking angle to see out of one, and the pedals may as well be roof-mounted for all the lack of ergonomic consideration, but you can forgive the Stratos anything for the sound of the quad-cam V6 as it reaches its sweet spot. That and the sense of achievement felt when you overcome initial hesitancy and get it right. For all the stories of it being evil to drive due to an overabundance of power and shortness of wheelbase aren’t strictly true. It’s just that to get the best out of one you need to be pretty useful.
Steve Perez falls into that category. This likable energy drinks magnate has earned the undying gratitude of forest dwellers the length and breadth of the UK for venturing out in his historic-spec Strat. Dovetailing drives in moderns (he was 11th on the 2009 Rally GB with his Ford Focus RS) and the old stuff, the fifty-something privateer has a wealth of experience to draw upon; yet even he is slightly overawed by the Lancia. “There’s a lot of enjoyment to be had driving a Stratos,” he says just hours after a turbulent run on the Roger Albert Clark Rally. “I mean, what drives me on are the spectators who love seeing the car in action. I’ve had people come up to me saying they only came along to see the Lancia. I’ve even had marshals thanking me for bringing it. That makes it all worthwhile, although it’s been quite a journey with this car.
“The issue these days is that while the Escorts have constantly evolved over the last 30 years, the Stratos has been a museum piece. Even now there’s only one other car being run in proper rallies [by the Italian K-Sport squad] so it’s been a case of sorting the weak points. On the Roger Albert Clark Rally I was 20th after a lot of problems. On the first stage a halfshaft flange in the diff broke. Last year I got as far as the second stage. I mean I can do four or five events without a problem and then something unexpected happens. And then you fix one problem and find 10 more, and don’t forget parts aren’t available off the shelf. Friends ask me why I bother, why don’t I just do regularity rallies, but this was the car I lusted after all those years ago and it’s such a special sensation driving one when it’s on song. For the amount I’ve thrown at it I could probably have bought a modern WRC car, but it’s worth it.
“My car doesn’t have a particularly notable history; it was used mostly for hillclimbs in Germany. At around 1200kg it weighs about 200kg more than the really developed Ford Escorts which have similar power so it’s not that quick. But we’re learning as we go along and there’s more to come. I honestly feel it’s important that it’s out there, that people can see and hear a Stratos being used in anger. I just love the car…”
As do we. While you could argue that the Stratos was palpably slapped with the silly stick – even now it appears left-field – it’s that joyous kind of Italian bonkers that pulls off other-worldliness and instant appeal at the same time. People remember the Stratos for a reason, as one words monkey, who when spectating on the ’76 RAC Rally was just a few days off his fourth birthday, can attest. Once Munari’s writhing, pop-pop-popping Lancia homed into view, resplendent in Alitalia war paint, nothing was ever quite the same again. It may be on the small side, but the Stratos’ shadow still looms large…
One to buy
Lancia Stratos – POA
From: Marcel Roks +32 14 478900 www.mroks.com
Sold new to a Vicenza architect in 1975, this example was campaigned in selected Italian rallies and hillclimbs from 1977-79. Along the way the car was reworked with rear arch extensions, uprated dampers and a freer-flowing exhaust system. It was imported into the UK in the mid-80s and campaigned in speed events, races and special stage events by Ian Giles with Zul Racing developing it further for competition. Giles used the car until 1997 when the engine blew while he was racing in South Africa. It was subsequently stored until 2004 when the current owner bought it and commissioned a full restoration. The car comes with fresh FIA HTP papers and some spare body panels.
Others to consider
Ford Escort RS1800
BDA-powered, Halewood-built device remains hugely entertaining but genuine cars are rocketing in price.
Fiat 131 Abarth
Super-cool box-arched saloon won three WRC makes’ titles. 400 were made to homologate the model.
Predated – and overlapped – the Stratos. Idiosyncratic but toweringly capable and colossal fun to drive.