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Even if you did not like the appearance of the Stratus, and we found nobody who objected to the basic shape, Berton’: would have, to he congratulated on a striking outline. The unstressed glassfibre panels appear reasonably thick and fit well, allowing the forward-hinged bonnet to click back into place, ready for the security turn nuts to complete the operation. The engine cover is freed by one of the door-jamb’s paired levers, the second lever releasing the cover on quite a useful transverse hoot in the tail. In fact, one who had experienced Stratos travel with a view to ownership was moved to record the boot as, “quite useful for carrying coffins,” which I suppose is one way of earning enough to buy such a beautiful toy.

Inside the cockpit, first impressions are excellent. The forward vision is much the same as one would expect in a jet aircraft, the bonnet falling away invisibly and the deep screen installing near respect for expressions such as “VistaVision,” which I believe was once pressed into service to describe a 1950s Ford saloon’s windscreen! The seats are smart and comfortable in what looks like I lush Puppy suede and the Seven-dial instrumentation is properly placed behind the purposeful four-spoke steering wheel. However, the finish of details such as the pressed/glued screen and the perspex sliding windows, combined with the presence of some cheaply painted glassfibre, where one might expect the odd smear of civilisation, bring one into a slightly more critical frame of mind. Looking at the carpet reminds me that Lancia must have thrown out their cheap office remnants somewhere, and the Stratos project is obviously where they found a home. The door release interior handles seem connected to bits of wire (another reminder of Mini clays gone by) and the actual driving position itself is in the worst Italian traditions, even for those of 5 ft. 8 in. stature_ Having slithered, eel-like, into the driving compartment, priority one is the urge to turn the key and he away, after all that is what this device is all about. First, there are a couple of points to watch: one is the adjust mein of twin door mirrors to try and obviate some of the inevitable three-quarters-vision problems, and the second is to master reverse gear. The change pattern is pretty conventional so far as forward ratios are concerned with first closest to the left-hand-seated driver and second to fourth gears contained within a normal H-pattern. There is no chromed Dino gear-change gate however, and reverse is not opposite to first but slightly over but, oops, not quite as far as second thus: R2 4 1 3 5

Bearing these instructions firmly in mind a firm prod on the throttle and a turn on the column-mounted ignition key brought a gruff response from a cool V6 engine. The first few miles, in which Acton and Marylebone Road traffic were encountered proved a test of nerve, especially as giant lettering at the rear proclaimed whose car this was. Those venetian blinds over the rear window serve merely to underline how tall everything else on the public highway has become. The gear-change on this under-2,000-mile example was a little stiff, hut remained accurate in the forward gears throughout the 350 odd miles that 1 covered in the course of throe days. You would not consciously want to change gear for the pleasure of it, but once you had mastered first to second smoothly, the change could be rated on the same sort of level as the FWD, five-speed Beta range. Recommended gear speeds in the handbook are 42.25 m.p.h., 61.52 m.p.h., 84.51 m.p.h., 113.71 m.p.h. and a fifth gear maximum quoted at over 143 m.p.h., a realistic figure in our opinion. In practice first and second gears tend to be disposed of shatteringly quickly, even when hanging on to the full allowance of 8,000 r.p.m. How quickly? Under six seconds from stand-still to 60 m.p.h. and a low 13 second time in the quarter-mile appear to be the Answer. What does that, mean? If you arc so inclined you will find that the performance is more than enough to keep pace with 5-litre Cobras, early 3.8/late V12 E-types and, as a result of intensive research in practical drag racing, we found that Lancia Stratos acceleration was extremely similar to that of a five-speed Suzuki 750 GT motorcycle, until fourth gear was engaged at over 80 m.p.h., when the Lancia began to melt into the distance.

The instruments made interesting reading on this Stratos. Despite a virginal freshness, the engine oil temperature never exceeded 100 degrees, halfway up the Lancia scale, even when the tachometer needle had taken up residence in the yellow handed section that extends from 7,100 to 8,000 r.p.m. Water temperature remained stolidly below 90 degrees C, unless stuck in a bad London hold-up when the fan would hold things steady at 90. The oil pressure could be worrying to those just hopping in a Stratos that had been thrashed, but only at the 500 r.p.m. tickover when there is little registered above that ominous (and never triggered) red light at the foot of the scale. The oil pressure builds up very swiftly with engine r.p.m., until beyond 4,000 r.p.m. you can expect to see 75 lb. sq. in. registered. Completing the Veglia instrumentation is a +50/0/-50 Ampere scale, fuel contents recorder (we averaged 18.5 m.p.g.) and the speedometer.

The key to the Stratos, as Lancia marketing Director Cesaere Florio once commented is, “it is all excitement, just like having your own sports/racing prototype on the road. It is so much fun everyone should have one, but only as the second car, of course.” The rack and pinion steering feels as though it has just been lifted. out of the nearest go-kart, a remark which reflects equally on the stubby wheelbase, wide track configuration, which gives the car its well-known characteristic nervousness in the handling. How much the car twitches on the public road depends entirely on the driver, and the way in which the car has been prepared. We were very fortunate in the Chequered Flag model: it was turned out, together with a large quantity of relevant information, in a manner that would have done credit to the hardest trying of the professional press fleet specialists, who have been in the business as long as there have been journalists. Reading everything I can about the model’s handling in English has established that such heavyweights as Paul Frere, the Motor and Autosport (backed by Gerry Marshall, who has a great deal of experience in trading these models) have established that this is /a difficult, twitchy machine to drive. I did not find it so at all. There are two provisions for that statement: letting off the throttle in mid-corner produces oversteer, which is naturally quite exaggerated in wet conditions, and cornering or clambering crests at speeds in excess of 100 m.p.h. when the front end goes light. An air dam/spoiler under the chisel nose would certainly assist the latter condition, especially on “our” car which had a full rear and mid-mounted set of spoilers, but the first point is something that one just has to incorporate in the tactics to be pursued in mid-corner, should a combine harvester emerge from the shrubbery to change your master plan. Obviously both Frere and Marshall are in a position to drive the car beyond the limits that the steering, braking and suspension relay to the driver, but I found the car a tremendous pleasure to drive at speeds which compared most favourably with anything I have ever driven before. I did discover that one of the cars tried briefly in England had a chronic misfire and was set up for loose surface initial understeer, and that another had been “tested” over several pages after experiencing only London traffic. We took the car out on every excuse along every type of road, from the M4 in the rush hour to some superb country motoring, and it proved a memorable way to travel on each occasion.

In thick traffic on a hot day the sheer heaviness of both brakes and clutch, plus the heat venerated by that large screen, are only partially compensated for by the Fiat facia vents which emit large quantities of fresh air. At first we found the car very tiring to drive in London, but the sensible size and exceptional acceleration qualities do make it a quite useful town device. We can be sure that not everyone appreciates that distinctive V6 caterwaul though, following the spectacle of the lissome Lancia jinking its way through the inevitable town hold-ups.

Outside town you gradually acclimatise to the strident engine, whose power delivery stretches from 1,500/2,000 r.p.m. if required, though it really starts delivering the goods (and the glorious noise!) from 5,000 r.p.m. Then you have to forget all about grappling with the wheel in touring car manner, remember how motorcycles and Loti steer by hand pressure, rather than force, and sure enough, it really does feel as if you are skimming over the ground. The brakes were more than a match for the practical road performance and one soon found that, although you knew the engine was working hard, the rest of the performance was outstandingly easy; smooth tarmac, bumpy cambers and hills flying by as if seated within a Cinemascopic dream. At night the divorce from reality continues, foot braced on the ideally situated footrest, with the combination of pop-up lamps and rectangular spotlights picking out the way with sufficient accuracy to allow the car’s B-road potential to be exploited in safety for self and others.

All dreams end, and mine closed on the Flag’s forecourt when I handed over the Stratos for my own maligned Beta Coupe. The smooth Stratos line hides a character as devious as Machiavelli, outstanding driving pleasure being balanced by some evident budget-conscious cuts in the interior and lack of sophistication for everyday driving. The Stratos is virtually in the mould of a roofed-over Lotus 7, though it can at least carry baggage and remain civilised in a downpour.

Is is worth the money? A wealthy man of genuine driving ability (say of competent British Club racing and rally standard) would derive enormous pleasure from a weekly session with this four-wheel escape from the World, but boulevard posers, beware! The ride will jolt you in the Kings Road and the .gearchange blister your hands, until the newness of owner and ratios is diminished. You have to have the window down to breathe in British Summer weather, so heaven knows what could happen at St. Trop in August…

Although I was very impressed with the car, I could not genuinely envy owners with the same passion as I reserve for those who bought Dino Spyders. Perhaps Lancia will come close to this standard when, as is rumoured for next season’s competition-masterstroke, they put the brand new fiat-four Gamma 2.4-litre motor into the shortly arriving-on-these-shores Montecarlo. What is more Lancia did say they had studied the flatsix configuration at the announcement of Gamma. A fiat-six Montecarlo, complete with roll-back soft-top roof, warranty and proper manufacturer’s guarantee? I suppose I could dream about such a proposition in a Stratos during the meantime: I hope the Abbey National are favourably disposed to first-time Stratos buyers who need a 100% mortgage.

J.W.