The Lancia Stratos had incomparably dramatic looks and boasted spectacular successes. We trace the car’s development and detail the history of one works example
Words: John Davenport. Photography: Ian Fraser
Between 1971 and 1974 a secret war was being waged in a north-Italian city that was every bit as bloody, in a metaphorical sense, as those of the Borgias. The city was Turin and the protagonists were the Fiat and Lancia competition departments.
In October 1969, Fiat had swallowed up its debt-ridden neighbour, but this did not mean that any of the principal combatants had signed a peace treaty. Lancia had a proud history in motor sport, mainly rallying, and there were many within the core Fiat organisation that envied this.
Indeed, Fiat had been dabbling in rallying for years but had always played second fiddle to Lancia, even on the Fiat-sponsored Sestrière Rally of 1969, which was won by Sandro Munari in a Lancia Fulvia.
Fiat had also acquired Abarth and by 1971 had set up a team operating out of that factory to run the 124 Spyder and attempt to defeat the armada of Fulvias. But both teams were rightly worried about rising star Alpine-Renault which in 1970 had won the San Remo Rally and the European Rally Championship as well as demoting Lancia to third in the International Rally Championship for Makes.
Then there was Porsche, which had won Monte Carlo and the IRCM with its 911S, and, separately, both Fiat and Lancia decided that they were going to need something special to win rallies in the future.
Fiat had also bought Ferrari’s car production arm in 1969, and both teams now looked to Maranello for an answer. At Lancia Cesare Fiorio had, with personal flair and persistence built up Lancia’s competition success from 1965. In 1970 Bertone had shown a concept car at the Turin Show. A very futuristic design based on a reversed Fulvia chassis, its engine was ahead of the rear axle and the driver entered through a front-opening door. Its name was Stratos, and it was at the centre of Fiorio’s plans for Lancia’s rallying future.
Nice though the little 1600cc V4 Fulvia engine was, to be competitive any new car was going to need more muscle, and Fiorio had his eye on the 2418cc V6 from the Ferrari Dino 246 GT. His problem was two-fold. He needed to persuade Ferrari management to supply him with engines for production cars and he needed to persuade a Fiat-controlled Lancia management to build them for him.
At almost the same time, the Fiat-Abarth men realised that their 1438cc 124 Spyder, even with an 1800cc engine scheduled for 1973, would not cut the mustard against Porsches, Alpines and even Ford Escorts. So they privately approached Ferrari to see if the new 308 GT4 with its transversal 2927cc V8 could be the answer to their prayer.
It was now a race. While both teams continued to battle it out on actual events, political and technical manoeuvring went on apace behind the scenes. Fiorio, with the help of Bertone, created a Stratos prototype for the 1971 Turin Show that had all the essential design features of what would eventually become the production car. A Dino 246 engine and gearbox (purloined not from Maranello but from a crashed Dino) was fitted transversely ahead of the rear axle, the front and rear bodywork hinged outwards and the driver and passenger gained access to the interior through doors fitted on each side of the central monocoque.
In 1972 the gods smiled on Lancia’s squad of Fulvias, for Munari won the Monte Carlo Rally, Simo Lampinen the Rallye du Maroc and Amilcare Ballestrieri on the San Remo Rally. The result was that Lancia won the IRCM with Fiat second and Porsche third.
But Fiat had also been successful. Hakan Lindberg won the Acropolis Rally and Raffaele Pinto romped home in the European Rally Championship with a string of victories. The Machiavellians in Fiat used this as a lever to get the go-ahead for their 308 project and disappeared to the island of Elba for a three-week test session while Fiorio redoubled his efforts to secure a supply of Dino engines. And all this despite Giovanni Agnelli, the Numero Uno at Fiat, saying in a press conference at the Turin Motor Show of 1971 that there was no place for the Bertone Stratos in the competition plans of Fiat/Lancia. Such remarks only fuelled the covert activity on both sides, but gradually Fiorio started to gain ground and win the strategic advantage.
With better competition results and a pedigree of performance stretching back seven years, Lancia was eventually granted the go-ahead to manufacture 400-plus examples of the Stratos HF in order to have it homologated as a Group 4 car. But the ink was not dry on the deal until mid-1973, after the Stratos had already made four appearances in actual competitions as a prototype and won its first event, the Spanish Firestone Rally, in April 1973.
It was to be 12 long months until Stratos production finally hit the magic 400 mark and Lancia could start to deploy their eagerly anticipated new weapon in mainstream rallying at the top level.
During 1973 and the first three-quarters of the 1974 season, Lancia took every opportunity to enter the Stratos in competition and develop it as a winner. Proof came with wins in French and Italian national rallies for Jean-Claude Andruet and Munari, and in racing at the Targa Florio for Gerard Larrousse and Ballestrieri.
Once homologation was granted, valid from October 1, 1974, the Stratos was immediately a force in the WRC. Munari won the San Remo Rally just six days later and went on to win the Rideau Lakes in Canada and take third place on the RAC Rally. With Andruet winning in Corsica in December plus the earlier results from the Fulvia, Lancia won the WRC for the first time.
Thanks to the Stratos, Lancia went on to win again in 1975 and 1976; Stratos drivers won the European Rally Championship in 1976, 1977 and 1978 and there were Stratos wins in 17 WRC rallies, including four Monte Carlo Rally victories, between 1974 and 1981 when its homologation finally ran out.
Our Stratos was the one that introduced German rallying legend Walter Röhrl to the joys of Stratos motoring. “There was no car to match it,” he recalls. “On twisty asphalt roads there was just nothing to compare, but with the short wheelbase you had to be really fast to use the lock on gravel or ice. And the noise from those exhausts was just the most wonderful sound in the world.”
Chassis number 1580 was plucked from the reservoir of new cars some time in the summer of 1976 and prepared as a Group 5 prototype for the Giro d’Italia. This required the installation of the exotic Group 5 bodywork that transformed it into a mean-looking GT racer. Right from the start it had a 24-valve engine, permitted in Group 4, but for the Giro it was backup for the turbocharged 12-valve engined Group 6 car driven by Carlo Facetti and Piero Sodano. They went on to win this October event outright, one of the turbo Stratos’s few successes, while 1580, crewed by Pinto and Arnaldo Bernacchini, suffered the first of its misfortunes with retirement after an accident on a hill climb.
For the Giro, it had carried modest Marlboro livery on a mainly white background but for the Monte Carlo Rally of 1977 it was given Group 4 bodywork and full works Alitalia livery. These new clothes did not improve its fortunes however, for Pinto spun and lost six minutes disengaging the Stratos from a snow bank on the fourth test, and then had the engine suddenly stop on the final Monaco-Monaco loop. He qualified as a finisher but 58 places behind the winning Stratos of Munari. In the spring of 1977, Pinto did two Italian national events with 1580 but retired on both thanks to minor contacts with the countryside. Then in August, the Stratos lost its principal guru, Mike Parkes, who was killed in a road accident in Italy. The Lancia programme from this point was for Munari to chase the FIA Driver’s Cup. But they naturally had to have a big presence at San Remo against their Fiat 131 Abarth cousins. This time it was Fiat which came out on top, Pinto clipping a rock with 1580 on the very first stage and collapsing the suspension and Munari retiring later with broken transmission.
Chassis 1580 was then handed over to Munari and Sodano who, 10 days later, were down to chase FIA Cup points on the Spanish Rally. For once, our Stratos shot off into the lead: one minute ahead after six stages, four minutes at the end of the first leg and 10 minutes near the end with just four stages to go. But then the engine went sick. “I think the engine block must have suffered with that bang the car got in San Remo,” says Sodano. The rally was then won by a certain Michèle Mouton, driving a Porsche Carrera to her first ever international victory. Munari went on to win the FIA Cup, but 1580 was rested.
In 1978, Fiat had a new signing – Walter Röhrl – and he was sent a Stratos in Pirelli colours to compete in as much of the German Championship as he could manage among his WRC commitments. He got 1580, which he simply loved to drive, but it let him down twice with suspension and engine troubles in spring before giving him a second place in late summer. In other Stratoses, Röhrl won five other German Championship events that summer.
Chassis 1580 was then used by Markku Alén as a practice car for the Giro d’Italia and then in November was entered for Adartico Vudafieri in the Tour de Corse as team-mate to Attilio Bettega. Neither made any great impression on the 131 Abarth steamroller and both retired.
The Stratos story was coming to an end, and one nail in its coffin was the banning of the multi-valve heads from many homologated Group 4 cars. When 1580 made its final factory appearance on the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally with Fulvio Bacchelli, it was in 12-valve form.
Despite a lack of practice or familiarity with the car, Bachelli got through to the last night just outside the top 10, but on the Col St Roch with just four stages to go, 1580 once again hit the scenery. Of course it was classified – all cars that start the last night’s leg get a finisher’s plaque – but it was in 88th position.
After this, the Stratos fleet was sold or scrapped to make way for an all-out assault on the WRC by the newly unified Fiat/Lancia team operating wholly out of the Abarth factory. Our 1580 chassis did not re-appear until the 1990s when a Swissair captain who had been running it in Marlboro livery put it on the market and Luigi Macaluso, its current owner, managed to acquire it.
This Stratos has been lovingly restored with the aid of Claudio Magioli and friends in the Turin region and is now resplendent in original Alitalia livery. The engine is a 12-valve but speaks the same music that won Röhrl’s Bavarian heart 30 years ago when he first drove it.
Tech spec – Lancia Stratos, chassis 1580
Central steel monocoque, tubular steel extensions, fibreglass front and rear bodywork
Front suspension Wishbones and inclined coil spring over damper
Rear suspension McPherson strut
Brakes Ventilated 304 mm-diameter discs all round
Steering rack and pinion
Configuration transverse V6
Valvegear DOHC, 12 valves
Bore x stroke 92.5mm x 60mm
Fuelling Three Weber 40 IDF downdraught carburettors
Ignition Magneti Marelli
Maximum power 260bhp
Gearbox five-speed dog box
Front track 1430mm
Rear track 1460mm
Rallying record, Lancia Stratos, chassis no. 1580
Registration number: TO N 98792
1976 [as a Group 5 car] with Marlboro ID, but mainly white
Oct Giro d’Italia, Raffaele Pinto/Arnaldo Bernacchini, retired, accident
1977 [as a Group 4 car] in Alitalia livery
Jan Monte Carlo Rally, Raffaele Pinto/Arnaldo Bernacchini, 59th, engine
Mar Rally Ciocco, Raffaele Pinto/Arnaldo Bernacchini, Rtd, suspension
Jun Quattro Regione, Raffaele Pinto/Arnaldo Bernacchini, Rtd, accident
Oct San Remo Rally, Raffaele Pinto/Arnaldo Bernacchini, Rtd, accident
Oct Spanish Rally, Sandro Munari/Piero Sodano, Rtd, engine
1978 in Pirelli/Lancia livery
Feb Sachs Winter Rally, Walter Röhrl/Christian Geistdorfer, Rtd, suspension
Mar Unterfranken Rally, Walter Röhrl/Christian Geistdorfer, Rtd, engine
Aug Bayerwald Rally, Walter Röhrl/Christian Geistdorfer, 2nd overall
Oct Giro d’Italia recce, Markku Alén/Ilkka Kivimaki
Nov Tour of Corsica, Adartico Vudafieri/Bruno Scabini, Rtd, accident
Jan Monte Carlo Rally, Fulvio Bacchelli/Bruno Scabini, 88th, accident