Turin Crowd Pleaser

Noisy, cramped, rough, twitchy - is it any wonder customers ignored the Stratos in droves? Laurence Meredith thinks they missed out

In 1965, Lancia launched its devilishly pretty front drive V4 Fulvia coupe. Being an agile handler and capable of ha fair turn of speed, it enjoyed moderate success in international rallying. But as time marched on, the dual headlamp cars from Fabricca Automobili Lancia e Cia got bogged down, and were eventually and entirely swamped, first by the 2-litre Porsche 911s and then by the all conquering Ford Escorts, not forgetting that perilous bright blue interloper from Dieppe in the form of the Apline-Renault A110.

By 1973, Lancia's competition guru Cesare Fiorio had had enough. Oil crisis or no oil crisis, Lancia, he decreed was going right back where it belonged - at the top - and the Fulvias were instantly out to grass.

Enter Stratos. Enter Stratos for all top level rallying competitions. And win! For this was the brie to all concerned with Stratos. And win it did. Almost, but not absolutely, everything.

A purpose built, no holds barred rally machine designed to excel on tarmac and rough forest tracks alike, this mid engined projectile was built in co-operation with Bertone. The Stratos name surfaced in 1971on a stunning wedge of a concept car utterly impractical as a road machine, let alone a rally car. But the gem of an idea began here: a mid-engined rocketship built like a tank, with al adjustable suspension and clad in lightweight throwaway panels. Power, though would be crucial. That show car was endowed with a mere V4 Fulvia engine, but as Lancia had by this stage been swallowed into the Fiat empire, it seemed perfectly logical to go the whole hog and delve deeply into Mr Agnelli's large parts bin, which happily also happened to contain a host of 'gladiatorial goodies' from il Commendatore's branch of the Fiat family.

So the Ferrari Dino 2.4Litre quad-cam V6 power unit and gearbox were both slotted transversely behind the driver without further ado. The rack and pinion steering, handbrake, body latches and door handles were sourced from the Fiat X19, the front uprights from the Fiat 132 and the fog lamps from the Fiat Dino, while the dashboard instruments, switches, headlamps and other odds and ends were borrowed from the Fiat 124. The teardrop side repeaters adorn just about every Ferrari of the time, and if you are wondering whether or not you have seen those rear saucer lights before, but can't remember whether it was on a thundering GT40 or a buzzy little Fiat 850 coupe - it was both.

Basically the chassis comprises a central tub fabricated from sheet steel (including the roof panel), with square section tubular frames front and rear to which the engine and suspension assemblies are attached. Usefully, part of the rear framework can easily be unbolted to allow the engine and gearbox to be removed. Double wishbones (chromed on our test car), coil springs and anti-roll bars support the front, with McPherson struts to the rear, and to the exquisite cast-alloy 14inch road wheels were provided by Campagnolo - who else? The standard rubber wear -205/70 VR14 - came from Pirelli, but a variety of tyres and rim widths were made available for different applications. Incidentally, a full size spare sits neatly in the nose compartment.

To save weight, both the front and rear lids and the doors were moulded from glass-fibre, although the louvred grille on the bonnet was made, somewhat incongruously, from steel and here, for those who haven't heard, is the old joke about Stratos bodywork.

How do you tell the difference between a genuine Stratos and a replica? The replica's body panels fit properly. Actually, the car's reputation for appealing build quality is usually exaggerated. After all, it was constructed to withstand the rigour of among others, the East African Safari Rally. And this it did most admirably. Jokes aside, the 'wonder wedge' styling, a typical 1970s innovation was and still is stunning, timeless - futuristic even. And the overall package made sense.

The frontal area is commendably small, the steeply raked and deeply curved windscreen conducts the airstream neatly over the roof and tail spoilers, the headlamps retract into the nose panel and the nicely rounded flanks were without the chromium clutter that characterised so many of the Stratos' non-rally bred contemporaries. Not that there's much wrong with chromium clutter, of course but by the 1970s, it was becoming unfashionably garish and Lancia and Alfa Romeo led the way in ditching it.

In standard form the V6 Dino unit produce a maximum 190bhp at 7000rpm and maximum torque of 159 lb ft at 4500rpm. Which with such a light chassis and body made it competitive and 'on song' straight out of the proverbial box. Lancia had other ideas too. Duel injection in place of the three brace of Webers plus the usual tuning 'tweaks' boosted power to 240bhp, and once the 24-valve cylinder head had been homologated and bolted into place, the competition versions had around 280bhp for the taking.

All very well and good, but Lancia's intention of building a special car for rallying had a catch. Under the prevailing international rules, the company had to build a minimum of 400 cars inside a 12-month period to qualify the Stratos for eligibility in Group 4. Hence the indifferent fit of the body panels, as the spanner boys in the factory worked long and hard to satisfy the demands of the rule-makers in Paris. Guessing that it would be hard to dispose of hundreds of noisy, thirsty super-coupes, there was an early plan to sell the car with the new 2-litre transverse four from the Beta saloon and to homologate the V6 as a high spec option, but to the amazement of many, the entire production run, all assembled over the winter of 1973-74 boasted Ferrari power.

And Lancia was right - few buyers outside the competition department wanted the highly strung plastic plaything; they slumbered in rows for several years, trickling out to eccentric enthusiasts and by private rally teams, and even being given away as rewards to top Lancia dealers. The Stratos was still being listed in 1978, as the same price it began, though by then, helped by a roof collapse which destroyed several dozen, the unwanted clones of the unbeatable rally champ had mainly been dispersed.

Despite exhaustive efforts in recent times by a number of enthusiasts to discover exact production figures, disputes remain. Some doubters say that the falling roof story was a scam to cover a shortfall of 100 units but photographs of the wreckage do exist. One source claims evidence for 530, the consensus falls around 490, but the matter remains about as clear as the water at Loch Ness. And catching up with a Stratos in the battle of competition proved as hard for the competition from Ford, Datsun et al as netting the legendary Scottish monster.

Success after success came with apparent ease. Even before it was homologated, the Stratos had begun its long journey of victories, first in the Spanish Firestone Rally in 1973 and then in the Tour de France later that same year. After the car had been homologated in October 1974, works driver Sandro Munari, ex-Porsche driver Bjorn Waldergard and Bernard Darniche simply clocked up one win after another. Between them the works drivers took 18 major championship events between 1974 and 1977 including three win in a row for Munari - 1975, 1976, 1977 - on the Monte Carlo Rally.

Interestingly, the only events in which outright victory eluded the Stratos were the Safari and British RAC, the works' best efforts both coming in 1975 with a second in the former and third place in the latter. So, having completely demolished the opposition during this fruitful period, Lancia then set about trying to destroy itself or to be slightly more accurate, embarked upon a squabble with Fiat as to the future of the company's rally exploits. Inter-marque rivalry, political bickering and the marketing need for a more accessible 'showroom winner' all led to the Stratos being dropped in favour of the Fiat Abarth 131.

Not all was lost, though, because a handful of unofficial quasi-works efforts resulted in further Stratos victories during 1979, including yet another win at Monte. A fabulous car from an exciting era of rallying, the Stratos had had its day by the end of the 1970s, a decade which in many respects was the dullest ever in some other branches of the sport.

In building the Stratos, Lancia had provided a cat to stalk the pigeons, a spark of bright heat in an uncertain motoring world created by the oil crisis. Those who saw a Stratos in action enjoyed and remember it. Those who drove it revelled in it. But the many against whom Stratos was pitted simply feared it. And who could blame them?

Driving Impressions

Any era, classic or otherwise, can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted. but facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. It is 20 years and more since the Stratos was doing its stuff and things have moved on considerably, but only a fool would delude himself into thinking that because the little Dino engine produces a comparatively feeble 190bhp, that this is a quaint automotive artefact from far-distant age, not to be taken seriously today. This is, despite its designers' intentions as a pure competition car, a very serious road machine. And one that should not be trifled with.

In fact, the only part of this car that shows its age is its lurid green paintwork — described unimaginatively as 'verde' in the owner's handbook — a brash but nevertheless appropriate, colour from a decade that willingly encourage 'brash'. A welcome relief from the dull greys, blues and blacks that characterise the following decade, though.

It's best not to be fooled by the angular, wedge-like appearance either. Closer inspection reveals the body's soft curves and, with the exception of the 'clean-cut" aerofoils, there's hardly a straight line in sight. Anywhere. Of course, the aesthetics owe a great deal to general Bertone design thinking; details like the bonnet louvres, slatted engine lid, pop-up headlamps, albeit in a different form, were all features of the design company's other masterpiece, the Lamborghini Miura. And it's obvious that the Stratos also influenced future thinking as much as it drew on the past; the shape of the windscreen and side windows went straight into Lancia's LC2 Group C car of the 1980s.

What is most apparent about the Stratos is that it was penned by thought and feeling in equal parts, which is why it's a car that not only works properly, but one that really excites emotion. And no, the test car's engine lid doesn't fit exactly — which is exactly how it should be, of course.

Naturally, the snug two-seater cabin looks inviting, whether your intended seat is behind the steering wheel or not. Despite the broad sills and deep footwells — the pedal box appears to be miles away — getting in is free from the histrionics that accompany entry to so many Italian exotics. The second surprise is the driving position. It's perfect. And instantly too. There's no adjustment needed, no trying to make your knees comfortable below your earlobes, no necessity to extract trouser pockets from the handbrake lever and no apology to the owner, who would normally be wincing at your every move, fearing that that you are going to break something. None of that.

But. And it's serious — like the rest of this car. For anyone who stands in excess of 6ft above sea level, there's no headroom. Not just not very much headroom — no headroom. Which is why for the duration of the test, the top of my greyhaired dome pressed hard into the sumptuous headlining. With a crash helmet in situ, I would not have fitted. Deep in the Gloucestershire countryside, it's just as well that I didn't need one.

I'm not sure who put the instrument cluster together — not that the dials are illegible — but the whole panel just looks as though it might have been constructed by a man who, having noticed that his trousers had caught fire, finished the job p d q before reaching for an extinguisher. And naturally the most important gauge, the tachometer, doesn't work. Why? Because Italian automotive electrical technicians take a view about wiring that the British traditionally adopt for the preparation and cooking of food — to be thrown together and cremated at the earliest opportunity. By contrast, the suede-covered seats and steering wheel are minor works of art, as are the shapely moulded stowage bins in the doors, Which, incredibly, are roomy enough to park your crash-hat between stages. And the revolving handles that clamp the pivotting side windows — razing little things that they are — make the BMC Mini's catch-operated sliding items look high-tech.

The serious business of driving beckoned, and, as soon as the engine caught, the problems I had anticipated (which, not unreasonably, were based on a recent encounter with a Ferrari Dino), disappeared as the V6 settled to a good, healthy, regular tickover. I had made the mistake of sentencing first and delivering a verdict afterwards. Very foolish.

I had expected the clutch to be a horrible 'in-out affair and as hard as kicking the pitwall at Silverstone, the gearbox to be incapable of offering its second ratio before the transmission oil was at least approaching red-hot, poor starting due to fuel evaporation and an engine that came on song only when the tachometer needle crossed 4,500rpm — which I couldn't determine here because it didn't work. Not a bit of it — this must be the most tractable 1970s' supercar of all.

Slot the stubby gear lever into bottom — across towards you and dogleg back — let the clutch pedal out slowly, and the Stratos just burbles along quietly minding its own business. Out through the doors of its protective hide, across the bumpy, mucky farmyard, still burbling happily in bottom gear, and out onto the private road that sufficed for warming up those mildly obese Pirellis.

Snap open the Webers and all hell breaks loose; the racket — a mixture of slobbery induction sucking and bellowing exhaust cry — is pure musical mayhem. Snatch second gear, smoothly, third quickly and it's time to shut the throttle, bang home second and slam the car through the first bend, a sweeping uphill to the right.

Turn-in with such a high-geared rack is kart-like and demands precision accuracy, and the 'slingshot' effect once the power is on again, if not quite breathtaking, certainly comes close as the g-forces exercise muscles you'd forgotten you had.

With such high roadholding capabilities, the process of taking a bend happens so quickly that if you have to think about what you're doing, you can expect trouble pretty quickly. So agile and fast is this inspiring little machine that you really have to keep up both mentally and physically with its every demand. And because traction is so good with the weight of the engine and gearbox over the rear wheels, everything happens without drama.

The suspension settings are on the comfortable side of hard, with the result that it's possible to feel every major suspension movement, which makes for safe, predictable handling. To unstick the tail end, which the Stratos resists almost at all attempts, the loud pedal needs a hefty sharp bang, but the chassis returns to heel instantly with a flick of the steering wheel. Overcook it though, and it really isn't difficult to imagine that a Stratos shaped hole would quickly appear in the nearest hedge.

Just as impressive on long straight roads, the car simply howls up through the gearbox with tremendous speed — 0-60mph in 7.3secs and 145mph top speed — and, unlike the turbo cars that eventually became de rigeur, there's no lag — just honest, instant power. Not the raw power of a 'big banger', but refined, smooth acceleration and deceleration from any speed, almost in any gear. Third to fourth at full revs is one of those magical experiences you just don't get from listening to The Archers. Of course, the complex exhaust system keeps the decibels to an acceptable level for road use — if you're a slightly deaf motoring enthusiast anyway -but there's no disguising the music of a Ferrari V6, for it is unique.

Without servo-assistance the brake pedal needs a powerful right foot, but, having warmed up the pads sufficiently, anchoring is as biting and reassuring as you need. The pedals are also ideally spaced, not only for comfort, but for 'toeing and heeling', which is essential if you want use the car properly.

Overall, the Stratos is a pure and very fine driving machine, intended to go cross-country faster than its peers. It is most definitely not a fun car. Yes, you can have fun with it — a lot of fun too — but it's not a fun car. It's a deadly serious, precision tool honed for a purpose, sadly long since gone. Owning one actually makes a lot of sense. All the bits and pieces necessary to keep one running in tip-top condition are available — body panels. windscreen and so on from the replica trade ( and they're far from expensive), and the mechanicals from Fiat and Ferrari.

OK, so the Dino V6, which can suffer from a lack of top-end lubrication, needs rebuilding every 30,000 miles or so, but this figure equates to 10 years motoring for the majority of owners today. Or half the time that has elapsed since this Lancia's heyday, which is food for thought considering it seems like a couple of months ago.

I could quite easily have played with this machine for weeks on end, stopping only for petrol, tyres and to marvel at all for which it stands, but, alas, all good things must end and the Stratos was returned to its garage — across the farmyard - covered in glorious mud. Exactly as it was all those years ago when these little cars were putting the fear of ridicule into the hearts of those who opposed them.

Want one? Be quick. Italian collectors, who are acutely aware of this gem's historical importance, are bringing them home to roost. My grateful and sincere thanks to Don Pither whose car was used in the preparation of this feature.