Short, sharp, shock

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Has any competition car stirred the senses in quite the same manner as a Lancia Stratos? We took a ride in a true original, lightly restored after 20 years of hibernation
Writer Richard Heseltine, photographer Lyndon McNeil

Our arrival is trumpeted from a mile away; maybe even further depending on wind conditions. A pure-bred V6 on megaphone exhausts ensures as much. Choral doesn’t come close to describing it, each incremental rise in revs ushering in more commotion. Heads swivel in unison as we thread our way through traffic, bystanders for the most part adopting looks of admiring disbelief before reaching for their camera phones. They are trying hard to make sense of what they’re seeing, but there’s little sense to be found. The carnival is in town – and we appear to be it.

A Lancia Stratos in full war paint – on full song – has this effect. As we carve our way through Milan’s suburbs, giggling like loons, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that this was once a rally titan. From inside the cabin feels tourniquet-tight, phobic even, a little elbow jousting with your passenger being the norm. And that’s without crash hats eating into what might euphemistically be called ‘headroom’.

It’s as though we are viewing the world through a giant helmet visor, a madrigal of percussive noises through the structure serenading our progress. You hear and feel everything.

But then the beauty of this car is that you have to accept the mad with the maddening. Even at a standstill, it hasn’t lost the power to shock. It looks unlike any other car. But to drive… Well, that’s something else entirely. To get the best out of one in period, you had to be good, if not great. And the great and the good either made or burnished their careers aboard the Stratos, a car which in so many ways foretold the Group B era.

The funny thing is, it was rooted in a car that was even more left-field; a show queen that was more kinetic sculpture than competition weapon. Stile Bertone’s Stratos Zero concept car prompted jaws to slacken in unison when unveiled at the 1970 Turin Motor Show. Stylist Marcello Gandini created a wedge-shaped device that had only the one door, which also doubled as the windscreen. What’s more, it was fully functional, a Fulvia V4 engine lurking beneath the triangular deck lid. It looked for all the world as though a spaceship had crash-landed in Italy, and still appeared futuristic more than a decade later.

For the most part, however, the Stratos Zero wasn’t taken seriously, its artful artifice being too much to stomach. Road & Track’s correspondent, Cyril Posthumus, was among the doubters. “The Stratos is beautifully executed – many feel its designer should be likewise!” he sniffed. But there were some onlookers for whom the Stratos Zero wasn’t just a grounded flight of fantasy, Lancia’s competition department boss Cesare Fiorio among their number. Steeped in marque lore (his father Sandro was the firm’s PR chief), this sometime Appia Zagato racer co-created HF Squadra in the early ’60s, which morphed into the Turin firm’s official competition division in 1965 (Lancia was in turn absorbed by Fiat four years later). Fiorio’s equipe enjoyed some headline-grabbing wins with front-wheel-drive Fulvia coupés that decade, but his thoughts had already turned to devising a new contender; something bespoke and built for the purpose. Bertone’s wild show-stopper provided the kernel of an idea, but several hurdles had to be vaulted before it could become a reality.

Lancia wasn’t the first to investigate building a mid-engined car with rallying in mind. Ford, under Stuart Turner, beat it to the punch with the GT70, and by some margin. However, despite displaying some early promise, this Len Bailey design didn’t do anything better than the Escort so was quietly dropped. For Fiorio, merely pitching the idea of a small-series homologation special wasn’t without its headaches, but fortunately he found an ally in Lancia principal Pierugo Gobbato, who managed to sway a sceptical Fiat board. The difficult bit, they reasoned, would be prising an engine from the desired supplier. Ever since he had first assessed a Dino with a view to rallying one, Fiorio had been enamoured of its compact 65-degree V6 – and he reckoned it was just the ticket for the Stratos. But first there was the small matter of persuading Enzo Ferrari to release some. While his eponymous marque had by now joined Lancia as a Fiat-owned brand, the self-directed autocrat still ruled the roost. Much to Fiorio’s surprise, Il Commendatore was receptive and a deal was struck.

Scroll forward to the 1971 Turin Motor Show and the Stratos as we know it was revealed on the Bertone stand although, strictly speaking, the prototype was little more than a mock up. Resplendent in an eye-watering matt orange, it bore little resemblance to the Stratos Zero. With its tiny footprint and stubby proportions, not to mention a wraparound windscreen, it wasn’t everyone’s idea of a rally car, but that perception was about to change.

In February 1972, a test mule was put through its paces, with Gian Paolo Dallara contributing to its subsequent development. With so much at stake, not least for Fiorio and Gobbato who had petitioned for the car to be created, a good result first time out was vital.

In November of that year, the Stratos was blooded, showing well in Sandro Munari’s expert hands on the Tour de Corse while it held together. Lancia’s brave new world was quick, but it was also fragile and broken rear suspension ended play. In April of the following year, the Stratos claimed its first victory on the Spanish Firestone Rally.

There was, however, the small matter of building the car in sufficient volume to homologate it. And, as is so often the case, a certain amount of smoke and mirrors was involved. Stratos production began in October ’73 with frames and glassfibre bodies being produced at Bertone’s factory in Grugliasco, Turin. They were then transported to Lancia’s Chivasso facility for final assembly. In July ’74, Fiorio informed the Italian sporting body, the CSAI, that 500 cars had been completed, the magic number to appease the rule makers.

In reality only 150 or so had been finished. Nevertheless, four months later the Stratos was given full Group 4 status by the FIA. By this time, former Ferrari man Mike Parkes had tweaked and honed the car further, his contribution often being underplayed.

Before the car was strictly legal for competition, the Stratos had already claimed six major scalps including the Targa Florio, which in ’74 was no longer a round of the World Championship for Makes. The following season factory driver Munari sealed the first of three consecutive Monte Carlo Rally wins, the Stratos claiming further victories thanks to stars such as Bernard Darniche, Björn Waldegård and Markku Alén (although tellingly, none managed to win in UK forests). There were even one or two circuit forays, turbocharged variations on the theme participating in the Le Mans 24 Hours, albeit without much success.

Despite racking up umpteen wins and more than a few column inches, the Stratos’s time on the front line, if only as a works challenger, ebbed in the second half of the 1977 season. The marketing people at Fiat had been busy pushing for something production car-related – something Fiat-shaped – to be the weapon of choice, and they got what they wanted. The Lancia and Fiat competition departments were brought under one roof at Abarth’s Turin facility and emphasis was now placed on the box-arched Fiat 131 Abarth. Production of the Stratos had officially ended in May ’75, by which time 457 cars had been made (502 chassis were reputedly laid out), although the ‘Stradale’ version proved a hard sell: the last wouldn’t find a home for a further three years.

Not that the Stratos was done in rallying just yet. Works entries were sporadic, due as much to homologation requirements that insisted on the use of 12- rather than 24-valve engines as to corporate interference. Alén took the final factory Stratos WRC victory on the Sanremo in October ’78, Darniche’s upset win on the following January’s Monte Carlo classic aboard a privateer example proving it still had legs (although by then the model’s Group 4 homologation had lapsed as in-house development faded). In October ’79, ‘Tony’ Fassina drove his Jolly Club car to victory on the Sanremo Rally to claim the model’s final WRC victory although, remarkably, it was still in with a shout as late as 1982 when Fabrizio Tabaton prevailed on the Elba Rally, which was a round of the European Rally Championship (the Strat’ having won the series in 1977-78).

The Stratos’s legendary status was already assured. It would in time pave the way for the gorgeous 037 and Delta S4. The thing is, fabulous though those cars were, neither was blessed with such crowd-pleasing magnetism as the template-setting original. Even now, few cars have the power to stop you in your tracks quite like a Stratos.

A magazine cover star in period, the example pictured here racked up its fair share of wins in hillclimbing, but it began life as a road car. Built in 1976 and first registered a year later, the conversion for competition use occurred in ’78 with the Bartolini tuning concern adding monstrous Weber 48 carbs, racing cams and a works-spec transmission. Owner Idealgo Branducci (although it was registered in his girlfriend’s name) campaigned the car – in Jolly Club colours on occasion – but was unhappy with the way it performed. The Lancia subsequently gained a reworked cylinder head with uprated valves, while smaller Weber 44 carbs were substituted, parts being sourced from respected Piedmontese driver and tuner Claudio Maglioli. At this juncture the car produced about 240bhp, if documents from the time are to be believed.

The car found greater success, however, when ownership passed to Giovanni Gandolfi. The Parma man had form in continental hillclimbs, having previously accrued a considerable haul of silverware aboard Alpine A110s. In 1980-81, Gandolfi was the man to beat in the up to 2.5-litre class of the Italian Hillclimb Championship. In 1982, it was sold to Berardo Taraschi whose family, in addition to operating several marque agencies, had hitherto constructed single-seaters and sports-racers. Not that it was driven much: the Stratos covered all of 200km during his ownership to 2011, when the car was acquired by former motocross ace Daniele Turrisi.

“It was found in an underground garage,” he says. “It was one of 15 cars that were just sitting there collecting dust. After Taraschi died, I don’t think his family knew what to do with them. The Stratos was wedged between a Dino and an ex-Arturo Merzario Ferrari 330GTC.

It took three of us five hours just to manoeuvre the car into a position so that it could see daylight. Everything about it was exactly the same as it was when it had been put away almost 20 years earlier. It wasn’t perfect; the petrol tank was leaking, and there were a few other little things that needed attention, but what I loved about it most was that it was so original. You don’t see many like this that haven’t had a new chassis – or a new body for that matter – at some point in their lives.”

Turrisi and his team subsequently restored the car mechanically, but were at pains not to gild the lily. That said, a subsequent keeper decided to repaint the bottom half of the car, much to Turrisi’s annoyance. Otherwise, the glassfibre body displays every chip, graze and starburst with pride and is all the better for it. Turrisi reacquired the car in 2014 and enjoys exercising it as and when the mood takes him.

Inside, it’s an intriguing mix of road car and competition tool. It has a Stradale dashboard but there are also myriad extra gauges, kill switches and idiot lights. Those, and exposed screw heads. And lots of them. What’s more, it’s nowhere near as uncomfortable as you might imagine, but somehow you suspect ergonomics were pretty low down on the list of priorities when the Stratos was in the throes of creation. Adopting the ‘bum first, legs next’ approach to entry, you then have no choice but to assume an arms outstretched, splayed legs stance. Ventilation, meanwhile, is in short supply, the Perspex side windows shuddering down in arcs. It’s all very basic, but it works.

With the fuel pump primed, and following a couple of stabs at the throttle, the transverse V6 fires with the sort of fanfare that causes your pulse to quicken and pupils to dilate on turning the key. But then four chain-driven camshafts are spinning in their alloy heads just a few inches behind you. The dog-leg ’box snatches if you treat it gingerly, and the clutch is on the heavy side, but once up and running the action is smooth and defined so long as you remember to blip on both up and down changes. The sense of immediacy is spectacular.

The steering is light, but then there is little weight up front. It’s ultra-precise, if perhaps a little edgy at even moderately enthusiastic speeds. Kart analogies are unavoidable. Then there are the disc brakes that don’t have servo assistance. Get your gearchanges and braking done approaching a corner, pick your line and the rest is controlled via the throttle. You can then call upon the fantastic traction to slingshot you out of a bend before savouring the strung-out backbeat on the straight bits. The sound of a Stratos as it revs off its axis defies description as much as belief. It’s giddying and utterly addictive.

As indeed is the sense of accomplishment felt when you get it right. Sitting so low, everything feels quicker than it actually is, the fact that you cannot see farther than the base of the windscreen heightening this sense of sainted lunacy all the more. The suspension is firm, and every zit in the asphalt is relayed through your contact points to the point that your kidneys rattle, but it isn’t anywhere near as intimidating as legend would have you believe. But all too soon playtime is over and we’re back to reality. That, and more traffic.

Stories of the Stratos being a white-knuckle ride due to an excess of power and paucity of wheelbase do it a disservice. It’s relatively easy to drive so long as you focus. That said, while it isn’t necessary for mere mortals to tiptoe, driving one at ten-tenths would require serious talent. That, and a lack of imagination.

There was nothing else like a Stratos in period and there has been nothing quite like it since. It’s perfectly imperfect, which is why we love it still.

Thanks to Daniele Turrisi for his help with this feature: http://mondancars.jimdo.com/