Dream by Bertone, mid-engine by Ferrari, construction via Lancia, equals exotic rally car for Chequered Flag
In November 1970 Bertone presented their interpretation of a mid-engined dream car based on a Lancia Fulvia HF V4 power unit for display at the Turin Motor Show. Not just a dream car though, for the infant Stratos was designed with the thought that Lancia’s HF front wheel drive rally cars had reached the limit of foreseeable development. It was clear that even such a good little coupe couldn’t compete with the six-cylinder Porsche 911s and lightweight rear engine, Renault Alpines. By the following year the Stratos had grown into a more recognisable version of the car you see on these pages, complete with six-cylinder Ferrari Dino motor and revised suspension.
That a compact, 2.4 litre/245 b.h.p., motor car would make short work of re-engineered Group 2 saloon cars and the heavier Porsches, was a pretty good bet for anyone. . . Lancia Competitions confirmed the fact over tarmac initially, Sandro Munari winning the 1973 Tour de France. The following year demonstrated that the Stratos hybrid had now come of age, reaching full maturity with wins on the Sanremo and Rideau Lakes International rallies, and recording a second overall on the Targa Florio. Sneaking into the New Year after a very easy third place on Britain’s RAC Rally, the Stratos became certain of a place in motoring history with outright victory on this year’s Monte Carlo Rally.
The Stratos is far from the all-conquering rally car, for its victories so far certainly don’t add up to the worth of those recorded by the Mini. Substantial problems have prevented the factory onslaught from flattening the opposition in the manner that theory would suggest . . . but none of those remarks can detract from the fact that the car is probably the one by which others assess the worth of their own vehicles, and the potential for further Stratos development is enormous.
Looking at the RAC Forest performances of the works Stratos last year, the founder and proprietor of Chequered Flag (the sports car and Lancia specialists in Chiswick), Mr Graham Warner, decided that this was the rally car for him. The Stratos would bring his company publicity, results, and serve to underline that Chequered Flag were out of racing (their last project was Ian Ashley’s Brabham BT42, passed on from Hexagon) and into a serious assault on British rallying.
Warner performed a minor miracle in purchasing the Lancia at all, for the competitions department have enough on their plates without selling cars to outsiders, who will need scarce spares. The deal to obtain the car was concluded with the recommendation of expatriate English development engineer Michael Parkes. Rafaele Pinto’s crashed Stratos became Chequered Flag property in time to return to Britain in February. Warner recollects, “we could have had either the Pinto or Jean-Claude Andruet Stratos, both were crunched on the same corner on the Monte!”
From its arrival in Britain the Chequered Flag car has been surrounded by comment and a degree of ill fortune that is hard to comprehend, especially when you have devoted £30,000 to the complete project over a year, and that sum has been spent with two of the most important events left to complete. Worse still has been a record of non-finishes on British events, though at least it has always retired while fighting for the lead.
To drive and navigate his new toy Warner selected a successful Irish Porsche privateer, Cahal Curley, paired with Austin Frazer for tarmac rallies. On loose surface events the subject of CR’s recent personality profile, Per Inge Walfridsson, has emphasised his world class talent in the Stratos, normally guided by Kentishman John Jensen, who used to sit with Per while he performed legendary feats in a Volvo.
At first it was felt that servicing the Stratos during events would be the previously racing-orientated company’s biggest problem, but the co-ordination provided by Ian Pankhurst and the enthusiasm of mechanics like regular Stratos keepers Paul Batten and Ron Pellat, ensured there were few problems in actually keeping in touch with the car’s frequent needs. The problem was to satisfy those needs once identified!
At the first test day the car proved a very strong understeerer when equipped with 7 in rim front and 12 in wide rear wheels. Now the car carries less of a front to rear differential on tarmac (8 in v 10in) whilst on the loose Walfridsson opts for 6½ in rim widths all round which make the squat wedge shape look rather too much for the skinny rollers beneath. The production cars use 14 in diameter wheels, while the competition models carry 15 in diameters. For the test Pirelli Double Green Spot tyres were fitted, Warner prefering to keep the cars on the intensively developed Italian rubber than opt for the easier path of fitting Dunlops.
Within bodywork that measures 12ft 2.08 in width, and 3ft 7.7 in height, the Lancia provides a strict two seats and no frills like efficient ventilation to distract the driver from the “rallying’s a sport for men” theme. With 250 horsepower (Italian figures that have yet to be confirmed in this country) resting in 1,870 lbs, the occupants don’t have much time to do more than make sure their helmets have been removed from the neat built-in racks and that the driver is comfortably within his bucket seat before the Stratos, propelled by the strident modified V6, hurtles over 100 m.p.h.
Following the failure of three engines in the season, Chequered Flag have opted for Richard Longman’s services in preference to Lancia Competitions to rebuild the motors. Longman ensures that the inlet and exhaust ports blend neatly into the Lancia Comps steel manifolding, but leaves the engines otherwise unmodified. In fact there are few changes to production Ferrari Dino specification. Bore and stroke are 92.5mm by 60mm, giving a capacity of 2418 c.c. Lancia competitions fit new pistons, camshafts and valves, all aimed at improving the engine’s breathing. The V6 retains a charming degree of docile tractability emphasised by a 1000 r.p.m. tickover and a healthy spread of torque before the peak at 5,300 r.p.m. Compression ratio is approximately. 11.5:1, carburation is by re-jetted standard triple Weber 40mm IDFs and we were restricted to 7,500 of the permissible 8,500 r.p.m.
In Italy they have a four valve racing version of this engine which should provide 290 b.h.p. at 7,800 r.p.m., which should be enough for the Stratos to take on the six-cylinder Porsches. Obviously Lancia have had second thoughts about the adequacy of brake tested horses though, for they have a turbocharged development unit producing 350 b.h.p. The fabricated wishbone and strut suspension, and four wheel ventilated disc brakes, are deeply appreciated features that make this Lancia feel far more of a sophisticated competition car than any of the quality/mass producers of metal machinery can hope to be.
The Stratos, from steel box section monocoque chassis, right through its fibreglass bodywork, is designed to compete. There is a production 190 b.h.p. version on offer to the Italian public — there is no E mark to make it socially acceptable for general European sale (are we really going to follow the Americans all the way into the safety mire … shudder) — but that offering still has the sliding side windows and moulded-in helmet carriers to emphasise its conversion from pure sporting use, rather than the road car heritage of Porsches, Fords, Toyotas and BMWs. The key turns and pushes in to produce the kind of engine music that really make the driver determined to give a really spirited performance. Then the mellow note is swopped for a raucous whoop of joy, which ensured that no test track except Snetterton’s flexible management would take us in to explore its delights!
Unfortunately the pleasure of the engine is initially marred by the obstructive synchronising dogs mounted directly on the five forward gears. This system seems to attract the worst of a truck’s slow change, while the occasional gratings produced wouldn’t disgrace an ancient gravel lorry. Gradually we grew accustomed to pushing the changes through, and the satisfaction of making clean changes is only counterbalanced by the fine blisters produced at the end of the day. In test form the car was really set up for tarmac and gravel road use, pulling a 3.9:1 final drive via a set of transfer gears (easily accessible between engine and gearbox, and used in sets to suit every purpose, rather than the longer task of gearbox ratio changes) that allow around 126 m.p.h. flat out. For forest rallies Walfridsson gears the car for little more than 100 m.p.h.
We drove the car harder on the loose than on tarmac, primarily because it still seemed possible that the car would understeer off on the early morning track dampness. Using the Norwich straight we found that the car reached our rev limit in fifth so quickly that most of that illustrious flat-out blind was covered with the throttle eased; the Stratos almost hovering above the surface with light, quick messages fed back through the steering in a manner more akin to a light aircraft.
Around the new section of Snetterton — the Norwich straight having gone the way of Oulton Park loop — the Stratos swings into corners as soon as the steering is eased into the curve. There are no signs of either under or oversteer at speed, but pushing hard into the old hairpin the front will initially skid slightly, followed by a twitch as the rear wheels shuffle slightly out of line while the ZF limited slip differential apportions power between wet and dry tarmacadam.
By this stage the cockpit beneath the windscreen’s vee-shaped solarium is stifling hot, but that does not prevent one from giving the Lancia as much stick over the grass section as possible. I had always been told that the mid-engine configuration would not provide the kind of flexible, and predictable, tail-out handling characteristics that rally driver’s urgently need when they slither across an unexpected hazard in mid-corner. The Stratos proves that propping up the saloon bar is no substitute for experiencing just that kind of handling in a mid-engine machine, for we succeeded in actually driving the car at right angles to the direction of travel, and it still showed no sign of spinning without warning the driver. If you apply too much throttle you can hold the Lancia in that oversteer slide until it slows, or apply the accelerator more gently to keep the speed up … it looks very impressive, but the car is really very easy to drive at these modest speeds.
In summary all I can say is that it is a continual source of regret to me that the Ferrari Dino V6 is no longer produced, but that the Stratos must be a reasonable substitute as a road car, and a truly tremendous competition vehicle, putting its rivals to shame with a combination of styling flare and rallying effectiveness.