With three World Rally Championships and three Monte Carlo Rally wins in its genre-defining career, the Lancia Stratos was built purely to come first. This is its story
Ahead the view is panoramic; behind, the refined snarling of a Ferrari V6 booms forth from the engine bay, filling your head with its intensity. You’re more or less sitting on the floor, and from beneath you comes the rattle and clatter of suspension working hard to provide a surprisingly good ride quality.
And you’re nervous. The car is twitchy. Very twitchy, courtesy of extremely light, hair-trigger steering that translates every wriggle of your wrist into a darting movement of the nose. This excitability of the chassis is exacerbated by its cruise-missile eagerness to follow the terrain beneath the tyres, keenly seeking the lowest point of the road, which is inevitably the gutter. Your guard is up constantly, because it has to be, your hands gripping the steering wheel tightly, your concentration levels in the red zone.
There’s lots more performance to come and the engine’s ready desire to rev and the car’s palpable light weight are goading you to delve deeper into their package of dynamic delight. Your heart wants to respond to their entreaty, but your head sensibly overrules them: going quicker in this captivating yet nerve-wracking car would require the otherworldly skills of a championship-winning rally driver. No doubt about it, you can only be in a Lancia Stratos. The Stratos seems too pretty for the rough and tumble of rallying. It’s small and neat and pert, not butch and aggressive or any of the other macho qualities you might expect of a car that needs to bully its way along rock-strewn goat tracks in Greece and snow-slathered Swedish backroads. It’s a mid-engined sports car for nice, smooth tarmac surfaces, surely?
But that’s the deceit of one of the world’s most attractive two-seater designs, because the sole purpose of the Stratos was to go rallying. To go rallying to win. Everything. Lancia’s competition department, headed by Cesare Fiorio in the 1970s, was very focused on that last point – total domination of the world rallying scene was the only way to justify the huge cost of the exercise.
So the Stratos was a car created from scratch specifically to roar around rally stages, rather than being a road car adapted to the task. As such it was the first of its kind, an extreme interpretation of the expression ‘homologation special’, and the success of the Stratos concept would later spawn the special-stage monsters of the Group B era. And as either rally or road car, plain or liveried, wherever a Stratos stops, an enthusiastic crowd soon gathers.
It’s remarkable that the Stratos, especially looking the way it does, was sanctioned by Lancia’s management. Or by Fiat’s for that matter – by 1970 Lancia was part of the Fiat group, along with Ferrari. Rallying’s value to most of its participants is that the cars out on the stages look very much like the cars you can buy in the showroom. The Stratos was not like anything in Lancia’s showroom, or anyone else’s. Yes, a minimum of 400 road cars would have to be produced to homologate the Stratos for competition, but such tiny numbers would do little to appease Lancia dealers anxious for a tangible lure with which to entice customers.
By 1970 the Beta coupé was in the pipeline and by Lancia standards could be considered a volume model but, while a rally version was developed to run alongside the Stratos, most of the company’s motor sport budget was directed at the wedge-shaped projectile with pop-up headlights and a Ferrari engine.
The Stratos owes its existence to a perfect storm of happy coincidences. Chief among them was the permanent appointment of Cesare Fiorio as Lancia’s sporting director in 1969. Fiorio had previously run the company’s motor sport operations on a freelance basis, and his connection to Lancia stretched back years – his father, Sandro, was Lancia’s PR man and an ex-rally driver, and clearly Fiorio picked up on his old man’s passions. Fiorio junior’s drive, determination and intimate understanding of the rules of rallying helped ensure that, despite several setbacks, the Stratos made it to the starting line.
And yet he couldn’t have done it on his own. Another key champion of the cause was Piero Gobbato, installed by Fiat as Lancia’s managing director towards the end of 1969. Although tasked with turning around Lancia’s miserable sales and cutting costs, he was a sympathetic ear for Fiorio’s plan to boost the company’s image with a purpose-built rally car. And later in the Stratos’s protracted gestation, it was Gobbato’s wily political manoeuvring that finally made a reluctant Ferrari come good on its promise to supply 500 Dino 2.4-litre V6 engines.
Lancia’s inexorable decline during the 1960s also played into the Stratos’s hands. Research and development had more or less come to a halt and, at the end of that decade when Fiorio began thinking of a rallying replacement for the ageing – though still moderately successful – Fulvia coupé, there was nothing to replace it. Fiorio believed that a purpose-built rally weapon would reinvigorate Lancia internally and externally, and reflect the company’s tradition of technical innovation.SEE RELATED: Lancia Stratos buying guide and cars for sale
Fiorio’s musings about a replacement for the Fulvia were inspired by the Renault-powered Alpine A110. This fast and lithe little rear-engined coupé was making a nuisance of itself in the International Rally Championship for Makes during the mid-to-late-1960s, and only its fragility on some of the rougher events prevented it strolling off with more of the silverware. When in 1968 Renault bought out Alpine and threw some much-needed cash into the Dieppe-based sports car maker’s R&D pot, Fiorio realised that the French car’s full potential might soon be realised, to the detriment of the Fulvia.
As it transpired, however, there was actually plenty of life left in Lancia’s dainty coupé, despite its competition heritage stretching back to 1965. In 1972 – and to everyone’s surprise, especially Alpine-Renault’s – the Fulvia bagged the very last International Rally Championship for Makes. And in 1974, while the Stratos sat idle awaiting homologation, the Fulvia (together with the Beta coupé) chalked up enough points during the early season to help its mid-engined sibling win the championship for Lancia by the year’s end.
All that, of course, was in the future when Fiorio began mentally compiling the ideal specification for Lancia’s new star of the stages: it would need to be mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive, small, light (less than 1000kg), robust and have adjustable suspension to cope with extremes of road surface. It would also require about 250bhp. Aiding his thought process was the fact that Ford was working on its own rally special, the mid-engined GT70 and, while that project would never make it past a handful of prototypes, it showed the Italian that others shared his vision for the future of rally cars.
Meanwhile, carmakers in general were, by the end of the 1960s, applying pressure on motor sport’s governing body, the FIA, to give rallying greater international cachet and visibility. By 1970 the lobbying paid off with the announcement that in 1973 there would be a new, more high-profile global series, the World Championship for Rallies; with it would come new regulations. What particularly caught Fiorio’s eye was the Group 4 category, which would accommodate modified and highly tuned cars, provided that at least 400 of them were constructed. The base elements for the Stratos were falling into place.
Yet another stroke of good fortune had come along in 1970. Carrozzeria Bertone decided it would like to shake loose a bit of Lancia coachbuilding business from the clutches of Pininfarina. Nuccio Bertone tasked his studio’s new signing, Marcello Gandini, with creating a shape that would wow Lancia at the Turin motor show in November. Gandini already had the Lamborghini Miura in his portfolio, so Bertone couldn’t be accused of gambling with fresh talent. What Gandini created was the thigh-high wedge of weirdness that was the Stratos Zero, the car’s name reputedly stolen from the box of a wooden aeroplane kit that was lying around in the studio.
For all its dramatic styling, that first Stratos concept with its Fulvia 1600 HF V4 motor wasn’t so well received by the motoring press (see Octane 127). But that didn’t matter, it cracked open the doors at Lancia: Nuccio Bertone was so overjoyed to have received the phone call from Lancia HQ in January 1971 that he jumped in the concept car and drove it himself into downtown Turin. There was never any intention to develop the Stratos Zero any further, but what the car did was to awaken an urge within Lancia management to be bold and daring. Fiorio, of course, had already reached that conclusion, but now others were on board with the idea.
Bertone’s services were duly enlisted to create Fiorio’s vision and Gandini was once again put in charge of the project. And although Lancia’s race engineer, Gianni Tonti, was on hand to offer practical advice, Gandini largely worked on his own. Having only been handed the brief in early March 1971, by August Gandini had a full-size mock-up ready. At the Turin motor show that November, the day-glo orange, aluminium-bodied Bertone Stratos concept car made its triumphant debut.
It was to seem like an eternity, though, until Stratos the rally car first turned a wheel in anger. Longer still until the car was finally homologated, in October 1974, and was able to run in Group 4 (rather than as a prototype) and score points towards the world championship. Much of the delay stemmed from the Ferrari factory procrastinating over the supply of the 2.4-litre V6 engine (despite Enzo’s own support for the deal); replacing it with the four-cylinder motor from the Beta coupé was considered, but the threat of swapping over to a 3.0-litre Maserati V6 – a politically astute move by Gobbato – finally spurred the men from Maranello into signing the supply agreement.
Even then the engines merely dribbled out of the Ferrari factory. Getting enough cars built to homologate the Stratos for motor sport became a nightmare for Fiorio and Lancia’s competition department: hopes of competing in the 1973 season proved fruitless, and for a while 1974 seemed in doubt, too. Rumour has it – and this is supported by documents reproduced in Nigel Trow’s excellent Lancia Stratos, World Champion Rally Car – that a deeply frustrated Fiorio eventually signed paperwork claiming that all the required Stratoses had been built by October 1974, when in fact cars were still trickling off the line in the middle of the following year. Yet nobody seemed to mind, because the world’s rally stages were to become much more interesting with the arrival of the glamorous Stratos.
Even in today’s world of extreme sports cars the Stratos remains an evocative sight, and no less so for our photographic car being the road-going stradale version. It must have been a breathtaking moment when Fiorio took Sandro Munari and the other Lancia works drivers aside and said ‘Look at the new toy we’ve built for you’. Compared with its rallying predecessor, the Fulvia coupé, the Stratos was properly exotic, a revolution in Lancia design that embraced nothing from the past.
The simple act of getting into it distances the Stratos from regular cars. The glassfibre door is so light that there’s a strange lack of momentum behind it as you open up, and you need to keep a tight grip of it if there’s a breeze. The driver’s seat is a long way down, mounted straight to the floor, so you have to stick your right leg in (it’s left-hand drive) beyond a broad sill, fold yourself almost in half from the waist, reach in and grab the steering wheel to steady yourself, perhaps bend your other knee a little, and then drop into the Alcantara-trimmed bucket. Sense of occasion compensates for the lack of elegance.
If you’re broad-shouldered, the deep but narrow bolsters of the simply styled seat will push your upper body slightly clear of the backrest and it can be a struggle to get truly comfortable. For all the excellent front and side vision afforded by the visor-like windscreen, the Stratos’s cabin is a tad claustrophobic – headroom is extremely tight and, although you sit a long way inboard, the glasshouse is inboard, too, placing the side window close to your left temple, while the rear-view mirror seems perilously near to your right. One of the quirks of the cabin is door pockets big enough to accommodate a crash helmet, but you’re left wondering how the drivers and navigators ever found the space to wear them in the first place.
When the transversely mid-mounted 2.4-litre Ferrari V6 cranks into life behind you, the hiss and pop of the carbs underlays a cultured, deep-toned rumble. Warm the fluids and start pinging the sharp-tipped tacho needle around the dial, and it becomes crisp, strident, imposing, with a metallic timbre at the top end. If you’ve spent any time watching YouTube videos of Group 4 Stratos rally cars with 24-valve heads and 275bhp raging through the forests, then the sound the stradale makes might not seem quite rampant enough, yet it does prickle the hairs on your forearms and sets your synapses tingling.
By modern standards the Stratos isn’t wickedly quick, yet with just 980kg to haul along you’ll find that 190bhp is enough to keep the pace entertainingly high. The Ferrari V6 is quite torquey, too, so throttle response in the mid-range is snappy, a useful attribute given how ponderous and sloppy the five-speed gearchange can be.
On brief acquaintance – and, I suspect, even after prolonged exposure – you’ll not really want to be chucking the Stratos down the road with the throttle buried. With such a short wheelbase (2180mm), 42:58 front:rear weight distribution and that super-quick steering, the potential for a big spin is ever-present. The chassis and suspension set-up were, of course, tuned for acrobatic agility but, you’ll notice from rally footage from the 1970s, not even Munari held a Stratos sideways for long; it’s not a drifter like Ford’s Escorts or modern rally cars.
The Stratos might be a handful as a road car, but as a rally car in the mid-70s it was imperious. Three World Rally Championships (1974, ’75 and ’76), numerous national rally championships and drivers’ championships, plus countless individual wins – including, in Group 5 form, the 1973 Giro d’Italia and 1974 Targa Florio – were emphatic vindication of Fiorio’s belief in a clean-sheet design to a very particular specification.
And yet the Stratos’s domination of world rallying – and the money being spent for it to do so – raised hackles and jealousies within the Fiat group. In 1977 Lancia lost the political battle and Fiat’s rallying muscle was placed firmly behind the 131 Abarth. The Stratos still competed in key events that season – Munari won his third successive Monte Carlo rally, for example – but Lancia announced that it wasn’t chasing another world title.
Game over for the Stratos? Not quite. Changes to world rally regs in 1978 meant that the car had to revert to its original specification, yet it was still victorious on the San Remo, Giro d’Italia and Tour de Corse. Without factory team support in 1979 it was assumed that the Stratos had nothing more to offer, but talented privateer and Monte Carlo expert Bernard Darniche had other ideas, placing his distinctive blue Chardonnet-sponsored Stratos on the top tier of the podium. Further points successes by privateers throughout ’79 meant that by the end of the season Lancia was fourth in the championship, despite not having officially entered it.
As Markku Alén (who used the car to win the 1978 Monte) once said of the Stratos: ‘It is the car made for rallying.’
Words: Brett Fraser // Photography: Matthew Howell