The Legendary Lancia Stratos
The Lancia Stratos is a motorsport legend, a coveted and precious collectors' item, and five decades on keeps inspiring many automobile designers. Not bad for a car that, in the period, Lancia didn't really want to make and that customers didn't want to buy...
Our story begins in late 1969 when Lancia, crushed by an unsustainable debt burden, was rescued by Fiat for the symbolic sum of one Lira per share, and the great coachbuilder Nuccio Bertone saw an opportunity.
Lancia's coachbuilder of choice had been Pininfarina since the latter's inception in 1930. Still, the new property and management could allow Bertone to put his foot in the door: so he tasked Marcello Gandini to design a jaw-dropping prototype for the next Turin motor show, something the Fiat and Lancia executives could not ignore.
The result was the Stratos, unveiled at the 1970 Turin motor show to the amazement of the public and press alike.
The powertrain from a Fulvia 1.6 HF sat centrally mounted within a flowing wedge shape tapering sharply at both ends that measured just over 3.5 meters long and a scant 84 cm tall. Access for the two passengers, which had to lay down more than sitting in the car, was via the windscreen.
Bertone had just made car design history but, perhaps more importantly, caught the attention of Lancia's new managing director, Pier Ugo Gobbato, and Cesare Fiorio, head of the works rally team.
Despite the lack of resources, Lancia's racing department managed to gain considerable success across Europe rallying the Fulvia Coupé, and since morale at Lancia was low and sales even lower, Gobbato saw Fiorio's activities as beneficial for Lancia's image and overall standing.
But the Fulvia's days as a rally winner were numbered against the ever more powerful and specialized cars fielded by the competition. Lancia needed something new, and that's what Gobbato and Fiorio saw in Bertone's Stratos, despite the fact it was rather useless as a rally car in its original form.
Although the Stratos we all know and love, developed between 1971 and '72 around the Ferrari 2.4 liters "Dino" V6, shares only the name with the show prototype that started it all, it certainly was no less revolutionary in both concept and execution.
Just a year later, at the Turin Motor Show in November 1971, Bertone showed off the Lancia Stratos HF prototype, finished in an eye-catching matte red color.
The first car to have been developed from the ground up to win rallies, the Stratos had a very short wheelbase for maximum agility, a razor-sharp front end, and an extraordinarily curved windshield that wrapped around the tight passenger compartment, maximizing visibility even when driving sideways.
But sporting regulations required the construction of 500 road cars for the Stratos to be homologated in Group 4: a significant investment that part of Fiat's management was reluctant to make, to say the least.
After all, Fiat had just bought Abarth and was carrying out its own rally program with the 124 Spider, leading many higher-ups to consider Lancia's project redundant at best, counterproductive at worst.
Considerable pressure was then made upon Enzo Ferrari to deny the vital supply of 500 Dino engines. However, the Lancia men valiantly fought their corner, with Gobbato and Fiorio putting their careers on the line.
Production of the Stratos HF finally started in July of 1973: Bertone built, painted, and outfitted the bodies, which were then sent to Lancia's Chivasso factory, where final assembly took place in a small dedicated workshop. Racing homologation was then granted in October 1974, and the World Rally Championship would never be the same again.
Between 1974 and 1977, the Stratos did precisely what it had been designed for: dominate rallying. Three consecutive World Championships, three European ones, three Italian and one French championships.
In the end, the only rival that eventually managed to beat the Stratos was the same political infighting within the Fiat Group that didn't want it made in the first place: for 1978, the Lancia Stratos was sidelined, at the height of its competitiveness, in favor of the Fiat 131 Abarth.
However, privateers kept racing and winning with the Stratos: the most outstanding of such successes was the 1979 Montecarlo rally, won by Bernard Darniche on a Stratos campaigned by the French Lancia importer Chardonnet, beating the official Fiat 131s that replaced it.
On The Road
Given the Stratos' success and legendary status, one would imagine Lancia had no problem selling the 500 road cars it had to make, but actually, the opposite is true.
One issue undoubtedly was poor timing: the oil embargo declared by OPEC in late 1973 multiplied crude prices by around 300% and plunged the world's economy into a recession.
On top of that, the Stratos was, despite its obvious charm, a less than attractive proposition for most sports car buyers in the period. In Italy, it retailed at a whopping 10.7 Million Lire, considerably more than even a Porsche 911 RS Touring but offering nowhere near the same level of usability and finish.
The cramped, indifferently put together cabin and lack of luggage space weren't the only issues either, as the decision of using silent-blocks instead of uniball joints in the suspension and equally sized tires front and rear compromised the Stratos' handling as well. As a result, many examples of now insanely collectible Stratos HF "Stradale" languished in Lancia's dealer showrooms for months or even years before being sold at a hefty discount.
Despite having been designed for rallying, the Stratos also saw action on the racetrack: between 1975 and 1977, the Stratos Turbo "Group 5" developed by Carlo Facetti was largely unsuccessful against BMW and Porsche but scored a prestigious win in the 1976 Giro Automobilistico d'Italia.
Lancia would officially participate in the World SportsCar Championship from 1979 with the Beta Montecarlo Turbo, but that's a story for another time...