A Slice of the Lancia Stratos
“It looks like a wedge of cheese” was certainly not the first impression I thought the Lancia Stratos HF would make on my sister. An architecture student going on 20-years old, she wasn’t exactly articulate in her evaluation of automotive design. The photo she held showed a bright yellow version of the car, which I’m sure didn’t help sway her young mind toward the sophisticated vehicle.
I suppose it could have been worse. A photo of a green Stratos might have conjured up in her mind images of an old and moldy wedge of cheese. Curiously though, a wedge of cheese and the Stratos have much in common. Both are open to interpretation and depending on how you’re feeling, they can either reward your senses or leave you aghast with confusion. Perhaps their largest similarity is in their creation. Great cheese takes the perfect combination of experience, conditions and ingredients all coming together in perfect harmony at the right time and can rarely ever be duplicated. Therefore, the Stratos is the great cheese of the car world.
At the Turin Motor Show in October 1970, Bertone presented the Stratos Zero concept car using the running gear and parts sourced from a crashed Lancia Fulvia. Penned by stylist Marcello Gandini under the direction of Nuccio Bertone, the Zero stole the show and piqued the interest of Lancia’s team director Cesare Fiorio. Fiorio envisioned a car with similar styling, purpose-built from the ground-up to go rally racing. The rules required that 500 examples be built to homologate the car for qualification in Group 4, necessitating a not unsubstantial financial commitment, but Fiorio promptly got approval from top Fiat brass to make it a reality. The car would be called the Lancia Stratos HF or “High-Fidelity”.
By way of Marcello Gandini, Bertone was soon contracted for styling and production of the body and chassis. Fiorio then hastily collected further ingredients for his masterpiece. Ex-Lamborghini chief engineer, Giampaolo Dallara, responsible for the development of the Countach, and Mike Parkes, former F1 experimental chief engineer at Ferrari, were brought on board. Finally, Italian, rally ace Sandro Munari was acquired for shakedown and testing.
Now Fiorio needed a flexible but reliable powerplant. It needed to be appropriate for use in the production car but also capable of being brought up to a state of tune that would make it competitive. The Fulvia 1.6 liter V4 powering the Stratos Zero concept car was considered but quickly deemed inadequate, as was the DOHC Inline-4 from the Lancia Beta. Something more substantial was needed.
Coincidentally, the Ferrari 246 Dino’s lifecycle was nearly complete. The Dino had been a great seller for Ferrari in large part due to its efficiently-packaged, reliable and well-balanced 195 horsepower V6 engine, but Enzo Ferrari treated his road-car outfit and the personalities who bought the cars like misbehaving bastard stepsons that manage to help out with the bills. By 1969, Ferrari had had enough, and when Fiat approached him for a 50% stake, the fountain pen and contracts couldn’t be whipped out fast enough. In 1972, Fiorio approached Enzo Ferrari about acquiring some of the last Dino engines for use in the Stratos, and with the Commentadore being solely concerned with competition in Formula 1, Ferrari accommodated, and the final ingredient to Cesare Fiorio’s rally weapon came from the hallowed Scuderia Ferrari.
A year after the Stratos Zero concept wowed the Turin Auto Show crowd, the world of rallying was turned upside down when the Lancia Stratos HF was unveiled. It bore little resemblance to the Zero concept beyond its wedge-of-cheese silhouette. The HF was again low and wide, but much shorter and stubbier. It was so purpose-built in its execution as an instrument to win in rally racing that details were bordering on appalling for a road-legal car to be bought by the general public. Its windshield resembled the visor of a crash helmet and the side windows rolled down only partially, giving the impression that maybe the regulator was broken! The car had horrible blind spots due to the shallow buttresses of the rear clamshell and louvers covering the rear window.
Things didn’t make much sense on the interior either. With little to no headroom for anyone taller than 5’10”, the steering wheel and pedals canted 8-inches closer to the center of the vehicle than the seat, and an instrument cluster that put the small accessory gauges front and center, while the rev counter and speedometer were behind the right side of the steering wheel. The car was ideally suited to a short, fat driver with the limbs and peripheral vision of a praying mantis. The door-sills were so tremendously wide, they had buckets built into them to hold the driver and co-driver’s helmet. Trunk space? Yeah, right. Think just enough room behind the occupants to fit a broken mop handle and a roll of paper towels. Underneath the composite clamshells lay the guts of the beast. Up front a spare tire and ancillaries for the pedals, with the engine laying under the rear shell, the box-tube frame surrounding it like a shark cage.
In battle, the Stratos was beyond formidable. In its rookie season of 1973, it won at home in San Remo and after working out a few small bugs that year, the wedge claimed the World Rally Championship (WRC) 3-times on the trot in 1974, 1975 and 1976. It was tremendously capable when driven by the likes of Bjorn Waldegaard and Sandro Munari, who went on to develop a special relationship with the Stratos, earning all of his career WRC rally victories with the car. Munari mastered the stubby little machine’s uncanny ability to snap into wild over-steer at the slightest prod of the throttle pedal, making it very easy to place in a corner with sniper-rifle-like precision, but also gravely dangerous in the wrong hands with even the slightest lapse of concentration ending in potential catastrophe. The Italian would often put on a show for the spectators by using the tail-happy nature of the car to pitch it into corners sideways and motor out, banging redline shifts and coughing flames out of the exhaust.
Following the 1976 season, the Stratos was phased out of the factory team. Internal politics necessitated a switch to the FIAT 131, but in the hands of privateers, the Stratos remained competitive in WRC for nearly another half-decade. The car scored its final official win in the Tour de Corse of 1981 before the madness of the 1980s Group B cars made everything else obsolete.
In a strange twist, perhaps under the behest of Stratos engineer Mike Parkes, FIAT green-lit a Group 5 campaign for closed-circuit competition and completed two cars. Group 5 consisted of mostly short-distance, tarmac rallies with more relaxed rules and limitations on modifications. Although it was never really competitive against the mighty Porsche 935s, the Group 5 Stratos did score wins at the 1976 and 1977 Giro D’Italia. Following a fire that destroyed one of the cars and Parkes’ death in 1977, development of the Group 5 Stratos came to an abrupt end and the only remaining car sold to a collector in Japan.
The way the Stratos rewrote rally history places it near the top of the list for any car collector and a fan-favorite for rally enthusiasts. Following in the footsteps of Cesare Fiore’s rally weapon, every manufacturer who wanted to be competitive in WRC, purpose-built cars for rallying. This constant development led us to the most exciting time in rallying, possibly in all of racing, in the 1980s when the Group B rally cars were bordering on insanity, all thanks to the spark generated by the Stratos. The likes of the Stratos will never be seen again. The current WRC requirements necessitate a production number so large that it would be financially crippling to anybody attempting to create a purpose-built rally car. The Stratos, like that fine wedge of cheese it resembles, was made at just the right time with just the right loving ingredients and will never again be duplicated. Long live the Stratos!
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