Featured: Driven by Design: The Incomparable Lancia Stratos

Driven by Design: The Incomparable Lancia Stratos

By Yoav Gilad
July 29, 2014

(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)

Photography by Rémi Dargegen for Artcurial Motorcars

In the late 1960s, Fiat was an enormous Italian conglomerate (in addition to cars, buses, and industrial equipment they also owned toll highways, an international construction company, and a paint manufacturer, among others) flush with cash. After an organizational restructuring and Autobianchi’s acquisition, they were outselling Volkswagen. Their growth was so explosive that in 1968 Newsweek magazine called them the “most dynamic automaker in Europe.”

Things were going well. So well in fact, that Fiat began buying controlling interests in more prestigious brands including Ferrari and Lancia. Now, historically, Lancia had always been linked to Pininfarina, but following Lamborghini’s coup with the Miura, Lancia began exploring a partnership with Bertone (where the Miura’s designer worked) and focused on attacking the World Rally Championship and its predecessor the International Championship for Manufacturers (IMC).

These decisions seem largely based on the fact that Ferrari was already well-established in sports car racing and Formula One and were also very close to Pininfarina. It allowed Lancia a chance to differentiate themselves and shine on their own.

Sensing the opportunity, Mr. Nuccio Bertone used the drivetrain from a friend’s Lancia Fulvia Coupé and tasked designer Mr. Marcello Gandini with developing a drivable show car that would win Lancia’s business. Marcello’s work became the Lancia Stratos Zero and it made such an impression that Lancia agreed to work with Bertone (as an aside, one has to wonder if it didn’t become the packaging study that led to the Countach as well, especially because it bears almost no resemblance to the Stratos that was eventually manufactured).

From the outset, the Lancia/Bertone deal was intended to develop a rally car that would build on the Fulvia’s successes (it won the Euro Rally Championship in 1969 and the IMC trophy for 1972). And thus Marcello set to develop the Stratos for racing and homologation, working alongside Messrs. Sandro Munari (Lancia factory rally driver), Cesare Fiorio (team manager), and Mike Parkes (engineer and racer). Extensive testing took place throughout 1972 and ‘73 in events that allowed prototypes, which led to the Stratos’s homologation for the ’74 season. It won that season as well as the following two.

It wasn’t all rainbows under the Fiat umbrella though, as Mr. Enzo Ferrari didn’t want the Stratos to compete with the Dino and had Fiat delay supplying the engines until absolutely necessary. They then delivered all approximately five hundred powerplants at once. But, if there was in-fighting and jealousy between brands, why was the Lancia so dominant in rallying? Mostly, because of the design.

When you consider the Lancia Stratos in profile it actually looks rather tall. But it’s an illusion. It looks tall because lengthwise the car is actually very short and has an unbelievably short wheelbase (only eighty-five inches, less than 2.2m). For comparison, the wheelbase is about four inches (about 100mm) shorter than a Mazda Miata’s. This allows the Stratos to change direction very quickly, obviously important for successful rallying. It is also an extremely small car (about 146in or 3.7m long) yet in spite of its diminutive size has immeasurable presence.

Proportionally speaking, it is a pure mid-engined car and the car’s styling clearly communicates this with the doors pushed forward and an ample unbroken surface to the rear wheelhouse. The short overall length also has a secondary advantage, visually speaking, in that it gives the car a very wide stance in perspective not unlike that of the BMC Mini (another rally legend, coincidence?).

And while the short-wheelbase proportions are interesting, it is the surfacing that is truly amazing. Rather than giving the hood a sharp transition into the fenders (as on the Lamborghini Countach), Marcello angled it down slightly and exaggerated the front wheel arches to emphasize the Stratos’s stance. And while the plane climbs as it travels backwards on the car, the rear wheels also receive muscular wheel arches.

In fact the intersection of cylinders with planes is used multiple times to great effect, both visually and functionally. Consider the intersection of the same plane with the windshield, which is cylindrical in section (and forms a nearly perfect semi-circle at its base). Not only does it emphasize a form theme, but it also allows for a very steep rake while affording excellent visibility (as the A-pillars can be pushed back).

Now some may wonder, how, if the front wheels are emphasized so prominently, the Lancia Stratos still manages to maintain its rear-wheel drive look? It’s because of the surface break above the rear wheels. In other words, the bulk of the visual mass in profile is centered precisely at the rear wheels. Additionally, the up-sweep of the side window and the engine cover help add more mass to the rear of the car.

The Stratos’s details are no less interesting. In Stradale trim the car has virtually no chrome (just like the HF) yet it retains the functional hood louvers and can frequently be found sporting the hood and engine cover latches. The most interesting detail however, is the Bertone logo prominently displayed on the B-pillar. Framed by the two symmetrical cutlines jutting up towards it, it’s literally impossible to miss. I have always loved how Italian car companies tend to recognize the carrozzerias responsible for clothing their mechanicals with a fender badge or something similar, but to be featured so prominently is unusual and is fitting for such an impressive design.

From the beginning, the Lancia Stratos was designed to win rallys and it was so successful that it still won one in 1981, nearly ten years after it was designed. Some of that success may be due to the wonderful 2.4L V6 from Ferrari, but credit should go to Marcello Gandini and the rest of the designers at Bertone, for it is the single-mindedness and purity of the Stratos’s design that allowed it to conquer.

If you’d like more of the incomparable Lancia Stratos, click here to watch our short film.

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[…] Lancia StratosDriven by Design: The Incomparable Lancia Stratos […]

1 year ago

I absolutely cannot get enough of the Driven by Design series. Cars that I thought I could not possibly like any more, become even more beautiful when I can appreciate the design nuances that are illuminated by your writing.

While the Dino 308 GT4 may not be a beauty queen, I constantly notice nuances in the Gandini design that delight me. Have you considered writing a n article about them?

Edward Levin
Edward Levin(@edl)
6 years ago

I have an original owner’s manual, but that’s as close as I’m ever likely to get.

A couple of minor quibbles with an entertaining article: Lancia didn’t get into rally to differentiate themselves from Ferrari within the Fiat Group. Fiat bought Ferrari and then Lancia in 1969, but Lancia’s rally program with the Fulvia began years before that. And the Stratos [i]was [/i]an HF; its official name was “Stratos HF”, and the rear badging reads “Lancia HF / Stratos” (don’t ask why the side badging has an apostrophe “Strato’s”).

I’d second TJ’s recommendation of the Curami excellent book.

Edward Levin
Edward Levin(@edl)
6 years ago
Reply to  Edward Levin

Come to think of it, the rear badge also has an apostrophe, IIRC

7 years ago

Fantastic dream car. And fantastic times when Lancia was inside Fiat Group the diamond brand also for sport field. Unfortunately when they buyed the poor alfaromeo brand in late 80s all was broken and we started to see the Lancia died for fault of alfaromeo

7 years ago

What do you mean “Fiat was an enormous conglomerate…? It still is. But I need to correct you on the fact that Fiat never owned Alitalia. Alitalia was state owned. Sorry you are incorrect.

Dennis Cavallino
Dennis Cavallino
7 years ago

Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Marcello Gandini. Gandini’s masterpieces are still cheap. Even the Zero wasn’t sold for the amount it should be. Not to mention the Citroën BX, and FIAT X1/9 which you can still buy for a couple of bucks. Gandini is still alive, and we all know what happened to van Gogh’s work…

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle(@mosler)
7 years ago

Whats not to love about the Lancia Stratos. It was a purpose built rally car with a aggressive wedge shape and very short wheelbase to go along with it. Not to mention the great exhaust note and a bunch of rally wins. This car just checks all the right boxes for any car lover.

7 years ago

These Bertone wedge designs are so raw and 70’s, thank you for explaining in detail what makes them so visually appealing. It’s hard to believe these thinly disguised race cars were virtually impossible to sell when new, especially considering the enormous amounts of money they demand now but hasn’t that proven to often be the case time and time again? It ticks all of the right boxes- racing pedigree, limited production, Ferrari engine, Bertone wedge design, and street legal! 🙂 We took a look at a ’74 Stratos Stradale survivor with only 4,500 kilometers on my site in the link below (hope this isn’t considered spam since it contains relevant information pertaining to the post). It’s headed to auction next month in Monterey. Any bidders here?

7 years ago

I often forget that Stratos was also a track racing car. What a mad idea today!

TJ Martin
TJ Martin
7 years ago

Oh what a morning y’all just gave me ! First the Lamborghini Espada .. and now the Stratos . Two of my all time favorite cars … period . A fantastic book recommend for anyone wanting to delve deeper into the Stratos lore being ;

” Lancia Stratos : Thirty Years Later ” by Andrea Curami [ NADA edition books ]

Available in English and Italian . A bit ‘ academic ‘ .. but well worth the read

As for the smile you just put on my face thats not going away anytime soon ? Mllle Grazie !