Featured: What It's Like To Drive A Lancia Stratos In The Rain

What It’s Like To Drive A Lancia Stratos In The Rain

By Slawomir Poros
November 8, 2017

Translated from the original Polish by Wojciech Wolczynski
Photography by Romek Rudnicki

A Motorsport Deity

Deus ex machina was a concept introduced in Greek tragedies long before Lancia started playing around with rally cars, but the idea of some godly component turning the direction of the play around is fitting for the story of the Stratos.

Tamers of ice and snow, dirt and gravel, drivers like Björn Waldegård and Sandro Munari helped solidify this Lancia as one of the last great rear-wheel drive rally cars.

The Stratos was created to hold an angle through a slippery turn and spit out two big bursts of dirt on the way out of the apex, and it had to endure clipping tufts of grass or banks of snow or silt-filled ditches in the process. The machine for the task took the form of a brand new space-frame chassis housing the transversely-mounted 190hp V6 from the 246 Dino, wrapped in a gorgeous fiberglass matrix of triangles and arches. The Group 4 works rally car was developed up to an output of around 280hp, and that was enough to propel the Bertone wedge to three sequential World Rally Championships, from 1974 to 1976.

It was the time of big money being invested in the sport on the run-up to Group B, and Lancia was hot off the Fulvia HF but looking for something new that could win in the premiere Group 4 rally series of the WRC.

The low-slung, ultra-low-visibility Stratos Zero concept was a striking reveal at the Turin Motor Show in 1970, and Lancia eventually gave into Bertone’s insistence on developing the car further, deciding to radically change the design into something that could sling dirt at the competition in the WRC. That required 400 street legal cars to be made to satisfy homologation requirements, but before my take on driving one of these stradale Stratos, let’s look a little deeper into the origin story.

An Artist’s Unlikely Race Car

In the year 1970, Nuccio Bertone decided to continue their push into the new zeitgeist of ground-hugging angular cars that looked like they could slice open the space in front of their pointed noses. Bertone was well aware of Lancia’s need to have something fresh to keep the brand on rally podiums going into the future, but this was not the car intended to solve that problem.

Nuccio borrowed the drive unit from his friend’s Fulvia, and commissioned the firm’s head designer—Marcello Gandini—to enclose it in a beautiful new body. You know Gandini as the visionary responsible for staples like the Miura and the Countach. He did curves with the best of them, but together with the Countach, the Stratos would help him become one of the masters of the new school of wedges. It began with the Fulvia V4-powered concept car, the Stratos Zero.

An Italian Power Couple

Lancia executives were thrilled with the results of Bertone’s work, but as the story goes it took some convincing from Bertone to get Lancia on board with taking the project further. Cooperate they did though, and along with Gandini’s design team, Lancia’s top driver—Sandro Munari, who had already won two rally championships in Italy—joined in with his own input. In just one year after the Stratos Zero was presented to the world, Lancia showed us the Stratos HF. powered by the 190hp 2.4l V6 supplied by Enzo Ferrari after a bit of cajoling.

A Street Car That Wants To Be In The Dirt

The FIA regulations were relaxed slightly too, and rather than 500 homologation units, Lancia would only need to build 400 Stratos for the road. In total they made 492 HFs, and to be honest, besides the power, the Italians didn’t do much to make the Stratos all that much more civilized than the rally car. They slightly softened the suspension, placed some turn signals on it, a bit more cushion to the seats, and “Stradale” badges for the transom.

It’s a design that creates absolute feelings, love or hates. It offers no compromises. For me this car is fascinating as a piece of art alone, made all the better by housing a mechanical prowess that matches the looks. Italians are responsible for some remarkably well-engineered cars, but they aren’t know for their practicality or strict adherence to tidiness, and in the case of the Stratos there are marks of this type of randomness too.

For instance, all VIN numbers were completely random. They follow one another neither chronologically nor in any other recognizable order. And the Stratos dashboard looks like a total afterthought, all of the gauges were just put in spaces that fit them. In an ordinary race car the tach and speedometer are placed in front of the driver, but not in Lancia’s rally super star! Here your natural gaze falls on a simple oil temperature gauge. The Stratos is full of these quirks.

An Unforgettable Drive

For a street car that is more like a rally car, it was fitting to have a light rain going on as I prepared for a stint behind the wheel. Out of 492 examples, this is the only known HF living in Poland, and I was offered the opportunity to get some seat time!

Immaculate factory condition, backed by the provenance of rallying championships, I could only imagine up until now what it must be like to drive the version wearing license plates. Here is a car that totally changed our thinking about motor racing in the mud, built by two of the greatest entities in the history of the auto: Bertone and Lancia. They spearheaded a new philosophy in the sport that would continue on to give us future greats like the S4 and the Integrale HF.

Even in the first few moments of movement, I can tell this is a precise tool. It doesn’t hide its purpose. It is tight. It runs hot. It is very loud. The steering wheels is not centered, in typical ‘70s fashion, which makes you angle yourself inward a bit—my theory is that if the wheel was perfectly in front of the driver, one would hit the windshield with his hands too often. It’s an intimidating car, and the pedal box is exceedingly cramped to boot.

But all that said, the Stratos is not particularly hard to drive. It’s a new experience unlike most, and though anyone could drive one down the street you can tell it would take true mastery to get the most out of its extremely short wheelbase and mid-rear layout. It is addictive to see how far you can take it.

It starts easy, but with every inch of pavement you want more and more. You shift gears later and later, and begin to recognize that the gearbox is truly an amazing piece of kit. You downshift and hear the pops and bangs of the exhaust, everything around you vibrates, and every bit of pressure from my right foot is answered with a surge of violent fun. You can smell petrol in the cabin, and it lingers on your clothes all day. It’s not extremely fast, but 980kg (2,161lbs) in the street car isn’t a lot of weight to move, and it feels extremely responsive and nimble in every vector besides the braking, which reveals a somewhat disconcerting lack of force.

The little Lancia has a shorter wheelbase than the Miata even, and it doesn’t mind spinning on you if you aren’t careful. You can’t be distracted with fact that it has mechanical good grip when it isn’t being pushed, because the tail starts its arc pretty quickly if you get cocky! It definitely does not forgive mistakes like something modern, or even like many cars of its time, and I can’t fathom the talent required to throw this short lightweight rocket sideways with trees blurring by in the windshield.

Later, we took the Stratos into the woods for some moody photos in a more appropriate setting, though I made no attempt to try my hand at impersonating Munari. I still had a life-changing time driving this car though, and we put it through some paces for sure. It would be wrong not to give into its demands at least a little bit. Just as it changed the scene of the WRC in the ‘70s, it will forever change my view on other cars I drive in the years to come, for the Stratos is a car that’s impossible to ignore and harder to forget. 

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Paul Duesler
Paul Duesler
5 years ago

Thank you for sharing, really enjoyed the impressions.

5 years ago

Now I know why it was such a handful in eX-Driver. My gosh the photography is amazing, and hearing that the Stratos lives up to its legend is incredible.

On a side note, nie wiedzialem ze Lancia sie znajdzie w Polsce

5 years ago

Thanks for the very nice write up and photos. The Stratos is one of my all time favorite designs and a car that is definitely on my wish list. If I’m honest though driving the Stratos might be similar to meeting a gorgeous model or movie star and taking her out to dinner and finding she picks her nose and smacks her food. I’ve heard its a difficult car to drive and one that you must always be aware of what you’re doing or else she could put you in the weeds. The first time I drove a GT 40 this was the case. Cramped cockpit, very loud, hot, and a beast to drive. But every time I exited the car and turned around to take one last look, ahhh, what a beauty!

5 years ago
Reply to  Tractorboy

Yes, it’s difficult and you have to be aware at all times but once you figure it out it’s such an exhilarating car to drive. I’ve had one for two years now and totally love it!

5 years ago
Reply to  Tractorboy

I think you’re probably right in that regard.

With most famous things (let alone cars), I think it’s a case of “don’t meet your heroes”. One such example would be the Delorean. Sure, it was a staple in most people’s childhoods, but it’s really an ungodly beast to drive (it really wasn’t a well built car). Though, much as your case with the GT40, while the reality outweighs the expectations, there will always be that aspect of fondness and admiration.

Of course, however, I’d never turn down an offer to drive a Stratos or GT40!