The words Lancia and Stratos are usually said in the same breath. Indeed, the car manufacturer is inextricably linked with this model, to the extent that is almost impossible to split them. The Italian car maker created the Lancia Stratos to win rallies and the Stratos not only fulfilled its duty but went further, creating a legend that today, 46 years on (even though it would be better to say 45 + 1 years after the launch), is synonymous with beauty and success.
The birth of the Stratos idea
The man behind the Lancia Stratos is Cesare Fiorio, who was chief of Lancia Corse (Lancia’s in-house racing department) at the time. “We were enjoying considerable success in rallies with the Fulvia, he says, but we knew our days of success were numbered. New competitors, such as the Porsche 911, to give you an idea of the level, were joining the special stages and the limits of our car, a car originally designed to be used by ladies for the grocery run, were becoming increasingly evident. This is why, one day, I took a piece of paper and a pen and asked every single member of my team, irrespective of their role, to write down their personal wish list for a new rally car, based on their needs and experience. The final wish list was, I clearly remember, incredibly detailed and, in theory at least, both feasible and invincible. I remember that the mechanics wanted easy accessibility to certain parts, to make their job easier and faster in the (often messy) areas around the special stages, and the technicians highlighted the need for a rear mounted engine, but what stood out more than anything else was Sandro Munari’s request – this really made me sit up and take notice – for a 300 HP engine, almost twice the output of the best we were able to achieve (160 HP) with the Fulvia. I asked Sandro what he was thinking of doing with all that horsepower, and I still recall his enigmatic reply: “Give it to me” he said “and I’ll find a way of using it…”
Photos courtesy of Julien Mahiels.
The Stratos and the 45+1 years
Stratòs, the Greek word for army, was the name given to a very famous Bertone design that appeared at the 1970 Salone dell’Auto di Torino. It was created by that master of style Marcello Gandini, already famous as father of the Miura. Mainly because its name recalled the word stratosphere (in Italian “stratosfera”), but also because of the era in which it appeared and the design of the car itself, most people saw the Stratos, based on the Lancia Fulvia 1600, as something from out of space, a sort of futuristic car. “It was Nuccio Bertone who decided to use a Lancia mechanic, in order to establish links with the Lancia management” Marcello Gandini explains. “To avoid giving anything away before the show, we did not ask Lancia for a car on which to base the prototype, but instead bought a secondhand Fulvia HF 1.6.” The prototype that was produced featured an important technical solution, namely the rear mounted engine, and an incredible opening front, a racing version of the system created by Iso for the Isetta a decade earlier. The car was wedge shaped and was very reminiscent of the “tortoise” attack position adopted by the Ancient Roman army, where the soldiers at the front protected themselves with shields. “It was, and still is, fantastic to look at,” says Cesare Fiorio, but for rally purposes it was completely nonsensical – too fragile, too difficult to work on, and with a big screen over the driver creating reflections. But more than anything, it was limited by the engine we were using. It was fascinating as an exercise in style, but was immediately discarded as a potential racing weapon.” It was to be another year before the unveiling of the “real” Stratos at the 1971 Turin Motor Show. Nevertheless, the original Stratòs, produced the previous year, remains important because it accomplished its mission: indeed, Lancia, attracted by the idea of a rear engine sports car, contacted Bertone.
Photos courtesy of FCA.
“We received very clear indications from the Lancia guys” Gandini recalls. “We knew that the aim was to create an Italian car that could compete with the Porsche 911, but that would be more stylish, better to handle and easier to work on. But they omitted to tell something that is quite important to know when designing a new car, namely the engine they planned to use. I had to proceed without this basic information, and this is one of the reasons why the rear “hood” is a little bigger than it need be.” The Stratos, without an engine, was first shown at the 1971 Turin Motor Show, and immediately impressed the onlookers, but it was to be another three years before a proper production version was ready, of which around 500 would subsequently be built.
BBC’s Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson on the Lancia Stratos.
There was a reason why the first Lancia Stratos, unveiled in 1971, had no engine: there was nothing in the Fiat and Lancia production ranges of the time that was suitable for the task, and nobody entertained the idea of creating a new engine, on account of the level of investment that would be required and the limited sales potential of the new GT car. Gradually, however, a solution emerged. Two years earlier, in 1969, the Ferrari production department (not the racing division) had been sold to Fiat and in 1970, Ugo Gobbato, who had been General Manager at Ferrari, assumed the same position at Lancia. He eventually succeeded in exerting his influence and convincing the not always easy Enzo Ferrari to give Lancia the six-cylinder Dino engine.
A beautiful book published in 1986 by AISA (Associazione Italiana per la Storia dell’Automobile, the Italian Car History Society) and dedicated to the two Gobbatos, father and son, contains Ugo Gobbato’s own fascinating account of how hard he had to work to get that engine. “I knew I wanted the Dino engine, but when I called Enzo Ferrari asking for it, the answer was no. The President of Lancia, Umberto Agnelli (brother of Fiat president Gianni), had initially been against the idea and the message filtered back to Maranello. But I was convinced that the Lancia Corse department deserved to be saved, and went on pressing for Gianni Agnelli’s support. I even told him that, if necessary, I would be prepared to ask for the Citroën-Maserati six-cylinder engine, and that did the trick.”
Photos courtesy of Julien Mahiels.
…and the price of it
In offices a few floors under Gobbato’s, politics was at work too. “Having the Dino engine was the only logical solution” Cesare Fiorio recalls, “and we did our best to get it, using our personal contacts. A one point I received two significant requests, the first for a “private” test of the car, once ready of course, to show the kind of results we might achieve, and the second to loan Sandro Munari for some races in Ferrari’s prototype. And this is how Sandro Munari, one of the greatest rally drivers ever, became a bargaining chip. “I never understood why Enzo Ferrari thought of me, a 160 HP front wheel drive rally car driver, as the perfect solution for him, given that he was looking for a tarmac racer, capable of handling a 460 HP rear wheel drive prototype. But he was right, and from the outset I felt at home with Ferrari, both with his cars and with the man himself who spent half of an afternoon talking with me, stopping my tests at Fiorano. Not only this, the results I achieved while racing for him bear witness to how good this partnership became”.
Getting the engine was a good start, but it was only the first of many other chapters in the troubled early story of what was to become one of the best and most successful rally cars ever. “In the report I wrote after driving the car for the very first time, I said that it was as though the car were hinged in the middle, having totally different reactions from front to rear, and no adjustment we tried seemed to make any difference” Sando Munari recalls. Solving technical problems can be difficult at the best of times, but working out while no solution seems to be available can be more difficult still, even for the likes of Cesare Fiorio.
“It took me a while to realize that the middle management at Fiat was putting up incredible resistance to the Stratos project,” says Cesare Fiorio. “They still resented us, the Lancia guys, for having beaten them, the Fiat guys, when the two companies were separate. In their eyes, we were conceited in trying to develop this car, when they, in their view, already had the perfect solution in the X1/9. I had to seek the help of Mr Agnelli in person to solve these internal issues, which cost us a lot of energy and lost us a lot of time.” Because of this situation, no progress was being made on the field; the absurd indications of the technical department, which was ostensibly working to improve the handling of the Stratos, were not producing any results. “We felt like beginners, incapable of doing our job,” recalls Munari. “I was there, struggling to try to understand why the car was so bad and working hard to figure out a solution, with the help of people like Gianpaolo Dallara and Mike Parkes, but without getting anywhere. We knew we were running out of time, when a very last test was authorized in Spain. To save money, only Mike Parkes, myself and two mechanics were allowed to be involved. After the test, which took place on tarmac as always, we were desperate, because nothing had produced the hoped-for improvement, and driving the car was still like handling an unpredictable snake. Purely for my own satisfaction, I asked to have one last outing, only one, on gravel, just to experience the car in a new environment. A few kilometers later, I was back, smiling as never before, because I knew that with a car like this on a dirt road, we would be invincible”.
Photos courtesy of Julien Mahiels.
At this point, the technicians’ role in the car’s difficult early start was exposed and there was nothing more they could do to hold the car back. As reported by Munari in the very first road test report, the car was moving on the rear simply because the rear suspension struts were too soft and were moving under the stress of the racing tires on tarmac. On a dirt road, where this stress was much less, the car was almost perfect, and as soon as the new suspension struts were installed, the Stratos finally began to show its true colors as a fantastic rally car.
The social setting
The two years lost in the development of the car had their impact. The 1973 Suez Crisis changed people’s perception of cars: fuel prices soared to crazy levels, service stations ran out of fuel, and the Western world went back in time 50 years, with the imposition of “dry” weekends, when cars could not be used. It was hardly the perfect setting to launch a brand new supercar. Sales fell short of expectations, and many of the cars built to achieve homologation to race in the Group 4 category – these officially numbered 515 pieces although some, still today, suspect that the actual number was less – went unsold. The car obtained its homologation at the end of 1974, although it had already been competing (and winning) since 1973 under the Group 5 rule, as a prototype, a fantastic test and development bench.
The sales people were left with the incredibly difficult task of trying to sell these cars. “Nobody wanted them,” recalls a Lancia dealer of the period, “and we dealers were obliged to take one, once in a while, in order receive the company’s much requested other cars, in particular the Autobianchi A112.” For years Lancia had a warehouse, subsequently an open parking lot, where the remaining Stratos were kept pending their sale, but prospective owners became increasingly difficult to find. Some were eventually dismantled to supply spare parts, others were offered on “any money” terms to dealers, and others, some dozens, were scrapped without being ever used. If you consider the level of interest in the Stratos shown by today’s collectors, it is hard to believe the state of the market four decades ago, and many now regret having turned down the opportunity to buy one of these cars for a sum corresponding to little more than the value of the car’s weight in steel.
Photos courtesy of Julien Mahiels.
Stratos has a record of achievements so long that it would take pages to list them all. Sandro Munari was the greatest to take its wheel, but the Stratos won everywhere, on every surface, and in the hands of most of the best drivers of the period. Its debut, at the 1972 Tour de Corse, ended in a DNF, but its first victory was not far off, coming at the Firestone Rally in Spain in September 1973, with Sandro Munari at the wheel and Mario Mannucci as co-driver. After that, it went on racing and winning until 1982, when its racing homologation expired. It won the World Rally Cup in 1974, 1975 and 1976, and the Monte Carlo Rally in 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1979. The Stratos has been successful in road races too, winning the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) in 1975 with a turbo engine, and coming second in the 1973 Targa Florio.
Recent years have seen the Stratos increasing in value on the classic car market, with good specimens worth an average of around 400 K Euro. These cars are difficult to purchase and maintain not only because of their value, but also because, having been used mainly for racing, they tend to have been abused for years, and taken quite a thrashing, before going on to be revered. Mechanical spare parts are expensive but available, while body parts or components for the interior are almost impossible to find. Collectors often get together to try and collect a large enough number of orders to convince a manufacturer to re-produce what is missing, but in this regard the Stratos is worse than many Ferraris. Special cars, usually winning chassis numbers or special racing versions, are more valuable still, but their owners tend to hold on to them, therefore they don’t very often come up for sale.
The World Stratos Meeting
Biella, in north western Italy, mid-way between Milan and Turin, has been an important part of the Stratos story. The Maglioli brothers, from Bioglio, a small village few kilometers from Biella, were the best tuners of the road version of the Stratos, and worked on many of the successful gentlemen’s cars. This is why Biella has been chosen as the venue for a World Stratos Meeting, to be held on 24-26 June (www.worldstratosmeeting.com). The event is intended to be a celebration of the “the beast” and the organizers are expecting something in the region of 40 cars, including some very rare works cars, usually “locked away in some private garage”, still in the iconic Alitalia, Marlboro or Chardonnet colors.
Photos courtesy of the author.
Photos courtesy of FCA.