Lancia Stratos
sporting fiats club Thursday, June 13, 2024

Stratos Intro

Early History

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Over thirty years old. Does the Stratos really look that old a design?

 Super Stratos!

The Stratos was an unreserved success. The first ever purpose built rally car – and forerunner to the Group B eighties cars - achieved all expected of it. Championship victories for Lancia came in 1974, 1975 and 1976.

Fiat Group then retired the car from the Championship for Makes to make way for the 131 Abarth.

Privateers continued to demonstrate just how much competition life was left in the Stratos by winning into the early eighties.

The whole Stratos adventure seems very typical of the chemistry that makes for exciting car building in Italy… One of their talented design gurus gets a full-on passionate idea, and manages to cajole bully or dumbfound one of the more conservative car organisations to actually commit. It can only occur when the leaders of said car organisations are feeling vulnerable enough to break with tradition and build there way out of a problem.

Fortunately for us the seventies was an age ripe with challenges and ideas. And the seventies was also a moment when the concept of international rallying was maturing in front of media arc lights and massed public appeal. The rest, as they say, is pure Stratos.

In the case of the Stratos, its founding genius was Nuccio Bertone. Champion of the mid-engined wedge shape sports car. While Bertone had already shown the world some spectacular supercar versions of the ‘flying wedge’, his mission was to deliver production versions of the basic design to a more massive market. Very close on the heals of the Stratos would come the X1/9, and fortunately again Bertone would not take Fiat’s ‘No’ for an answer. But the X1/9 is another story - told on other model pages.

Lancia Logo
The making of the Stratos is a tale of two interests – two passions really. One comes from Nuccio Bertone whose sheer genius for design and vision – allied to dogged determination – made such an impact in the sixties. The other is the plight of Lancia at the end of the sixties, and what Fiat did to shake things up when they took over in 1969.

Stratos in the Making - Early History
Of course, when it comes to mid-engined rally cars, the Stratos was not first on the scene. By the end of the sixties the Alpine Renaults had evolved into useful and competitive rally machines. And the 1600cc incarnation was about to take the International Championship for Makes when in 1970 the first of the Stratos prototypes were completed.

For some seasons, Lancia had campaigned the Fulvia, firstly in its class winning 1200cc and then 1600cc V4 front wheel drive championship winning form. But by 1970 the Renault Alpines were proving stiff opposition. This was also the year when Cesare Fiorio took over the Lancia competitions department. The Fiat Group takeover of Lancia during 1969 had created more opportunities for investment and visionary thinking. So the need for a competitive and purpose built rally machine was being openly discussed at Lancia.

Renault's Rally Alpine - SFCLancia's 1600cc Fulvia HF

Meanwhile Bertone was looking for another step up into the 1970’s for his company… another marketing and engineering success to match his Lamborghini Miura. He again turned to the Miura’s stylist Marcello Gandini. They took apart a Lancia Fulvia. In the end only its V4 engine, gearbox and subframe was used, in a new prototype - ‘Project Zero’ was created. This low, highly stylistic wedge shape – with a flat windscreen retaining the precise angle of the ‘wedge’ up from the bonnet - did not look at all like the final car.

Soon the ‘0’ acquired the Stratos name tag too. According to Nuccio’s biography this came from a glider model in the Bertone office. Originally they used this name on a new design of ski, but when the product was not taken up the Stratos name was applied to the car project instead. In January of 1971 - with a new managing director at Lancia, Ugo Gobbato - they were ready to inject more life into the Lancia brand and invited Bertone to show them the ‘0’. He drove it round to see them! Of course Fiorio recognised all the competition potential of this configuration immediately. And within weeks Lancia's intention to proceed was agreed.

The commission was quickly given to Bertone to develop the first design prototype, leaving the in-house teams to get on with much needed saloon car projects. And on the 22nd February 1971 Bertone received the contract to begin work. The specification was quickly agreed through Fiorio. The car was to have at least 250bhp and weigh no more than 1000kg. In addition the suspension should be capable of a wide range of adjustment – to meet the varying surfaces and circumstances of competition rallying.

So the first design prototype was finished for the Turin Show of October 1971 – finished in white. It still had the Lancia V4 1600cc engine installed. The lines of this car look very clean – even today the wedge shaped dart and swept around windscreen look as fresh as ever. Unique in the Stratos bloodline, with the V4 engine, this car sported twin windscreen wipers too. Autosport Magazine called it the ‘Lancia Italia’ – as this was written across its bonnet. As the design progressed, this car was then fitted with a Lancia 1800cc twin cam, and then a Dino 206 V6 2.0 litre engine – with an aluminium cylinder block.

The Dino 246 V6 engine was considered to be the more capable of delivering a reliable 250bhp - with the cast iron block. Negotiations between Ferrari and Lancia dragged on and were completed after many months – late enough to delay Stratos homologation for a season. Production of the Ferrari engines was then controlled by Ing. Dondo, despite Enzo Ferrari’s backing, production required Dondo's approval and the politics took time to resolve. The delays got so bad that Lancia became desperate.. in July 1972 a decision was made to make 500 cars with the Lancia Twin Cam to gain homologation. This didn’t happen. The politics continued ‘down to the wire’. When, four days after the Stratos’ competition debut on the Tour de Corse in November 1972, Lancia asked Maserati if they could supply a Bora engine to fit into the Stratos! This threat seemed to break the log jam at Ferrari with the potential intervention of their Modena rivals. Despite further proposals to use the Merac V6 unit, between December 1972 and March 1973 all the contracts and politics were settled – just in time.

Lancia had their first choice engine – with all the 4-valve per cylinder performance data they needed. In the mean time the car’s development continued. Suspension issues had to be addressed. Dallara was invited to join the team, and quickly recognised some suspension limitations. The Stratos double wishbone setup had been resolved with reference to Ferrari’s endurance racing programme – with smooth tarmac surfaces in mind. A Macpherson strut solution was adopted for the rear suspension to cope with rallying surfaces and undulations.

So the Stratos' first rally outing, in the November 1972 Tour de Corse proved a baptism of fire. Of the three production prototype chassis number 2 was chosen to compete. The car was not strong enough. Its rear suspension top mounts collapsed and cause retirement. Reports had the rear suspension acquiring more negative camber on each successive stage. Before retirement the rear suspension, steering and drive had all been affected by deformation problems in their mounts. All these areas would need considerable strengthening. Carburation problems in right hand corners, and looser synchro modifications (to allow faster gear changes) were also introduced. Full rallying endurance and competitiveness was also attained with Abarth ‘back room’ assistance too. Although the rivalry between HF Squadra Corse and Abarth was a feature of the seventies, there’s a Lancia reluctance to acknowledge the connection.

On April 8th 1973 the Stratos legend began on the Firestone Rally in Spain. Munari and Mannucci took their Stratos to a win. This feat was to be repeated many times down the years, with Suandro Munari in the forefront of Works success.

International homologation was still required and became a desperate affair, as it followed so many delays over the engine. A production run of 500 cars was finally begun for international homologation. And on July 23rd 1974 Fiorio announced that the necessary 500 cars had been completed. This was later found to be rather optimistic. As by then less than 150 had been completed. Homologation was officially achieved on the 1st October 1974.

Munari lines up his Stratos at Oulton Park - '78 RAC Rally
This machine had been built to win rallies, and for the next five years that is precisely what it did. The gap between the leading rally contender and the rest has seldom been greater - perhaps only the Delta 4WD and Integrales achieved this level of dominance.

A sobering thought is that while the Stratos was ready for international competition in its first season in 1974, (when it proceeded to walk away with the championship). In terms of mechanical development and reliability there were no real technical constraints that stopped this happening during 1973. Teething problems there were, but nothing apart from the suspension and strengthening issues that threatened the programme. Without the early political wranglings, and the somewhat laboured assembly of the 500 needed for homologation, the era of Stratos domination could have begun that much sooner!

Driving the Stratos

I first had a chance to drive one of these icons on a trip to Italy in the eighties. It was one of the 492 homologation road cars made. There it sat with its purposeful all red stance. I can't remember seeing another Stratos so devoid of badges stripes and logos. You are suddenly very aware of how small the cockpit is - or maybe how wide the car is beyond the arc of its windscreen. Very Ferrari 'P' series. The rest of the body shape is umistakeably Bertone. You see I've been conditioned by too many X1/9s down the decades. The way the wedge shaped bonnet yields to the protuding strong front wheel arch, that active arc profile that transports the up-curve of the front wedge past the passenger area, and then down twice as fast and more to the tail. Perfect moving tension - even when the car's stationary.

Of course this is the forerunner of the exxie. This is Daddy to the exxie. It is a masculine car but not a muscle car. And we were going out to play together. The owner knew enough of my exploits/ antics to realise I would not be holding back. He suggested a route from our position north of Milan towards the Alps - and even suggested I should take it out alone - he was busy before lunch and wanted less distractions for a few hours. And so I approached the car with keys, sunglasses and a big smile.

I'm not so sure about the bright red bodywork against the gold painted Campagnola mag alloy wheels. But these are the standard wheels for the Stratos (7.5x14). Pirelli soft tyres have picked up a few stones - think the original had Michelins. The door handle is all X1/9 too. It is starting to heat up inside in the Italian sun. I recall the unusual door window, as the front edge drops away first, not me breaking it - its designed to do that. The buckets seats are shallow and thin - and close set together - so the driving position is offset. Electrics on, pumps on... yes all the right noises... gear stick check ah yes, the Ferrari dogleg first with reverse gated above... one prod of throttle as instructed... clutch out and a symphony starts to play behind me. The staccato of a V6 plus Ferrari head and exhaust sings away. I blip the throttle twice just for the music. The inlet note is different to the Dinos I have driven. Dials are all reading good. I try the lights. Sorry Lancia, its a habit out of my exxie days - I like to see if the headlight pods come up together. They do and somehow all is well with the world (you need to know X1/9s to understand).

There's a waft of scent from the garden on a gust of wind. It is of flowers in the sunshine. Then behind it is another from the exhaust. It tells me the engine is warming to the task, and that the car is bang on tune. I select first and feel for the bite point on the clutch. We are off. The engine note changes with more aggression. Response is immediate. I change up deliberately - waiting to see if the Ferrari box needs more warming up. Yes the sensation on the stick tells me all is not yet ready in the cog department. Second and third would grate if forced. I double de-clutch for a bit. There's a layer of light dust on the dash caught in the sun. I recall reading the Stratos prototype dashboards came from the Fiat 127. Ferrari engines need regular exercise. This one is pleased, keen, to be in action again. Vision is fine - it gives a feeling of nothing much ahead of you. You the steering the dash and then the road - because the car falls away so steeply. I stop at a junction to turn left with my senses monitoring the car... a gap behind an Alfa is coming... no it isn't coz the Alfa driver halved his speed as he went passed me. It happens again... and again. Then one guy lets me out. I with a wave of my habd in thanks I drop a little rubber on the turn - so he can hear the engine too - coz I guess that's the best way to say thank you. He's smiling anyway.

These light throttle blips have the car flick into action easily. The Stratos betrays the intention behind its design here. It is not for cruising, but for rapid changes in direction on the run. Now I must listen as we go through the full conversation together. These are question and answer sessions. What do you prefer if I want to go here, then there? What happens if I do this? The steering is a quick rack. Set up a line of cones, and this car would skip through them at speed. Once clear of traffic we up the pace. The car is very solid through long, constant throttle corners too. After some miles I get to rising ground and more bends. I try setting the tyres against the turn, and then applying power too - so the car gets into sideways attitude against its tyres and I can power slide without corrective lock. The car is dynamically stable - it doesn't tend to spin here. So you can either use throttle first or lock first in a slide.

I take it more towards the sideways limits. And yes the same traits as the X1/9 are present. The one sin is to lift off. Providing you can keep the balance in the corner all is well. You have to retain front grip for the steering to work, and adding power will bring the tail out and around. Providing the front tyres are traveling forwards more than sideways then a slide is controllable with opposite lock. Better to use this with a bit more power. But step the car too far out of line, or change the contribution of the rear by lifting the throttle and you will spin out. Of course I don't quite go there in a loaned Stratos on Italian public roads! But you can trust me... I take it to the entrance of this place and know what would happen if I enter!

Into the Alpine foothills I encounter something like a lorry park off from the road. If I'm careful not to rip up stones onto the body work I could try some more semi-loose surface turns here. This doesn't tell me too much more. The car is inherently well behaved - the only manoevre it doesn't do well is what I would call the 'wide-arched Escort' turn, when the rally car is intitiated into a reverse corner attitude, then set out beyond the angle of the corner on entry, and goes through the apex adopting more of this attitude, to be recovered with more opposite lock (sometimes on two locks) prior to full throttle on exit. Its often refered to as the pendulum swing. And the Stratos doesn't like it.

Up into the Alps we have a glorious day and a fabulous time. The engine's notes echoing off the walls of the valleys. Hard revving up the box is what these engines were built for, and I give it some 'stick'. I'm not sure who is enjoying this more - is it me or the car? On the way back down I'm more knowledgeable of the autostrada and roads, we move towards full revs in the corners. The lightness of feel apparent at slower speeds is less apparent, and as the outside rear tyre is fully loaded with car and engine weight it gives way to provide a further form of oversteer. Again sudden lifting is an option to be rejected. The car needs to be carressed at these speeds. On second thoughts maybe the tyres were not quite right for the car at this point. Transitions will occur suddenly. Anyone who ventures forth on a track day should become fully fluent in the car's lingo - especially fast, on the limit, tarmac behaviour. There is little I could ever describe as laid back about the Stratos. But it isn't any sort of beast in the big V8 sense. It likes fast response, and anticipation ahead of its quick reactions. It is - full on - a driver's car. You don't get one of these for motorway cruises and comfort. If there was ever a car that 'tells you exactly what it does on the can' this is it. And me? I had a fabuluous unforgettable dusty Italian summer day washed down with just the right amount of chiled Italian wine and generous humourful Italian host. Great Days.

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Replica Stratos from Hawk Cars after demonstartion - 04 Rally Supercar Day Combe











Line up at the Castle Combe Group B Car Club Day - 01