Fact, Myth, or Legend? 10 quick and dirty stories on the legendary rally car
Words by Chris Tio Photos by Ardie O. Lopez
1. The father of the Lancia Stratos, the aptly named “Stratos Zero”, has almost nothing in common with the car. Launched at the November 1970 Turin Motor Show, it caught the attention of Lancia Rally team manager Cesare Fiorio. Fioro realized that the current Fulvia HF1600 was reaching the end of its competitive life, and was already struggling against the potential of the Alpine-Renault A110s, Ford Escort, and the Porsche 911s.
The Fulvia was successful as a front wheel drive rally car but the assault of the rear wheel driven cars led by the Porsche 911s convinced Fioro that RWD was the future. Unfortunately, Lancia did not have a rear wheel drive production car. When Fioro saw the Stratos Zero concept, he saw the inspiration for Lancia’s new rally car. Believe it or not, the concept car and the production Stratos have nothing mechanically in common, not a single part, or even bolt, and most especially not the engine.
2. Nuccio Bertone himself drove the concept car with a mid-mounted Fulvia 1600 engine and gearbox through the street of Turin to Lancia’s Via San Paolo factory. Bertone went all out in the design of the Stratos Zero and made sure that it was a working prototype. Its dimensions were so low and sleek, that is was only 33 inches off the ground and Bertone himself could have driven it under the sentry’s barrier into the factory. The car caused such a sensation that Cesare Fiorio was able to convince management to greenlight a prototype purpose-built rally car, unlike anything the motoring world had ever seen.
According to Bertone himself, “I drove up to the main gate where an astonished Lancia gatekeeper stared motionlessly at that strange object which was so low it could pass beneath his barrier. Meanwhile the rumble of the engine had brought all the Lancia racing team people who were waiting for us out into the yard. Then the gatekeeper raised the bar. It was an unforgettable entrance. In the middle of the crowd I switched off the engine and climbed out of my ‘spaceship’.”
3. Lancia Stratos was the first purpose-built rally car. It was vastly different from many of its competitors, of which many were specially built homologation specials. These “specials” were still based on the production car with heavy modifications or specialty equipment.
The Stratos was built without any compromise and with only one purpose: to dominate and win! It gave no thought to refinement, comfort, or luggage space, but was purpose-built to adapt to any road conditions, with dimensions that were designed to make it go around the corners as quick as possible. Its chassis was the shortest possible allowed, built to support essentially two boxes, one for the driver and its navigator, the second to house the powerplant. Its greatness is forever immortalized in its legendary rally racing accomplishments highlighted by three consecutive World Rally Championships in Group B in 1974, 1975, and 1976.
4. It is said that the seating dimensions were measured from Lancia’s premier driver, Sandro Munari. So any one that measured above 5’8” and 160 lbs would find himself in a claustrophobic and uncomfortable position assuming, of course, that he could actually get in.
5. Homologation requirements required that 400 examples of the racecar be built for the public. When FIA officials arrived to inspect the 400, the first 200 were lined up outside the Turin factory for inspection. Come lunchtime, the FIA officials were treated to a long delicious lunch, and returned later to inspect the next 200 cars. They didn’t realize then that they were in fact inspecting the same set of 200 cars rearranged and repositioned as Lancia was, at that time, unable to complete the minimum units required.
Paul Frère of Road & Track was part of the FIA inspection team that day. Ten years later, he would confess that there could have been inaccuracies in the count, either that, or it was a very good lunch with a lot of Italian wine.
6. Up until the launch in 1971, Lancia was unsure whether it could persuade Enzo Ferrari to allow the use of its V6 engine from the Dino. The first brochures would basically state that the Stratos may come with various engines with displacements from 1600 to 2500 cc. Among the other engines considered were modified versions of its Fulvia powerplant, a modified Fiat 2-liter 8-valve twin cam, to even a Maserati 2.7-liter V6 from the Merak. It took intervention from higher authorities from Fiat to convince the grand man at Ferrari to allow the supply of its V6 engine; that and the ridiculous price that Lancia was willing to commit to, ultimately sealed the deal.
7. The Lamborghini Miura was part of the mechanical inspiration for the Stratos as former Lamborghini technical boss Gian Paolo Dallara, chiefly credited with the Miura, was heavily involved.
8. The windows had no roll-up mechanism and could only be lowered by loosening a retaining disc and pulling down. The convex wrap around windshield plus the bin to store a helmet on both doors as well as the lack of sound deadening and basic carpet made the driving and riding experience on the Stratos loud, oppressive, and totally unforgettable.
9. Porsche legend Walter Rohrl once drove for Lancia, driving the Stratos to four wins and one second place finish out of seven European races. This was right before he joined Porsche; his exploits in the Stratos were one of the last hurrahs for the legendary racecar as a factory works racer. It is said that Rohrl acquired his legendary Porsche driving prowess from his time in the Stratos.
In 1977, Lancia’s competition department was merged with that of its parent Fiat, which decided to withdraw the Stratos from competition. It made no marketing sense, Fiat decided, as the Stratos bore no resemblance to the group’s street cars. However, in a symbol of defiance, privateer teams continued racing the Stratos, and one of those cars, driven by Bernard Darniche, won for the last time in 1981, four years after the factory ceased supporting the car. Also noteworthy is that Bernard Darniche is considered one of the Stratos’ greatest drivers, notching 33 victories for the French private team Chardonnet. This is literally a French Bird slap to the face to the Italian giant Fiat.
10. Three years after it arrived in dealerships, there were reports of several unsold Stratos still languishing in lots and warehouses. The joke was that you couldn’t even give them away. On sale for 12,000 English pounds then, they are worth approximately 480,000 English pounds, or US$790,000, now; a heartache for many ex-owners who gave up on their temperamental, fiery, and totally unforgettable lover. But fret not, you can still own a piece of the legend. Ask a friend to look in junk yards in Europe for the handbrake and hood release levers of the Fiat X1/9 or the dashboard gauges, tail lights, as well as the hubs from a Fiat 124, dump it in a mud solution for a couple of months, and voila, an iconic souvenir for your mantle.