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Features / 05-25-18

Lancia Stratos HF and Dino 246 GTS

Brothers united in alchemy

By Kevin C. Limjoco Images by James Deakin


It was a particularly painful morning. I had just had another two hour night’s pass out session. Writing for the magazine has been such a great joy, but there are moments, however brief, that I find myself staring blankly at my garden as I labor to articulate the previous experience behind the wheel. Then I realize that I had a dreamt it all along and need to bust out of the house as stealthily as possible before the crack of dawn in order to meet our appointment. Hopefully, without waking the whole household in the process of me stubbing all over the place.

This time I couldn’t sleep because I was anxious to get behind the wheel of the legendary Lancia Stratos HF, well that and perhaps way too much coffee the day before. The Lancia’s owner is also legendary for his strict attention to detail, so I didn’t want to disappoint him by being late for the shoot. So I mad ample allowances of time to reach our meeting point with my favorite photographer James Deakin, who I reckon drove on automatic pilot fueled by his digestive acids (also legendary).

Our first assignment was to rendezvous with the Dino 246GTS, which was purchased first hand by its proud Philippine owner at a US car auction and painted/restored by Enteng Floirendo of ENSPORT. After some brief formalities, James rode shotgun in the Dino with the top down all the way to our final destination, a family reunion of sorts.

It blows my mind how the Italians are able to craft such masterpieces throughout time, whether in marble, cangfass, wood, and in this case among many, in metal. I consider the Italian car manufacturers the true alchemists, having been able to take ordinary materials and turning them into mechanical gold. Long before exotic materials were available, the Italians, the Fiat group in particular, which owns Fiat naturally, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and Ferrari, were masters of creating cars that were the direct representation of their hearts and dreams with a little math thrown in for good measure. Behold our cover story: the Lancia Stratos HF and the Dino 246 GTS, their design, marque, and purpose were different but they did share fundamentally the same engine initially designed and built by the foundries at Ferrari.

After a short thirty-minute drive north of Makati we entered the hallowed property that is not only the home of the illustrious Stratos but also a handful of other coveted cars housed in one of the very best private garages in the entire country. The owner had freshly taken delivery of his very own blue on cream Dino 246 GT Berlinetta, in you guessed it, immaculate condition once again. The other cars in the garage are a Lotus 23 racecar with matching trailer parked out back, a Lotus Elise 111S, a Lotus Elan, a 1948 MG TC, and a Porsche 993 Carrera. The owner also has a rare Ducati 748R Superbike too. The garage is climate controlled to protect the cars from excessive humidity; to prevent the plastics and rubber from cracking and deteriorating, as well as rust and further oxidation. To be more precise, the relative humidity is maintained between 60% (below which corrosion stops) and 45% (below 40% leather cracks). The optimal level is 50%. The garage is actually air-conditioned but is run only when there is excessive heat or humidity.

The custom built garage designed by Architect Lor Calma is also meant to be a showcase, and when needed be, a very comfortable place to work on the cars. Our mouths remained opened in absolute awe until we were offered some wonderful hot chocolate. The owner is a true class act on every level.  Similarly, our Dino owner also has an outstanding albeit more traditional garage that he too is known for, however its functional priority is a dedicated operating workshop. The men not only have the right toys, but also the best places to keep and maintain them. Fantastic.

The name ‘Dino’ honors Enzo Ferrari’s ill-fated and beloved son Alfredino, who was responsible for the creation and development of the Ferrari V6 engine along with famed engineer Alfredo Lampredi. It was also Dino who pushed his father to produce a line of racing cars in the 1950s using V6 and V8-configured engines. After Dino’s tragic passing in 1967, Enzo yearned to compete in Formula 2 using his son’s V6, however Ferrari couldn’t meet the homologation rules which required at least 500 production cars that used the engine. So, Enzo convince Fiat to co-produce a sports car using the V6 engine to boost the production numbers. That was the birth of the great looking front engine/ rear drive Pininfarina designed Fiat Dino Spider and Coupe using a reconfigured and redesigned version of the Dino V6. The Fiat Dino was the lesser brother on all mechanical areas beginning with a weaker 180bhp engine and ending with the rear live axle and leaf spring suspension system.

Curiously, Enzo Ferrari in 1965 still wasn’t keen on building mid-engine production cars for his customers; he was concerned about their safety above all else since the new driving sensations would be dramatically different from traditional handling characteristics. With an experience driver behind the wheel of a mid-engine car every last drop of performance could be extracted, however under the wrong hands the car’s propensity to oversteer and change direction swiftly could and did have owners wrapping their exotic cars around oak trees.

When chief designer Sergio Pininfarina was ready to unveil his concept car at the 1965 Paris Motor Show, Enzo insisted that the dramatic car be named after his son Dino. Public response to the car was a triumph; the Dino was a hit and Ferrari was able to justify using the mid-engine platform suggesting that the modestly powered V6 was within most of their customers’ skill set. The Ferrari ‘Dino’ model range wasn’t limited to the V6 sportscars – in fact, the first V8 Bertone-designed 308GT4 and GTB initially used the name.

We take it for granted now but fully independent suspension with all-wheel disc brakes and a potent engine was very rare in those days and only reinforced Ferrari’s reputation for building outstanding cars that also featured technological innovation together with their gorgeous designs. The Dino 246 GTS targa was the last of the series, which amounted to a grand total of only 1,274 cars ever built. As I admired the wonderful curves of the rear of our yellow Dino test car from our photo van, I noticed that the left bank exhaust pipes would intermittently shoot out some flames when the throttle was released. It looked real cool but odd that it only happened on one side of the car’s exhaust. Its owner reckons that the car was running a bit rich and that the left bank exhaust system was shorter than the right because of the transverse V6 configuration, thereby allowing the left exhaust to run hotter.

Another great fact about these engines is was that they could kiss 8,000 rpm at full throttle on all gears while still retaining the Ferrari cacophony that we all know and love. There’s something universally appealing about a Dino; there’s that x-factor I was talking about earlier: some cars have a pseudo soul. The Dino 246 model range is known to be one of the most beautiful cars ever made in automotive history. It’s got those sensual lines that excite you with the same conviction of a hot blonde blowing kisses at you at a bar. The car’s abilities and design transcends time. The car is as enjoyable as it was over thirty years ago – in fact, the Dino is vastly more appreciated now more than ever.

The Dino 246 GTS is an impressive piece of work with a distinctive sound (with a profound sonic family resemblance) and exhilarating performance. You take it for granted that it’s an old Ferrari but 195bhp from a 2.4-liter dohc 16v V6 engine from the early 70s, but its power-to-weight ratio is still current by today’s standards! The optimal powerband was found high in the rpm range and spirited driving requires lots of throttle and prolific shifting which only makes the Dino honestly even more entertaining. The novelty that you’re driving or even riding in a Dino never diminishes.

Much like other Ferraris, every moment in its midst is an occasion worth celebrating. The Dino is a true sportscar; it’s small, cerebral, and absolute joy to drive, and ultimately very swift. The mid-engine design with its low center of gravity raised the bar on handling and added confidence to both novice and experienced drivers back in the late 60s and early 70s, so it went as good as it looked. Experienced drivers will naturally be able to enjoy the Dino exponentially more than your average Joe – even if the Dino’s gated shifter is effortless, and the steering is no more difficult to operate than a non-power-assisted Toyota Corolla. The nature of the car under 100km/h is so completely different from when you do push the car, and that’s precisely the danger. Novice drivers may gain too much artificial confidence because of the relative driving friendliness of the Dino, until it’s too late. But again that is the joy of driving such charismatic cars; you adapt and grow with every experience behind the wheel.

The Dino’s glory days are far from over. It must be so satisfying to own and drive, although it’s said to be difficult to maintain if its previous history is sketchy – but that can be said for must cars anyhow, except that the parts cost a fortune and availability is always an issue.

The Lancia Stratos HF on the other hand is a completely different exotic altogether, even if they do share relatively the same engine. While the Dino’s engine was meant to be raced and the car was the excuse to get it built, the Lancia Stratos on the contrary was built primarily for Rally Racing, which it did prove the be highly successful during the 1970s and 1980s. the Gandini/Bertone-designed Stratos started a new era in rally racing as it was the first car designed from a clean slate specifically for this category of competition. The man chosed to head up Lancia a new division of Fiat was Pierre Ugo Gobatto, who had just previously been Fiat’s representative in the Ferrari management, and knew that the Ferrari Dino 246 was about to be phased out.

Although extremely successful in racing, Lancia built only 492 units of this mid-engined ‘homologation special’, winning three successive World Rally Championship titles from 1974 to 1976. At the beginning of development, the Group 4 rules for rallying had required production of 500 units for homologation. However, by the time the Stratos was finally homologated on October 1, 1974, the rules had been changed to reduce the homologation requirement to 400. Many experts claim between 450 and 490 Lancia Stratos were actually produced, with 492 being a number which is often quoted, but Bertone themselves claim that 502 cars actually made it through production.

Over the next couple of years, the Stratos’ dominance was absolute. It scored 17 world championship victories and over 50 European championship victories. Victory in the legendary Monte Carlo rally was taken four out of five times between 1975 and 1979. In 1977, the Lancia factory competition team merged with the Fiat team, and the Fiat Group’s marketing requirements saw effort being put into the Fiat 131 rather than the Stratos, and by 1978 the 131 was being used almost exclusively, even though the Stratos still managed to win no fewer than 13 major events that year. By 1979, it was only the private teams who were continuing to rally the Stratos, and Bernard Darniche managed to win the Monte Carlo for the Chardonnet team. This gave the Staratos its fourth successive victory on the Monte Carlo. Few racing cars in history combined form and function as well as the Stratos did on the circuit as well as on public roads.

The futuristic Stratos, as you see throughout these pages, is an incredibly dramatic exotic that almost seems unreal. The car looks like it was lifted from a 70s Japanese cartoon; the command car in the Daimos robot series comes to mind, or a flying car from Blade Runner. If you thought old pictures of the car were mind-blowing, seeing the car up close and then driving it overloaded my sense. I got most of my senses back when its gallant owner treated us to an elegant breakfast at his home right after our road test.

I would like to think that if Ferrari decided to build a rally car out of its Dino 308 GT4 or 246 GT, it would resemble the Stratos. The principal difference between Pininfatrina’s designs and Bertone’s is that PInin is partial to smooth swooping curves while Bertone prefers hard angles, hence the distinctive crescent-shaped wraparound windshield providing maximum forward visibility with barely any rear visibility. The Stratos body is shaped like a wedge with a sharp leading edge-type nose housing retractable headlights; it’s very aggressive and muscular at the flared wheel wells, unusually short and wide. The wheelbase was meant to be shorter than the Dino while maintaining the mid-ship layout, and wider at the tracks to provide tenacious grip and the ability to precisely change direction instantly.

The initial Fiat-built engine was re-tuned to spread more torque at lower engine speeds to improve tractability. For racing trim, this engine was tuned up to 280bhp and even further with a turbocharger. However, turbocharged versions were only allowed to compete in Group 5 and were never as reliable as their naturally aspirated counterparts. By the Turin Show of 1972 however, the STratos HF was fitted with a modified Ferrari’s Dino V6 engine and five-speed gearbox. The bodyshells were produced at Bertone’s Grugliasco plant in the suburbs of Turin, and final assembly at the nearby Lancia plant. In truth, if the Dino had not been planned to be eventually phased out, Enzo Ferrrari, being the consummate competitor at heart, would have killed the Stratos.

The radical styling was supposed to be a result of extensive wind tunnel testing to achieve the minimum possible drag coefficient. The extraordinary looks of the Stratos is rumored to be the inspiration behind the name itself, which Bertone designers supposedly chose after beholding the finished product, declaring that it looked like nothing else on the planet and had somehow appeared from the Stratosphere. I on the other hand would like venture a simpler guess that the name instead encompassed Lancia’s goal to reach for the stratosphere; same culmination nonetheless.

Our test car had purposeful and comfortable OMP racing bucket seats in place of the OEM seats that had deteriorated, perhaps from over 19,000 hard kilometers of adrenaline and sweat. I’m going to bitch? Hell no. as far as I’m concerned, I was just blessed to be allowed to drive the car to begin with – besides, I actually like the way the new matching seats look and feel. After climbing on board and strapping myself in the four-point harness, I started to get a little nervous. Just like your first night out with a drop-dead gorgeous bird, you get all anxious hoping not to embarrass yourself. With the owner guiding me through the sequence of awakening the beast within the hallowed garage, I fumbled to start the car. James Deakin screaming indecent chides didn’t help. I went through the sequence one last time: ‘click the ignition on to start mode, hear the fuel motor hum as it primes the twin tanks, pump the throttle a couple of times then turn the key… BRRRAAAM!’

The Stratos burst to life with its roar echoing against the garage walls and marble floor. Within a minute, the car idled smoothly, which in itself is a shock as I predicted the hyper rally car would just be an extrovert with hot cams and uncooperative at engine speed below 3,000rpm. Then the owner warned me about the tricky transmission. The quirk, you ask? There is no safety shift lock to prevent you from shifting straight to reverse from any forward gear! This is a resolute racecar at heart after all and also didn’t have the gated shifter like the Dino 246 GTS. Instead I had a little rectangular orange sticker below and to the right of the speedometer that had an illustrated gear pattern. Talk about deliberate shifting, for the next half hour I had only one thought in mind: ‘DON’T SHIFT TO REVERS!’ This problem festered in my mind until I finally developed the proper rhythm, which eventually became second nature.

The Stratos cockpit is tiny and very straightforward. One neat interior feature was the large cradles on both doors meant to house full racing helmets. You sit in the car just as a rally driver would. The engine was placed in a mid-mounted position just ahead of the transaxle, with just enough space between driver and engine for the radiator, air intakes, and a spare wheel. The Stratos uses a monocoque and tubular frame, built from a combination of sheet metal for the center section, and reinforced fiberglass for the doors, front and rear hatches, and body. The engine and rear suspension were mounted in a steel substructure. Every inch of the car was immaculate. The proverbial ‘you can eat off this engine’ applies. You can feel how light the car is and could easily extrapolate how sensational the Stratos would drive on a circuit. It didn’t take long to be in total control of the Stratos. The precise rack-and-pinion steering even without power assist was very easy to modulate. Another great feature of the Stratos is its fully adjustable suspension that allows you to personally adjust height, damping, and rebound to fine tune exactly what you want the car to do for you to compliment your driving characteristics.

Aside from the cumbersome transmission, the Stratos was a thrill to drive. I cracked the windows open to get some air, and shot off with the Dino chasing behind me. There is no question that the Dino is vastly more driver-friendly and elegant, but the Stratos is a whole different car even if the engines are brothers torn from each other at birth. Handling was still very tight and eager. The engine felt much stronger than 190bhp; it accelerated very hard without any hiccups or misfires. It marginally out-accelerates the Dino but has a slower top end. The Stratos’ more athletic handling and more robust torque out-performs the Dino, but it will be more nervous at speed. The owner had installed a whole mass of upgraded rubber to go with the updated brakes. The fat tires make the car look even more exciting. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to really challenge the car’s abilities on the open road. Our drive, however fantastic, barely exploited the Stratos’ abilities.

Not only is the Lancia Stratos backed up by a whole slew of racing trophies with a commanding stance, it’s essentially such a fun car to drive even casually. The brakes still need more bite though the braided stainless steel brake lines do help feel. The whole idea behind both the Dino 246 GTS and Lancia Stratos HF in this article isn’t a compare; in fact, it’s a celebration of what they are, what they stood for in the past, and how they will be viewed in the future. In the end, both cars are just so amazing, their rarity only adds to their dimension. They are still fantastic to drive and can compete against many modern cars. They’ve tremendously valuable both financially and automotively. Their looks alone will capture you the way their drives will rapture you, and the wave goodbye made us weep. How many cars out there have such epic designs and the ability to back it up while still maintaining soul? Both cars remind us of the joy of life. And boy, do both car owners really understand the concept of joi de vivre!