If there was ever a car that was designed to be driven in anger, it was the Lancia Stratos. It wasn’t designed to be fun, it wasn’t designed to be a status symbol, and it certainly it wasn’t designed to be a toy. The Stratos was designed to do one thing: Go very fast off-road, and as a result, it dominated rally racing in the mid ’70s, changing the sport forever, and in the process previewing the shape of sports cars to come for the next decade.
In 1969, Fiat went on a shopping spree and bought both Ferrari and Lancia, likely saving the latter brand from disappearing forever. Lancia had a reputation of making beautiful, sporty cars that dated back to the beginning of the century, but by the late ’60s, it was losing market share to more modern Fiats and Alfa Romeos. The Fiat deal gave the small company a much needed influx of cash and resources, and once it had a bigger purse to dip into, Lancia set to work on the important things – namely building a rally car to replace its aging factory team.
At the time, the Fulvia was Lancia’s best-seller, a pretty, upright sedan that launched in 1963 to replace the ’50s era Appia. But in coupe form, it was absolutely gorgeous – and one of the most formidable rally racers in the world. Fulvias won the Italian Rally Championship every year between 1965 and 1973, and the famous Monte Carlo Rally in ’73. By the end of the decade however, Lancia’s engineers were already looking to the future, and they wanted a car that would not only win, but dominate the sport.
In its quest to build the ultimate rally-fighter, Lancia broke tradition and reached out to Bertone for help. the company had a long relationship with rival Pininfarina, and had never worked with the design house before. But its recent success with a series of avant-garde wedge-shaped concepts, and the achingly gorgeous Lamborghini Miura had put Bertone at the forefront of Italian design, and Lancia wanted in.
The Stratos Zero concept debuted at the Turin Motor Show in 1970 as another one of Bertone’s futuristic concepts. It was a sensation on the auto show circuit, but the burnt orange wedge with a windshield that doubled as its door wasn’t exactly what Lancia had in mind for racing. In 1971, the Stratos HF (for High Fidelity) appeared, causing an even bigger sensation. This was the car that Lancia wanted to take to the rally circuit, and even then, it looked like the dawning of a new era.
The Stratos HF was unlike anything the world had ever seen before. When it debuted at Turin, the Alpine-Renault A110 was still the most successful rally car in the world, and it was powered by a tuned version of the 1.5 liter inline-four found in the Renault R8 sedan. The Mini Cooper S, Saab 96, and Porsche 911 all had considerable rally success, proving that the formula for a successful rally car had yet to be pinned down.
But the Stratos was different. It was aggressive and beautiful at the same time, mid-engined and violently-angled. But there was a problem: Lancia wanted to use the Ferrari 2.4 liter V6 out of the Ferrari Dino, something Enzo Ferrari was highly suspicious of. Of course Lancia said this was a rally car, but the car was almost too beautiful. What could stop it from competing against Ferrari? Well, beautiful design aside, it was one of the most purpose-built racers of its day. It was 3.7 feet high, 5.7 feet wide, and weighed in at just under one ton, yet its suspension could be adjusted to give it 6.5 inches of ground clearance. Its steeply-raked windshield was curved at a constant radius to keep it from distorting the driver’s view. It had virtually no rear visibility, and with the car that small and cramped, no one in their right mind would mistake it as a Ferrari GT fighter.
On the inside, Enzo had even less to worry about. The narrow track of the car placed the steering wheel nearly in the center of the car, making it an uncomfortable place for passengers. Its doors were so steeply raked that Lancia could fit a bin big enough to store a racing helmet in each panel, yet the windows couldn’t fully roll down. Gauges, switches, and trim were taken haphazardly taken from the Fiat parts bin, resulting in a mismatch of economy car parts. So by 1974, when Dino 246 production ended, Enzo finally agreed. With that, Lancia finally found itself with a shipment of 500 Ferrari V6s, and the green light to start Stratos production.
With a focus on global domination, Lancia only needed 40 cars to compete. But World Rally Championship rules called for 500 cars to be built for homologation purposes, so the company began building them in earnest throughout 1974 and ’75. For 1976, the WRC lowered the limit to 400, and production stopped at 492 cars. Despite its groundbreaking looks, and incredible performance for the era – a zero to 60 time at around six seconds, and a top speed of around 145 on, or off-road – Lancia couldn’t give the cramped, unreliable, and uncomfortable Stratos away, and some sat new in European dealerships until as late as 1980.
But Stratos sales were never important to Lancia. The car was built to race, and it made that look easy. Instantly, the old guard became obsolete, as Lancias won the WRC championship in ’74, ’75 and ’76, as well as the Monte Carlo Rally in ’75 through ’77, and again in ’79. But in 1977, Fiat had stopped bankrolling Lancia’s team, focusing instead on rallying the more conventional sedan-based Fiat 131 Abarth, which picked up where the Stratos left off, and captured the WRC title in ’77, ’78, and ’80.
Still, the Stratos started a sea change in rally racing, and manufacturers began moving away from stripped down, go-fast production models and focusing on their own low-production rally fighters. Group B rallying began in 1982, and on top of Lancia’s 037 Rally, Audi fielded the Quattro S1, and Ford developed the RS200. Even the big guns bought into the rally-fighter craze, with Ferrari building the 288 GTO, and Porsche launching the 959, though neither were officially rallied in the WRC.
By the mid ’80s the Stratos was already a legend. The cars that Lancia struggled to sell the first time around began getting scooped up by collectors, who fell in love with the car’s brutal performance, one-of-a-kind looks, and rally pedigree. Today, Lancia is all but gone, selling rebadged Chryslers exclusively in Italy. But the Stratos lives on, inspiring a host of replicas, and a Pininfarina-designed “New Stratos,” which was built on a Ferrari F430 Scuderia platform, and discussed for production – until Ferrari forbade it. Since a new one isn’t coming anytime soon, collectors who want to experience the most beautiful and brutal rally car of all-time need to be prepared to spend close to $500,000 for one. It’s a high price to pay, but for the most legendary rally car of all-time, it’s almost certainly worth it.
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