A World Rally Car is like a hybridized cheetah and mountain goat. A driver’s ability to toss one of these high-powered monsters around a dirt course and through wooded and sometimes snowed over conditions is nothing short of remarkable. (Your 30 MPH commute through potholes and a dusting of light snow, meanwhile, seems like an automotive Gerber Graduate.) But even with in this prestigious group of mean machines, all are far from equal. Nearly forty years ago, Fiat saw fit to create a car purely dedicated to rally racing, one that was designed for the sole purpose of devouring dirty, twisty, bumpy closed roads with an insatiable appetite. Here was a singular standout among rally cars — the Lancia Stratos — and it was marvelously beautiful and capable. What the Stratos harkened was a design and build exclusively for rallying, something that had never been done before and would only last for a time. What Bertone designed and Fiat built became a legend.
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What It’s All About
Looking like the combination of a duck’s bill and a chisel, the Lancia Stratos was developed as a rally car for Group 5 racing and as an homologation car (production numbers to justify its rally racing intentions) a year after the revolutionary Lancia Stratos HF Zero car debuted. The radical Zero concept car motivated Lancia team director Cesare Fiorio to advocate for a rally car of singular purpose. He got what he wanted. The flaming red Stratos HF prototype bowed in 1971 with a unique crescent-shaped windshield that wrapped around the cabin for untrammeled visibility, a low and flat hood (like the Zero before it) and virtually no rearward visibility — designed as such since rally drivers were racing against the clock rather than other drivers. The interior boasted not even a modicum of comfort for both driver and passenger, with basic seats, cramped footwells and poorly placed pedals.
Replete with quad rally lights on the hood, the Stratos looked like an angry imported wolf spider on wheels.
Yet it was a car with virtually limitless rallying potential based on design and performance. The remarkably short 86-inch wheelbase meant that it was incredibly maneuverable, and the highly tuned Ferrari engine in racing form translated to blinding speeds. But this wasn’t car anyone could simply sit down in and drive fast. It required acclimation due to the somewhat skittish nature of the handling from the combination of a short wheelbase and rampant power. Once a driver got the hang of things, though, the Stratos was wickedly capable, managing corners adroitly and charging down straightaways. All of this made its standing in the pantheon of automotive icons, both for the street and for the track, easily cemented.
Homologation production of 500 cars in 1973 for the 1974 World Rally Championship made use of the mid-mounted Ferrari Dino 2.4-liter V6 engine with an output of 192 horsepower. Due to the production car’s power-to-weight ratio, the Stratos could hit 60 in under five seconds and topped out at 144 MPH. Though the production car’s engine was capable enough (and as mellifluous as any Ferrari growler), the racing versions of the same V6 were true howlers. Tuned to 280 hp and a mad 560 hp with turbocharging, the rally cars were nothing short of scintillating. Whoever got their hands on one of the homologation cars was gifted with sheer driving pleasure: the Dino engine was more than capable, and the chassis, built for racing, could be thoroughly enjoyed while thrashing switchbacks.
The four-wheel independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes were all specially created for the Stratos and enabled the car to be highly tractable both on and off the tarmac. Chassis and main body section were built from steel; the nose and rear sections were made from fiberglass to keep the car’s weight down. The spare tire was stored in the front nose and the minimal cargo space sat behind the powertrain. Footwells were scant, tapering inward for both driver and passenger, making legroom a luxury that could not be afforded. For the racing versions, portions of the interior doors were even carved out for the purpose of helmet storage. It was clear that the Stratos was built for speed and not much else. Replete with quad rally lights on the hood, AlItalia racing livery and yellow wheels, the Stratos looked like an angry imported wolf spider on wheels.
Why It Matters
Unlike any car before it, the Lancia Stratos was the first car built as an “homologation special”: it was created from scratch for rally racing, without any foundations of automotive ancestry. This alone was a recipe for cult status. The race car conquered like virtually nothing else before it, taking the podium at the World Rally Championship three years consecutively from 1974 to 1976.
But the Stratos’s WRC glory was not to last beyond 1976. Fiat shifted the rallying burden to the 131 Abarth. The Stratos, however, went on to win on a private team in 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1979 at the Monte Carlo Rally. Ironically, each of these victories was at the hands of rally driver Sandro Munari, whose role in the Stratos’s rallying effort with Fiat were pivotal. The Stratos proved its chops once again — an entire eight years after its inception — with a final victory in 1981 at the Tour de Corse Automobile, and were it not for the odd decision by Fiat to move on and future restrictions on engine output, there’s no doubt that the purpose-built Stratos would’ve taken the checkered flag again and again.
The car has such legendary status, both for its performance as well as its unique aesthetics, that a modern concept was built in 2010 for the purpose of production, backed by rally driver Michael Stoschek. Designed by Pininfarina (of Ferrari fame), the New Stratos utilized the same design cues as the original car but was based on a Ferrari F430 Scuderia donor car. The intention was to build the car for sale to a select number of customers, but Ferrari failed to support the project, and sadly, it was scrapped.
Though the resurrection of the Stratos failed, the attempt points to the respect the Stratos garners and the timelessness of its design. The original Lancia Stratos was like nothing before or after it. Its racing prowess, fueled by the sheer integrity of its purpose, was made evident over and over again. We’ll pine for another revival, but until then, this car is a legend worth remembering.
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