1970s / Italian / Lancia

Lancia classics: a look at the rally-bred Stratos

Widely considered one of the most successful rally cars of all time, the Lancia Stratos HF traces its roots back to the Stratos Zero concept that Bertone revealed at the 1970 edition of the Turin Motor Show.

The Stratos Zero was a futuristic, wedge-shaped coupe that was all but destined to remain a design study. Surprisingly, Lancia’s top brass liked the show car enough to commission Bertone to develop and build a more realistic version of it capable of competing in international rally events. The company envisioned the Stratos as a replacement for the Fulvia coupe, which had been highly successful in racing over the course of the 1960s but was undeniably starting to show its age.

Bertone designer Marcello Gandini made drastic changes to the Stratos Zero’s overall design while retaining the signature wedge-shaped look. A more realistic concept called Stratos HF (High Fidelity) was presented a year later at the 1971 Turin Motor Show. Pictured below, the coupe was powered by a Ferrari Dino-sourced V6 engine but the press release that was distributed to journalists at the show claimed the production version would use a different powerplant.

Although Ferrari and Lancia were essentially under the same roof, company founder Enzo Ferrari was notoriously difficult to work with and very few Lancia executives believed they would obtain the rights to use the Dino engine in the Stratos. To complicate the situation, parent company Fiat didn’t like the idea of a Ferrari-powered Lancia, and it hinted it could quickly put an end to the deal before the first car was even produced.

In February of 1972, Enzo Ferrari personally called one of Lancia’s highest-placed executives to congratulate the company on winning the Monte Carlo Rally. He also announced he was willing to provide Lancia with 500 Dino 246 GT V6 engines for the Stratos project.

The first Stratos was built several months after Lancia got permission from Ferrari to use the Dino engine. It was heavily inspired by the show car that Bertone revealed in Turin in 1971 but it featured minor modifications such as smaller tail lamps. The Dino’s V6 was tweaked in-house to generate 240 horsepower in its initial state of tune, nearly 50 ponies more than when mounted in the 246 GT’s engine bay.

The Stratos made its racing debut at the 1972 edition of the Tour of Corsica but it didn’t finish the race due to issues with the rear suspension. The coupe took its first win in April of 1973 at the Firestone Rally in Spain, and it also won that year’s edition of both the Targa Florio and the Tour de France Auto.

1974 marked the beginning of the Stratos’ complete domination of the FIA’s World Rally Championship. The coupe finished first in three out of eight events including the Rally San Remo, the Tour of Corsica, and the Rally Rideau Lakes that took place in Canada. The victories helped Lancia capture first place overall in the championship with a total of 94 points. Fiat, which was racing with the 124 Abarth, took second with 69 points.

The Stratos’ success continued the following year with four wins out of ten events. Notably, Italian pilot Sandro Manuri drove the coupe to second place in the 1975 edition of the Safari Rally, one of the most grueling events of the season. Lancia took its second consecutive championship title and Fiat again had to settle for second place. 1976 was the Stratos’ most successful season, and Lancia took first place once again with 112 points. Second place went to Opel with 57 points, while Fiat placed a distant seventh after scoring just 32 points.

Fiat decided to put an end to the Stratos program after the 1976 season in order to focus its resources on promoting the then-new 131 Abarth. While the reasons behind the decision are still murky today, many historians believe the company simply wanted to put the spotlight on the 131 Abarth because it had the potential to boost sales. The standard 131 was a mass-produced, family-focused vehicle, while the Stratos was an expensive coupe whose short production run was already over.

The Stratos nonetheless continued to win races in the hands of privateers. It took first place in the 1979 edition of the Monte Carlo Rally, beating the factory-backed 131 Abarth in what is remembered as one of the most embarrassing defeats for Fiat. The last event the Stratos won was the 1981 edition of the Tour of Corsica.

The Stratos Stradale

Lancia had to build and sell 500 street-legal examples of the Stratos in order to get it homologated by the FIA. Called Stratos Stradale, the street-legal model was powered by a de-tuned version of the 2.4-liter V6 that made 192 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 167 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpms. The 2,161-pound coupe could reach 62 mph from a stop in about six seconds, and go on to a top speed of 143 mph.

The Stratos Stradale was offered in five colors including red, yellow, lime green and two shades of blue. Factory records indicate a total of 492 Stratos Stradales were built, though certain historians peg the correct figure at 515.

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