New Lancia Stratos has big Italian shoes to fill

New Stratos front

It began with an impromptu limbo competition. Nuccio Bertone, head of the vaunted coachbuilder that bore his name, drove the one-off Stratos Zero concept car right under the barrier and into the grounds of the Lancia factory in Turin. It was 1970, and Lancia had recently been acquired by Fiat. This impossibly low wedge would turn into one of Lancia’s most memorable rally cars and most uncompromising, undeniably tantalizing road cars—the Stratos.

Recently, nearly 50 years after the Zero, coachbuilder Manifattura Automobili Torino announced an homage to a legend of street and rally stage. MAT, working on behalf of the New Stratos company, plans to build just 25 examples of the New Stratos, each one based on a Ferrari F430-based prototype originally made in 2010 as a special commission for a German businessman named Michael Stoscheck. And guess who made the prototype? None other great Italian coachbuilder, Pininfarina.

Let’s fill in that nearly half-century gap. Imagine you’re working at Lancia in 1970, standing at the gates, perhaps wondering if there was a future here making boxy little Fulvias with the juggernaut Fiat in charge, and seeing the Zero roll up looking like a spaceship from Dimension X. You have to think that the air over the Lancia factory that day was charged with electricity. And, given the unique Italian propensity for creative profanity, some groundbreaking expletives.

Stratos Zero concept front 3/4
RM Sotheby's
Stratos Zero concept

The Stratos Zero was Bertone's wedge-shaped bouquet to Lancia, a sort of promise of what could be. Lancia hadn't used Bertone's services before, but the Zero had a 1.6-liter Lancia V-4 mounted amidships to grease the wheels of collaboration. The design was by Marcello Gandini, creator of the Miura and Countach. Imagine if a bunch of Italians motored through your front door in a four-cylinder Countach and said, “Let's go rallying!” Lancia, of course, agreed.

Lancia was already building fun machines, even if the styling was fairly conventional. The performance division, headed by former racer and public relations director Cesare Fiorio, was called Squadra Corsa HF, with the HF standing for High Fidelity. The idea behind HF was that the cars would deliver sensation to the driver with the quality of a hifi stereo, and that they would be faithfully reliable. Rallying was a perfect theatre to showcase these attributes.

The HF's mascot was, oddly, a galloping elephant. Nobody has been able to figure that one out, but perhaps the best rumor is that the Elefantino was proposed by Gianni Lancia, son of Lancia's founder. His reasoning was that once an elephant starts running, no one can stop it.

There wasn't a hint of pachyderm about Lancia's featherweight racing machines, but they certainly proved unstoppable. In 1969, a Lancia Fulvia HF driven by Swede Harry Källström won the European Rallying Championship. Originally, as with the Zero concept, the Fulvia's engine was intended to power the production Stratos. However, along with the new Fiat ownership came access to Ferrari.

1974 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale front 3/4
1974 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale rear 3/4

When the Stratos was revealed in November of 1971 at the Turin auto show, it had the 2.4-liter Ferrari V-6 out of a Dino 246—the engine Fiorio wanted for his rally weapon. However, the official release suggested a different engine would be present in production models. Enzo Ferrari was not known for giving the competition a leg up, and the Stratos was uncomfortably close to treading on the toes of his mid-engined 246.

However, when a Fulvia HF won the Rally Monte Carlo in 1972, Enzo himself personally called Lancia head Pier Ugo Gobbato to congratulate him, and promise that Dino V-6s would be provided. In order to fulfill homologation requirements, Lancia needed to make 500 examples of the Stratos.

Actually getting the engines from Ferrari would take nearly a full year, and by May of 1972, Lancia had just ten. Still, the bones were there to begin development. Former Lamborghini engineer Gian Paolo Dallara came on board and Italian rally ace Sandro Munari—winner of that '72 Monte Carlo rally—was soon shaking the Stratos down in preparation for racing.

In Group 4 racing spec, the Stratos was brain-melting. Its 2.4-liter V-6 produced 280 hp, it weighed just 1940 pounds, and it looked like a F-16 Falcon had made love to a gorgeously engineered door stop. The Stratos was stubby at just 146.1 inches in length with a 85.8-inch wheelbase, and wide, spanning 71.3 inches.

New Stratos driving
New Stratos

Lancia allowed almost no considerations for practicality or comfort. The Stratos' wrap-around front glass gave excellent forward visibility, but the rear blind spots were huge. There was no storage to speak of, apart from helmet spaces in the doors, and the headroom was murder for anyone over 5'10”. Further, the steering wheels and pedal were some eight inches closer to the center of the car than the middle of the driver's seat.

Road-going versions of the Stratos were a little heavier, and were detuned to 190 hp. They were still cramped, uncomfortable, and dangerous to the untutored. Lancia began producing the street version in 1973, with the steel frame and fibreglass panels being produced at Bertone's facility, then finished at the Lancia factory.

Already, the competition-spec Stratos had gained its maiden victory, winning the Spanish Firestone Rally in '73. A second-place finish at the challenging Targa Florio and a major victory at the Tour de France Automobile in the same year proved that the Stratos was ready for Group 4 primetime. Lancia just had to build enough street versions to satisfy the scrutineers.

Or, alternatively, they could just bend the rules a little. Something like 150 Stratos chassis were built when Fiorio applied for full homologation status, and a few months later, the FIA approved his request. By May of 1975, Lancia would still only have made 457 cars, and of the 502 built, the last wouldn't be delivered until the Stratos was essentially retired.

It's not cheating unless you get caught, and the wedgy Stratos arrived at the newly formed World Rally Championship with dagger drawn. The first WRC championship was won by Renault-Alpine, but for the next three years, nobody could touch the Stratos. Resplendent in its green, red, and white Alitalia livery, the Stratos kicked gravel in the face of the competition, and sped on to victory after victory.

New Stratos rear 3/4
New Stratos engine
New Stratos racing helment in the door
New Stratos profile with hood and trunk open

Eventually, the executives at Fiat decided that a limited-run specialty rally car made limited financial sense, and turned to the Fiat-Abarth 131 as their racing entry. The 131 looked like the cars rally fans could actually afford, and was thus a better marketing effort. Even so, a privateer-run Stratos won the 1979 Monte Carlo rally, proving that the victories could have kept coming if only Fiat had stuck with its wedge.

Today, the rarity of the Stratos makes it very valuable. A 1975 model in good condition is estimated to be worth $582,000 on average, or about double what a Dino 246 might fetch.

To give some sense of what a Stratos is like to drive today, journalist Matt Farah recently took a 1975 factory-built Works Stratos for a drive in Florida. His take on the car: “The V-6 had a lot of torque and sounded great, and the shifter had really nice engagement. It was easy to heel-toe and find gears, but it felt twitchy, like the steering geometry would change sort of inconsistently. I suspect that, like a Formula Drift car, this was particularly nice on loose surfaces.”

Farah further notes that the gearing was incredibly short, set at little above 55 mph at a redline of 6000 rpm; this is a combination of the car being set up for the Monte Carlo's tight turns, and of the redline being turned down from its normal 8000 rpm peak in the interests of preservation.

Even with the short reins, Farah reports that the car was something very special. You can't go back, of course, and there's no way a major manufacturer would be able to make a purpose-built rallying machine like the Stratos today. The best we can hope for is small-scale projects like the New Stratos, which preserve the spirit of the original. It won't see the racing victories, it doesn't fly in the face of convention, and it doesn't feel like a machine that was spirited past the executives by a small team of dedicated racing enthusiasts.

New Stratos interior
New Stratos

The New Stratos starts with a shortened chassis from a Ferrari 430 (the customer provides the car) and works with its 550-hp V-8 heart. The body is carbon-fiber composite, the weight just 2750 pounds, the looks a mix of the old and the new. There’s a roll cage welded in that conforms to FIA standards, which New Stratos says improves handling and stability as well as safety.  As with the original, there will be both a street version and a safari-spec variant set up for flinging gravel. The cars will be built alongside other low-volume machines produced for niche automakers Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus and Apollo.

As a tribute, the New Stratos is certainly an interesting machine, and with that much power in a 94.5-inch wheelbase, should be about as twitchy as a housecat on amphetamines. Each of the 25 owners will doubtless find joy behind the wheel, assuming they're able to stay out of the hedges.

It’s far from cheap, starting $617,000, not including the F430. But as a salute to one of the most important rallying machines ever made? The New Stratos is as high fidelity as they come.