This Lancia was built by the rulebook, and better for it

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Rally racing of the 1970s was a wild time in which the rulebook was as wide open as the Finland countryside. Despite these wild-west regulations, most teams built rally contestants evolved from road-going counterparts, meaning that unabated performance was never the sole guiding light when constructing said machines. The Lancia Stratos turned that practice on its head.

The Stratos was a blank-slate design created with the intent of racing first, production adaptation second. That meant the only concessions would be made to fit the rally rulebook, not to ensure driver and passenger comfort while commuting to soccer practice. Of course, homologation requirements meant that 500 slightly toned-down Stratoses would need to reach public ownership in order for the race car to qualify. One of those consumer cars made its way into Jay Leno’s hands this week.

The Stratos HF that Jay has in the shop is an interesting piece of kit. Despite its looks, the car actually started life as one of the tamer road-going models, but it was converted to a near-factory-specification race car by the first owner. The one concession to civilian pursuits is the gearbox, which features the same ratios as the racer but adds synchronizers to make driving more inviting and less aggressive.

The very short gearing is something Jay outlines in the initial walkaround, but how it works on the road has to be seen to be understood. For example, the car absolutely jumps when Jay touches the throttle leaving the shop. Top speed is not the goal in rally racing, and the low gears in this transmission equip this rear-wheel-drive machine to climb a wall. Well, almost. The wheelbase is short, making handling quite snappy—almost too snappy for driving at the limit in rally stages.

There aren’t many cars on Jay’s show that he clearly wants to keep driving by the end of the episode, but this Stratos is one of them. I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to take it back to the truck where it would be returned to the Stratos Auctions clubhouse, soon to be listed for sale. That would just break my heart, since I can’t afford to buy it. Maybe Jay is in a different position, though.

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