For a boy born in the 1970s, the Lancia Stratos is undoubtedly a pillar in the construction of his automotive culture. Although not really awakening to automotive passion until the early 80’s, this young man could always count on the extraordinary design of the Stratos (still even today) and on its performance which has stood the test of time, as well. I think of Bernard Darniche’s victory at the Tour de Corse in 1982, almost ten years after the model’s release…
When FIAT bought Lancia in 1969, the strategy was quickly put in place to make the brand shine again, both commercially and on the race course. The Turin firm refinanced its new subsidiary and focused immediately on giving some new lustre to Lancia. A complete overhaul of the lineup was begun: with the Beta series in 1972 (in sedan, coupe, spider or shooting brake); then the Beta Monte Carlo in 1973 (a small sports car with a centrally mounted engine); and the Gamma in 1976. It is through Lancia’s efforts in competition that the brand would truly achieve its revival.
An ambitious project to revive Lancia
Up until this time World Rally Championship participants were all derived from production models. Lancia for example had previously looked to developments of the Fulvia model for rally racing. But now FIAT decided to create from scratch a new racing platform dedicated to rally racing – and to victory. From the start, it was decided to strike a big blow, both in terms of style and technology. For the design, Bertone and their talented designer, Marcello Gandini, creator of the Lamborghini Miura, were called in.
Initially shown as the Stratos Zero concept-car in Turin in 1970, its very futuristic design didn’t truly correspond with what would be that of the production model. Although the Zero’s lines did provide a slight preview of the future Stradale. It actually gave a glimpse of the lines that Gandini chose to give birth to the future Countach shortly thereafter. The Stratos Zero concept’s remarkable and innovative side didn’t seem to fit what a rally car should look like. The world had to wait until the following year to discover the Lancia Stratos “Prototipo » to discover the model that would closely resemble the future world rally champion.
The V6 engine taken from the Dino
Unlike the Stratos Zero, equipped with the V4 Fulvia, the Stratos HF was introduced in Turin in 1971 with a completely different engine: the Ferrari V6 from the Dino 246 GT. FIAT, having bought 50% of the firm from Maranello at the same time that it purchased Lancia, had every right to this engine. But the question of ‘when and how’ the engine would become available was contentious: would it really be the Ferrari V6? Which of FIAT or Enzo Ferrari would resist the most? Between the 246 GT that was still in production at the time, and the FIAT Dino (coupé & cabriolet) equipped with the same engine, should they add a third car to the list of models from the group using the same block? Finally, the question answered itself: the 246 GT was planned to give way to the new 308 GT4 to be equipped with a new V8, while the FIAT Dino was nearing the end of its career as well: Ferrari earned the right to produce 500 additional engines for Lancia’s account to be put in the future Stratos.
Beginning in 1972, the Lancia Stratos was engaged, on a trial basis, in the rallying Group 5 series. Despite its long and laborious development, the car was well configured and « rallying » victories seemed possible. Taking advantage of a modification to the rules, Lancia needed to produce only 400 « stradale » units to obtain homologation for competition in the key category Group 4, commencing in the 1973 season. In any case, despite some timid initial ambitions, the Italian brand knew that it could only sell the Stratos HF Stradale model in France, Germany, Belgium and of course Italy: anywhere elsewhere, completion of a full crash-test programme would have been necessary. Lancia (and FIAT) bid farewell to the premeditated 1,000 units that those most favourable to the programme had expected, and the reality of just 401 units for the road and 91 for racing was settled for.
A limited edition Stratos
For the street version, Lancia preferred to use diplomacy: the Stratos developed 10 more horsepower than its cousin the FIAT Dino (190 vs. 180), but left the Dino 246 GT to reign victorious amongst all three with five additional horsepower. Racing versions, on the other hand, received power of over 200hp and in some cases even 300 horsepower (and even 480 horsepower for the turbocharged, yet not nearly as reliable, most powerful version). None of which would be fitted with any form of all-wheel drive that would become the mainstay with the Audi Quattro Sport and the Peugeot 205 GTI Turbo 16 in the 1980s. The bottom line however between the various power options of the Stratos, whether ‘Corsa’ or ‘Stradale’, was that the comfort remained minimalist at best in every model.
Quickly, the Stratos was winning internationally and Lancia took the world title 3 years in a row, 1974, 1975 and 1976, striking a blow commercially before the launch of the Gamma, and most importantly, the Delta that would become the heart of the firm’s sports model range from 1979, marking a huge win for FIAT. Yet incomprehensibly, the Turin group chose to interrupt the brilliant sports career of the Stratos, to give preference to highlighting its new focus, the FIAT 131 range. A strategic mistake that it would correct eventually in 1982 with the Lancia Rally 037 and, of course, with the Lancia Delta HF ‘Integrale’.
With only 401 « civilian » cars, 3 prototypes and 88 « corsa » versions, let it be said that it could be difficult and expensive to get your hands on a beautiful Stratos HF (for High Fidelity). However, the impact that this car had for almost 15 years on roads and tracks might convince you to succumb to the temptation of acquiring one. In which case, it will require a healthy bank account of nearly 500,000 euros. Replicas do exist, and after several stops and starts between 2005 and today, a modern version is now available that was presented this year at the Geneva Motor Show.