If asked which brand has won the most manufacturer titles in the World Rally Championship, which one would come to mind? Toyota, Subaru or perhaps Mitsubishi? Audi? But where… Citroën?! Right next to it, he is the second one. But die-hard rally fans in the back seats are already impatiently calling for a word. So let’s say it together and at once: Lancia after all!
He swooped down to us from the stratosphere
Lancia managed to win the title ten times, while Citroën won “only” 8 titles. However, the road to these results was full of blood, sweat and tears. At the beginning of the 70s, the successful Fulvia type began to lose to competition in the form of the contemporary Porsche 911, Alpine A110 or even the sister Fiat 124 Abarth.
It was necessary to come up with something new, more refined – and they decided to take it from the floor. So a brand new special was born, originally designed for one purpose – to win the rally championship. The name Stratos came from the word stratosphere – and back then, at the very dawn of the 70s, the car really looked like it had descended from the heavens.
The original Stratos Zero concept appeared sometime in 1970 and was designed by the Bertone design studio – the pencil was then sharpened by none other than Marcello Gandini, creator of the famous Miura. The concept had a wedge shape, was very low (86 cm) and used a folding “canopy” that was part of the windshield frame for getting in and out.
However, in October of the same year at the Turin Motor Show, the car caused quite a stir and few believed that something like this could go into production. Appearance was one thing, but inside the chassis sat (albeit excellent for its time) atmospheric 1.6l V4 with 115 horsepower. However, it was known that it would not be enough to compete.
From the car show to the special stages
The Stratos Zero concept was primarily a Bertone studio project, but the automaker quickly showed interest in it and wanted to test the car as soon as possible. The first demonstration of the car took place in February 1971, and Lancia racing engineers led by Cesare Fiori praised the mid-engine concept.
However, to the surprise of everyone at Bertone (including Nuccio Bertone himself), Lancia had other plans – the Stratos was not supposed to invade the circuits between sports cars, but the rally special stages, where at that time the above-mentioned Fulvia in the HF competition version was no longer enough. And the car, which was created practically from a clean sheet of Gandini paper, was ideal for these purposes.
The Stratos project was therefore given the go-ahead by Lancia leaders, but the manufacturer requested several modifications – the result only arrived a few months later. Among the biggest differences was the more pronounced line of the cabin, which received conventional doors and glazing inspired by the visor of racing helmets. The iconic “blinking” lights have been added to the front.
The body was made of (un)surprisingly thin steel sheets, so Bertone at least achieved a front and rear fairing made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic. The resulting car was very compact by today’s standards, actually even tiny. Just for comparison – with a length of 3.67 meters, it was only 13 cm longer than the Fiat Panda of the 2nd generation, the wheelbase of 2.1 meters was even 12 cm shorter (!) than the Panda.
Ferrari was not very keen on cooperation
A year after the presentation of the concept, in October 1971, a pre-production version was already presented in Turin – but Lancia needed a proper engine. Testing was still taking place using engines from the Fulvia or Beta type, but Cesare Fiorio would like to see an engine from the Ferrari 246 Dino, i.e. a 2.4l V6, in the Stratos.
At first, Ferrari was not very keen on this collaboration, so Fiorio said: “If you don’t want it, we will take the engines from Maserati.” And how it went. In Maranello, they wised up and finally agreed to cooperate.
A wedge shot
In the road version of the Stradale, the Stratos engine produced only 195 hp, but even so, thanks to its weight of 980 kg (coincidentally, again a similar value to the Panda), it was able to reach a fantastic 250 km/h for its time. Competition versions produced roughly 250 to 300 horsepower and were even a meter lighter. Special supercharged versions for the Group 5 series climbed up to 560 hp.
In the first year of deployment, in the 1972 season, the Stratos was surprisingly not very competitive, and there was a very prosaic reason for this – testing less than two years after the introduction of the original concept simply wasn’t enough.
By 1973, however, the Stratos had had enough of the competition and a year later won everything it could – Lancia then won the championship 3 years in a row in 1974, 1975 and 1976. The competition finally caught up with this model, but it was still successful until 1979. The last, rather an honorable victory, Stratos scored in 1981 at the Corsica rally, then already in the hands of a private team – almost 10 years after its first start.
500 road cars – so almost
In accordance with FIA rules, Lancia had to produce 500 road cars, luckily for Lancia this was for homologation for the Group 4 and Group 5 series combined, this number was even reduced to 400 during the Stratos’ tenure.
The production of the road version took place in 1973–1978. Although Lancia did not have to produce all 500 units, in the end there were even 492 (or 495, depending on the source) road-approved wedge racers. Their prices today are around half a million euros (approx. 12 million CZK).