Stratos his­tory: Ber­tone built it to save his ba­con

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Driven -

By the late 1960s, Nuc­cio Ber­tone was run­ning out of stuff to sell; pro­duc­tion work was dwin­dling and the best bet he saw for con­tin­ued pros­per­ity was de­sign­ing and build­ing a new low-vol­ume, high per­for­mance flag­ship for Lancia. His only prob­lem was how to in­form un­sus­pect­ing Lancia they needed one, and be­fore some­body else (like peren­nial ri­val Pin­in­fa­rina) got there first.

So he bought a used Ful­via, handed it to staff de­signer Mar­cello Gan­dini who had pre­vi­ously styled the ac­claimed Lambo Miura and told him to qui­etly whip it into some­thing Lancia couldn’t ig­nore. Gan­dini kept the driv­e­line and trashed the rest, then drew up the ab­so­lute tini­est mid-en­gined doorstop that would hold two hu­mans, and Ber­tone pa­raded the re­sult at the 1970 Turin Show. It was orig­i­nally called sim­ply Project Zero, but some­body ap­par­ently saw a cool la­bel on a model air­craft kit in the styling stu­dio, and said: ‘Hey guys, how about we name it Stratos?’

Ber­tone was ready when the phone call came from Lancia; the Zero, un­like many con­cept cars and de­spite be­ing so low you en­tered through a tilt-up wind­shield, was a gen­uine run­ner. Nuc­cio drove the car to his meet­ing with Lancia’s cor­po­rate bosses – right un­der the closed traf­fic bar­rier at the fac­tory gates.

His tim­ing was prov­i­den­tial. In­flu­en­tial mo­tor­sport boss Ce­sare Fio­rio had been fur­row­ing his brow greatly over a re­place­ment for the suc­cess­ful but ag­ing Ful­via HF rally cars, and reck­oned a fresh, lim­ited pro­duc­tion two-seater might be ex­actly the ticket – pro­vided it was de­signed for com­pe­ti­tion from the very first sheet of pa­per. Gan­dini got ap­proval to move from con­cept to pro­to­type in early 1971, and when the Lancia ex­ecs saw his an­swer, the Stratos was all but a done deal.

It’s worth not­ing that Mar­cello Gan­dini didn’t only style the Stratos, he en­gi­neered it, top to bot­tom. And what he put into the orig­i­nal pro­to­type – painted a par­tic­u­larly sear­ing matt-fin­ish ren­di­tion of red-orange – al­most pre­cisely be­came the fi­nal model. He started with a cen­tral mono­coque safety-cage, added front and rear sub-frames, a mid-mounted, trans­verse V6 Dino engine and five-speed from Fiat sta­ble-mate Fer­rari, all-ad­justable dou­blewish­bone sus­pen­sion, four-wheel discs, and clam-shell body­work.

It was so close to pure race-ready the only fun­da­men­tal changes made af­ter Lancia snatched it up were fi­bre­glass pan­els in place of aluminium, and hardier Chap­man struts out back. This be­ing the car busi­ness, there were com­pli­ca­tions, of course: the Dino 246 engine proved a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball be­cause of re­sis­tance from Fiat pow­er­train man­age­ment, and leg­end says the sup­ply only un­froze when Lancia asked Maserati it they might also maybe care to bid.

There were ho­molo­ga­tion is­sues as well; the FIA re­quired just 500 units to qual­ify for the new World Rally Cham­pi­onship in Group 4, and it’s a safe bet that Ber­tone cooked the books to show them even that many. The ac­tual build to­tal is now gen­er­ally ac­cepted as 492, and with all the nods and winks the FIA could muster, it was still late 1974 be­fore the Stratos was el­i­gi­ble to score points to­ward Lancia’s cham­pi­onship ef­forts.

Once the pa­per­work cleared, though, the Stratos was un­leashed. Of the fi­nal five 1974 events, it won three, put­ting Lancia over the top, and in 1975 and ’76, it gave the mar­que two fur­ther ti­tles, the lat­ter sea­son ac­cu­mu­lat­ing to­tal points al­most ex­actly dou­ble their near­est com­peti­tor. The Stratos was truly one of the great rally suc­cess sto­ries, and killed the mass-pro­duc­tion based in­ter­na­tional rally car as dead as the eight-track tape.

As a com­mer­cial en­ter­prise, how­ever, its record is some­what less mirac­u­lous. The road ver­sion, the Stradale, was re­tail road-kill. The bare bones Stratos was sim­i­larly priced to a spiffy GT Fer­rari, and was never cer­ti­fied as road-le­gal in most Euro­pean coun­tries, let alone Fer­rari’s happy hunt­ing ground, the USA.

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