Stratos history: Bertone built it to save his bacon
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.