By De­sign

Automobile - - Contents - By Robert Cum­ber­ford

Nearly 50 years on, the Lan­cia

Stratos Zero con­cept still looks out of this world.


from main­stream man­u­fac­tur­ers— as op­posed to one-off, in­di­vid­u­ally com­mis­sioned de­signs on com­mer­cially avail­able chas­sis, as was com­mon prac­tice in the ’20s and ’30s—are a rel­a­tively rare phe­nom­e­non. Start­ing with Har­ley Earl’s Buick Y-Job in 1939 and Chrysler’s Alex Tremulis’ Thun­der­bolt soon af­ter, noth­ing much more hap­pened un­til 1951, when Earl’s Le Sabre and the Buick XP-300 that shared its chas­sis and me­chan­i­cal el­e­ments ap­peared. Since then, a ver­i­ta­ble flood of such cars have ap­peared, but those “con­cepts” have pri­mar­ily been means to sug­gest near-fu­ture pro­duc­tion mod­els, noth­ing more, and cer­tainly, most have been es­sen­tially rather con­ven­tional.

To my mind, there have been only a few truly con­cep­tual, ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary con­cept cars, in par­tic­u­lar one from Gen­eral Motors and two from Car­rozze­ria Ber­tone. Of course, prin­ci­pal credit for their cre­ation goes to the de­sign bosses, Har­ley Earl at the end of his ca­reer and Nuc­cio Ber­tone. But in fact the shapes of the three ve­hi­cles were the brain­chil­dren of their bril­liant sub­or­di­nates: Nor­man James for the Fire­bird III gas-tur­bine two-seater, Franco Scaglione for the Alfa Romeo BAT 7 aero­dy­namic study, and Mar­cello Gan­dini for the most ex­treme of all, the Lan­cia Stratos Zero. Of the three con­cepts, the lat­ter is by far the most ex­treme, the most im­prob­a­ble, and the most in­ter­est­ing mor­pho­log­i­cally and in terms of its con­se­quences.

Hun­dreds of sig­nif­i­cant de­signs have come from the hand and mind of Gan­dini, whose spirit of cre­ation seems to have been lib­er­ated by his free rein on the Stratos Zero. To be sure, he had al­ready cre­ated the most beau­ti­ful su­per­car of the ’60s when he shaped the body of the Lam­borgh­ini Miura, but others de­ter­mined its ar­chi­tec­ture; he was sim­ply the stylist. His Lam­borgh­ini Marzal mi­dengine four-seater—the first ever—showed what he could do when he could in­flu­ence the me­chan­i­cals. The Marzal was sim­ply a length­ened Miura with the front bank of its trans­verse V-12 re­moved, but that work was done by Lam­borgh­ini en­gi­neers Gian Paolo Dal­lara and Paolo Stan­zani. Stratos Zero was all Gan­dini, us­ing the ex­ist­ing Lan­cia Ful­via front-drive V-4 but in the rear end in­stead.

Ridicu­lously low, to­tally im­prac­ti­cal, and ut­terly fas­ci­nat­ing in its tan­ta­liz­ing ab­sur­dity, the Zero is one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary cars ever made. Its name is per­fectly ap­pro­pri­ate in that it has zero prac­ti­cal­ity, zero util­ity, and al­most zero vis­i­bil­ity. One of my friends ac­tu­ally drove this car back in the early ’70s in Los An­ge­les, and only for about 100 feet or so in­side a build­ing and at ex­tremely low speed in first gear. But that brief episode was enough for him to re­call the ex­pe­ri­ence clearly 45 years later and to know full well he would not like to re­peat it now that he’s no longer a young man. As­sum­ing, of course, he could still get in the car in the first place. He re­mem­bers it as ex­tremely claus­tro­pho­bic, pulling the wind­shield/door down over his head all too much like clos­ing the lid of a cof­fin. It was an ex­er­cise in push­ing a con­cept to ex­tremes, so it was valid for Ber­tone in 1970. It also led, hap­pily, to the won­der­ful Lan­cia Stratos that had noth­ing more than its name—slightly mod­i­fied at that—in com­mon. Well, Gan­dini was a com­mon link as well, in that he was re­spon­si­ble for the en­tire pack­age of the in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful poly­va­lent rally car, able to han­dle the ex­tremes of the Monte Carlo win­ter event (three out­right wins) and the East African Sa­fari.

Through­out the ’70s and ’80s, wedge-shaped de­signs in­flu­enced by the Zero pro­lif­er­ated, in­clud­ing show ex­am­ples from main­stream man­u­fac­tur­ers like MercedesBenz and GM, and of course lim­ited-pro­duc­tion cars from Lo­tus, Maserati, and even the lowly Tri­umph TR-7. Many were beau­ti­ful, strik­ing, and im­pres­sive, but no con­cept or pro­duc­tion car has ever been as ex­treme as this one. AM

Mar­cello Gan­dini: “It was re­ally amus­ing.”

FOR A PER­SONAL pro­file in our Novem­ber 2009 is­sue, I vis­ited Mar­cello Gan­dini’s mag­nif­i­cent home and per­sonal stu­dio, com­ing away with a highly pos­i­tive im­pres­sion of a very mod­est, ex­traor­di­nar­ily ca­pa­ble cre­ator. When I called him this spring to ask about his mem­o­ries of the Lan­cia Stratos Zero, his first com­ment was that do­ing the car “was re­ally amus­ing.”

This may well be the low­est (semi) road­wor­thy twoseat car ever made, its top sur­face only 33 inches above the ground. It was def­i­nitely not in­tended for nor­mal use, even if it was in­deed used—briefly—on the streets of both Mi­lan and Turin back when it was a new sen­sa­tion. There is a won­der­ful story about Nuc­cio Ber­tone tak­ing it to Lan­cia’s Turin head­quar­ters early in 1971 and be­ing re­fused en­trance by the gate guards—so he sim­ply drove un­der­neath the barrier. “I wasn’t there,” Gan­dini said. “Gian Beppe Pan­icco says he was.” Pan­icco, a born PR man, loves col­or­ful sto­ries, but in this case, as it is both pos­si­ble and plau­si­ble, I tend to be­lieve it hap­pened.

That visit to Lan­cia was to dis­cuss a pur­pose-built rally car de­rived in part from the Stratos Zero. The re­sult­ing Stratos HF pro­to­type, in­ci­den­tally one of three or four of Gan­dini’s fa­vorites of the hun­dreds of ve­hi­cles he has de­signed, was a full 10 inches taller than the Zero. And the pro­duc­tion cars were taller still, a full 10 per­cent more than the Ford GT40, all of which puts the Zero’s ex­treme di­men­sions in per­spec­tive.

We asked Gan­dini if he ever drove the Stratos Zero. “No, I never had a chance to do so,” he said. “It was mainly just an ex­er­cise to get the at­ten­tion of Lan­cia man­age­ment once they’d been taken over by Fiat.” Which was un­suc­cess­ful in that no one from Lan­cia came call­ing at the Ber­tone stand at the Turin mo­tor show in 1970, when the car was first pre­sented. But it did get driven.

“We had a young rac­ing driver come to Ber­tone and drive Zero quite a bit, more than any­one else ever did,” Gan­dini said. “Emer­son Fit­ti­paldi.” Emer­son and his brother, Wil­son, were al­ways fas­ci­nated with com­plex cars. But who would have thought a fu­ture world champion would have ever been in the strange, tight cock­pit of this bizarre bolide? “It was a lot of fun to make a car as low as we could imag­ine and to or­ga­nize the el­e­ments how­ever we wanted,” Gan­dini said. “The seat­ing is re­ally far for­ward.”

For Gan­dini, it was even more fun cre­at­ing the Stratos HF, which car­ried noth­ing from the Zero but the Stratos name and the Lan­cia badge. And of course Gan­dini’s imag­i­na­tion and bril­liance. AM

4. This very strong ris­ing lineis dead straight in pure pro­file,but in plan view it has a no­tablekink, bend­ing in­ward no­tablyto­ward the rear corners of thebody, which are well out­boardof the front ones.5. The dra­matic en­ginecover, made up of fivesu­per­posed metal tri­an­glesthat scoop air into the en­ginecom­part­ment, is hinged onthe right and pro­vides morethan ad­e­quate ac­cess.6. of be­came for the This Gan­dini—very rear is a the per­sonal wheel first open­ing ex­pres­sion suc­cess­fully hall­mark thaton LP400 the Lam­borgh­ini but spec­tac­u­larly Coun­tach uglyon the Stola S86 Dia­manteseen at the 2005 Genevashow. Air­plane man­u­fac­tur­ers,be­fore jet speeds madeall ver­ti­cal tails vir­tu­allyiden­ti­cal, used the shape ofthe ver­ti­cal fin as a mark ofiden­tity; per­haps Gan­dini’slove of avi­a­tion led him in thisdi­rec­tion.7. Let­ting the veryhand­some me­chan­i­calel­e­ments hang out with­outeven the slight­est at­tempt tohide them lets the wedgeshaped body be psy­cho­log­i­callydi­vorced from what rac­ers liketo call “the oily bits.”

1. Each of these sharp fenderedge the fend­ers. into up­per the hard tri­an­gu­lar The edge lines up­per de­rives of mirror the one front from flowsaper­ture The other that flows ends around the fender. thewheel open­ing and into therib on the body sides.2. Nearly mirror-im­age holesare cut into the body’s sidesur­faces. Each is framed by ahard line with a tight ra­dius atthe end of the prin­ci­pal in­setsur­face. The up­per in­dentedsur­face be­comes a scoopto bring air into the en­ginecom­part­ment.3. The in­cised and de­pressedsur­face be­low the rib is lessin­clined to­ward the in­te­riorof the vol­ume.4. The gear­box, it­self ahand­some, func­tionalribbed sur­face, is al­lowedto be com­pletely seen be­lowthe translu­cent red plas­tictail­light fram­ing for therear body aper­ture. Brightme­chan­i­cal fas­tener headsare spaced around theperime­ter, one of themper­fectly cen­tered on theaxis of the crank­shaft. Themega­phone-shaped ex­hausttips are asym­met­ri­callyplaced en­tirely to the left.

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