Nearly 50 years on, the Lancia
Stratos Zero concept still looks out of this world.
TRUE CONCEP T CARS
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.