Lancia Stratos

Like many other coachbuilders, Bertone had to change its business model in the 1960s. The ever increasing popularity of the unitary chassis left little room for custom coachbuilding. In order to survive the 'Carrozzeria' had to convert from bodying cars to assembling complete cars for other manufacturers. To showcase the company's engineering and design skill Nuccio Bertone developed a very special concept car for the 1971 Turin Motorshow. Despite its modest height, the striking lines penned by Marcello Gandini ensured that the Lancia Stratos Zero was impossible to miss.

The extreme wedge-shaped show car had been developed completely independently from Lancia and in complete secrecy. The Lancia Fulvia used for parts was a used example that Bertone had reportedly bought incognito. His engineers converted the chassis to the desired mid-engine rear wheel drive layout. It was covered by a very low body that amazingly followed a single line all the way from the nose to the tail. The windshield of the fully running machine tilted forward to allow access to the two-seater cockpit. Bertone initially wanted to call the car 'Stratoline' for its space ship appearance, but later settled for slightly abbreviated 'Stratos'.

Not surprisingly Bertone's Stratos was the absolute star of the show and while Lancia's competition manager Cesare Fiorio walked by at least three times to admire the car, there was no official response from Lancia. Once the dust had settled, the Lancia top brass remained awfully quiet. Bertone tried to set up a meeting to show the car to them, but they were not very interested. Reluctant to give up, Bertone stepped in the concept car and drove it to the Lancia factory. The security guards at the gate could not stop him as the Stratos was low enough to pass under the barrier. The mayhem outside captured the executives' attention and Bertone was allowed in.

Bertone's persistence paid off as Lancia commissioned him to further develop the Stratos together with Fiorio into a new Lancia 'Group 4' rally car, which indeed seems like quite a departure from the ground hugging Stratos Concept. Gandini was once again called in to draft up a completely new shape, which amazingly retained quite a few cues of his original design. The Bertone engineers developed a very compact monocoque chassis, leaving Lancia to worry about the engine. The Fulvia four cylinder engine was discarded and work was started on a brand new competition engine.

In an incredible short time of just four months, the second Stratos was assembled. It was considerably higher than the original and featured a wrap-around windshield and a very short wheelbase. Painted in a striking DayGlo fluorescent red, the car was ready in time for the 1971 Turin Motor Show, but it was still missing an engine. Lancia's new competition engine existed only on the drawing board, so that was not an option. Determined to show a fully functional car, Bertone fitted a V6 engine from Ferrari, which, like Lancia, was owned by Fiat.

After being shown at the Turin and Geneva shows, the bright red prototype was used for rigorous development tests. As a result the production cars received a revised rear suspension with McPherson struts instead of double wishbones and the body was crafted from fiberglass instead of aluminium. Many design details were refined and the engine cover was redesigned altogether. Still waiting for their new engine, Lancia delayed the introduction of the production Stratos many times. Eventually they decided that the Ferrari engine would do just fine and an order for 500 engines was placed.

Over three years after the Stratos Zero was first shown, production finally commenced in 1973. At least 400 examples had to be produced for Group 4 homologation, so the pressure was on to assemble the cars as quickly as possible. In the mean time a rally version of the Stratos was developed, which was very similar to the road car with power up to 280 bhp from 190 bhp, courtesy of 24 valve heads. A slightly more aggressive body kit distinguished the rally car from its road going counterpart. Before the Stratos was homologated, it was already rallied with considerable success in the Group 5 class.

Halfway through 1974 the Stratos received its full Group 4 homologation and in the hands of works drivers and privateers began on an incredible string of successes. Italian rally legend Sandro Munari drove the Stratos to its first of a staggering seventeen World Rally Championship victories during the October 1974 San Remo Rally. Despite its supercar appearance, the purpose rally car did not only excel in tarmac events, but was also very successful on anything from gravel to snow. A much more extreme Turbocharged Group 5 version was later developed, but it was not nearly as successful.

Between 1973 and 1978 just short of 500 examples of the Stratos were constructed, including around 50 competition cars. Needless to say it has gone into history as one of the most legendary rally cars of all time and one arguably the most evocatively styled. It fitted right into a series of highly successful Lancia rally cars that include its predecessor the Fulvia HF and its replacements the 037 and Delta. Although rarely mentioned, there would have been no Lancia Stratos without Bertone's persistence and Fiorio's enthusiasm for the project.