RACER Redux: Stratospheric

RACER Redux: Stratospheric

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RACER Redux: Stratospheric

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ABOVE: It’s almost the perfect Lancia Stratos moment as
rallying’s first supercar leads the 1976 Sanremo Rally
in front of the adoring Italian fans.

In comparison, the Eagle Lunar Module looked passé. Clunky even. And if you’d sat Neil Armstrong’s 1969 machine alongside Bertone’s 1970 Stratos Zero concept, only one of them would have been going to the moon. The one with four wheels.

Just as Armstrong’s small step was a giant leap for mankind, Lancia’s first ever purpose-built rally car, the Stratos HF, was an enormous jump for the sport.

But it might easily not have happened. Having taken control of loss-making Lancia in 1969, the Fiat Group was in a position to dictate motorsport policy, which was focused on its own 124 Spider. And one factory rally car coming out of Turin in northern Italy was enough, thanks.

That’s probably where the matter would have rested, had it not been for a Turinese family by the name of Fiorio. Sandro Fiorio was Lancia’s PR director. His son, Cesare, worked in motorsport, helping to establish HF Squadra Corse, a semi-factory operation which ran Flavias with modest success.

But Cesare wasn’t content with that. Something of a visionary, he was sure there was an alternative way to go rallying, and the Bertone stand at the 1970 Turin Motorshow convinced him.

Based out of a modest factory in the city’s suburbs, Bertone was all about cutting-edge automotive design, and the Stratos Zero showed off his sharpest thinking and finest lines. Keen to highlight its engineering abilities, Stratos Zero (LEFT) was a genuine runner, based on the engine and internals from a Fulvia.

Nuccio Bertone knew full well that Lancia’s chosen design partner was Pininfarina, but this was a chance for his company to show what it was capable of.

It worked. Fiorio loved it. And when Bertone himself drove the Stratos Zero across town and under the entry barrier at the Lancia factory (the car’s roof was only 33in. from the floor), the workers stood and cheered. The future was here.

Convincing the workers was one thing. Convincing Fiat would be quite another.

“We had good support from Lancia management and the factory,” recalls Fiorio (RIGHT). “Everybody was very pleased with the success that we achieved in rallying with the Fulvia. The problem we had was with Fiat. They wanted to compete using the 124, so they were not happy at the idea of us producing this car. There was a very strong fight against Lancia and myself to stop this project, and we had to go through very difficult moments, but finally we managed to finish the program.”

A big help came when the Stratos returned in a more refined and rally-ready shape to the 1971 Turin Motorshow. A few months later, Sandro Munari won the Monte Carlo Rally in a Lancia Fulvia, and suddenly the Fiat brass was talking about Lancia and how it could redefine its image through rallying. Agreement was reached. The Stratos HF (for High Fidelity) was go.

The achievement of getting sign-off on this project (Tipo 829 in Lancia’s model nomenclature) can’t be underestimated. This was a seminal moment in the sport of rallying – one often overshadowed by, but right up there with, Audi’s four-wheel drive revolution of the early 1980s. In pushing the button on the Stratos, Lancia committed to producing the 500 cars demanded by the FIA’s Group 4 regulations, the tech rules then in place for cars vying for outright World Rally Championship wins.

This wasn’t about plucking a handful of shells from the production line, sticking a roll cage in and going rallying; this was about stopping the Lancia production line and redirecting the workforce to go and virtually hand-build the exotic Stratos.

And it had never been done in rallying.


With Bertone taking care of the chassis design, Fiorio turned his attentions to the powerplant. But the engines emanating from Lancia’s Chivasso factory weren’t really setting his pulse racing. Not like the howl of a Modena-born V6…

As soon as the 1971 Monte Carlo had finished, Fiorio headed into the Alps with a couple of Ferrari Dinos liberated from the factory. Munari and Rafaele Pinto were brought along to conduct a test over the top of Col de Turini, one of the Monte’s most famous and feared stages. The results were good. Very good. So, that’ll be 500 Ferrari Dino V6 engines, please…

And fortunately, Fiorio found Il Commendatore in benevolent mood.

“Enzo Ferrari never gave his engines to anybody outside of Ferrari,” says Fiorio. “But I had a good relationship with him; he was looking sympathetically at the work we were doing in rallying and I knew this. I told him we had a big problem. I said: ‘Right now we have this Fulvia and we have to compete against the Alpine Renaults and the Porsche 911s, but we have no chance if it doesn’t rain or snow or if there’s no fog. Still, we have this idea…’

“I explained to him the idea about Stratos, but I added: ‘There is no proper engine in the Fiat group…’ Finally, perhaps by making him think that supplying the Dino V6 was his idea, he agreed to help.”

And it’s the V6 which leaves Fiorio with his defining memory of the Stratos.

“That engine was just fantastic,” he says. “I will always remember the sound of the Stratos on the RAC Rally in the Kielder forest in the north of England. In Kielder, you could hear the cars from miles away and the Stratos had this sound that was really very, very special.”

The Stratos was homologated into Group 4 in October 1974, having run as a Group 5 prototype prior to that. Around that time, former Ferrari Formula 1 driver Mike Parkes joined Lancia to work as a development engineer. Fiorio recalls the Englishman arriving with Ferrari’s blessing; Parkes’ stock was high with the “Old Man,” courtesy of results like the 1966 Italian Grand Prix, where he followeded teammate Ludovico Scarfiotti home for a Ferrari one-two at Monza.

Parkes had cut his engineering teeth at Rootes, where he’d helped develop the Hillman Imp. With the Stratos, he found a car which had hit the ground running.

And, despite its slightly vulnerable-looking plastic body, it could hit the ground hard and keep running. The all-steel monocoque gave the Stratos immense structural strength, and while it didn’t win a Safari (LEFT) or an Acropolis, it wasn’t fazed by such challenges. Its simple construction worked both for and against it on more rugged rallies. There was, for example, nowhere to put a spare wheel for rough gravel events. Eventually, one could be bolted on the roof, taking the edge off the wedge-shaped machine’s aerodynamic capabilities…

Conversely, the ease with which all areas of the car could be accessed for running repairs saved huge amounts of time. Indeed, it wasn’t unheard of for the cars to arrive at the end of the stage shorn of the flimsy bodywork and ready for attention.

On asphalt, that in-built rigidity came to the fore, allowing the car to run higher spring rates and lower ride heights as it hugged the racing line and bellowed its way to five Corsica wins in eight years.

So well born was the Stratos, Parkes’ development and subsequent homologations of the car were centered on strengthening the rear suspension, beefing up the brakes, adding a rear spoiler, and mounting a roof-mounted air intake to help cool the crew. Fiorio, however, acknowledges Parkes’ input.

“Mike was a big part of the success of the story,” he says. “He was the reference man for all the development work, and the fantastic job he was doing ended too early when he died in a road accident.”

Fortunately Parkes got to celebrate the success he helped Lancia achieve with three successive Makes’ World Championships, 1974-’76, before the accident which claimed his life in 1977.

Strong, lightweight and ferociously powerful in its final, 24-valve, fuel-injected configuration (developing 330hp), the Stratos had become the dominant force in rallying. Which made the decision to end factory involvement in 1978 even harder to take. Fiorio, for one, is convinced the Stratos had more championships in it.

“I know if the Stratos had continued it could have won the world championship two, three or even more times,” he says. “We could have made an evolution with four-wheel drive and kept it competitive for maybe the next 10 years.”

But, by 1978, Fiat’s 131 Abarth (RIGHT) had come on song and, from a marketing perspective made a lot more sense to spearhead the group’s WRC effort. Mere mortals could buy one, for a start.

“It was a political point from Fiat,” says Fiorio. “But it wasn’t such a bad idea. The 131 came after the Stratos had terrorized all of the other manufacturers and made them reduce their rally programs because there was no chance for them against this car. So, when we arrived with the 131, the starting field was very poor and we managed to win the championship with a car which was not really competitive in the rally world at that time. I was sad to see Stratos go, but I was in charge of Fiat and Lancia motorsport and I said, ‘OK, we are soldiers and we make war with the weapons that you give us.'”

World rallying’s first true supercar, the Lancia Stratos HF, was a genuine forerunner to the Group B monsters which would follow in the next decade. And from its first win with Munari on the Firestone Rally in 1973 to Bernard Darniche’s Tour de Corse success in a Chardonnet-run car eight years later, the futuristic machine set the benchmark.

Three world titles chart the story of the car Bertone built and Ferrari powered, but it’s the emotion which surrounds the incomparable Stratos that still stirs the soul.

 

This story originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of RACER magazine – The Great Cars III Issue. Click here to purchase the issue.

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