It’s almost spooky when you see the thing surrounded for the very first time by all its illustrious predecessors. They weren’t kidding when they called it the New Stratos – walk around, check the angles, it’s the same stubby, arrogant little doorstop shape, but smoothed and updated; climb inside and there’s the same feeling of businesslike purpose, but better finished and appointed. Fire the engine and the familiar goosebump feeling creeps up the back of your neck as the exhaust whoop swells, inches behind your right ear.
Everything just has that same underlying Stratos menace, that prickly, barely contained tension that seems inherent in the ancestral DNA. It’s like watching the Sex Pistols take the stage at your sister’s wedding: you know something big could happen at any second, something totally brash and borderline, but whatever it is, it definitely will be exciting, and you will tell the story to your grandchildren.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a Lancia retro-copy, nor even a ‘continuation’, and when Octane brought the latest Stratos together with every version that came before it, that fact was blindingly apparent. The New Stratos is, in effect, a Stratos Evolution, what Lancia would build today if it had stuck it out, like an Italian Morgan Aero or Porsche 997. Except the manufacturer wasn’t involved at all: everything sprang from the collective enthusiasm of a few private individuals who wanted to do something special.
Which fits pretty well, looking back on how the whole affair started exactly 40 years ago. The original Stratos didn’t initially have much in the way of manufacturer’s involvement either. It only came about because renowned design house and sub-builder Carrozzeria Bertone was facing excess production capacity in the late 1960s, and wily Nuccio Bertone saw Lancia, recently saved from collapse by Fiat, as a perfect candidate for the sort of low-volume image-enhancer he could gladly provide.
All he lacked was some bait, and for that he turned to young staff genius Marcello Gandini. Gandini had already co-styled the acclaimed Lamborghini Miura for Bertone, and this time he would be entrusted with the entire design. Nuccio’s instructions basically consisted of (1) make it mid-engined, the hot-button of the day, and (2) make it wake ’em up over there.
To keep rival Pininfarina – who already had an inside track at Lancia – in the dark (and Lancia too, since they knew no more about Bertone’s intentions than anyone else), they named the plan Project Zero. By the time the finished concept appeared at the October 1970 Turin Show, however, it had gained another name, pilfered at the last minute from a model aeroplane kit found lying in the Bertone studios. It was called Stratos.
The massively theatrical Stratos Zero had nothing in common with the car we now know as Stratos. But it served to accomplish its objective. It caught Lancia’s attention, and started wheels turning among people like well-networked motor sport boss Cesare Fiorio. Upon careful study of FIA regulations, Fiorio found a loophole for a model to replace the successful but flagging Fulvia rally fleet – a gap big enough to drive a mid-engined, low-volume image enhancer through. Newly in effect for the 1973 World Rally Championship, the homologation limit was only 400 units, and even cash-strapped Lancia fancied a piece of that action. In early ’71, Nuccio Bertone got the go-ahead to build a serious prototype.
This was really the First Stratos; everything we now recognise as brand characteristics came not from the Zero, but from the prototype it spun off. Once again, Gandini was assigned the complete vehicle and, under guidelines from that regulations gap, what Fiorio asked for wasn’t a road car with competition possibilities, it was a competition car that could sell just enough road units for homologation.
Gandini’s answer took rallying to a whole new level. To a steel monocoque safety cage he attached subframes with four-wheel, fully adjustable, double-wishbone suspension, a transverse mid-mounted Ferrari Dino V6 and five-speed transmission, four huge disc brakes, hinged clamshell bodywork, and little else besides a couple of seats. The breathtaking shape looked like he’d hacked it from modelling clay with a machete and wiped the edges with a damp towel; then he painted it Screaming Neon Matt Blood-Orange and popped it on the 1971 Bertone stands at Torino and Geneva.
That retina-searing masterpiece now belongs to Chris Hrabalek, creator of the 2005 Fenomenon concept car from which today’s New Stratos grew, and the world’s foremost Stratos collector (he started with a toy version at age three and hasn’t stopped yet). It’s among the vehicles Chris brought to the New Stratos launch at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France to show us the new car’s bloodlines, and is easily the single most significant Stratos in the world. It’s Gandini’s exclusive personal vision, and Chris says ‘If any car ever deserved to be called an original work of art, by the hand of the original artist, this is it.’
What strikes you first is how few differences exist between the Gandini car and the lime-green road Stratos. Yes, an authority like Chris can name thousands, and side-by-side you can notice a subtle divergence in the lines and the addition of the distinctive spoilers. But in terms of fundamental principles, the biggest changes were the substitution of fiberglass bodywork for the prototype’s aluminum and, following durability problems in preliminary competition, a rear suspension switch to Chapman struts.
There’s also the matter of engine specifics; only the proto Stratos uses the 2.0-litre all-alloy version of the Dino V6. All others have the ally-head, iron-block 2.4 from the 246 and Fiat Dinos. Otherwise, it was mostly a matter of simplifying to suit the car’s role as a dedicated hunter-killer. The proto’s roll-up windows, for example, were ditched in favour of a bare-bones thumb screw arrangement that clamps the glass in position on its tracks to allow extra room for the famous door panel helmet trays. As Hrabalek points out, ‘It’s probably the only time the prototype was more posh than the production car.’
Neither car is particularly sumptuous, though. The minor fittings and accessories are straight from the Fiat parts bin. Lots of things are recognisable straightaway as 850 Spider componentry (also Bertone-built during the same period), down to the door hinges and boot compartment lamp.
The minuscule size and weight are immediately evident behind the wheel: steering is exceptionally light even when motionless, the front wheel inner-arch is so close it’s virtually a knee brace, and the pedals are correspondingly offset rightward and take practice to heel-and-toe. Even if the Stratos isn’t very long, it is incredibly wide, with ample elbow room and remarkable overall comfort. Until, that is, the sun comes out: the trademark Star Wars windscreen microwave cooks on all but the darkest days, and ventilation is almost non-existent.
So is rear visibility, but then you don’t need much with Stratos performance; 40 years on it’s still seriously, genuinely quick in real-world driving and with an illicit, immoral, race-car kind of thrill few passenger cars have ever matched. In the mid-ranges, where it counts on public highways, the acceleration is shockingly instant and remorselessly fierce, and the wee beast will shoot through gaps like a soul possessed.
It’s also downright clairvoyant, with wonderfully intense reflexes, and, as with the best superbikes, you find yourself constantly going faster and pressing harder, like a lab rat blitzing the reward lever, totally addicted and glad of it. All this to a glorious V6 soundtrack that would make Mozart weep, and while generating unqualified fear and envy in every surrounding witness. The reaction of ordinary civilians to your enraged Stratos entering traffic on maximum attack is one of the great guilty pleasures automotive life can bestow.
But of course it was the rally cars that made the Stratos reputation. Thanks largely to tech wizards Gian Paolo Dallara and Mike Parkes, the road-going Stratos HF (commonly now called the ‘Stradale’) developed into a three-time World Champion, 1974 through ’76, and claimed countless other non-Championship events for privateers. From the standard Stradale’s 190bhp, output rose with the base two-valve head to around 260; with a four-valve configuration, 280bhp was possible. In an era when the pro rally norm was hotted-up saloons with big lights, the Stratos hit the sport like Genghis Kahn at a pub-league football match.
A rally Stratos is therefore an animal of considerably higher intensity; it’s a bit off-putting even to crawl into one. There doesn’t seem to be a surface anywhere without mysterious gauges, switches and widgets, and on Hrabalek’s rare works Safari Rally veteran the outside is as busy as the cockpit. With bull bars at both ends, extra lamps, extra spare tyres and Dumbo-ear mud flaps, it’s almost more Land Rover than race car.
It’s also possibly the only Stratos ever to feel truly heavy, in both the steering and its general reactions, and the straight-cut gearbox takes a firm but sensitive hand plus a considerable amount of revs, not the best combination for the novice. But the whole impression is quite solid and reassuring, and it’s perplexing that the Safari Rally was among the few events the model never won.
It certainly does go, too; this one has the beefy four-valve engine, and although a racing circuit is hardly its natural habitat, the brilliant power-to-weight ratio still makes it positively orgasmic out of the corners, and with far better low-end torque and flexibility than might be expected from pure competition trim. Despite so much furniture hanging off the bodywork, it’s also reasonably flat through those corners, and it’s easy to see why this was a rally car that more or less did it all, regardless of terrain or circumstances – and if anything could sound better than the Stradale, this is it.
There was indeed one world the Stratos didn’t conquer, however. The Group 5 Stratos Turbo ‘Silhouette’ was an ill-fated attempt at converting the package to endurance racing. Two were built and, although our subject car won the 1976 Giro d’Italia (akin to the Tour de France, and more tarmac rally than enduro), not much else was accomplished. The short wheelbase simply wasn’t suitable for high straight-line speeds or the mega-horsepower provided by a lone KKK turbocharger the size of a jumbo pizza and Kugelfischer fuel injection. The gutsy Dino motor was touching 560 horses, and in a notoriously all-or-nothing fashion.
The sister car overheated and burned to the ground at Zeltweg, a total loss; the mighty Giro winner is here, warmed-up and waiting for a driver. It is quite frankly more than a bit daunting, and Hrabalek’s advice after towing the monster to life offers scant reassurance. ‘When you take off, the first thing you think is “a road Stratos is faster”… then suddenly the power comes on and the car rockets sideways almost as fast as forwards.’
Getting into the driver’s seat regardless, you can’t help noticing the door is only a gossamer skin of plastic and there’s no side bar on the rollcage, while the dominant item in there with you is a whacking, huge, double-extra-large throttle pedal. Nothing for it but to swallow hard and press the starter.
And nothing happens at all. No crank-over, no main power, not a warning light nor a needle-quiver. After wiggling the battery cables and relays and trying the booster box, the Turbo goes back in the trailer amid a welter of mixed emotions. And somehow the symbolism is apt. This was the last permutation of the original Stratos line, abandoned without full exploration and for reasons beyond its own abilities. Fiat had decided the mass-appeal 131 Abarth had PR value over the thoroughbred Lancia and pulled the plug on Stratos competition efforts pre-season in 1977. The great experiment was over; total production of the series had been only 492 units.
Or maybe the great experiment was only suspended for a while. It certainly wasn’t over for young Austrian designer Christian Hrabalek; the Stratos was what led him into automotive design in the first place, and it’s worth noting that when Chris initially showed the Fenomenon he was a few years shy of Marcello Gandini’s age when the Zero debuted.
Equally devoted to the Stratos ideal was German businessman Michael Stoschek, successful race and rally driver and owner of car component supplier Brose, and to him, the Fenomenon seemed the perfect basis for bringing the Lancia super-wedge back to life. Once again wheels started turning and, in 2008, Stoschek commissioned Pininfarina to turn Chris’s baby into a working car.
Final testing took place over the summer of 2010, and official handover of the New Stratos from the builders was only three weeks before this press launch. In addition to the obvious involvement of Chris and his design firm, Stoschek was a crucial influence in the car’s ultimate direction, and final detailing was by Pininfarina’s senior designer Luca Borgogno.
Like the old Stratos before it, New Stratos uses a Ferrari engine and gearbox, in this case from the potent 430 Scuderia, and it also borrows the Scuderia’s underlying chassis. What it does thereafter, however, is tremendously different, no doubt largely due to Stoschek’s hands-on Stratos rally experience.
Every system in the car has been modified to reflect the Stratos precepts of ‘small, powerful and nimble’; the engine got extra power, the diff ratio was lowered for better acceleration, the wheelbase was shortened to improve responsiveness and agility, and the complete suspension was reworked by ZF Sachs. Brose even produced clever electric windows that allow roll-up glass while retaining the helmet trays and still saving weight, and there’s a compact air-con unit to alleviate that nasty sun-baking problem.
Visually, the New Stratos is an incredible follow-on from the iconic original, intentionally keeping what Borgogno calls the ‘subliminal intimidation’ factor in its lines. The interior is admirably racing-simple, with analogue gauges, carbonfiber buckets, a retro-style instrument binnacle and mouse-fur dash, yet sufficiently modern ergonomics and accessories to make the car practical in a contemporary road environment.
Best of all, the driving is precisely what you’d want from a latter-day, evolved Stratos. Engine torque starts early; at 2000rpm it’s manageable and uncomplaining, and lasts well across the rev range. Top speed has been sacrificed to mind-altering mid-range thrust, just like in the old Stratos, and the traditional tendency of mid-engined, short-wheelbase cars to turn and bite at the ten-tenths limit (a notorious trait of the old Stratos, once that sweet-handling 90% was used up) is greatly reduced by the electronic traction and stability controls. New Stratos is eager and bold and tremendously quick, and very, very usable.
So yes, the Stratos is back, and with a spirit worthy of its namesake. Where it goes from here, however, is presently far from certain. The one current example is the property of Michael Stoschek, who has no great desire to become a car manufacturer. But a short run of additional Pininfarina production might arise if the demand is there, with pricing likely to be in the half-million euro range unless you have your own Scuderia donor handy. There is also fascinating talk of a GT2 racing project, and Chris Hrabalek has already made preliminary studies.
Whatever happens, though, the Stratos is an idea that just won’t go away, and as the Zero begat the Gandini and the following first generation, who’s to say the Fenomenon and the New Stratos won’t evolve a generation of their own? As the saying goes, keep watching this space.
Potential buyers can request purchase information through the ‘contact’ link of the New Stratos website, www.new-stratos.com.
Starting From Zero
Concept cars and their production offspring rarely share much beyond, well, a concept; about the only common ground between the Bertone Zero (left) and the Stratos was the idea of a mid-engined wedge. Ironically, though, the former vehicle actually contained more existing Lancia componentry than the latter: the engine, transmission and associated subframe for the Zero were lifted wholesale from a Fulvia 1600HF, bought secondhand by Nuccio Bertone from a friend to keep things hush-hush.
The rest of the car was another matter entirely. With no design target beyond setting off a bomb, it was a tiny aluminum doorstop, weighing only 710kg and, at 840mm tall (barely 33in), it stood well below the average driver’s belt buckle. Entrance was via the huge, almost horizontal tilt-up windscreen; the occupants lay prone, feet out in the car’s nose, with knees roughly along the front wheel centerline.
But it did indeed drive, and Bertone essentially sealed the deal when he motored it across town, through everyday Torino traffic, to show the assembled Lancia brass at company HQ. Legend says he entered the property by zipping straight under the front security gate, and if the legend really is merely legend, it still tells you volumes about the kind of car the Stratos has always been, right from Zero. Complacency was never in the design spec.
The Concept Reconceived
If Chris Hrabalek had gained no other notoriety in this life, he could still claim credit for possibly the most impressive final degree project in the history of higher education. His full-sized Fenomenon Stratos mock-up (left), the culmination of his studies at the Royal College of Art, was an effort worthy of professionals far beyond his experience: very obviously inspired by the Lancia pocket-supercar, while copying nothing outright.
Like the Bertone Zero and every other exercise in pure creativity, the Fenomenon naturally had some elements that maybe wouldn’t translate all that well into the real world; both doors, for example, hinged from one central pillar placed smack in the middle of the windscreen, and unlike the Zero, it wasn’t a runner, just an automotive talking point. Underneath, though, was some solid thinking; the design was planned around a Ferrari V8 and six-speed sequential gearbox, mounted in-line, covered in carbonfiber bodywork on an aluminum chassis.
Shown to the public at large in 2005 at Geneva and Frankfurt, it was an instant hit with the critics, Stratos fanciers, and the generally trend-spotting worldwide. It actually developed such an avant-garde international following as to feature in Japanese Manga. Most importantly, like the Zero nearly 40 years before, it caught the eye and captured the imagination of people who could help turn the concept into reality. Which is, after all, why they call them concept cars.