It is curious that a car originally conceived as a bodywork designers' dream project should end up becoming a World Rally Champion, but it happened in the 1970s to the Lancia Stratos.
The car which first appeared in competition in Corsica in 1972 turned out to become one of the sport's most versatile competition vehicles ever designed.
When it first appeared on the world championship scene in 1974 it was acclaimed as the first rally homologation special, but it later went down in history as a car much more extraordinary than that.
It was, in the minds of many, quite the most evocative rally car of all time. It was a lighthouse in a sport which was looking for a direction to go. It was a project that could only have come out of Italy.
DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT
The Stratos was first seen in public at the 1970 Turin motor show, heralded as the latest concept car from Bertone. By early January the next year there were deep discussions about its potential commercial applications at Lancia. Within a month the company had commissioned the project to proceed on a production basis.
To this end, the first and most important question was choosing a power unit that would be the best for sport. The initial Stratos concept car had been powered by a Fulvia 1600 engine, but rallies at that time had well established that such an engine would not be powerful enough to be successful.
Eventually it was decided to ask Ferrari if quantities of the V6 Dino engine could be acquired to serve as the production power unit.
There is a story that Cesare Fiorio, then the Lancia competition manager and a fervent agent in pushing the rally car project onwards, had earlier acquired a couple of Dino cars and asked his team drivers to see how the Dinos could nearly achieve the same times over a Monte Carlo test as the Renault Alpines, then the benchmark in rallying.
The V6 unit was a bold and innovative step. A V6 format engine had seldom been used in rallying, before or since.
The layout for the production sports car was taking shape. Before the Dino 246 ("2.4 litres, six cylinder") was accepted as the engine for the Stratos, a 2-litre Fiat 132 double overhead camshaft engine was initially planned, though the car was only ever produced with the Ferrari engine.
In any case, the engine would be mounted transversely behind the crew and mated to the 246GT power train. This layout gave a 60% weight bias over the rear driven wheels and this offered considerable promise for competition purposes.
Originally the car was designed with double wishbone suspension all round, but soon the decision was taken to adopt MacPherson struts at the rear, in order to maximise the wheel travel. The bodywork initially was produced in aluminium, but when the time came for production this was changed to glass fibre.
The car was designed in every little detail for successful rally operation. The front and rear panels could be removed in seconds to offer easy access to parts beneath. The steel chassis was immensely strong, and enabled the car to run just as effectively in asphalt or gravel rally tune.
The end result was a most attractive and exciting car. Lancia's team manager Cesare Fiorio was delighted, it was a project which rewarded his efforts in running the team.
"The one thing which surprised everyone the first time they saw the car was how small it was. The overall length of the car was 135mm shorter than the Renault Alpine A110, for example.
“In the pictures it looked so aggressive that everyone assumes it was big! This small size seemed to be ideal. Asphalt rally roads were always twisty, and if it is easy to drive on small roads it should be quite adaptable in all sorts of conditions.
“This was the first time a car had been built on rally driving principles. Normally you start with a production car and adapt it for competition. This time it was the other way round".
At this time the Lancia rally team was still having to use the underpowered Fulvia in competition, though they had scored with this car a most significant victory on the 1972 Monte Carlo Rally, the final major win for this well loved, front-wheel drive machine.
There was, however, considerable pressure for Lancia to have a new rally car, especially in view of the never-ending challenge to their reputation from their then-rival Fiat team, who planned to continue rally competition with the 124 sports cars.
The rally version Stratos was then shown at the 1971 Turin Motor Show and the rush was on to get the car to the special stages.
In the early ‘70s it was not necessary to run homologated cars in rally championship events, which meant the team could gain competition experience with the car before the final production design was settled.
Leading people involved in the development of this project were Gianpaolo Dallara, chassis and suspension engineer who later left Lancia and went to Iso. He was replaced by the Englishman Mike Parkes, the former Formula 1 driver who was previously an engineer with Rootes in Britain.
Claudio Maglioli, brother of Formula 1 driver Umberto, was the development test driver.
Production was now under way, the car was eventually homologated into Group 4 in October 1974, in time for the Sanremo Rally.
While this brought joy for the rally team it brought more gloom for the factory. The company was affected by seriously disadvantageous tax changes in Italy, which deterred sales.
It was not till 1978 that the last of the new Stratos cars was finally sold by the factory. Potential customers were further deterred from ownership in various countries as the car was often not homologated for street use registration.
The Stratos competition story started at the Tour de Corse in 1972. The car retired with suspension trouble and indeed on another event that year, the Mediterranean Rally in South Spain, the car retired for the same reason.
The inaugural World Rally Championship began in 1973, and one of the main tenets of the series was the need to have competing cars homologated as series production cars.
While production was proceeding, Lancia continued learning about the Stratos in competition. They entered Sandro Munari in various rounds of the European championship in either Fulvias or Stratos cars (he became European champion that season), while Jean-Claude Andruet had access to a Stratos for selected national French rallies as well.
The first Stratos victory came in April, again in Spain, when Munari won the Firestone Rally. At this time rallying was not the only activity which interested Lancia. The Stratos was also being used in long distance sports car races.
Shortly after the Firestone Rally, Andruet finished second in the Targa Florio race, while the first big success for the Stratos was Munari's victory in the 1973 Tour de France, which encompassed races and stages.
Until now the cars had been fitted with 12-valve engines, but for the 1973 Giro d'Italia, Andruet's car was fitted with a 24-valve version, but it crashed and did not finish.
1974 was for Lancia the season of transition in rallying. The Fulvia started off as the company's rally championship contender, though Andruet again ran a Stratos on certain French events, while Munari entered various events in Italy as well.
While the fuel crisis was disrupting the 1974 international sporting calendar, Lancia themselves were trying to regularise their competition activities. They had no fewer than three types of rally car at their disposal, the old Fulvia, the revolutionary Stratos and the front-drive Beta Coupe, which was a reserve item in case all else failed...
Meanwhile, the company kept pushing out their technical horizons. They won the Targa Florio outright with a car driven by Gerard Larrousse and Amilcare Ballestrieri.
At the 1974 Tour de France they entered a turbocharged version of the Stratos, but this suffered from a catalogue of disasters, starting with the car falling off its transporter!
As homologation and then Sanremo approached, Lancia policies became a little more defined. The team would major on rallying with the 12-valve Stratos, although the team were also entering Beta Coupe cars with both eight and 16-valve engines in support.
There was a mad rush at the end of the 1974 season. Of the eight qualifying events in the World series, five were held between October and December, including two in North America.
Munari's Stratos won the first two, but retired from the third after aggravation with the local law enforcement officers. The team finished third on the fourth (co-driven, on that occasion, by Piero Sodano, notwithstanding going off the road backwards - in top gear) and Andruet won the fifth.
Lancia won the title, the Stratos had within weeks become an icon of the sport and a whole new world began for Lancia.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
For 1975 the most visible change was the colour of the rally cars. From the red and white of Marlboro now came the green and white of Alitalia. The years 1975-77 were the Alitalia generation, the classic years of the Stratos in competition.
So much happened, so many rallies were won, there was so much emotion, mostly of joy, but sadly, also of tragedy.
The wild days of experimental innovation were now behind them. The technical story now came firmly under the umbrella of rally homologation, though some circuit events where relative technical freedom still existed, were tackled.
The 24-valve version was first used on a championship rally by Munari at the 1975 Sanremo. This engine produced about 40bhp more than the 12-valve version of the day, and two such cars were entered on the RAC Rally.
After earlier delays, Bjorn Waldegard scored an amazing number of fastest stage times, enthralling the crowds by driving for a long while without its rear bodywork.
By 1976 it was usual, though not exclusive, for the official factory cars to run 24-valve engines. Turbo Stratoses were still active on the race tracks, even competing with private teams at Le Mans 24 Hours in 1976 and 1977, while a new sport was evolving with requirements for high performance competition cars.
Rallycross brought new customers to the doors of the Lancia Corse department. Lancias were in their day the most powerful rally cars in the sport. The original 12v car in 1972 produced about 230bhp, going up to about 270 in 1978, while the 24v versions usually ran at 280bhp and with fuel injection could reach 330bhp.
The turbo circuit cars started at around 350bhp, normally reaching up to about 480bhp.
1976 was a year of high tension in the team, culminating when the Swedish driver, Bjorn Waldegard, walked out after overcoming team orders aimed at helping Munari to win the Sanremo Rally. He went immediately to Ford, where he stayed till the end of the '70s.
There were two tragic accidents around this time. In the Italian championship Valli Piacentine Rally in July 1976, Mauro Pregliasco's Stratos left the road and caught fire. He was able to escape with burns, but his co-driver Angelo Garzoglio died.
Later there was an accident when the Spanish champion, Jorge de Bagration, crashed and his co-driver, Manuel Barbeito, died in the impact.
1976 was also to be the year of Lancia's third successive manufacturers' title.
The 1977 season started with a hat-trick win at Monte Carlo for Munari, but this was the car's only World rally win of the season. The year ended, however, with Munari being awarded the inaugural FIA Cup for Drivers, a trial run for the forthcoming Drivers' World Championship.
The instruction to Lancia for 1977 was to concentrate on rallies of high individual publicity, but the steam was going out of the Stratos project. In August that year Mike Parkes, who quietly was the inspiration behind a lot of Stratos development, died in a road accident in Italy.
Then came new FIA technical regulations for 1978. It was no longer permitted to fit four-valve cylinder heads to engines produced only with two valves, multi-plate clutches were banned and regular flywheels had to be fitted.
Although in 1977 they had fought against each other, for the 1978 season the Fiat Group, which now encompassed Lancia, dictated that the Fiat cars, albeit run side by side out of the Abarth factory with the Lancias, would be given the commercial attention in rallying.
Fiat sought a different objective in rallying. Their company were now using cars which promoted a specific company model (the 131 Mirafiori) rather than a company image in general, as happened with Lancia and had happened with the 124 sports cars.
Stratos cars were still winning even when run independently. Tony Carello pursued and won the 1978 European program, taking over where Bernard Darniche had left off after the Chardonnet campaign in 1976 and 1977, this time running in Pirelli colours. Also in Pirelli colours, Markku Alen won Sanremo in 1978.
A private Italian Jolly Club Lancia won Sanremo in 1979, the Chardonnet team won Monte Carlo and Corsica that year as well, and finally, Darniche won the Tour de Corse in 1981!
Outside the world rally championships the Stratos went from strength to strength. The most successful Stratos driver had to be Bernard Darniche, a driver who hardly ever drove a full works car.
Rally fans will best remember his victory on the final stage of the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally at the wheel of his Chardonet car. This was when he made his legendary attack on the final stage, over the Col du Turini, when the Ford team had ordered former Lancia driver Waldegard to drive cautiously and so be 'sure' of victory. Waldegard lost by six seconds.
Astonishing stories had become customary in the Chardonnet camp. The team was run by the French Lancia importer who had won the European Rally Championship with Bernard in 1976 and 1977, entering an amazing number of events in the process.
To his personal belief, Andre Chardonnet knows his team won no fewer than 30 in all, including Monte Carlo.
In one particular four-week period, Darniche won four rallies in four different countries, in France, Italy, Belgium and Spain.
"Bernard did 49 rallies with our Stratos cars. He only retired twice, once because of alternator failure, the other because of a fault in the ignition pack," Chardonnet remembers.
Everywhere they went, Stratos cars served as a dream factor, and none more so than when the cars were run in eastern Europe, then still under Communist control. A team based in Poland, which contested the European championship, was run by Andrzej Jaroszewicz, the son of the Prime Minister.
Three cars were supplied through the Polski Fiat connection to the FSO rally factory in Warsaw, with Jaroszewicz enjoying the attention his lurid cars offered in what was then a drab Communist country. This program was less successful as that of Chardonnet and was full of Communist mystery.
In the end one of these cars was repatriated to Italy, while the other two had been completely wrecked in action. Sufficient engine, transmission and suspension parts were salvaged to be installed into a special circuit racing Polonez, which is still proudly exhibited in a technical museum in Warsaw.
The remains of the other cars are widely rumoured to have been buried underground beneath the FSO factory.
The Stratos was not the most successful Lancia competition car, because that honour went without question to the Group A Delta cars in the late '80s and early '90s.
It was, however, a car which captured the thrill of rallying, pointed the way to the future and created a lot of fun on the way.
It is difficult to assess what made the car so successful. It may not have been the car at all, but the brains of the people behind it. Between the machinery and the people, the Stratos project summed up Italian motorsport in a most representative way.
It could only have happened in Italy.
Cars which were good at racing and rallying
The Lancia Stratos design is arguably the most widely successful competition car, capable of success not only in championship rallies but long distance races as well.
But actual cars which tried to tackle major events in both domains are few and far between - and as for actual cars which won at both, that must be something more rare than ever.
One of the strange factors with the Stratos is that when one particular car tackled both types of event, it was seldom lucky in both!
One particular car was chassis 1513 (does that number tell a story?) which won the Targa Florio race in 1974, but never finished any rally it tackled for the factory.
It was then sold to an English Lancia dealer (Chequered Flag) and finally was burned out in an accident in 1975 in Wales.
Lancias were not unique in this all-rounder capability. I remember once competing in a Datsun 260Z on a British international rally (but not finishing) and then one year later it went to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it finished the course.
In earlier days many Grand Touring cars were capable of competing in both disciplines, but winning in both - that is a different matter!
Nowadays sports cars are not eligible for international rallying, so the chances of such versatility are far more remote.
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