The seventies brought us things like bell bottom jeans, the Village People, and of course, a slimy-haired John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. In the car world, it was a time where muscle cars were well and truly in their element. Whilst Detroit was reveling, there was also a revolution going on, but one that would blow the lid off car design norms. It was all happening in the house of Bertone and the car in question was poised to re-write history in the worlds of car design and Rallying. It was, of course, the revolutionary Lancia Stratos HF.
With its striking good looks, the car was a unique design that was unparalleled at the time. What also made it special was the fact that it was built from the ground up for one purpose: to win the World Rally Championship. It is very seldom that you come across cars that are designed as race cars and then turned into road cars – usually it’s the other way around. Other examples that share this rare trait include the Maserati MC12 and Mercedes CLK GTR. The road going version was only produced so that homologation criteria could be met in order for it to enter the Group 4 class of the Rally World Championship. And for that reason, like the Maserati and Mercedes, it had quite a few shortcomings in the real world. Its performance wasn’t one of them – largely due to the mid–mounted Ferrari V6 engine form the Dino - after all Ferrari was owned by Fiat and the Stratos was developed as a race car.
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This car has fans that love the way it looks and you can’t blame them. The Bertone design transformed the way car design perceptions. With its combination of hard and angular shapes that were fused with smooth, flowing lines, it created something never before seen in the world. The “flying wedge,” as it was nicknamed, ensured this car was instantly recognizable. The characteristic wedge-shaped front was aerodynamic and offered minimal air resistance at speed. Wide arches gave it some presence and so did the functional roof spoiler and ducktail rear wing. The roof spoiler actually channeled air into the engine intakes and was strong enough to function as a roll bar when drivers got it wrong. From the side, it was sleek and all ‘70s porn star with five spoke wheels and lines to die for. A big part of the overall look was thanks to its low height of just over a meter and it was lightweight thanks to plastic and fiberglass bodywork. Another first was the crescent-shaped windscreen that wrapped around the cockpit for great frontal visibility- a must for rally racing as you’re sideways for half the course. Sadly the same can’t be said for the rear visibility which was pretty much non existent, but again not a necessary feature of a rally car. The large round taillights and dual exhaust gave other drivers a something pretty to look as it disappeared down the road. The front and rear hoods were clamshell-style items, opening them gave easy access for servicing and repairs between rally stages.
The racing needs were superbly catered for in the cockpit of the Stratos, down to the addition of helmet compartments for both driver and passenger/navigator. It took the best efforts of a yoga master to be able to get in and out of the bucket seats and you needed two legs to operate the clutch. It was cramped – two people was a squeeze -and because of the large windscreen and bad air circulation it got hot very quickly. The dials and gauges were comprehensive whereas the controls were very basic to minimize clutter in the small space. The cooling system was placed in the nose of the car along with the spare wheel meaning there was no luggage space at all – but who said fast had to be practical.
Only 492 examples were built – some say even fewer, just enough to meet homologation requirements. Notoriously twitchy down to that ultra-short wheelbase, the Stratos demanded a special type of driver to get the best out of it. Sandro Munari is considered god today, thanks to his superb skill and engineering-minded setup of the Stratos. That car was built around him, for him to win races with. Munari’s 13 victories netted him a hat-trick of World Rally titles from ‘75 through ‘77. The works Stratos also took the manufacturers title from ’74 to ’76 – a feat that was a world first. In fact the car was so successful, it forced other manufacturers to withdraw from the Championship. The Stratos captured the hearts of rally fans like no other, especially after Bjorn Waldegard ran much of the ’75 RAC Rally with no rear bodywork. He was excluded for having no rear lights or numberplate, but rear body sections often mysteriously used to fall off after that – and it was interesting that there was usually another pair of lights mounted on the chassis in case that happened again - Italian problem solving at its finest. Sadly internal politics at Fiat meant the Stratos had to give way to the Fiat 131 Abarth which was chosen to further the Rally cause on the manufacturers’ behalf. Without a works budget, it was too expensive to race the Stratos anymore, although a few private teams stayed on and still enjoyed successes.
The poke from the 2.4 liter Ferrari V6 borrowed from the Dino, came in at a decent 190hp with 203lbft of torque. For all we care it could have made 19hp and we would have still loved it because of its glorious noise. It was pure pleasure. Being mid mounted, it offered exceptional weight distribution and coupled to the short wheelbase, made changing direction effortless. Due to cause and effect, the short wheel base also meant it was a snappy handler, and at times, more than a handful. The car weighed just 980kg, putting the power to weight ratio at a decent 197hp per tonne. This equated to a 0-60 time of 7 seconds and a top speed of 143mph. Drive was to the rear wheels through a five speed manual gearbox. The car even featured two fuel tanks mounted to either side of the engine and used as ballast. Even the chassis was adjustable. The car handled well up until the limit, where things got hairy very quickly and it also had a tendency of suddenly oversteering and swapping ends. Never the less it was, and still is, an awesome machine.
You can pick up a good HF model for around $90,000 to $125,000 and if you have to ask about servicing and maintenance, then you shouldn’t even be thinking of buying one.