Open Menu
Open Menu

How Marcello Gandini almost singlehandedly created “the greatest rally weapon ever,” Lancia’s Stratos HF

Published in

Photo via Archivio Stile Bertone.

[Editor’s Note: Author Gautam Sen’s two-volume biography, Marcello Gandini: Maestro of Design, debuted to high praise and late last month won the Festival Automobile International’s Grand Prize for Most Beautiful Book. For this week’s Hemmings In-Depth, Mr. Sen graciously allowed us to excerpt a segment of the book on Gandini’s work on the Lancia Stratos HF.]

If the main purpose of the Lancia Stratos Zero concept prototype was to catch the attention of the people at Lancia it did not seem to happen at the 1970 edition of the Turin Auto Show – at least not officially. No one from Lancia, except motorsport boss Cesare Fiorio, came across and had a proper look at the space machine. The show closed by mid-November, the concept car went back to Bertone, the year ended, but there was no call, or reaction from Lancia.

It was some two months later, in February 1971 that Nuccio Bertone received a call from Lancia’s boss, Pier Ugo Gobbato. And on February 17, 1971, Bertone, accompanied by Beppe Panicco, who was heading communication for Carrozzeria Bertone, drove the Strato’s HF (Zero) prototype to Lancia’s head office, to officially present the car to Gobbato, his communication head Sandro Fiorio, and the latter’s son Cesare Fiorio, the ex-racer who was heading Lancia’s motorsport division, HF Squadra Corse, and who had made a successful rally car out of Lancia’s Fulvia Coupé.

Though the Fulvia Coupé Rallye HF was still winning a lot of rallies, it was clearly being outpaced by the Alpine Renault A110s and the Porsche 911s. Cesare Fiorio recognized that the days were indeed numbered for front-wheel-drive rally machines like the Mini and the Fulvia Coupé, and that it was time to develop a car specifically for rallying. He also realized that there was considerable limitation in deriving rally cars out of series production machines. Ford had indicated the way forward with the mid-engined GT70 project, which had its first competitive outing at the French Ronde Cévenole road race. And though Fiorio had no idea that the GT70 project would eventually be cancelled, he believed that if Lancia was to remain competitive in world rallying, then a similar purpose-built mid-engined rally car was a must. The Lancia Stratos Zero concept was, for Cesare Fiorio, heaven-sent indeed.

The prototype Lancia Stratos HF was initially painted white, before it began doing the shows repainted a bright day-glo red; probably the only time in automotive history that the aluminum-bodied hand built prototype had better fit and finish than the production version that followed. Photos via Archivio Stile Bertone.

With the rather noisy and dramatic entry that the Strato’s HF (Zero) made into the forecourt of Lancia’s Via San Paolo offices in Turin on that fateful day in February, and the discussions that ensued, Gobbato was convinced by Fiorio that the mid-engine route was the way to go. Soon thereafter, with the complicity of Fiat boss Umberto Agnelli, Bertone was given the green light to develop a mid-engine purpose-built rally car with the Lancia badging.

“One morning, Cesare Fiorio, with his father Sandro Fiorio, who was the head of public relations at Lancia, and a couple of other engineers, turned up at Bertone to discuss the specifics of how to turn the prototype Stratos into a rally car,” remembers Gandini. “But what must be the requirements of a rally car, is what I asked? It should be small, light and easy to handle, was Fiorio’s answer, in short. It was not easy, however, to really understand what they were specifying as no further details were provided.”

Without any precedent or any clarification, Gandini looked at the wheelbases of the two closest competitors as the starting point: the Alpine Renault’s wheelbase was 2.1 meters (83 inches) long, the Porsche 911 was 2.21 (87 inches) initially, but had grown to 2.27 (89 inches) with the launch of the Targa in 1968. Taking a mid-way point at 2.16 meters (85 inches) was the first decision that Gandini made, based on the feedback the designer had received from Lancia’s veteran engineer Francesco De Virgilio who had proposed 2.15 meters. “The very short wheelbases of the Alpine and the Porsches were seen as advantages that gave these cars very good cornering abilities and the possibility of rapidly changing directions,” explained Gandini, “and their small size ensured that there were fewer chances of clipping a hedge or a wall at the edge of the typically narrow rally routes.”

Unlike the Alpine or the Porsche, the powertrain was going to be located ahead of the rear axle line, not behind, as was the case with the French and the German cars. Of course, these two veterans were 2+2 coupés, whereas Lancia’s rally machine needed enough space for a pilot and his navigator, sans a vestigial rear bench. But what was going to be the powertrain? That was not clear: Lancia’s narrow-angle 1.6 V-4 could be a possibility, or the more powerful ‘2000’ that was being developed for the new Beta family perhaps, or what about the V6 from fellow-Fiat-company Ferrari?

“There was not much that was told to us, and knowing that it had to be a lightweight and highly maneuverable was not enough,” stated Gandini. “Where and what was the engine going to be? What about the frame? Designing a car without knowing the specifics of the mechanicals was a rather unhappy situation. So we worked with a couple of solutions in mind. As Ferrari did not seem interested in giving their V-6, Lancia was not able to provide any drawings.” With the production of the Dino 246 GT heading for a phase out, to be replaced by the V-8-engined 308 family, Enzo Ferrari initially was not too keen to supply Lancia with his 2.4 engine. But then talks with Citroën-Maserati for its V-6 (as Fiat and Citroën were exploring a merger at that time) prompted Ferrari to agree to the supply of 500-odd engines, enough for the minimum volume needed to homologate Lancia’s new car to Group 4 regulations.

(Top) Rendering of the prototype Stratos HF from the period. (Bottom left) Side elevation technical drawing of the Stratos that shows the compact packaging. To make servicing easy, Gandini opted for Miura-style clamshells for the front and rear ends. Images via Archivio Stile Bertone. (Bottom right) A rare color rendering of the prototype Stratos with the rally version in the background by Marcello Gandini himself, but done in recent years. Gautam Sen.

But before the agreement with Ferrari came through (on December 14, 1972, to be exact, after the unveiling of the prototype), Gandini had to finalize the design of the car. With no clear decision and much dithering between the 16-valve twin-cam in-line four that Abarth had been developing, versus Ferrari’s V-6, Gandini proceeded to design the chassis, with a clear rectangular bay left for the engine, on and ahead of the rear axle line. The chassis was initially conceptualized by Gandini, having, over the years, gained enough experience and confidence in developing one from basic principles, and then refined by Lancia engineer Francesco Faleo into a very strong semi-monocoque steel structure made up of box-section members. It consisted of a central cell made up of the floor, the toeboard, the front and the rear bulkheads, the roof and the door supports. The mountings for the front suspensions (independent double wishbones), the steering system and the radiator were ahead of this cell and the rear suspension and engine-transmission combination were welded to the rear bulkhead.

All this was designed and ready before the selection of the engine was finalized, yet when the Dino’s V-6 engine was eventually installed into the bay, it fit like a glove. How did that happen? Gandini continues the story: “At that time I was designing the Ferrari 308 GT4 too, and the Dino V-6 was under consideration at the beginning. We had one unit to proceed with the project. It is true that Lancia had not yet given the drawings, but I had at my disposal a Dino V-6 for figuring out the dimensions!”

Once the chassis and packaging issues had been addressed, Gandini concentrated on the design of the car, which, to put it mildly, was stunning. The overall length had to remain short and the prototype was just 3.67 meters (144.5 inches) long (Alpine’s A110 was 3.85 meters/152 inches and the Porsche 911 had grown to well over four meters, or 163 inches). Overall height too was very low – at under 1.1 meters/43 inches, despite a very pronounced ground clearance.

Photos via Artcurial.

Short upswept overhangs ensured an impressive angle of approach and departure, but most striking was the shape itself. Aggressive, short, muscular, yet chunky, the lower part of the body was a heavy-set wedge, with a lighter turret-top greenhouse atop, marked out by a striking glass section made up of the deep windscreen, which wrapped around to upswept side windows, creating a helmet-visor-like profile for the rally driver-gladiator, all set to attack the competition.

Initially painted white and unveiled at the 1971 Turin Show, the prototype of the production version of the Lancia Stratos HF was a menacing, yet purposeful design that borrowed certain elements such as the bonnet-fender bulges and the beltline from the Autobianchi A112 Runabout, yet had a personality all its own.

Photos via Artcurial.

A dozen longitudinal vents on the bonnet extracted hot air passing through the radiator; another set of vents aft of the flat rear screen were for cooling the engine. At the front the fog lamps and indicators were integrated into single covered units and the rear was dominated by a pair of large symmetrical round lamp-indicator ensembles. There were no bumpers.

Repainted a matte day-glo orangish-red (as seen on the cover of the Automobile Club of Italy’s World Cars 1972, right), the prototype spawned a second version. The first had the Ferrari V-6, the second, the Abarth-developed ‘2000’, which actually displaced 1840cc (112 cubic inches). Though the Ferrari engine initially developed 180bhp, the ‘production’ street legal Stratos Stradale was eventually doing about 190bhp, Whereas the Abarth was developing between 190 and 210bhp straight away, and was “significantly lighter, so was probably a better powerpack for the Stratos,” believes Gandini. But then having a Ferrari engine had its ‘marketing’ advantages.

Testing began on both the prototypes, particularly the second Abarth-engined version, and it was obvious that the car needed some serious work, to harness its real potential. More for packaging reasons and for ease of engine and gearbox access, the double wishbones at the rear were discarded in favor of space-saving MacPherson struts designed by Lancia engineer Nicola Materazzi. Giampaolo Dallara, ex-Lamborghini and ex-De Tomaso, had just started his independent engineering consulting firm, and he was roped in to help, along with Lancia’s Giovanni Tonti and development test driver and ex-F1 racer, Mike Parkes. According to Giampaolo Dallara, “the racing version of the rear suspension had different pick-up points, but the same layout,” so that rapid adjustments could be made for varying rally terrains.

With the detailed engineering changes, the Stratos’ wheelbase went up to 2.18 meters (86 inches) and the overall length to 3.71 meters (146 inches). The overall height increased as well, but to a still incredibly low 1.11 meters (44 inches).

While the car was yet to be sorted out, the second prototype was entered for the Tour de Corse in November 1972, where it dropped out. The Stratos’ first victory was in the Firestone rally, in Spain, in April 1973. On May 15, a Stratos finished second at the Targa Florio, and on September 23, won the Tour de France Auto, its first important victory. After that, there was no looking back.

Photo via Archivio Stile Bertone.

In all, the Stratos took on 15 events in 1974 and the year ended with two third place, two seconds and 10 victories!

From 1974 onwards the Lancia Stratos dominated the world of rallying and road racing, winning the World Rally Championship that year, and then again in 1975 and in 1976, and would have, in all likelihood, kept winning, if it was not ‘forcibly retired’ to make way for the Fiat Abarth 131 Rally.

Despite more powerful and more modern competition the Stratos remained a force to be reckoned with until 1981, when it won the Tour de Corse for the last time.

Winner of 33 rallies with the Stratos, ace Frenchman Bernard Darniche poses with his rally machine. Photo via Archives Christian Descombes.

Several legendary drivers were synonymous with the Stratos: Italian Sandro Munari was associated with the car since the beginning, and legend has it that the car was designed to fit him. He took seven of the Stratos’ 18 WRC wins, as well as several victories in other events. Swedish driver extraordinaire Björn Waldegård won three WRCs with the Stratos, Finnish Markku Alén and Frenchman Jean-Claude Andruet one each, and the other French star Bernard Darniche four, amongst his amazing run of 33 victories in the Stratos over an eight-year period.

Though Bertone began producing the street legal version of the Stratos, the Stradale, from October 30, 1973, the car was finally homologated only by October 1, 1974. As the requirement for homologation was changed to a minimum production run of 400 cars (vis-à-vis 500 earlier) in 1974, Bertone stopped making them by April 8, 1976, before the 500 number had been reached. Records are not very clear, but between 457 and 492 Stratos may have been produced; all in left-hand-drive form.

Despite the amazing competition success, the Stratos was a terrible commercial failure. Lancia managed to sell only 250 cars by 1978. Price-wise it was not all that expensive, costing roughly the same as a Porsche 911 S. Rising fuel prices, higher taxes on powerful cars and the fact that the Stratos was certified only for Italy, Germany, Belgium and France may have restricted its appeal. For the USA, for example, standards of crash tests were not met as the Stratos had no bumpers. Apparently new cars could be bought as late as 1982 directly from the factory.

In fact, Robert Cumberford remembers, “reading about a warehouse collapse in Italy in CAR magazine sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, showing photos of a lot of Stratos crushed in the collapse. The article suggested that the cars were placed there in full knowledge that the building was unsafe, so that insurance could be collected and they would not have to try to sell the cars.”

Photo via Archivio Stile Bertone.

Yet there is no denying that the Lancia Stratos was a huge success in what it set out to do and is, arguably, the greatest rally weapon ever. In the 1970s if rallying was seen to be almost as big and as popular as Formula One, it was thanks to the glamour associated with one particular car, the Lancia Stratos. The Stratos was “a supercar in every way, in looks, in success and even in failure, and its existence as a showpiece of power and glamour has done more than anything to bring rallying to the forefront of motorsport,” wrote Kevin Blick, in the December 16, 1978 issue of Autocar magazine.

The 1978 annual of Sports Car Graphic Year Book described the Stratos’ design as: “The profile is all combat and armor and wings and shutters, and the glass treatment is probably the best design stroke on the car, a replication of the immortal B-17 bomber.”

In the November 1979 issue of Sports Car World, Ian Fraser asserts that the Stratos “represents a purity of purpose that is unsurpassed,” and concluded by saying that the car was a “treasure rather than a jewel, it is most unlikely that the Lancia name will ever appear on such a car again.”

Karl Ludvigsen, writing for Thoroughbred & Classic Cars, was bewitched by the Stratos too: “Both inside and outside the imaginative flair of its design is so bold, so powerful that it doesn’t need padding and chrome strips to give an impression of craftsmanship and care. The bones are showing, as they do under the cheeks of a beautiful woman, and they are pleasing to see.”

Not only was the Stratos a brilliant engineering marvel, but one of the most striking cars ever designed, a car that confirmed the genius of Marcello Gandini, as a designer, a stylist and an ‘engineer’, perhaps the most complete creator of automobiles extraordinaire.

To purchase a copy of Gautam Sen’s Marcello Gandini: Maestro of Design, visit