Friday, 14 December 2007

Classic - Lancia Stratos HF

Believe it or not, cheese has been instrumental in the design of many iconic and noteworthy cars over the years. Not just in the way that every Ford built before 1990 - and indeed every car ever built in Italy - have sills and strut tops the consistency of Emmental, but in that the good ol’ wedge shape of a nice portion of cheese has inspired a plethora of classics; the lovely Austin Princess (and its hideous son, the Ambassador), the Triumph TR7, the Bond Bug (so cheesy that it may well actually have been chiselled from a hunk of red Leicester), the Aston Martin Lagonda, the Lamborghini Countach, the TVR 280i, the Lotus Esprit… and, of course, the timeless Lancia Stratos.

This particular dairy treat has a unique claim to fame – it was the first car ever to have been specifically designed from scratch as a rally car. Prior to 1970, rally cars had always been based on production road cars such as the Mini and the Ford Escort, modified to suit the differing conditions of rally events by a dedicated works or privateer team, and this is still for the most part how it happens today. The idea behind the Stratos was one that was truly pioneering in its day, heralding a sea change in the way rallying machinery was developed. While homologation specials are rare and modern rally cars carry mainstream silhouettes, the ideas that Lancia brought to the fore altered rallying exponentially.

Appearing as a concept under the name of Stratos 0 in 1970, the Fulvia V4-powered wedge looked faintly ridiculous. Impressive, certainly, in a plasticky futuristic-in-the-seventies kind of way, but not wholly credible. It cleverly predicted, if not directly inspired, the shape of the Lamborghini Countach of 1974, but this wasn’t entirely logical: can you picture a Countach bouncing through a gravely, rock-strewn Welsh forest?

The finished product, the Stratos HF, was a much more sensible interpretation of the concept, although ‘sensible’ doesn’t by any means equate to ‘dull’. The car was an event then and it’s an event now; if you were to drive one down your local high street today there would be more than a few dropped jaws. The fact that the puny V4 was replaced by the powerplant from the recently discontinued Ferrari Dino 246 – a 2.4-litre V6, no less – added screaming potency to the lairy and purposeful styling.

Lancia were allowed to test prototypes in the 1972 and ’73 seasons in Group 5, with full homologation in 1974 allowing them to enter and, in the hands of rally legend Sandro Munari, win the championship for the next three years. The design evidently worked rather effectively.

The unstoppable Stratos unfortunately hit a political brick wall in 1976, however. Parent company Fiat, ever keen to create strife wherever possible, decided that due to certain internal conflicts they would be focusing their rallying efforts on the Fiat 131 Abarth. While the Stratos could still be competitive in the hands of privateers, it wasn’t easy to go toe-to-toe with the sheer might of Fiat’s budget. By 1981, the Stratos’ rally career was over.

The legacy lived on gloriously into the eighties, with the clinically insane properties of the little Lancia inspiring many of the central tenets of Group B rallying, which replaced Groups 4 & 5 in 1982. Teams continued to make ground-up homologation specials (the Ford RS200 and Lancia 037, for example), while also aping the purposeful, mid-engined, ultra-lightweight, possibly mentally ill format of the Stratos to create ever more astounding versions of existing models – see the Metro 6R4, Renault 5 Maxi Turbo and Peugeot 205 T16 to witness the utter, utter madness of it. Unfortunately, the series was cursed with numerous serious and often fatal accidents, finally being abandoned in 1986 when Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed in their Lancia Delta S4. An unfortunate end to the era.

But let’s not remember the Stratos for the tragedy of its legacy. It was a spectacular concept, singular of purpose and devastatingly effective. With only 492 of them ever leaving the factory, it’s a rare car indeed. Its vast wraparound windscreen, dinky roof spoiler and fat flared arches screamed functionality; the outlandish beauty of it merely a by-product of the genius of the design. The Stratos, quite simply, is the stuff of legend.