Mighty Maverick

It took the combined talents of Bertone, Lancia, and Ferrari to create one of Italy’s most iconic—and idiosyncratic—sports cars: the Stratos.

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October 21, 2021

The two executives comparing notes in the back seat of the Lancia, speeding east on the Autostrada from Turin to Maranello, were on one of the toughest missions they had ever attempted. But Cesare Fiorio and Pierugo Gobbato had no choice, as Enzo Ferrari had the one, the only, engine they needed if they were to build a new, rally-winning car: the Lancia Stratos.

Between them, Fiorio and Gobbato carried with them much of the modern tradition of Italian motor sports. The younger Fiorio—intense, with dark curly hair and striking aquiline good looks—was a second-generation Lancia executive. His father, Sandro Fiorio, began competing in Lancia cars in 1951, and rallied successfully in the immortal Lancia B20 coupe through the 1950s.

When Lancia looked for a man to head its press office, the genial Sandro was an obvious choice. He gave the Turin company a proud global profile out of all proportion to its modest production. He also endowed his son Cesare with a keen interest in cars and racing. In 1961, Cesare Fiorio was the winner of the hotly contested 1,100-cc class of the Italian GT Championship in his Zagato-bodied Appia. From that stepping stone, he and a cadre of friends formed the HF Squadra Corse to race Lancias—HF standing for the “High Fidelity” that Lancia owners showed their marque.

Fiorio’s stewardship of the HF Squadra Corse led, in 1965, to its absorption by Lancia as its official race and rally preparation center. In 1969, Lancia in turn was assimilated by Fiat (whose head, Gianni Agnelli, had been a school friend of Sandro Fiorio), which led to the presence in the back seat of the speeding Lancia of the second man, Pierugo Gobbato.

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Ferrari supplied Dino 2.4-liter V6 engine to power the Stratos.

Pierugo was the son of Ugo Gobbato, a hugely experienced and capable engineering and production expert who had been chosen to lead Alfa Romeo when it collapsed into state ownership in 1933. Enzo Ferrari, who ran the independent scuderia that raced Alfas, initially welcomed Gobbato’s new broom at the Milan firm, but then saw his team brought under Alfa’s umbrella as part of Gobbato’s streamlining of the company. [We told this tale in last issue’s “The Wilderness Years.”—Ed.]

One of Gobbato’s six children, Pierugo was only 19 in 1937 when he raced a Fiat 508 Sport in the Mille Miglia for Scuderia Ferrari. Teamed with Mario Camellini, he made it to Rome but didn’t reach the finish. Captivated by the spell of this great race, young Gobbato drove a Lancia to 37th place overall in 1938, with Enrico Nardi loaned to him as riding mechanic by Enzo Ferrari.

After the war, Pierugo, also an engineer, made a career with Fiat. Then, in 1965, Enzo Ferrari, whose company was in rough waters, asked Fiat to loan him his former driver as managing director to help steady his ship. The tall, balding, elegant Pierugo happily renewed this link with his brief racing career of the 1930s. In 1969, however, Fiat needed Gobbato back, as it had just bought Lancia and needed a skilled and experienced executive to run it.

But two years later, in 1971, Gobbato, along with Fiorio, was speeding back to Maranello to ask his own favor of Ferrari. Although Enzo’s company was also under the Fiat wing, it was still run autonomously. Fiat people were extra-careful under these circumstances to avoid aggravating the “sorcerer of Modena,” who still hurled a mean lightning bolt. But the favor needed to be asked if Lancia was to succeed in rallying.

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Rally driver Sandro Munari (left) and Lancia executive Cesare Fiorio, circa 1975.

UNDER THE DIRECTION of Cesare Fiorio—promoted to head Lancia’s marketing but still looking after the Lancia Squadra Corse—in the late 1960s Lancia had plunged into rallying with its plucky front-wheel-drive V-4 Fulvia coupes. While the water was welcoming at first, by early 1971 the team was swimming upstream.

The specialized Alpine-Renaults were getting stronger, as were the Porsches. Fiat was also active in rallying with its 124 Abarth, and Ford’s Stuart Turner had shown the special mid-engined GT70 he was threatening to manufacture in a batch of 500 within 12 months so he could qualify it to enter rallies as a Group 4 Special Grand Touring car.

Against such rivals, Fiorio and Gobbato knew they’d stand no chance with the Fulvia, no matter how heavily modified. To stay competitive, they’d have to design and manufacture a completely new car. Starting from scratch provided a rare opportunity, Fiorio realized, so he convened a conclave of his drivers, mechanics, and engineers to ask what they personally wanted in their ideal rally car.

“First I had a meeting to introduce the idea, to ask them what they thought,” he recalled. “Then we had another meeting to hear what their ideas were, to develop them further. Finally, I synthesized everything in a cahier de charge, a document that showed what was needed. It was quite a big book, 100 or more pages.”

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Fiorio’s colleagues mentioned such points as small size, good visibility, an erect seating position, and good access to the mechanical elements for changes and repairs.

In the meantime, his men had been testing a car made by sister Fiat firm Ferrari, the Dino 246 GT. With its mid-mounted transverse 2.4-liter V6 engine and five-speed transaxle, the 246 showed some promise but was too long, too low, and too heavy to perform well on the twisty, loose-surfaced roads on which World Championship rallies were run. Nor was its tubular frame thought rugged enough.

Its engine was another matter. The Dino V6 measured 2,418 cc (92.5 × 60.0 mm) with twin-cam heads of aluminum on a cast-iron block and triple twin-throat 40-mm Weber carburetors. Developing 190 bhp at 7,000 rpm, it revved easily to 8,000, which guaranteed the presence of much more power in race-tuned form.

Fiorio set his heart on using the Dino engine in his new car. The first hurdle was the easy one: “When I proposed it to Mr. Gobbato, he immediately thought it was a good idea,” he recalled. “But he and I were completely alone on this project. That was the biggest problem we had. On the Fiat side, they just didn’t want to know about it. Many in Fiat were absolutely against it. They were in motor sports too, and they feared that we might have something very good.”

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Thus, the fact that Fiat had helped Ferrari create the Dino V6 engine in the first place, so that Ferrari could use it in Formula 2 racing, couldn’t be used as leverage to get the engine. Nor could Fiat’s 90-percent ownership of the road-car side of Ferrari, which made the Dino cars and engines. There was nothing for it but to approach Enzo Ferrari personally and ask for his cooperation.

Arriving in Maranello, Fiorio and Gobbato didn’t have to wait long in the infamous “green room” before being received by Ferrari. They set out their plans and made their request for at least 500 Ferrari-made engines that would power a non-Ferrari that didn’t yet exist.

It was significant that Lancia was asking. In 1955, the company had sustained Ferrari’s racing efforts by giving him a complete Grand Prix team as well as the technical services of the great Vittorio Jano, who had helped create the Dino V6 engine which Lancia was now asking to borrow back.

“This was the difficult part of the whole project,” said Fiorio, “to convince Ferrari to give us the engine. But on the spot he agreed. Ferrari wasn’t one to delay a decision like that. It was a nice day, and on the way back, coming back with a positive answer, we really felt great. It was very important to us. Of course after that it got quite complicated!”

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Author Ludvigsen once owned this Stratos, which Bertone custom-painted for him.

Timing was on their side, because Ferrari’s Dino V6 models, which had been introduced in 1967, were soon to be phased out. This meant that whatever Lancia would build and would need to sell—unless it wanted to use all 500 for rallying—would not compete directly with Ferrari’s own products.

Uprating the engine for competition would be easy enough for Lancia’s Gianni Tonti. In tuned form, it produced 260 bhp with fuel injection and 290 bhp with special four-valve cylinder heads, which under the rules could be used in a small “evolution” batch. Now they just needed a car to put the engine in.

LANCIA’S ENGINEERS went to work on a suitable suspension design while Fiorio turned to an old friend to get some ideas for the shape of the car-to-be: Marcello Gandini.

“I knew Mr. Gandini very well,” said Fiorio recently. “I thought then and I think now that he is very good.”

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Gandini was then working at Bertone, for whom he had designed the Lamborghini Miura, among other Bertone classics. “I spoke to him about it,” Fiorio recalled, “and Bertone prepared various designs.” Thus the personal link between Fiorio and Gandini generated Bertone’s involvement with the bold Lancia project.

This link in turn suggested a name for the car. Bertone had built a super-low wedge-shaped coupe for the 1970 Turin Show, powered by a Lancia Fulvia engine-transaxle package moved to the rear.

“The car was so unusual,” said Bertone’s Gian Beppe Panicco, “that we said it was like something from the stratosphere.”

From that came its name: Stratos. Although entirely different, the new car was a logical successor—especially since Lancia need an outside partner to help build it, and Fiorio was pleased to find Bertone keen to tackle this part of the job.

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Minimalist Stratos interior featured door panels with room for racing helmets.

The two companies cooperated on the design of the new car’s chassis. The easiest approach, a tubular frame, was rejected because the unavoidable passage of tubes through body panels would have been too noisy, leaky, and clumsy for a car that had to be usable on the road. Instead, they designed a sheet-steel frame, a fully-enclosed monocoque coupe from the front end back to the rear firewall, from which box-section beams extended to enclose the engine and support the rear suspension.

“This was a new challenge for our engineers,” admitted Nuccio Bertone later. “We hadn’t done a frame structure for a production car before. But to judge by the car’s performance in rallies it seems to have worked out all right.”

Wrapped around this structure was a body of fiberglass. Painted a glowing matte-finish red, the first prototype of the new car was ready to display on the Bertone stand at the Turin Motor Show in late 1971. Officially called the Stratos HF, it looked absolutely sensational.

A hint of the ’70 Stratos was visible in its deep-hipped wedge-line form. This was accentuated, rather than marred, by the deep flares for the wheelhouses, especially those for the front wheels, which formed vestigial fenders. From the upper surface of that plunging nose, a louvered panel released air from the low-mounted radiator. Both nose and tail swung up for access, held down by rubber T-clamps in addition to two twist fasteners in front and normal hood latches in the rear.

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Competition version of the Stratos won the World Rally Championship in 1974, ’75, and ’76.

The styling signature was the daring sweep of its windshield, curving into the side windows “like a jet plane,” as an admiring Italian said. Made by Glaverbel of laminated safety glass, the windshield was formed on a constant radius, as part of a cylindrical section, to avoid distortion. (In fact, there was none worth mentioning.)

The side window panes pivoted at their rear corners, and were raised and lowered (not fully) around that pivot by a large knob that slid in a curved slot in the inner surface of the door. When the knob was tightened, the window was held in place. A hint of the car’s destiny were bulges in the door pockets shaped to accommodate a racing helmet.

By the summer of 1972, tests began of a first Stratos prototype, which at that time had double-wishbone independent suspension at all four wheels. As a result of these trials, the rear suspension was changed to a more rugged layout with a MacPherson strut at the top and a reversed wishbone braced by a long radius rod at the bottom. Chassis expert Gianpaolo Dallara helped with the car’s development as a consultant, and he had a second prototype to work with in the autumn of 1972.

So Fiorio had the beginnings of a car—but was it a rally winner? This was nail-biting time, as, within Fiat, both Gobbato and Fiorio had bet their reputations on this car.

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“We had a big fight with Fiat,” remembered Fiorio. “If we had not been successful in rallying with the Stratos, we would both have had big problems in the company”—problems up to and including outright dismissal. “We had a tremendous battle to get it out and not to have to stop the project halfway.”

BEFORE IT WAS PRODUCED and homologated, the Stratos could compete in prototype form, which would give a hint of its potential. Fortunately, Cesare Fiorio had at his disposal what he needed to verify that potential: a world-class rally driver in the form of Sandro Munari.

Munari had been racing and rallying Lancias since 1966. At the beginning of 1972, which had been planned as a year of transition between the old Fulvia and the new Stratos, he won the Monte Carlo Rally for Lancia. With this excellent start, Munari and the Fulvias propelled Lancia to its first World Rally Championship with almost double the points of the next-best team—Fiat.

The Stratos was entered in two rallies at the end of 1972. The new model retired from both, one of which Munari was leading, which was some small solace to tide the team over the long winter nights.

The car’s next outing, in Spain in April 1973, brought the victory that Fiorio desperately needed to give his project proof of life. Then a Marlboro-liveried Stratos placed second in the Targa Florio in May, despite broken driver’s-seat mountings, and won the demanding Tour de France in September using a prototype of the roof-mounted boundary-layer-control device that was fitted to the production cars. The Stratos was beyond doubt a quick little car.

Production began in October 1973. The Stratos’ frame and body were completely fabricated, assembled, trimmed, and painted at the Bertone plant in Turin’s Grugliasco municipality (on a special line alongside the Fiat 124 sports car), then trucked to Lancia’s Chivasso factory for final assembly and tests on a special track at the plant. Colors on offer were red, yellow, lime green, and two shades of blue: a French bleu and an Italian azzurro.

The first few cars were assembled in February 1974, and production started rolling in April (although red cars only). By October, 502 frames had been completed by Bertone, enough to warrant the Stratos’ Group 4 homologation. Official assembly by Bertone and Lancia continued until May 1975, when 457 examples were on wheels. The remaining chassis were available as spares or as armatures for cars built up by specialists.

The combination of the lively V6 and a curb weight of only 2,156 pounds yielded exceptional results. Built and geared as it was for quick response, the Stratos accelerated to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, to 80 in 11.5, and to 100 in 17.6 seconds. Revving to 7,500 gave in-gear speeds of 40 mph in first, 58 in second, 79 in third, and 106 mph in fourth. Its maximum was just over 140 mph.

In 1974, the Stratos sold in Italy at a list price of $16,195. That was about the same as an Alfa Romeo Montreal, Maserati Merak, or Porsche 911S, more than a DeTomaso Pantera, and a little less than a Dino 308 GT4 or Lamborghini Urraco. The price was high enough, however, to discourage people from buying such an oddball auto in the depths of the first Energy Crisis years. In addition, the Dino engine breached the 2.0-liter threshold, above which heavy taxes were imposed.

The Stratos’ slow sales were also owed in part to its controversial character both within the Fiat group and Lancia itself. One internal faction wanted to tell the world about this brilliant Lancia that helped the company win rallies and hoped for further production and development of the car for export markets. Another group argued that publicity given the Stratos would only divert attention away from the Betas and Fulvias that were Lancia’s bread and butter. The result was that new factory-fresh Stratoses were a drag on the market.

On the other hand, the jobs of Gobbato and Fiorio were secure. The Stratos was, thank goodness, hell-for-leather on the rally circuit. The list of its first places under drivers like Munari, Bernard Darniche, Bjorn Waldegaard, Tony Carello, and Markku Alen is pages long.

Finn Alen joined the team near the end of the car’s official career in 1977. “The Stratos is the first rally car that looked like a race car,” he recalled. “The first time I jumped into the car in ’77, my feel is, you know, super happy. You have super torque and all the time good power in high revs. The Stratos is nice driving. Moving all the time like [a Ford] Escort or Fiat Mirafiori, sideways, it was so easy to balance.”

After joining the Lancia rally team in 1974, former Ferrari team driver and engineer Mike Parkes received credit for the rigorous development of the Stratos that brought Lancia the World Rally Championship in 1974, ’75, and ’76, as well as the European Championship in 1977 and ’78. Not much more could have been expected of a car whose Group 4 homologation expired after the latter year. In addition, Sandro Munari won the most prestigious event of all, the Monte Carlo Rally, three times running, in 1975, ’76, and ’77. Mission accomplished!

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