Lancia took a rather novel course with the design of their Stratos - instead of the more conventional scheme of transforming a "Gran Turismo" into a competition machine, the new model was a competition car adapted for road use and destined for rally work.
The decision came about by reason of the fact the highly-successful Fulvia coupes were reaching the end of their competition and production lives, and were finding Porsche and Alpine competition a little too much. So Lancia decided to evolve a car with features such as size, road behaviour, and developed power that could vie with their main rivals in road races.
The design was the result of much thought, the difference between the Stratos and a then contemporary mid-engined cars was that the Lancia had an ultra-short wheelbase of only 6.333 ft. (1:93 m). The Torinese engineers had also paid a great deal of attention to the new car's suitability for quick progress in the mountains, a fact borne out by the low weight of less than 1,918 lb. (869 kg) made possible by the use of plastics and light-alloy for certain body parts.
In addition Glaverbel (lighter than either Triplex or Securit) was used for both windscreen and windows. A lightened interior, seats, simplified window winding-gear, and miserly use of sound and thermal insulation also reduced weight. Perhaps paradoxically, the suspension, particularly the MacPherson components at the rear, as well as the Fiat steering gear, were from stock.
The engine was straight from the Dino Ferrari 246 GT - the 2.4-liter V6 with four overhead camshafts, and a maximum power-output of 195 bhp (145 kW) @ 7,600 rpm. Maximum torque was 166 ft. (223 Nm) at 4,800 rpm. The three carburetters with double float-chambers fitted to the Lancia version of the motor were different to those employed on the Ferrari engine, not in an effort to increase power, but to ensure constant fuel supply under the immense centrifugal forces encountered under international rallying conditions.
Climbing into the Stratos was not particularly easy because of the reduced height of the body shell in the seat area. Once behind the wheel the driving position imparted a feeling of perfection, except for the fact that the pedals were well offset.
The impression was heightened by the close proximity of the front wheels. Side and forward visibility were near-perfect, but at three-quarters/rear it was practically nil. Finish, understandably, was more function than luxurious, the side-windows retracted only partially into the doors, but the door panel's thickness was such that bulky objects such as a crash helmet could be conveniently stowed.
There was little superfluous space anywhere else in the interior. There was an aircraft aura about the Stratos - once in the cockpit the driver feelts like a pilot, and when the engine was started, this illusion seemed all the more convincing. Engine and transmission noise were high, and the ventilation system couldn't cope well in any but perfect climatic conditions. Both the driver and passenger sat between the engine, while the front-mounted radiator served to not only further restrict space, but provide a hot spot if ever there was one!
These niggles aside, the Stratos was a complete exhilerating experience to drive, with searing acceleration due to a power-weight ratio of 8.8 lb. per horsepower (4.78 kg 0.7457 kW) - superior to the Dino's 10.1 lb. per horsepower (4.58 kg/0.7457 kg). The lower four gear ratios permitted a road speed of 45 mph (72.4 km/h); 66 mph (106.1 km/h); 92 mph (148 km/h); and 120 mph (193 km/h) at the maximum permitted 8,000 rpm. Furthermore, maximum torque was produced at 4,800 rpm and there was a beefy supply of power from 3,000 rpm upwards. Consequently the Stratos was livelier than the Dino while the top speed of around 145 mph (233 km/h) was similar.
The road behaviour was particularly well adapted to twisty, bumpy, mountain routes, the very light and rather low-geared steering being well-suited to the short wheelbase. The concentration of weight about the centre of gravity also heightened the advantages. When taken fast into a bend the Stratos reacted as a complete unit, cornering effortlessly, accurately, and with incredible ease. The brakes were very good although the absence of servo-assistance called for considerable muscular effort. In fact, many believed that the Stratos really had no rivals.
On the other hand, on a straight or sweeping bend at high-speed, the Stratos was difficult to hold really steady. It was easily affected by side-winds, and the lack of steering castor action did little to assist the driver. Lack of aerodynamic down-pressure too played its part in making the handling extremely touchy on-the-limit. Following the first 50 cars manufactured, Lancia did add spolers on the roof and boot in order to address this issue.
The Lancia Stratos was a genuine purpose-built (and designed) car. Even more than a full-blooded thoroughbred, it was a chamois, conceived to climb mountain passes and race down mountain roads. Such extraordinary specialization did result in loss of high-speed stability but, apart from the unrestricted Germans, few others complained. Only 492 Lancia Stratos were manufactured, but the mid-engined "homologation special" provided Lancia with three successive World Rally Championship titles, from 1974 to 1976.