Berlin by night in the stunning Lancia Stratos

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The German capital isn’t the most obvious place to unleash Lancia’s sensational mid-engined wedge, but the city has several parallels with the ground-breaking, V6-powered Stratos. Conceived to dominate rallying, this wicked, uncompromising machine was built to win the fledgling WRC – Lancia landed a hat-trick of titles from 1974-’76 – and, although never a serious road car, it looks right at home in this setting. Berlin’s internationalist architecture is breathtaking and innovative, with Communist drab almost banished during its ongoing regeneration. Like the Stratos, the city has a planned vision that looks forward with no hint of nostalgia. This year is the rally legend’s anniversary – amazingly, November marks 40 years since the prototype wowed visitors at the ’71 Turin Show. It still looks defiantly contemporary, even against the recent designs of Helmut Jahn, Sir Norman Foster and Axel Schultes. 

There’s also another uncanny connection between Berlin and the radical Lancia. Back in the ’70s, a lime-green Stratos was a familiar sight howling down the wide, grand boulevards and flashing over the bridges of the River Spree. An Italian called Armando ran a successful pizzeria in Schoenberg and saved all of his profits to buy a new Stratos. “It was one of the first sold,” says Mauro Capuozzo, who runs a specialist Italian car business in the Meilenwerk centre. “He loved driving the Stratos and even delivered pizzas in it. He’d store them in a box in the exhaust-heated storage area to keep them warm.” To see a Stratos in action anywhere – street or special stage – is a rare treat, yet it must have looked like an alien craft had landed as it dived between the beige taxis and trams around the divided capital. Armando even fitted it with snow chains during the winter because it was his only car. Tragically, the Stratos was involved in an accident at the corner of Potsdamer Strasse and Buelowstrasse. With no side protection, Armando didn’t stand a chance and died in the crash. The Lancia was later destroyed, but his popular restaurant is still thriving. 

Today, Stratos collector Chris Hrabalek is based in Berlin and the wildest Lancia ever is back. Based in the same classic car centre as Capuozzo, Hrabalek loved Berlin enough to relocate his four historic Stratos and two Bugatti EB110s to the converted tramshed. Sharing space with a diverse range of machines are the show prototype, the East African Safari Rally car, the monster turbocharged 1977 Giro d’Italia-winning Group 5 racer and a prized Kermit-green road car. “Berlin is a creative place at present,” he says. “Young artists are moving here because property is affordable, but best of all is the laid-back attitude. People are easy-going and even the police are relaxed.”

That mellow atmosphere is welcome news because we’ve planned a night run around Berlin’s spectacular landmarks, with diversions via its longest tunnels. It’s fascinating to watch the Lancias reshuffle on the rails and lifts to clear a space for the road car. Finally, the rare ’75 Stratos, with distinctive matching spoilers, drops into the empty space and first Capuozzo twists into the Bertone-designed, Alcantara-trimmed seat with arms vanishing inside last. Like me, the Italian is compact and fits the Stratos snugly. How British development engineer Mike Parkes contorted his lanky figure inside during early testing is a mystery. The light door – with signature helmet-carrying bins – slams shut and soon the pump whines away to prime the triple Webers. Its Ferrari Dino heart wakes with a splutter and quickly clears to a gruff rasp. Even Capuozzo struggles to find the awkward reverse but eventually the car emerges from its glass box, creeping down the hall and out on to the street. It’s my turn to take the wheel and my first observation is the parts-bin detailing. Build quality wasn’t a priority in the hasty production and body colour is clearly visible between panels. The dials, rocker switches and air vents look to be a mixture of production Fiat and Lancia. The Ferrero steering wheel allows a clear view of the instrument cluster, while the pedals are slightly offset to the middle, much like a Ferrari 250LM. With no adjustment other than seat runners, the outstretched driving position feels purposeful. 

The ’box, like the engine, is Dino-derived but with closer ratios. There’s also no open gate so it feels baulky, imprecise and stiff. First is on a dog-leg and the change across into second is reluctant until the oil is warm. As you’d expect, the Stratos feels caged in the afternoon rush-hour. The heavy clutch, dead Girling disc brakes, hopeless handbrake, stiff throttle and recalcitrant gear-change don’t help matters – particularly in close summer temperatures. The cockpit has limited ventilation and, with so much glass, it feels like a microwave on slow cook. The minimal fittings don’t even include window winders. Released by a large screw-lock knob, the Perspex side windows slide crudely down into the door. “It isn’t waterproof and leaks in the rain,” says Hrabalek. Clearly the Lancia was never intended to rival the plush Dino in the market place, and at £12,500 when new – more than twice the price of a 246GT – it had a specialist appeal. 

As evening draws in and the roads clear, the Stratos is transformed. The transverse 2.4-litre engine with triple twin-choke Webers becomes more strident and the potent performance manifests itself as you stretch it. The gearchange sharpens with more revs and that clunky action quickens, particularly if you double-declutch. The driver may be baking, yet the 190bhp V6 stays cool and pulls cleanly as you gun it between lights to keep clear of inquisitive commuters. 

Hrabalek knows the best tunnel in Berlin – a long underpass from the stunning Hauptbahnhof (Central station) cutting south below the Tiergarten that’s the green heart of this very eco-minded city. Holding third up to 7000rpm, the engine changes its tone to a vivid howl as it blats through the yellow neon-lit thoroughfare. Road tests said that it could do 143mph in fifth, but Hrabalek says that it’s a nightmare at high speed on the autobahn: “It feels unstable and has a scary amount of lift. You can see why Carlo Facetti and Parkes fitted skirts and a rear wing for racing.” 

In the early hours, the rain finally stops and I get a chance to discover the car’s true character. The twistier roads around the Kulturforum are deserted, though still slippery. A clear run with green lights all the way reveals its tricky, twitchy nature. The squat suspension keeps the stiff chassis flat and enhances the feeling of control. In contrast to the leaden brake feel, the rack-and-pinion steering is go-kart precise and beautifully light thanks to the low weight of the nose: just 37% of the car’s mass is at the front. 

Unlike in London, the road surface is smooth and there’s little kickback from the old Pirellis as the Stratos storms around the park roads with Hrabalek’s Lexus RX400h working hard to keep up. In 190bhp road tune, it’s good for 0-60mph in 6.8 secs. The best technique on entering a bend is to get your gearchange and braking sorted before concentrating on the apex. The chassis wants to understeer on a trailing throttle, but that famed sharpness and agility are obvious under power. Even in the wet the Stratos hunkers down and darts through: traction is maximised with 63% of the weight over the driving wheels. As we clock up a few miles and use the brakes more, those unservoed discs finally deliver some bite but, with no intention of having the second Stratos accident in Berlin, I respect its value and precious original condition. 

The car demands full concentration and feels as if it would snap with any abrupt action. Such a stubby wheelbase requires respect, yet there are few more dramatic places to explore Berlin at night than cooped up in this low-slung cockpit. The view through the wraparound, visor-style ’screen is panoramic, with bodywork barely vis-ible as the dramatic skyline opens up along the wide avenues. As the V6 snarls away just over your shoulder, you could be Rick Deckard charging through the metropolis in Blade Runner. And, with just 492 built to meet homologation, there’s little chance of meeting another one. 

Any drive in this example is a privilege because chassis 829ARO 001572 has covered just over 5000km. Like many Stratos road cars, it was a challenging prospect for a Lancia dealer when new. Production officially ended in ’75, yet sales were slow and this car remained with a Swiss agent until the early ’80s when it was spotted in the courtyard by Stratos guru Thomas Popper. Hrabalek bought it from Popper for about 350,000 Austrian schillings (£20,000) in 1996. 

“Green was a tough colour to sell and dealers offered a discount when it was new,” explains Hrabalek. “Most were repainted red or modified for motor sport. Finding a road car so untouched is rare. The cars varied in quality. Production was split after Carrozzeria Bertone finished the body, but work was contracted out to other factories when Lancia couldn’t cope. The shutlines depended on who built the car and what time of day it was. An Austrian dealer once told me that the cars were so badly finished on occasions that he refused to collect them. Cracked glassfibre was often covered by stickers and, when a panel such as a boot cover was in short supply, they were just over-sprayed to match the body.” 

Only five colours were offered – yellow, dark blue, light blue, green and, most commonly, red. They faded quickly and the Alcantara seats were prone to splitting, particularly after getting wet: “There’s probably just five that still have original seats that aren’t ripped or retrimed. My car is untouched so I try not to use it too much.” 

Over a pizza we discuss the recent auction of the Bertone Zero, the Fulvia-powered, Marcello Gandini-styled concept that stole the limelight at Turin in ’70. Hrabalek also owns the ’71 fluorescent orange prototype (C&SC, Oct ’07), but had no urge to buy the Zero: “It’s a conceptual piece of art, yet it’s difficult to know what to do with it – other than park it in your bedroom or a modern art gallery. In the context of fine art the Zero looks cheap, but you can’t use it. The view out is impossible, but my prototype can be driven.”

In recent years, Stratos values have paralleled those of contemporaries such as the Miura and 911RS 2.7: “The lightweight Porsche and the Stratos are close in spirit because they appeal to the pure connoisseur. To many, the fully developed Dino is more attractive. It’s comfortable, easy to get into, plus it has the options of air-conditioning and electric windows. The Stratos is more aggressive. You are cramped inside and the windscreen acts like a magnifying glass in the sun. Only the driver really enjoys the experience. It wasn’t designed to be beautiful, but was a competition car aimed at intimidating rivals.” 

That purity of purpose appeals to young fans today and my two teenage sons regularly choose a Stratos over moderns for computer games. Ask most people its age and they’ll get it wrong by at least a decade. That edgy style is still an icon and you’ll probably find a photo on a pinboard inside design studios around the world. 

This autumn, lucky Stratos owners will gather in Italy for a 40th-birthday party and it should be quite an event. Bizarrely, most prestige concours seem to have forgotten the anniversary. Just imagine the Style et Luxe or Villa d’Este – with every variation from Zero to Turbo grouped together – but it still wouldn’t come close to our nocturnal blast around Berlin. Pizzaman Armando was with us in spirit, I’m sure.

 

FACTFILE – LANCIA STRATOS

Sold/number built 1973-’75/492 Construction folded sheet-steel monocoque and spaceframe with glassfibre body Engine iron-block, alloy heads, dohc-per-bank 2418cc V6, triple Weber downdraught carburettors, Marelli electronic ignition; 190bhp @ 7000rpm; 166lb ft @ 5500rpm Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheels via ZF limited-slip differential Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers rear MacPherson struts; anti-roll bar f/r Steering rack and pinion, 3.32 turns lock-lock Brakes dual-circuit vented Girling discs Length 12ft 2in (3710mm) Width 5ft 83/4in (1750mm) Height 3ft 73/4in (1110mm) Wheelbase 7ft 13/4in (2180mm) Weight 2161lb (980kg) 0-60mph 6.8 secs Top speed 143mph Mpg 12 Price new £12,500 


 This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see our terms and conditions. 

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: James Lipman

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