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1974 Lancia Stratos HF

It has been more than 40 years since the Lancia Stratos HF burst onto the rally racing scene, its mid-mounted Ferrari Dino V-6 engine sling-shoting it past a host of pretenders and into the history books.

The Stratos made its competition debut as a prototype in 1972, won its first event a year later, and then racked up the first of a trio of back-to-back World Rally Championship wins in 1974, but its legend endures among rally fans.

Back in those days, the only thing remotely like it among a field of Lancia Fulvias, Saabs, Volvos, Peugeots, Porsches, Datsun 240Zs, Mitsubishi Lancers, Ford Escorts, and even Wartburgs and Toyota Corollas, was the Renault Alpine – a sports car built by a French garagiste, and powered by Renault engines and money.

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The French-racing-blue Alpine would win the inaugural World Rally Championship in 1973, while Lancia engineers and Stratos drivers spent the year figuring out how to keep its wheels under it; but it was the Italian rally-supercar that would go on to win the next three.

The Alpine might have laid down the first tire tracks leading to the dramatic evolution of rallying through the 1970s, but the Stratos was the game changer.

It is considered the first truly purpose-built factory rally racer, and the progenitor of the improbably powerful and fiercely-fast Group B "Killer-B" cars that stormed through the stages in the 1980s before sanity, of a sort, was restored to this still madly dangerous motorsport.

The Stratos was born of failure, opportunism and enthusiasm. Lancia, created in 1906 by Vincenzo Lancia, had enjoyed a long and storied history in a variety of motorsports, but in the 1960s was concentrating on rallying, while slowly slipping into insolvency.

Fiat came to the rescue in 1969 (also acquiring 50 per cent of Ferrari that year), keeping the Lancia name alive, and creating an opportunity for car couturier Nuccio Bertone to drum up new business. Bertone's wedgy concept called the Zero, but dubbed Stratos by the time it appeared at the Turin Motor Show in 1970, found favour with Lancia management.

And so, when its competitions boss Cesare Fiorio, with Fiat's lira to play with, set out to build a rally car to take advantage of new regulations for 1973, he called on Bertone to build the prototype in 1971.

What Lancia's team of rally car crafters came up with and Bertone designer Marcello Gandini styled, was a rally-racing weapon. And it would be wielded – by legends such as Sandro Munaro and Bjorn Waldegaard – like a renaissance rapier, precisely at the pointy end, but with plenty of thrust from behind.

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Gandini, who had earned credit for the Lamborghini Miura, and had just put the final strokes on the Alfa Romeo Montreal, created a stunning, little two-seater that was also usable, barely, as a street car. Lancia had to build 400 of them to homologate it for Group 4 rallying. It's only link to the earlier concept would be the Stratos name.

The Stratos HF – standing for high fidelity – was built around a steel monocoque cockpit, with minimalist fibreglass bodywork front and rear, and thin-skinned doors, with cut-outs so the crew could store their helmets in the cramped interior. A spare wheel could be carried in the nose, and another bolted atop the roof for the often 60-kilometre stages found in the African Safari Rally.

Overall length, at 3,708 mm, is only 150 mm longer than a modern Fiat 500, and it weighed just 960 kilograms.

Fiat's acquisition of half the prancing horse marque allowed Lancia to rummage through its parts bins where it found half a Ferrari V-12. Well, sort of, it was actually the transverse, 2.4 litre, twin-cam V-6 with five-speed transaxle used in the Ferrari Dino and the Fiat Dino 2400. This motor was rated at 190 hp in street versions, 280 hp in rally spec, would rev to 8,000 rpm and propel the car, with Ferrari-style frenesia e furia, to a top speed of 230km/h. Suspension was independent, but the short wheelbase meant handling was tricky, and required all of a driver's attention, as its 285/40R15 rear Pirellis scrabbled to get the power down. Four disc brakes provided plenty of stopping power.

Some road racing versions are also included among the 492 Stratos built.

The Stratos HF ended its factory-backed days in 1977, when Fiat decided to focus on its 131 Mirafiori Abarth. Lancia returned in the early 1980s with its Group B 037, which won another championship, followed by the Delta, which won six more between 1987-92. The Stratos, meanwhile, continued to rack up wins in private hands, and is still a thrill to watch as a contender in classic rallying.

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You can "drive" one yourself if you pick up a garage-sale-find 1990s Sega Rally Championship game, or a more recent Sony Gran Turismo 4.

*****

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