Stratos: Elusive Passion

Cars

My uncle used to own a Lancia Stratos. Except he didn’t.

For years I bragged in countless schoolyard corners that my uncle owned what was at the time undoubtedly one of a handful of coolest cars in the world. This was the same mother’s brother that had owned a getaway Jag Mk2 in White (with red leather interior), a Jenson CV8 in lime green, and a midnight blue Lambo Espada. This trio is an admirable clutch of the stylishly exotic for sure – and I can bear absolute witness that he owned these cars. But there’s no way he could have owned a Stratos. Could he?

Thing is as happens in families, my uncle’s life has been mythologised over the years, with countless layers of legend piling upon legend. Needless to say, the uncle in question was one of those men of the 1970s who not only seemed to survive with no visible means of support – but positively thrived on a diet of extravagantly burned Four Star and Long Life. This blog has mentioned elsewhere what a rare and beautiful possibility this was in that magical decade. I’ve never truly got to the bottom of how he managed to drive so many brilliant cars – or how I came to imagine and profess his ownership of the Stratos. But I can guess.

Somewhere in my pre-teen imagination I must have projected everything cool and exotic onto my uncle. And in that Top Trump schooled way that kids of the seventies imbibed, I must have equated the outrageous Gandini penned design to all the things that he represented. My uncle had never shrugged off the double denim he had worn in the fitites whilst aping James Dean – he never conformed, never settled down. He dedicated his life to adventures. In my memory he will reek into eternity of Old Spice, Rothmans and Teachers whisky. Unsurprisingly perhaps he met an early death before Thatcher had even left her throne.

My uncle might have been an aficionado of rare and beautiful cars but it’s impossible that he ever owned a genuine Stratos. The pure bred rally, dedicated Stratos – the one imagined from the ground up with its short, wide stance, period wedge profile, snarling Dino V6 and bugger all rear visibility – was a harbinger of rolling exotica in design, purpose and execution that very few people had the privilege to own.

It’s thought that less than 500 Dino engined examples were ever constructed for homologation – between ‘73-and ’76. Once you managed to get behind the wheel of one of these beasts it would have been a ridiculously bonkers experience. Even though the rally car was successful all through the mid seventies, the internal politics of the Fiat corp was such that it gradually ebbed out of favour. We all loved the three box classic that was the Fiat 132 – especially in the Abarth garb – but surely the fibreglass bodied, outrageously aggressive stance should have been enough to convince the sharp suited corporate Italians that they should stick with the Stratos as their sports car flagship.

Ever since the Stratos Zero concept was unveiled at the Turin Salon of 1970 the world had expected something uncompromising and prophetic of a time when anything was possible. If Whitey was reaching out to the moon, then it was eminently possible to build a race car for the road with little compromise. Wasn’t it?

But no. The Stratos was too pure, too real, too focussed on adolescent, revheaded dreams to endure into middle age. The Fiat corporation must have sought to court the mass of everyman motoring in rallying- mass produced cars given the race treatment in order to sell more mediocre cars to the general public. The fact that Groub B swept this nonsense aside in the early eighties proved the men in suits wrong.

Despite the fact that a host of plucky privateers was able to push this bonkers piece of inpisration to many a victory deep into the eighties – the iconic Stratos profile faded to memory to all intents and purposes.

Until recently of course, when a new $500K version was announced. Hardly accessible to anyone who doesn’t own a Veyron.

The thing is, as with all re-issues of iconic automotive models – that the very essence of all things Stratos is its ridiculous brevity; it’s shockingly audacious styling, its midships mounted Dino powerhouse and ludicrously crumple-zone free fibreglass shell – were more than a mere marketable set of specs to be dallied with.

The Stratos was, in other words, a legend in its very being. It was built from the rubber up to be without compromise and replication ; built with nothing but point-and-squirt, short wheelbased flair. It was built to set light to passions that were destined to lie dormant by generations of surgically marketed aspiration.

My uncle never actually owned a Stratos. But he should have done. He was Stratos.

CLICK TO ENLARGE