Some Lancia Stratos HistoryThe original Stratos was designed by Bertone and built by Lancia in the 70’s as something of a parts-bin special. It had a steel-bodied central tub with chassis extensions at front and rear, to which were attached the fibreglass doors and clamshell panels. This mid-engined two-seater was powered by a Ferrari Dino V6 with around 190 bhp. That was in the Stradale version, which was the road car.
From this, the rally car was then developed to go on and win the world rally championships from 1974 through to 1976. Other individual rally victories followed in the years after that, even after official factory support was pulled as the Fiat Group pushed the 131 as their rally car of choice. The rally cars ended up with 24-valve engines and power outputs of up to 250/280 bhp. There were also some race cars produced, including a Group 5 racer with longer wheelbase, wide body and a 560 bhp turbo engine.
Building A ReplicaGiven that there were less than 500 original Stratos cars manufactured, their value as classic cars meant that ownership of such a special car was always going to be beyond my means. In fact, the prices have shot up in recent years as they are now eligible for FIA historic rally events, so even the Stradale versions are being purchased and converted to Group 4 rally specification.
Luckily for me, the UK kit car market could see the appeal of this car and that it was then possible to build your own Stratos replica from a ‘donor car’ and ‘kit of parts’. When I first saw the Transformer HF2000 car, I knew that I wanted one.
I also knew that, as an owner of two Alfa V6 cars by that time, I would not accept a Stratos replica with only a four-cylinder powerplant (even though Volumex superchargers or Thema turbocharged options could be used). The answer was to request that the manufacturer - Gerry Hawkridge - make a kit that could accept the V6 engine and transmission from the Alfa Romeo 164. This was just the solution needed for the replica Stratos to run with an Italian V6 powerplant and the Hawk Cars HF3000 kit was born.
I still remember taking delivery of the kit, getting it into my single garage, being shown the assorted suspension arms, brackets, bits and pieces with an explanation of what they all were and how they were to be fitted. That information counted for nothing when actually working on the car, though, as there was so much more to take in. A nice idea, all the same!
This was my first ever foray into building a kit car and the Stratos was not, and is not, the easiest car to put together. The build manual is minimal; choice of non-standard parts leads to numerous fitting issues; bodywork needs manual fettling for good fit; sourcing components also takes some time. To counteract all of these difficulties, Gerry is a very keen enthusiast and an extremely capable engineer and where he isn’t always able to help, the owners club is a godsend. The ability to see completed kits, chat to their owners, to compare stories, problems and solutions more than makes up for the lack of a detailed manual.
I won’t go into the detail of the build beyond that, other than to say that it took me a couple of years to complete the car. In my defence, I did spend a large amount of time working abroad, which helped to earn the money needed to pay for the car and the parts.
When the car was eventually finished, in 1995, I remember getting an MOT on a Wednesday and driving it to Castle Combe circuit for a ‘Kit Car Action Day’ on the Saturday - a real baptism of fire, and showing quite some trust and faith in my own abilities. Glad to say the car and driver behaved and had a great day at the track.
Owning and Driving ItThe original car has had many, many words written about it. Descriptions of driving the Stratos tend to include words and phrases such as: scary, twitchy, thrilling, difficult, kart-like, noisy, direct, quick, tricky and exhilarating.
As the replica is designed with the same suspension geometry and weight distribution, those phrases all reflect what it is like to drive the Stratos replica too. However, there is so much more that can be, and has been, said it would seem churlish of me to say more. Given that readers of this blog might not have read too much about the Lancia Stratos, I will ignore that thought and continue with some of my personal views of Stratos Replica ownership.
Owning a Stratos and driving it on the public road takes some getting used to. The directness of the steering, the way in which the throttle totally changes the attitude of the car, the combination of excellent forward visibility with dreadful rear-three-quarter vision; these things are all part of the amazing character of the car and come from the original Seventies design that was intended as the basis of a no-holds-barred competition car. There is abundant performance available, though it always needs increasing levels of care and caution as the speed and handling get to be exercised more and more.
The Stratos doesn’t hesitate to let you know about the laws of physics.The need for smooth steering, braking and throttle application are made quite apparent as the car will twitch and squirm at every correct - or incorrect - manoeuvre as it responds to driver input. Lifting off the throttle in a fast, tightening bend causes the front of the car to gain more grip so the steering has greater affect, pulling the car to where you are pointing it, whilst the mid-engined layout allows the back to also step out of line, increasing oversteer that needs prompt driver response (prediction, even) to keep the car on the intended piece of road.
If you were so foolish as to try braking mid-corner, on perhaps realising you have gone in with too much speed than is sensible, the Stratos will serve up even more oversteer, much more quickly, in the form of a very rapid spin or pirouette. Now that is not something you should ever want to experience on a public road. It is however something that you can sense the car will only too willingly demonstrate if you do not drive it with the care and precision it demands. If not trying to tease out the extreme levels of grip, the Strat will drive with perfect behaviour, following the commands given by the driver.
The cockpit of the car is snug, with a slightly offset driving position that gives the driver more room than the passenger. My own car has never been trimmed out, as it was always intended more for performance than comfort. The sonorous Alfa V6 is just over a foot behind your head and with the total lack of sound-proofing, conversations don’t tend to happen once travelling at NSL-type speeds.
As a driver, that is no loss at all. I can just enjoy listening to that engine in my car going up and down the rev range as I point the car from one corner to the next, dropping gears with heel-and-toe changes to savour the blip of the throttle. Then listening to the note change at different points on the rev scale. Low-down torque makes the car easy to drive in traffic, whilst that surge of power gives excellent overtaking capability. Van-driver positioning techniques make for safer turnings at tight junctions. The louvred rear panel can make it hard to decide if the vehicle behind is fitted with a light bar or maybe just a roof rack, so another reason for caution on using the performance of the car.
Away from the dynamics of driving the Stratos, it still never fails to surprise me how much the car itself gets attention from the general public. Pedestrians stop and stare at it. Other cars rush to catch up, overtake, then fall in behind. Motorway drivers are often urged by their passengers to pull alongside so they can take photos. Kids and adults in coaches and minibuses give a big thumbs-up to the car, often with massive grins showing their appreciation of the Stratos.
Many - possibly most - onlookers have no idea what this car is, the history of the original, nor that it is a replica of such an old design; that matters not at all. I feel proud to be driving a Stratos and love the shared joy that it creates. I am absolutely enthralled with the way the car drives, as much as the way it looks and that this is something that I built myself.
I would love an original Lancia Stratos, of course, but building, owning and driving a replica is the only way I would get to have this level of enjoyment in this type of car.
Stratos Replica In Competition
These are held on airfields and race circuits, where you compete to set timed runs against others in a similar class (based on vehicle type and engine capacity). The Stratos replica gets put against other kit cars, of which the best type for sprints and hillclimbs is the Lotus/Caterham Seven and similar designs.
Those first couple of events proved to be great fun, much better than track days as although less driving time is involved, the competitive element makes all the difference. The Strat also proved to be quite effective, with the mid-engined layout leading to good grip and handling, even if not as forgiving as other cars out there.
With the fun of competition, I then entered the ACSMC and CCC Speed Championships for 1997. Those went well for me; the car being reliable and proving to be more than capable of delivering good results. So good, in fact, that I won my class in the championship for that year, with only one other driver that I never could beat. That was Trevor Willis, who won the CCC championship outright for a number of years.
Those events were all fun, with the on-track competition being combined with off-track friendliness and helpfulness in the paddock.
This necessitated a few changes to the car, with door bars added to the roll cage structure, the battery moved to the front compartment, a lowered section on the drivers floor, plus new mountings for the seats, harness and plumbed-in fire extinguisher. Additionally, the engine was rebuilt and mildly tuned (to 210bhp, from 190), larger brakes fitted all round, and new sets of wheels purchased so that I could race it on slicks and still have road tyres for when not competing.
This was possibly the only road legal car - slicks excepted - in the series, competing in the class for modified cars between two and three litres (the Alfa engine is of 2959cc capacity). As this championship was defined for Italian cars, that meant I was racing against Lancia, Fiat, Ferrari, de Tomaso, Maserati and Alfa Romeo race cars.
The racing was certainly exhilarating and taught me much more about the handling foibles of the Stratos, as well as learning racecraft in general. The road-going suspension was far too soft for slick-shod racing, so I increased the spring rates a number of times, as well as changing geometry settings to work better with fully-loaded slick tyres on the circuit.
In my first year of circuit racing, I ended up winning my class in that championship. In the next year, the class structures were changed so that my class was then for all modified cars over two litres, with Ferraris and other exotica then in the same class as me. Given that rather frightening competition, I yet again won my class in the championship. Sounds like an impressive record, which I put down to a combination of a very capable car, good reliability and a fair amount of commitment in pedalling the car around the UK circuits.
After those two years, the series was no longer sponsored by Auto Italia magazine and changed to cater for an even wider mix of cars. Some of the drivers in the newer series appeared to have learnt their banger-racing techniques from watching BTCC, which is not how I enjoyed racing. Combined with a change in my work commitments, I then only did occasional races with the car, including a few in the Sports Racing & GT Challenge.
The SRGTC series defined classes on a power-to-weight ratio, which meant my 900KG/210BHP Stratos was competing directly against Jaguar C/D replicas and (real) E-types that all looked absolutely fabulous. The top cars in these races were the 700BHP Cobra replicas; I personally also loved the stunning GT40s. The collection of sports cars in those races were all just the sort of thing that I love and I would recommend readers go and see them racing at some time if possible
Other Stratos ExperiencesIn this article, I’ve written about the way in which the car drives, and some of the things I have done with it and the feelings it generates. What I haven’t mentioned are the other outings that it gets used for. Being part of the Stratos Enthusiasts Club, and a previous Auto Italia racer, means I have taken the car along to Brooklands for a number of Italian Car days. It has been on display at Race Retro, and on the Hawk Cars stand at a number of kit car shows. With other Stratos owners, I’ve been out to France to show the cars along with another that was running as course car for a number of French rallies.
One particular series of events has lots of great memories, as we (the Stratos and I) get invited to Belgium by Oracle Cars to attend at the ‘AutoHappening’ car show held at Zolder Circuit. This show is a two-day affair, where the public attend in their masses to see and experience a range of sporting or alternative vehicles. There have been plenty of TVRs, Lotus Elise/Exige sports cars, some Yank metal such as Corvette Stingray, Dodge Viper and the Dodge SRT-10 amongst others. Oracle import kit cars from the UK, so they bring along the likes of Stratos and Cobra replicas, GTM kit cars, Speedster replicas and other oddities.
My job on these days is to drive my Stratos around the track, taking punters for a bit of a thrill. Three laps at a time, then in for a new passenger, maybe stop for some (free) fuel and out again. Driving around Zolder is great fun, and I do - honestly - try not to scare anyone. Impress them, yes. Scare them, hopefully not. The idea is that some of these people might someday want to buy such a car for themselves. And even if not, to just enjoy cars they do not see every day.
Another Belgian trip that was really enjoyable was when some of the Stratos replica owners accepted an invitation to drive the cars in the historic demo section of the Boucles de Spa Legends Rally. This was based at the Spa race circuit, so I had been expecting smooth racetrack tarmac but it turns out that very little of the circuit is actually used for the rally. Instead, the concrete perimeter road is used, which has many bad joints, and a lot of public roads through the hills and forests nearby. Proper rallying terrain, in that case, but not quite what my car was set up for - with low suspension and semi-slick track tyres. The roads were bumpy, often covered in dirt and gravel; the tarmac surface perhaps last laid down before the Panzers drove through in the war! All good fun, but something of a challenge for me and the Stratos to attack with any real speed.
The organisers were just great and made us all more than welcome. Drinks on the night before the recce went on until the early hours, with the result being that my co-driver had to frequently stop and empty his stomach and was totally unable to concentrate on the route! One other problem with the recce was that it continued into the dark. That shouldn’t have been a problem, but my car does not have any interior light fitted, so we had to follow others, many of which were also getting lost. Trying to spot a gap in Spa armco with rally cars going every which way was far from easy. A more sober night prior to the rally itself made sense after this first day.
Being in the historic section meant that we weren’t given any stage times as it was the non-competitive demonstration part of the event. On the few stages I did choose to ‘push on’ a bit, comparison with the main event times showed just how far off the pace I would have been. I can blame the car and the surface conditions, but that would really be just an excuse. I was there for fun, not to actually compete. And fun was what I had. Attacking the big yump at some speed was great, although the chassis did bottom out completely on landing. That could be why my screen got a crack and needed replacement later in the year.
On the rougher stages, the floorpan sustained a fair number of dents and scrapes. Worryingly, the car has not got a sump guard, so I was quite concerned that I might clout the alloy sump and lead to some expensive terminal damage. Caution really makes sense. More so when I recall entering one gravel band a bit too optimistically, hard in third gear, and struggling to make the corner. The car went quite sideways, with the back end sliding along the edge of a ditch, whilst I struggled to keep the throttle in and pull the car back in line and ignore the sight of all the trees whooshing past. The sill of the car was being scraped on the road surface and the grinding of fibreglass could be heard and smelled. With what may have looked like an excellent display of driver skill, the car regained the road and I then progressed with much more care for the remainder of the event. Not claiming that it was skill at all, as it involved far too much luck for my liking.
Checking the car later was to show that this escapade managed to bend the lower tie-rod to the rear suspension, giving a large amount of toe-in for the rest of the rally. OK, lucky indeed, but that sort of moment is what makes rallying so much fun - for drivers and spectators!
In recent times, due to various excuses, my Strat seems to have spent more time declared off road than it has been taxed, tested and in use each year. I’m hoping that I can give the car some of the care and attention it needs, update some of the parts on it and make much more use of it. That is what I built it for, after all. It belongs on the road, the track or out in public view, not hidden away. If I can do that, I should also put in the effort to describe more of those outings on this blog site, for those that may be interested,