Rearview Mirror: Lancia Stratos' star shone briefly but brightly

Lancia's successor to the Fulvia was the star of motorsport for a few brief years but, in that time, it became an icon.

The Stratos was a true champion of rallying until Fiat gave it the chop. AP
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At the dawn of the 1960s rallying was still a sport in its infancy and the cars that roared through forest tracks were little different from those that carried kids on the school run.

Indeed, in those early years two models that had success were the Austin Mini and Ford Cortina, among the best-selling family cars on the road. But for manufacturers who did not have the technological pedigree or financial clout to enter Formula One, rallying was a low-cost, relatively low-tech way of marketing the brand. It was no longer just Lotus and Ferrari that could boast podium finishes and champagne-showered champions.

As rallying gained greater popularity, manufacturers began to take it more seriously. Rather than merely adapt a model designed for the road, they began to design rally cars from scratch. The fastest, though not always most successful, rally car of the late 1960s had been the Porsche 911.

But though it had much less power and prestige than the 911, the car that dominated the last two years of the decade was the Lancia Fulvia, a low-slung saloon with a modest 1600cc powerplant. This gave the Italian marque a flavour of the forest. If the Fulvia could make tracks then imagine the dirt its purpose-built successor could throw up in its rival's faces. In 1970 the car maker got to work designing a rally car that would assure continued success in the decade to come.

The Stratos prototype was unveiled in Turin in 1971. Its low-slung cockpit and distinctive scooped bodyshell were a world away from the humble hatchbacks and sturdy saloons of many of its contemporaries. Its development was overseen by Lancia's head of rallying, Cesare Fiorio, with substantial input from engineer Mike Parkes and driver Sandro Munari. Initially, the Stratos was given the Fulvia's engine but this didn't give the Stratos the grunt that its looks demanded and there was a danger of it being a sheep in wolves' clothing.

This was soon recognised and the team decided to fit the final Stratos with the Ferrari Dino V6. Once tuned for racing, this transformed the performance of the car; delivering 280hp, a figure Lancia hoped would put the Mini and 911 in their places. In 1974, the modern era of rallying had been ushered in by the formation of the World Rally Championship, which incorporated all the famous races previously competed for at a regional level.

Rallying was now truly international, with an ever-rising profile and a new set of rules that allowed for more powerful cars driving at far greater speeds.

The Stratos was the icon of the sport and soon became invincible, claiming the world title three years in a row, with Sandro Munari and Bjorn Waldegaard becoming almost as famous as their Formula One counterparts.

Lancia was set to dominate for a decade. But, in Italy, politics is never far from any walk of life and the Stratos was destined to be stopped in its tracks at the pinnacle of its powers. It wasn't that it had any faults or flaws: to the contrary, it was a victim of its own success. Fiat, which had welcomed the Lancia marque into its stable, was jealous of the Stratos's success and desperate to allow its own models a chance to shine.

So, despite having the best rally car ever manufactured in its ranks, Fiat pulled the plug and instead put the entire rallying budget behind its 131 saloon. In sporting terms, the move paid off, with the 131 claiming the manufacturer titles in 1979 and 1981, though you can't help feel that the Stratos wasn't given the respect it deserved.

However, despite this snub the Stratos remained the car of choice for the rallying privateer. In 1981 - seven years after production ceased - a Stratos won the Tour de Corse event.

The sport's new regulations stipulated that a small number of road versions had to be produced. This meant that the Stratos became one of the fastest and most exclusive cars on the road. Though at 190hp the road version was not as powerful as its racing cousin, it was still ferociously fast, accelerating from 0 to 97kph in an extraordinary five seconds. With less than 500 produced, this was a thrill reserved for the privileged few.

The Stratos was the first of the rally-road hybrids that later included the sublime Audi Quattro and the quite mad Metro 6R4. Its star shone briefly but bright enough to become an icon of the sport.