Stratos Zero At the wheel of the legendary concept car The impossibly sleek Lancia Stratos Zero stunned the motoring world at the 1970 Turin show. Five decades on, Drive-My joins the ultra-select list of those who’ve driven it. Words Bart Lenaerts. Photography Lies De Mol.
Bertone’s Stratos Zero The Lowdown
Bart Lenaerts: ‘Getting bald, selling a kidney to feed our kids, ending up alone without friends… whatever happens, we’ll always be among the few who drove and photographed the Lancia Stratos Zero. I don’t even care if everyone hates me. Should I make T-shirts?’ Read Bart’s story and see Lies de Mol’s…
It’s the Holy Grail, and I’m about to drive it. The Lancia Stratos Zero, designed by Marcello Gandini for Bertone, caused such a reaction when revealed in 1970 that it has become an essential element of the global collective memory. For a mere mortal to take it for a ride is like drying the dishes with the Shroud of Turin. So, very few ever have. When the now-disgraced pop star Michael Jackson wanted to transform into the Stratos Zero for his film Moonwalker he had to build a replica instead. But Nuccio Bertone did once steer it to Lancia’s headquarters, right after the unveiling at the 1970 Turin motor show. And when he couldn’t get past security, he swooshed right under the barrier. Or so the story goes.
‘Your legs feel quite vulnerable out in the nose. the crumple zone is basically your trousers’
That’s how low the Stratos Zero is. At 33 inches, it makes a Formula 1 car look like a double-decker. The later Stratos rally car is a full ten inches taller, a Ford GT40 measures 40 inches from the ground, and Pininfarina’s Ferrari Modulo from earlier that same year is 3in taller. Pininfarina was so convinced it could never make the Modulo driveable that it didn’t even bother: appropriate cooling, functioning brakes and other inconvenient necessities simply weren’t fitted. But the even more radical Stratos Zero did drive, once with Bertone himself, and once in the hands of magazine Quattroruote in Milan – though not, as is often mistakenly thought, with Emerson Fittipaldi at the wheel.
Even Gandini didn’t drive it, though he admitted how much fun he’d had in translating the simplest of strictures – how low can you go? – into a usable car. As he was solely responsible for its styling and engineering, he could bluntly sacrifice pretty much all conventions for his higher goal. Side doors proved to be impossible – no room – as were a dashboard or proper side windows. Yet the end result is not form over function for the sake of it. The basic philosophy is applied in such a straightforward manner that everything just feels right.
If the world hadn’t already become very comfortable with side doors, this concept could have been a pioneer in a long line of cars with front doors. This might be why it had to be driveable. In neglecting all existing rules, maybe Gandini felt compelled to maintain a link with reality.
Bertone had a crashed Fulvia HF lying around, so technicians spooned its front subframe with V4 engine, transaxle and suspension into the back of this concept car. That kept not only the dimensions minimal, but the final invoice, too: Bertone spent 40-million lire on this novel experiment. For comparison, a new Fulvia HF cost 2.25-million lire. Bertone’s star designer was flirting with the boundaries of the imaginable just as humanity was dreaming of distant space travel, and so Nuccio Bertone hoped to baptise the car ‘Stratolimite’. It later became Stratos HF and, eventually, Stratos Zero.
Apart from simply having the unfortunate Fulvia to hand, Bertone had another good reason to opt for this drivetrain. Catching Lancia’s attention was, from day one, the raison d’être of this extravagant exercise. Lancia had always been irritatingly loyal to Pininfarina’s classical approach. Nuccio hoped finally to seduce it with this scream for attention. But even the sassiest job application in automotive history didn’t work, as Lancia’s bosses weren’t even faintly interested when Bertone unveiled his dream car in Turin. Nor, strangely, was the public once the shock had subsided. Nobody considered the Stratos particularly beautiful. It wasn’t even a car.
And so Nuccio treated Lancia to a private viewing, at which its directors finally understood that they could actually build a compact sports car for little money and replace the obsolete Fulvia HF, win rallies and revive Lancia’s suffering image. The Stratos Zero ultimately became, via a big detour, the Stratos V6, which would go on to win three World Rally Championships.
Almost 50 years later – nearly a third of the whole of automotive history – it remains understandable why people were shocked by the Stratos Zero back then. In truth, many still are. It looks otherworldly but it also demonstrates all kinds of practical solutions. What first seems weird, out of place or disturbingly pure is also as logical as a Fiat Panda, and mostly it functions surprisingly well.
The black surface on the nose is a rubber household mat to improve shoe-grip during access. The geeky chocolate seat pattern feels divine and shrugs off the effects of those clumsy, stumbling shoes. There’s a simple key and the door lock is cleverly hidden in the Lancia logo. There’s luggage space behind the seats, too, with room for a spare wheel, although you shouldn’t plan any trips to Ikea. Air intakes are cleverly integrated into the stylish triangular engine cover, and the windscreen wiper, sheltering under a panel, is so neatly hidden that you’ll never find it without the manual.
Conventional front and rear lights having been sacrificed at the altar of purity and slender lines, the small strip on the nose is home to ten 55-watt bulbs and the red strips at the rear house 84 smaller ones. They double as indicators, the bulbs lighting up sequentially from the centre to the preferred direction. still think Audi’s flashy displays are breaking the mould? But, as you might expect and despite all this ingenuity, it’s the windscreen that steals all the attention. It lifts so high that it would be unreachable when relaxing in the lounge chairs within the cabin. So you just pull the steering wheel towards you, and a hydraulic system closes the window simultaneously.
Although the cabin feels claustrophobic – not to mention the fact that I bash the back of my head against the window beam every time I get in or out – I fit inside, even though I’m six feet tall. Regular drivers would do well to visit the gym: any hint of a beer-belly is visible through the side windows. The steering wheel with its spherical centre sits well in your hands, while your feet automatically fall on the pedals draped around the steering column as in a classic racing car.
But your legs feel vulnerable out front in the nose – the crumple zone is basically your trousers – so even ’70s Formula 1 drivers would file a health-and-safety complaint if team orders commanded the Stratos Zero as their mount. There’s no traditional dashboard; all functions are staged in a squared cluster at the left. The green hand-etched Perspex display looks wilder than Battlestar Galactica and is less readable than using braille while wearing gloves, but everything functions. It’s ingenious yet down-to-earth, as if the local handyman had built a spaceship for the annual parade. Quite apart from Gandini’s creativity, Bertone’s workshop guys understood their trade, too.
‘It’s as misunderstood as modern art once was. car collectors have conservative attitudes’
Although it wasn’t conceived to clock serious mileage, driving the Stratos Zero is close to addictive. It gets pretty hot on sunny days but, when you pick up speed, fresh air wafts through the side windows. These can be opened from the outside as well, by the way, so take care when you’re parking at the supermarket.
Despite the exhausts piercing out like the guns of Navarone, this is not a true screamer. The little V4 sounds like a heavily-tuned Alfa Giulia or a more refined Escort BDA: deep, slightly hollow and hoarse at lower revs and hammery when you floor it. Shame there isn’t a magical turbine-like shwwooosssssh to go with the spaceship styling, though; realising this time capsule runs on petrol like ordinary automobiles is like seeing Sophia Loren crossing a campsite with toilet paper under her arm. The 1.6-litre engine is no powerhouse but it reacts swiftly via its two twin-choke Solex carburettors, and it climbs the rev-counter like a hungry ape in a banana tree. The exact weight remains unknown, but 115bhp has no problem with this car’s BMI. The Zero accelerates as rapidly as its shape promises.
All the sensations are multiplied because you rumble along so low over the asphalt, bobsleigh-like, the steering wheel between your knees and the front wheels running parallel to your shins. The steering column moves to let you open or close the windscreen, but it’s fixed in one position while driving. Remarkably, its installation doesn’t show any flexibility and the Zero feels as taut as piano wire. You can place it with a precision and focus comparable to a Lamborghini or any other razor-sharp sports car with a cab-forward design. You barely notice that it relies on a Fulvia HF drivetrain turned around and shoehorned in the back.
The short clutch pedal is easy to use, the gear ratios are nicely spread and the gearlever clicks smoothly yet firmly through the five gears in a dog-leg layout – though the lever sits so clumsily under your knee that it’s close to impossible to select first gear. And Atlantis is easier to find than reverse.
The suspension cannot hide that this concept never experienced a complete testing cycle, either, as an uncomfortable wobble crawls into the car above 40mph. But then there’s only so much you can expect, with front MacPherson struts getting less space than a sausage in its skin, and a rear suspension assembly that was designed to keep a front-drive Fulvia planted. The aesthetically led tyre choice, ultra-high profile by today’s standards and mounted on 12in front rims and 13in rears, might not help either. But the front wheel envelopes allow easy parking manoeuvres, and the disc brakes do excellent work.
When studying pictures from the day when this space-rocket was driven into Milan, a bluish-green Alfa Romeo Giulia GT constantly pops up. Apparently a back-up car seemed appropriate back then, and it still is now. not because the Lancia is unreliable or wayward; once you’ve mastered the awkward gearchanges, it’s quite easy to drive. However, it goes so far under everyone else’s radar that you’re always in other vehicles’ blind spots.
You don’t see much yourself, either. it’s OK at the front, so long as you stay far from short-skirted ladies. Lying so low in your flashy device, you just don’t want to be that guy. But the triangular rear-view mirrors exist only for show, your own blind spot is bigger than the Bermuda triangle, and you see less than nothing left or right. Luckily, the telescopic rearview mirror paints quite a picture of what’s going on behind, even if you can’t adjust it yourself from behind the wheel.
such practicalities aren’t really relevant, though. This design study pushes the borders of the acceptable like Mark Rothko’s paintings or Joseph Beuys’ installations. it’s as misunderstood as modern art once was, too. When sold in 2011 after a thorough restoration, it brought only €761,000 to Bertone’s empty coffers. For the once-great coachbuilder to have let its ultimate masterpiece go for such a sum says a lot about car collectors’ conservative attitudes.
The stratos Zero perfectly intersects the disciplines of engineering, product design and art. Yet no matter how outlandish it looks, the stratos Zero actually works. it works pretty well, too, even half a century later.
This page, from top Possibly the best profile of any car ever, but view out of that side for the driver is non-existent; seats resemble chocolate bars, and this is the only way in. Opposite and this page Semi-reclining driver almost forms part of the crash structure; warmly dressed ladies emphasise Stratos Zero’s lowness at 1970 Turin show launch; access risible, driver visible, via hinged windscreen.