Works Stratos Testing Lancia’s Safari Rally legend. ‘Stripping the Lancia soon turned into something akin to an archaeological dig as each layer of its history was revealed’ Safari Rally Stratos. Works hard for a living. This works Lancia Stratos was driven so hard on the RAC Rally that it famously lost half its bodywork. Now it’s restored to its former glory. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Jayson Fong.
As we arrive at the first corner, it’s slippery under tyre, and the road stops being a road when we surf an Olympic-size puddle. Stones take flight, a tsunami of mud engulfs us, and Rob Johnston punts the car into a tight right-hander without displaying so much as a particle of doubt. Despite the ear defenders that also serve the in-car intercom, it’s still on the loud side – this car sounds angry, even at idle – but then there are four chain-driven camshafts spinning in their alloy heads only a few inches behind you. It’s a completely immersive experience, that’s for sure, with Johnston allowing himself a smile as he battles wheelspin and the elements, the next few minutes passing by in a blur: slide, slither, pointing straight, slither, brake, accelerate, sideways a bit, sideways a bit more, sideways a bit too much, pointing straight again. And repeat.
Johnston knows how to drive, that’s for sure. He is a former rally man and confirmed Italophile who helped to complete the restoration of this car and has since demonstrated it on the Forest Stage at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, among other events. He insists on warming-up the car by means of a few hot laps of his preferred test route with a journalist acting as ballast. Now it’s time to swap seats. No pressure. With heart still pounding from residual adrenaline, I adopt an arms-outstretched, legs-splayed stance. There is no choice. With the fuel pump primed, and following a couple of stabs at the throttle, the transverse V6 fires with exuberant fury. The competition clutch has no room for slippage: it’s either in or out. Into gear, release your left foot, a little gas and… Oh, lumme.
Past experience of driving a Stratos insists that there’s no room for tactility. You can drive one quickly in a straight line without any great effort, but enter a fast corner on a trailing throttle and the steering wheel may as well be for decorative purposes only. The car will merely plough on, understeering wildly. Apply power again and it runs through its full dynamic repertoire from understeer to neutral to laugh-out-loud oversteer in a heartbeat. It isn’t the least bit scary, just mentally draining.
In Group 4 spec, the Stratos is something else entirely. Though it offers plenty of tantalising water splashes, rural Somerset after heavy rainfall is a poor substitute for the Kenya savannah, but on damp asphalt there’s wheelspin in first, second and third. When it grips, it is sublime. It doesn’t feel ballistically fast, but the sense of immediacy is otherworldly. The same is true of the view ahead; it’s almost as though you’re seeing the world through a giant helmet visor.
The dogleg ’box has straight-cut gears, so you blip on up- and down-shifts, the purebred V6 redlining just shy of 8000rpm. Someway south of that, but still pressing on, it has a near-elastic power delivery. Anti-dive and anti-squat suspension geometry does a commendable job of keeping the front end tied down, although the back squirms slightly under braking, but it changes direction with breathtaking grace. With practice, and enough run-off area, you suspect you could master it in time, or at least delude yourself into believing as much.
Indeed, the biggest difficulty with driving a Group 4 Lancia Stratos in Alitalia warpaint and with open exhausts is that it’s difficult to appear inconspicuous. Neither are rural Somerset folk the same as the appreciative crowds cheering the Safari Rally Stratos through the desert. We make a new friend, who has been conversing with us via a barrage of gesticulation. Now he’s crouched by the driver’s side window, and thus begins a 50-decibel discourse. Yes, we have permission to be here. No, we weren’t speeding. No, it isn’t a Ferrari. Well, there are bits that are Ferrari. Sort of. Yes, it is meant to be this loud. No, we weren’t drifting. You’ve had troubles with drifters before? That’s terrible. Did we mention that we weren’t drifting? And so on, and so on.
Somehow, you doubt that Björn Waldegård was particularly worried about upsetting the natives when he steered this car on the Safari Rally in 1976. He didn’t have to lift for anything, save perhaps the occasional wildebeest.
For the Lancia’s owner, David Hanman, it’s just another day. Answering questions comes with the territory, however hostile, but then this car is his specialist subject. His Ahab-like obsession in restoring this ex-works rally weapon marks the realisation of a childhood dream, after all.
‘The RAC Rally used to pass through Longleat Safari Park, close to where I lived growing up. That’s where the passion for the Stratos stems from,’ he says, smiling at the memories. ‘Back in the late ’80s, when I was in my early twenties, my dad and I began looking at building a kit car. I wanted a Countach replica, and we went to a show in Stoneleigh to have a look at one. It was appalling. Next to it, though, was an amazingly well-made kit called a Transformer [now Hawk]. It was a close copy of a Stratos, the car I had been fascinated with since I was ten years old. I had to have one.
‘In 1989, I bought a kit and spent most weekends and evenings over the next two years completing the car. It had a 2.0-litre Fiat twin-cam engine tuned by the Rizzuti brothers, and in 1994 the car earned a degree of fame after Jeremy Clarkson borrowed it for a magazine article. He declared it “the most heterosexual car I have ever been in” and the feature was run under the headline: “Jeremy’s in love with a kit car”. In the late 1990s, I replaced the Fiat engine with a 12-valve Alfa Romeo V6 unit and converted the body to Group 4 spec. I ended up fully restoring the car, and repainted it lime green.’
While the Hawk sated Hanman’s passion for a while, the desire to own the real thing was never far away. ‘In 2011, while I was rebuilding “Kermit”, I bought some original Stratos Stradale seats from a dealer in Turin. Then I pestered him for help to find an original Group 4 car, but none that he suggested interested me. Then photos arrived showing what was purportedly an ex-works car that had been driven by Waldegård in 1975- 76. What’s more, it was owned by the former president of the Lancia Club of Italy, Maurizio Aldo Forleo. The dealer went to Pistoia to look at it for me, and we researched its provenance. Everything checked out; the car had been listed on the World Stratos Register since the 1980s. So I took a deep breath and bought it sight-unseen: I was living and working in Asia.’
After delving further into the car’s history, it became clear that chassis 469 had quite the pedigree. Wearing the licence number TOM 26363, it was originally piloted by Raffaele ‘Lele’ Pinto, who claimed the 1975 Alpi Orientali Rally honours. Later that year, Björn Waldegård drove it to victory on the Sanremo Rally, which by then was a round of the World Rally Championship. At the end of the season, the Swede steered the car on the RAC Rally of Great Britain, by which time it was equipped with a 24-valve engine.
It was during this event that, famously, the rear bodywork parted company with the rest of the car on the Langdale Forest stage. Waldegård never slackened his pace thereafter, the future World Champion claiming the fastest time on 44 special stages. It didn’t do him any good, mind, because he was later excluded (Hanman recently located the lost bodywork and original licence plate in Scotland).
The car then wore a new number – TON 12661 – ahead of the ’1976 season. Waldegård finished second on the Monte Carlo Rally, having been under team orders not to challenge team-mate Sandro Munari for the win, but retired from the Swedish and Safari rounds. In July of that year, it was driven by Tony Carello (of Carello lighting fame) on the Valli Piacentine Rally, but he failed to finish after connecting with something immovable.
In October ’1976, the car was at the centre of one of the more controversial episodes of the works programme. On the Sanremo Rally, Waldegård was under orders once again to play second fiddle to Munari. He won by four seconds and was promptly fired. Carello then drove the car to the end of the year, winning the Ciocco Rally along the way. ‘In 1977, the car was entered for the Safari Rally and driven by Robin Ulyate,’ says Hanman. ‘After that, it was retained by Lancia Corse as a spare. It is listed in Lancia’s records as having been crashed at some point in late 1977. By that stage, it was driven primarily on minor events, which still scored points for the team.’ After it had been campaigned extensively over so many seasons, and in so many different configurations, it fell to Hanman to decide how best to restore it. And he wasn’t lacking options.
‘I decided to return the car to 1976 Safari-spec. There were already quite a few ex-works Group 4 cars out there, as well as a number of converted Stradales. A Safari car with a 12-valve engine would be unique. There are no others.’
Stripping the Lancia soon turned into something akin to an archaeological dig as each layer of its history was revealed. ‘We discovered that there had been a fair amount of chopping and changing, as you would expect of a car that had been used by a works team for such a long spell. There were obvious signifiers of its Safari history, not least holes in the roof for the spare-wheel carrier and a relocated antenna mount. There were also Safari suspension mounts, and a special bracket for the fitment of external voltage regulators for 12-valve cars, which also allowed the fitment of ignition coils for the 24-valve cars. We also found threaded holes and a dent in one of the rear chassis members, which I only recently learned were the mountings for external voltage regulators for when the car was fitted with 24-valve engines.
‘All of these witness marks and brackets pointed to the fact that the car had been regularly rebuilt by Lancia in different forms, depending on the event. For example, on the 1976 Monte Carlo Rally it was equipped with an external cut-out switch and an additional spring-latch either side, just in front of the fuel-filler caps. I noticed these on a high-resolution image that was sent to me by a friend.
‘When we looked at the body from underneath, a one-inch disc had clearly been welded exactly where the cut-out had been mounted in 1976, and the springlatch holes had also been welded up. After stripping the car to bare metal, we kept hitting further welds, and finding evidence of alterations which could then be traced using period photos. It soon became more of a forensic exercise than a restoration.’
Being principally based in Asia brought with it a few logistical problems, as did finding someone who was willing to take on the project. ‘I was surprised at how difficult it was,’ Hanman says. ‘The restoration began in Italy, but it was an unmitigated disaster. It got to the point that two years passed with little to show by way of progress. I then mounted a rescue operation and brought the car back to the UK along with most of the original parts. That was back in 2013. I then took it to Hawk Cars in Frant, where we discovered more evidence of its Safari history, not least modifications to the chassis, and where the front and rear suspension had been strengthened. We also found pick-up points for the belly and sump-guards, which fully protected the underside, unlike on other Group 4 cars.
‘The previous owner had restored the car in the 1980s, and re-painted it dark blue. He did this after learning from Lancia’s records that this had been the colour of the original Stradale donor. However, Bertone’s records stated that it was originally green. Once we had stripped all the blue paint off, and then removed parts from here and there, green paint popped out from places not seen since the car was originally put together at Bertone more than 40 years ago.’
There was, however, no intention of turning the Stratos into a concours queen. ‘Once the car was back to bare metal, all the scrapes, dents, and dings that the car had picked up along the way were all too apparent, but the chassis was straight, strong and surprisingly intact. On the lower sills, we uncovered some dents with filler in them. They matched those seen in the historic photos I had since received from the German photographer Reinhard Klein, so we decided to reveal them and took the filler out. The dents add to the patina and tell at least part of the car’s story.
‘We initially painted the body tub in the same original Verde Chiaro paint that Bertone used when the car was born as a Stradale.’ The chassis and interior were then painted black and the body finished in the same Alitalia livery, although, distinct from other cars, those used on the Safari Rally had white roofs that kept the cockpits cooler in the harsh African sun.
‘The paintwork was done by Kingswell Coachworks in Battle. They use a special process to age the paint and make it look 40 years old straight out of the booth. The last thing I wanted was shiny new paint. The way it came out was perfect: it looked as though it had been sitting in a barn for decades and then buffed. I was even offered “stone chips” for the wheelarches, but declined because I wanted to pick up some for real by blasting the car down a forest track.
‘After that, I took the Stratos to my own workshop in Frome, Somerset, for a year-and-a-half and worked on the dashboard, interior and electrics, spending half my time in Asia and the rest working on the car. I had to re-engineer a number of small items such as the throttle linkage – an original Lancia Corse mechanism, half of which had gone missing in Italy. Once again, the Klein photos, and others, helped tremendously.
‘It got to the point that I began thinking like a Lancia Corse mechanic. Everything fitted to the car is functional, and fitted in a simple way. In many ways the restoration was simple, precisely because there were so many witness marks and rivet holes. It was easy to work out where everything fitted. A prime example is the gearlever mounting cup, which has to be offered up from underneath the car. It needs two people to fit it: one under the car, the other in the cockpit to push the mounting bolts through, as would be done on a Stratos Stradale.
‘However, if you drill a small hole in the floor of the car, and use a trolley jack under the cup, then screw a self-tapper through the floor into the cup, it all sits in place and becomes a one-man job. The little holes were there and, after struggling to fit the linkage, I soon worked out why Lancia Corse had made this minor, but significant, modification.’
As is to be expected, the car’s Dino V6 engine has a story to tell. ‘The Stratos engine was an evolution of the Ferrari and Fiat versions. It had revised oilways and a “D” was stamped on all Lancia blocks. The block is stamped with numbers that were later traced to Sandro Munari’s test engine from the 1975 Safari Rally.
Engines were routinely swapped around, rebuilt, respecified and re-installed during Lancia’s campaign with the Stratos, so it is no great surprise that my car was fitted with an ex-Munari unit. Waldegård’s 1976 Safari car was equipped with a 240bhp, 12-valve engine with triple Weber 44 IDF carbs rather than the 48s used on Tarmac-spec 12- and 24-valve works cars.’
Even after the briefest of sorties, it’s obvious that Hanman’s preoccupation with getting the car exactly right has paid off. Inside, it’s much as you might remember of any other Stratos, save for the twin Halda Speedmasters and the electronic ignition box, which is mounted upside-down, exactly where Waldegård’s co-driver Hans Thorszelius wanted it in period so that he could adjust it on the fly. Then there’s the extra horn button fixed to the passenger-side door, the cockpit-drainage system mounted to the floor, complete with flapper valve that lets water out but not in, and, strangest of all, a couple of Chinese-made thermos flasks that form part of the hydration system. Hanman tracked down new-old-stock originals in Greece. This Stratos is magnificent on so many levels, but the attention to detail lavished on it is what is most extraordinary. Yet, having invested so much time and money restoring his dream car, the commendable part is that Hanman isn’t prissy about using it as Lancia Corse intended. Quite the opposite. Later this year, expect to see this Safari veteran scorching special stages or flying the friendly skies on a raft of events, and not just in the UK. Judging by the reverent look in his eyes each time he surveys the Lancia’s outré outline, the spell cast by the Stratos more than 40 years ago has yet to diminish. But that’s the thing about dreams: sometimes you just have to surrender to them.
Tech and photos
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1975 Works Lancia Stratos
Engine 2419cc V6, DOHC per bank, three Weber 44IDF carburettors
Max Power 240bhp @ 7800rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 203lb ft @ 6050rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Left and right Björn Waldegård in this very Stratos on the way to winning the 1975 Rallye Sanremo; today, though fully restored, it wears its battle scars with pride. Above and above right Cockpit is busy and businesslike, with original driver/co-driver intercom plus rally tripmeters; engine is the fabled quad-cam Dino V6, although – uniquely for a Safari Rally car – it has two valves per cylinder. Clockwise from far left Writer Heseltine gets strapped into the hot seat; a water splash seems like natural territory for a Stratos; that wedge profile is still startling. Above Waldegård, Munari, the Safari Rally, Monte Carlo, the RAC, Sanremo… few cars have such a distinguished history as this works Stratos.
‘On damp asphalt, there’s wheelspin in first, second and third, but when it grips, it is sublime’
‘There had been a fair amount of chopping and changing, as you would expect of a car that had been used by a works team for such a long spell’