The last meeting of this caliber took place in 1986, so the time was certainly ripe to organize another “Lancia Stratos Meeting”, gathering together several dozen of what is one of the most iconic rally cars ever built. Together, the 46 Stratos present made a great soundtrack and, for the entire weekend of the 25th-26th of June, the valleys around Biella (Italy) resounded with the sound of their engines. While we were surrounded by these wonderful cars, we also met the men, from drivers and co-drivers to mechanics and general managers, who have made this car truly great, or, as they modestly put it, have been made great by this car.
As we have said, there were 46 cars in attendance. Although this is a huge number, it was not a record (the 1986 Stratos-only festival attracted about 80 cars); nevertheless, given the market value of the Stratos today and the busy agenda of car collectors, this can be said to be a very good result. There were also some other Stratos in the Biella area over the weekend, taking part in a rally for the Classic Rally Cars Championship, and some of these stopped by on the Friday evening, just for the pleasure of saying “Hi”. Erik Comas, Stratos lover and ex-Formula 1 driver, who boasts a white Stratos with an amazing sound, was among these visitors. Unfortunately his rally didn’t go very well, and we were all sorry to learn that he had crashed during a special stage on the Saturday, while leading the rally by almost 30 seconds.
Sought-after Biella badge
Biella, a town with a population of around 40,000 people, is situated mid-way between Italy’s two major northern cities, Milan and Turin. Since the 1960s it has been said that the only foreigners familiar with Biella are ones who work in the textile trade and ones who do rallies. The area around Biella, with its beautiful twisty roads going around endless hills and mountains, has provided the setting for some of the most beautiful special stages in the history of rally driving and it is the native home of the Maglioli family, who are by far the most renowned Stratos specialists ever. Such was the level of their expertise that even the Lancia works team would sometimes come to them for help. When the road version of the Stratos was released, buyers were soon disappointed by the poor handling of the car, which was due mostly to the suspension setting and the single size of all four wheels. The Magliolis quickly became the people to go to, as soon as you had a new Stratos, to get “some work” done and bring your car closer to the excellent standards that we know today. Just as normal drivers made this journey to the Magliolis, so too did many racers, probably in far greater number, and cars “tuned in Biella” went on to enjoy many years of success all over the world.
The Facetti brothers
The “other” Stratos geniuses, alongside the Magliolis, are the Facetti brothers from Milan. Both brothers attended the meeting in Biella, where they enjoyed the show and saw so many old friends that they ended up spending practically all their time talking. The only moment when everybody around them fell silent was when they were asked to replace the spark plugs in a car; when the hood was opened, the car was seen to be equipped with a very early fuel injection system, originally installed by the brothers themselves. “Fuel injecting this engine was a necessary transition in order to increase its drivability and torque as much as its power” they commented. “With a fuel-injected Stratos, equipped with a turbo engine too, “we” won the “Tour of Italy” in 1976. The team on that occasion was Facetti and Sodano and it is a race that we remain very proud of to this day, because it was a struggle to finish the car in time and ensure it was reliable.”
The Stratos was a tough car made to win hard races in difficult conditions, and the conditions that the drivers encountered on the road during the Saturday tour were certainly that: a heavy storm, flooded roads and a strong wind. After ten beautiful Italian summer days, the Saturday morning start was marred by heavy rain, which forced three cars to stay parked because they were equipped with slick tires. The other teams all set off, providing a demonstration of the fact that Stratos owners are made of much sterner stuff than typical classic car show entrants, and have just the right spirit. The pace they kept was further evidence of their attitude, even though several older racers declared that the performances could have been even “better, much better”. At the end of the day, the sun returned, creating considerably humid conditions. This was exacerbated by the fact that not all the cars had completely watertight cockpits and, in these cases, the “pond” that had formed at the bottom of the cockpit immediately began to evaporate in the heat of the car caused by the running and the sun. “It was like being in a sauna”, said one entrant while changing his t-shirt. There is indeed a very good reason why an experienced Stratos owner always keeps a set of spare dry shirts to hand.
Are any two Stratos the same?
This is the question that naturally sprang to mind on looking around. It is not often we have an opportunity to compare so many specimens all in close proximity, and the owners all went round examining the cars and trying to spot differences between them. Most came back quite puzzled by what they had seen. To cut a long story short, we can officially say that the answer to the above question is no. There exist no two Stratos that are absolutely identical. Even the road legal cars all have some minor differences, usually in small details or components. Stratos were originally racing cars, assembled without too much attention to detail and using pieces sourced from different manufacturers, and they were sometimes modified once they had some racing experience. All this amounts to cars that are, from the perspective of today’s standards, a nightmare to restore, because there is little possibility of using another car as a template. Pictures from the past — luckily there are many of these because Stratos were so impressive that people and magazines took lots of pictures of them — provide the best reference source.
There they were all there together, gathered around a table near the swimming pool, chatting and laughing. It was impossible to resist stopping and joining in, because it is certainly not every day that we find mechanics, a team manager like Daniele Audetto (back then co-driver for the works team), and drivers and co-drivers like Silvio Maiga and Amilcare Ballestrieri all in the same place at the same time. Memories came flooding back, mainly of long journeys in a road car pulling a trailer carrying a racing Stratos, shared cheap hotel rooms, shortcuts “invented” to gain time during a special stage, and the odd crash. The most talked about rally? The East African Safari, renamed the Safari Rally in 1974, where adventures, including some quite hair-raising ones, were the order of the day. This was, by far the highlight of the whole meeting – a couple of hours during which, for once, the cars were left behind and the people took center stage.
Some of the participating Lancia Stratos cars
Almost all the cars had a fascinating history that deserves to be reported. We therefore decided to pick one, just as an example, and opted for the oldest homologated car. Number plated TO L52901, registered in late September 1974, it is the only surviving, unmodified, car of the “Marlboro Livery” period. With Stratos having finally achieved its much awaited homologation, it made its official debut at the 1974 Tour de France, where, driven by Andruet and Biche, it came third overall. Then, in the hands of Munari and Sodano, it competed in the 1974 RAC race, valid for the World Championship, again coming third overall. In 1975 it became the works team test car for Bjorn Waldegaard before being sold for the 1976 season to Sergio Crugnola, who raced it, and then kept it until 1987. The car was then sold to two collectors, and some years later, in 2002, was bought by its current owner. It still has the trademarks of the very first series, such as the rounded rear wheel arches, only two front extra lights (with alloy structure, not fiberglass as seen on later cars), and a rear trunk without a spoiler. The extra front lights are a peculiar feature, being a little bigger (18.8 centimeters as opposed to 18) than those of the later cars. They have the look of the famous “Megalux” by Carello, but they are bigger as these lights are the kind used on the trains of the Italian national rail company.
Header pic and first gallery by Julien Mahiels, all other pics courtesy of the author.