Mat Stratos: Stage Star’s Encore

Having wowed rally fans in the 1970s with its jaw-dropping looks and Dino V6 soundtrack, the Stratos has now been reborn. Richard Bremner drives it

1972 Lancia Stratos was built for the sole purpose of rallying

This is an idea that doesn’t want to die. Here we are, about to drive the third attempt to revive one of the most startling cars of the 1970s. This time, its latest re-creators tell us, there will be 25 new cars, each costing ¤550,000 (about £486,000) and demanding a difficult sacrifice first.

We’ll get to that. First, some words about why the Stratos beguiled then and beguiles now. Mostly, it’s about the shape. An assertive wedge of glassfibre-encased spaceframe, Lancia’s 1972 rally missile was capped with a visor-like wrap of glass – its scrabbling, darting, time-compacting mission underlined by an arrestingly cropped wheelbase and stunted overhangs.

Anorak-clad rallyists might glimpse the chisel-nose first as it came at them, but a three-quarter front pose was more likely – the Lancia’s quicksilver scythings visible confirmation of its back-biased mass. At night, its rear was unmistakable: a pair of big round lamps swinging gracefully between bends. All this, to the accompaniment of spitting gravel shrapnel, and the wolverine howl of a Ferrari Dino V6. With that sound, your wide-eyed, night-time, forest-prowling fans would mutter ‘Stratos’ – an incantation freighted with far more excitement than a Ford Escort admirer’s knowing ‘BDA’ shout, no matter how hard Boreham’s ‘Belt Drive type A’ motor was shouting. There was magic about the Stratos then and there’s magic in it now.

You’ll not only hear this car’s Ferrari engine but feel it through your seat too

So much magic that a young car designer called Chris Hrabalek, whose father owned a remarkable collection of originals, decided to set about creating a modern version.

That was more than 12 years ago. Hrabalek had a full-size clay model built at a Paris studio in 2005, before hiring his own stand at the Geneva motor show to display it under the ‘Fenomenon’ brand name, having already acquired the rights to the Stratos badge. The finished lime green machine was striking not only for its crisp modernisation of Marcello Gandini’s original design but also for an unmissably fresh element in the shape of a central pillar for the curved windscreen, which was now split, each half forming part of the doors.

Geneva showed there seemed to be enough momentum behind the project to move it forward, with rumours of Prodrive getting the job of turning an impressive model into a functioning car. That ambition stalled, but not before it had inspired German car parts magnate Michael Stoschek. He commissioned Italian car design specialist Pininfarina to develop a third iteration of the Stratos using a Ferrari F430 Scuderia as a basis. The Maranello car’s aluminium chassis was shortened to suit the Stratos’s proportions, while its engine was tuned to produce usefully more power.

The carbonfibre bodywork was built around the Ferrari’s aluminium spaceframe, to provide an exceptional power-to-weight ratio, while the weight distribution was very close to the ideal 50:50.

It was promising stuff. Stoschek went as far as holding an official launch for his car at Paul Ricard in 2010, with talk of perhaps producing a run of 25. But those cars never appeared, despite very favourable reviews of the Pininfarina one-off.

That seemed to be the end of the story until the Geneva motor show earlier this year, when the very same black Stratos appeared on the Manifattura Automobili Torino (MAT) stand. It was there because this small Turin company decided to restart the project, and build 25 examples. Stoschek is still involved, having granted MAT a licence to build the cars, but the project is now led by MAT boss Paolo Garella. The latter is not new to this project, having previously worked for Pininfarina, where he was deeply involved with it, reckoning that it was “one of the best one-offs built at Pininfarina”. He subsequently left, later set up MAT and has since produced track and road cars for Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus and the Apollo Arrow.

During his career, he’s been involved with more than 50 new car projects, so his knowledge runs deep. In his workshop, we see his first Stratos, a demonstrator, and the creation of a second car is well under way. It’s not long before we’re reminded that the jet-fighter wrap of a Stratos windscreen is not only a huge part of its visual appeal but also a huge part of the experience when you’re sitting behind it. Although this 21st-century Stratos has thicker pillars, they’re carbonfibre and a lot thinner than those of most modern cars. And because they’re pulled back well to the car’s sides, you enjoy a panoramic vista into which to unleash a fat 542bhp. Indeed, width is in fairly plentiful supply given that this is a supercar, and it’s most noticeable when you look down at the door trims, which carry huge scoops suitable for crash helmets, just like the original car. They’re great for a lot more than helmets, making this a more practical machine than it looks, if you can live without a boot.

We’re lucky to even strike 4000rpm, which leaves another 4000rpm to go

You must also live with instruments often blotted by not only the steering wheel but also a huge pair of carbonfibre paddleshifts and your hands. The aluminium-fronted binnacle references the original car’s, complete with the slightly haphazard dial location common in the 1970s.

Starting the Stratos is guaranteed to interrupt any thoughts you might have about the mixing of the old and new. Thumbing the red starter button on the steering wheel not only ignites the V8 but excites a light cacophony of vibratory sounds to go with it. The source of much of this is an optional Capristo exhaust system that enlivens the experience.

Pulling the right-hand paddle tips you into first gear and a world of yelping, yelling, air-ripping performance. Though not yet. Instead, Garella drives us to the foothills of the Alps near Fenestrelle, where you’ll also find the largest alpine fortification in Europe. There’ll be no time to admire that, however, because our aim is instead to explore the dynamic habits of this Stratos on the kind of tangled Tarmac frequented by its rallying ancestor. These are tight roads too, making the opportunities to deep-sink the throttle rare and particularly thrilling when they come. Most of the time we’re lucky to even strike 4000rpm, which leaves another 4000rpm to go, but when the full untethering of the V8 occurs, the scene in that windscreen comes at you as if it’s dropping from the sky.

While your brain processes that, you’ll not only hear this Stratos’s Ferrari engine but feel it through your seat too. If you want to experience the mechanical commotion of motion, you get it full-on in here. An amplified Ferrari engine is certainly appropriate to this car, given that the original Lancia was powered by the 2.4 V6 from the Dino. The MAT Stratos carries the Ferrari V8 of an F430, albeit fitted with a new intake manifold designed to generate extra low-rev torque.

Still more recognisably Maranello is the steering wheel. It’s branded ‘Stratos’, but there’s no mistaking it as a F430 item, complete with manettino dial. Once you’ve clocked that, you might notice more Ferrari parts, including the F430’s complete climate control system hanging beneath a bespoke Stratos dash, the passenger footbrace, the air vents, the centre console with its reverse gear button and more.

All of which brings us to the awkward issue of sacrifice. You’ve probably guessed it by now: in order to have a Stratos built, you must provide MAT with a Ferrari F430 to gut. It’s not a total sacrifice, of course, because much of the Ferrari’s aluminium chassis, the complete powertrain and the suspension form the basis of the new car. To the shortened chassis is attached a carbonfibre upper structure.

The result is a car far rarer than a mid-engined V8 Ferrari, but one that harnesses the F430’s superb e-diff-equipped running gear. Not that this goes unmodified: rather than using the Ferrari Skyhook electronic suspension, this car has a Bilstein system, adjusted independently of the manettino, which controls the throttle map, transmission strategy, traction and ESP. It takes some commitment to get to the point of electronic intervention, but on the way to it you discover strong chassis balance despite the shorter wheelbase, steering that’s more measured than you might expect and brakes that are very effective when you give them a decent shove. Great fluency is promised, aided by the paddleshift transmission, although that promise is not yet fully realised.

You’ll discover an over-soft rear end that allows more roll than expected and some fore-and-aft pitching. Garella says that the chassis set-up isn’t yet finished and the rear dampers will be stiffened by 10% on the production versions. The Stratos rides well, but potholes and sharp bumps trouble it, which is a surprise given how good the F430’s small bump absorption is. Different wheel sizes are the cause of this, he says.

But it’s easy to see the Stratos’s potential. It’s more compact than an F430, you get a better view out, it’s faster and, for many, much of its allure will lie in its rarity. Garella says you can specify your own chassis configuration, and given how good the base Ferrari hardware is, it’s easy to imagine a sensationally entertaining set-up, and one that rides well too.

This is far from a cheap car: the £70,000-plus cost of a donor F430 represents only a small percentage of the total bill, which nevertheless gets you a hand-built, well-developed and well-finished machine that will be satisfyingly rare. A

PHOTOGRAPHY Stan Papior