The British summer of 1976 was famously long and hot, the sky-high temperatures sparking hitherto unprecedented events such as the appointment of a UK Minister for Drought and an explosion in the ladybird population to newsworthy levels. But what I remember best about August ’76 (at which time I was 12) is the fact that the local greengrocer near our north London home bought another new car.
His shop was called Peter’s and I always looked forward to passing by, because Peter appeared to change exotic automobiles as often as I changed my socks. One month he would be lifting a sack of onions into the boot of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, while the next he’d be making an express delivery of bananas behind the wheel of a Mustang Fastback, or adjusting a pavement display of cauliflowers while admiring the lines of his De Tomaso Pantera.
This time, though, Peter had excelled himself – he had only gone and bought a Lancia Stratos, at the time the coolest, quickest, funkiest, most outrageous-looking motor on the planet. Back then almost anyone who loved cars loved the Stratos, a tiny, wedge‑shaped machine powered by the 2.4-litre engine from Ferrari’s discontinued Dino. The world’s first purpose-built rally car, it entered production in 1973 and proceeded to win the World Rally Championship three years in succession in the hands of Italy’s Sandro Munari and Swede Björn Waldegård.
Raw, claustrophobic and designed to race without compromise (there were even crash helmet “bins” built into its doors), the Stratos was not the ideal car in which to do the school run or potter to the shops, but the homologation requirements for Group 4 rallying meant at least 500 road-legal examples had to be made. In the event, only 492 were built before production came to an end in 1975, and many proved hard to shift due to their unsuitability for daily use. Such was its capability as a rally car, however, that the Stratos was still winning major international events up until 1981 and, as collectors began to realise its historical significance and rarity, values crept up and have continued to do so to the point that a good, original Stradale (or road) version will now command up to £650,000.
One of the first enthusiasts to really appreciate the importance of the Stratos was a Royal College of Art-trained car designer called Chris Hrabalek, who once accumulated 11 examples (and became embroiled in an unseemly ownership dispute with his father that ended up in court). Hrabalek’s love of the model inspired him to develop a concept based on the look of the original and dubbed the “on-road, off-road” supercar. Called the Fenomenon, it was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in 2005, following which Hrabalek set about finding investors. Although 10 came forward the plan failed to progress, but one of the would-be backers – automotive parts tycoon Michael Stoschek – was so enthused by the idea of a “new” Stratos that he decided to go ahead on his own and commission Italian design house Pininfarina to create a one-off car from scratch (a project rumoured to have cost €3m-€5m).
The deal was agreed in 2008, with the finished car being delivered in 2010 – and it quickly caused a sensation. Based on the substructure of a Ferrari 430 Scuderia, it was instantly recognisable as having been inspired by the original Stratos but featured a wind tunnel-tested body and the Ferrari’s 4.3-litre, V8 engine that offered a top speed of around 195mph. During the past decade Stoschek has driven the New Stratos at events in Europe and it frequently appears at historic rallies as a crowd-pleasing course car that, inevitably, plenty of people have expressed a desire to own.
But since Stoschek apparently has no intention of selling, most moneyed enthusiasts had given up hope – until a long-standing rumour that he might put the car into strictly limited production finally became a fact in February this year, with the announcement that 25 examples would be made by specialist, small-series builder Manifattura Automobili Torino.
MAT’s CEO is Paolo Garella, formerly Pininfarina’s special projects manager who worked with Stoschek during the development of the first New Stratos but left halfway through the build. In 2014 he founded MAT, which has since worked on many exotic, ultra-low-volume or one-off supercars, including the SCG003 for Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus and the upcoming Apollo Intensa Emozione. “The possibility of actually putting the New Stratos into small-scale production has been under consideration for some time, but it finally became a reality after I wrote an email to Michael [Stoschek] on December 4 last year,” recalls Garella. “We met to discuss it in January and decided very quickly that there was a market for the car among people who wanted something special but not too extreme – one hears about crazy automobile projects all the time, but few of them actually happen because there are usually no serious buyers. What people seem to want is a ‘retro modern’ car they can drive every day and have fun with – and the New Stratos really appeals to a cluster of enthusiasts in their 40s and 50s with whom the Stratos name resonates. They have fond memories of the car when it was racing, and they can now afford to give themselves a present.”
What neither Garella nor Stoschek wanted to replicate, however, was the cramped interior of the original Stratos, its unforgiving ergonomics, its often questionable build quality or the rattles, bangs, creaks and mechanical racket that have come to be regarded as being part and parcel of its character, but which are clearly undesirable in a modern road car.
As a result, the New Stratos is considerably more refined, with a comfortable, bespoke interior and mod cons such as power-steering, airconditioning and a paddle-shift, semi-automatic gearbox. In a strictly limited edition of 25 cars costing €550,000 (plus local taxes), each New Stratos will be based on a Ferrari F430 “donor” vehicle – to be purchased separately at an additional cost of around €60,000-€80,000 – which must meet Garella and Stoschek’s exacting standards before the build commences. “We are being very strict about that,” says Garella. “We will only build on perfect chassis from cars that have never been crashed or damaged and which have full Ferrari dealer histories.”
Once the donor car arrives at MAT, it is stripped to its bare bones before the chassis is reduced in length by 20cm. After that, every other component required for reuse is dismantled, cleaned and refinished prior to fitting, with clients being given the choice to have the F430 engine made slightly “softer” or to have it “tweaked” to produce up to 600hp.
The body, meanwhile, is made entirely from carbon fibre and fitted with a specially made windscreen that’s instantly evocative of the jet-fighter look of the original Stratos, as is the distinctive, roof-mounted spoiler. A variety of setup options is available, with the possibility of the car being configured as a daily-driver supercar, a track-ready GT racer or even in a safari guise redolent of the 1970s versions that raced in the East African Safari Rally, complete with front and rear bull bars and a roof-mounted spare wheel. “The F430 is an excellent platform for the car, because its electronics are not too complex and it has a superb engine,” says Garella. “The fact that the New Stratos is both shorter and around 100kg lighter, however, makes it far more agile and great to drive on twisty roads – but we have also engineered the suspension to make it as comfortable as possible over longer distances. We want it to be easy to live with.”
The revelation a few months ago that the New Stratos would, at last, enter limited production prompted more than 100 enquiries from around the world and, at the time of writing, Garella says MAT has “about 10” signed contracts and the first two cars are under build. It seems inevitable that the remainder will be sold, not least since Garella and Stoschek have given their word that no more than 25 will ever be made. Indeed, events are already being organised for the fortunate few owners, including a non-competitive programme devised with Traum Motorsport that will take in some of Europe’s most famous rally routes, with roads being booked out and closed to the public so New Stratos drivers can get the chance to relive the glory days of Munair and Waldegård. Plans are even afoot to hold one such event on a snow-covered mountain in order to replicate stages of the famed Monte Carlo rally that the original Stratos won on no fewer than four occasions.
If Peter the greengrocer is still around I have little doubt that he’ll fancy a New Stratos for himself – but if he’s counting cauliflowers in the sky, I’m sure he’ll be looking down on MAT’s pristine assembly area with the greatest approval.