The paint is crazed and peeling in patches. The shapely edges of the front and rear wheelarches are peppered with stone chips, scrapes and scratches. And there is a crack in that erotically curvaceous windscreen that’s been stopped in its tracks by a repair.
When it pulls off the road and stops behind the camera car at our agreed meeting place on the edge of Sydney’s Royal National Park, I’m vaguely disappointed when I see this genuine, rally-prepped Lancia Stratos Stradale looking like this. Frankly, I’d expected it to be immaculate.
Still, it’s knockout good-looking. It’s tinier than I thought possible. There’s that full-on bank of driving lights across the bonnet, that unique wing hovering over the roof at the back of the cabin, those wafer-thin A-pillars perched impossibly far round the edges of that amazingly curved ‘screen. And seconds into our conversation, it’s obvious that owner William Zuccon loves it.
The wheels are Aussie Simmons, rather than originals. There’s a non-standard, rally-style flip-up vent on the leading edge of the roof. And there’s an airdam under the nose that I don’t remember ever seeing in photographs.
Once reclined in the passenger seat (you don’t just ‘sit’ in a Stratos), four-point harness clipped, we head off down the twisty hillside road towards the causeway in this car I’ve always dreamed about. But it’s immediately obvious that this one’s not just a bit, well, used, but a creaker, rattler and whistler.
In fact it feels so dodgy, I’m reminded of some of the old dungers I used to fang around in as a kid, when I’d ‘drive around’ the loose steering, slipping clutch, so-so brakes and suss noises coming from somewhere in the front-end simply because it was a thrill to be driving at last and out on the open road. We’ve all done it.
Back in the moment.
We wind our way down the hill and approach the right-hander onto the causeway much faster than I’d expected. The Stratos bottoms-out and thumps hard into a broken patch of concrete on the left, then another on the right.
I’m still a bit underwhelmed. In fact, I’m now actually a bit alarmed by how creaky and rattly this example of the car I’ve lusted after for so long. Photographer Thomas is waiting in the carpark at the bottom of the hill, and William and I pull up to him, unscrew the knurled knobs set in the bare-bones doortrim and swing down those unique side windows through their arc. He explains to William that he wants him to drive across the bumpy causeway and back a few times, so he can get some pan shots of the car.
We drive out of the carpark and, half expecting this hugely-collectable car to snap in two, I suggest to William that we probably should aim for about 50 or 60 kays cruising speed for the purpose, lights on. He explains that the left front headlight mechanism’s problematic and it probably won’t pop-up anyway. However, he doesn’t say anything about what he’s going to do next.
We bump and thump our way across the causeway relatively slowly, that legendary V6 growling behind us as we hook hard into the uphill left-hander on the other side, then pull off into the tree-lined side road that runs down to the canoe-hire kiosk on the riverbank. The Stratos creaks as William dials-in an armful of right-hand-down lock for a U-turn. We rejoin the main road. And then it happens…
William gives it a huge bootful, and we hurtle down into the right-hander, bump, thump and, it seems, grind our way across the causeway, the Dino V6 now wailing like the proverbial. William, who I’ve never driven with before, is snatching gears at a great rate and, I must admit, scaring the living daylights out of me. Uh-oh, I think; the red mist has descended and this guy thinks he’s Sandro Munari and is out to impress us at any cost.
I’m alarmed not so much because we’re going so quickly that I think William’s going to kill me, but because I’m expecting a strut to punch up through the bodywork or some other expensive thing to break, thereby ending our day right there and then. For a lot of reasons, that’s a prospect I’m not happy about.
I look across at William, trying not to appear too concerned. He remains unfazed, and steers hard right, back into the carpark. I expect him to pull in to where Thomas is standing, shut the engine down and explain to him that the causeway’s way too rough and he doesn’t want to damage the car. Instead, Thomas gives us a thumbs up, William nods, and we wheel back out onto the main road for another run.
We bounce and howl and hurtle across the causeway again. And again. Okay. This is how it is, I tell myself. William’s comfortable. Clearly, he can drive. And it’s obvious that the car isn’t going to break in half, after all. Time to relax and forget we’re in something that’s not just a half-million-dollar-or-so museum piece but a 40-year-old rally-honed weapon that’s showing its age, sure, but is decidedly unbowed, bearing up well, and ready for more of the same.
Later in the day, having clambered over the broad sill, I’m strapped in and again nestled, banana-lounge style, in one of the Stratos’s low-slung bucket seats. But this time I’ve grabbed the steering wheel as I’ve lowered myself in, and I’m feeling-out the famously off-centre pedals and looking at a view that’s blessedly free of the too-fat A-pillars that blight the driving experience in most modern cars.
The instruments are tiny and, frankly, nothing special. In fact, most of them, together with some of switchgear, are Fiat X1/9. William has told me that the engine has been built to run to 9000rpm, not the 8000rpm redline shown. No pressure, then.
Yes, I’m a bit nervous. Partly because this car is worth so much money and the last thing I want to do is bend it, but also because I’ve noticed owner William’s rapid but methodical approach to negotiating the clutch, gearshift and race-style straight-cut gears; and he’s owned the car for 10 years or more. This is my first go in it.
The light’s fading, too. The windscreen’s still a bit grimy from the salt spray it’s copped during this afternoon’s long photo shoot on the breakwater, and I’m expecting a fair bit of traffic out there in the real world since it’s not long past knock-off time for the overworked tradies and stressed office workers anxious to get home.
I look down at the bare-bones footwell, at those alloy pedals and realise that, hey, this car reminds me of a lot of race cars I’ve driven, albeit cautiously, over the years. And that’s how I should approach this car: cautiously. I’m glad I’ve first seen how William drives it, rather than hopping straight in and having a go at it cold. Forget heroics. I’ve been given a chance to drive a genuine Stratos, the owner is sitting right there, next to me, and I’m going to take it easy. At first, anyway.
I dip the clutch, rehearse my changes (first is down to the left, opposite reverse, the rest an H-pattern), blip the throttle a couple of times, to get a feel for what’s to come, and ease the Stratos out of the carpark and on to the road. To get a feel for the steering, I saw a couple of times at the small, thin-rimmed wheel – skewed away from me to the right, just as I remember it was in the TE Gemini on its launch all those years ago. I get some revs up, reach for the tiny gearlever on my left … and, embarrassingly, graunch the gears. Damn! I hate that.
William’s sympathetic. “Don’t worry, I’ve done it plenty of times,” he tells me. That only makes me feel marginally better. Okay. Apply the brakes, turn right out of the feeder road in first, get it up to speed, determined not to fluff the next change and … graunch the gears again. “Damn,” I mouth, or words to that effect.
We press on, and I make a mess of the next change, too. This is not going well, and now I’m really annoyed with myself. I’m already expecting William to make me pull over, telling me that I’ve had my chance, failed, and it’s better that he drives because, well, he’s good at it and I’m not. He doesn’t say anything like that at all, but is still offering encouragement. Obviously, he’s a patient and understanding man. I’m impressed, but still disappointed in myself.
We’re coming up to a big roundabout filled with what suddenly seems to be a writhing sea of Hiluxes, Commodores, Territorys, the usual. It’s obvious that I’m going to have to change down to second, risk graunching gears again, and negotiate this horde of home-goers.
But I don’t. Change down, that is. The engine feels torquey as all get out, and I decide to leave it in third and ride it out through the roundabout mayhem. It’s a good plan, and we sail through uninterrupted. I’m pleased about that and it gives me no end of confidence.
Now, I feel I’m ready to get out there and mix it with this lot. Ready to revel in that torque, the marvellously responsive and light steering, the thrill of guiding a car like this through what at first seemed like a heaving mass of traffic but now looks to be merely a series of obstacles to be dealt with as smoothly as possible. And that’s the way it goes from then on. No heroics; relax and revel in the sensations that abound in this rally-ready Stratos.
Through the traffic grinding its way out of town, past the speed camera William warns me about on approach. Into the big left-hand sweeper at the bottom of the mountain – the car feeling beautifully balanced and growly; not rattly and creaky, as I’d been focused on before. Give it some more throttle and, hallelujah, we’re up onto the freeway.
I’m feeling more comfortable now, and I go to point out something up ahead to William, I forget what … and inadvertently stub my forefinger on the windscreen; I expected it to be close, but not that close. It really is only a few centimetres away from my nose.
Up the mountain we go, and I’m getting my eye in and using the tiny side mirrors to pick my way through the traffic and, still in fifth and with one eye cocked for coppers, starting to pick up some decent speed.
I start to tick off all those things I’d read about driving a Stratos. It’s supposed to swap ends if I so much as sneeze; I sneeze, and it doesn’t. The pedals and wheel are going to be so out of whack it’ll be awkward to get comfortable. Nope, I’m starting to feel right at home. I’m going to be so close to my ‘navigator’ – in this case, owner William – we’re going to be rubbing shoulders and I’m going to feel constrained trying to shift gears.
No way; I’m surprised by how roomy it actually is. It’s not the greatest view rearward through that tiny back window but, hey, I’d been driving the office long-termer Honda CR-Z, the rearward view from which is pretty much Stratos-like. And, yes, you can fit driver’s helmets in those big door bins; I brought one along, and tried it.
In short, I realise that much of what I’ve read about driving a Stratos is rubbish. As William says, “Most of those things are furphies. Journalists have to write something…”
I’m now happy to work that glorious V6 between fourth and fifth – there’s plenty
of torque on tap – listen to it doing its thing, again enjoy the sensations, and relax with the car at last. And it just feels so light at the tiller, so responsive to the throttle, so … well, driveable.
And then I realise that it doesn’t matter that some of its paint is peeling, the windscreen is cracked, and there are stone chips, scrapes and other signs that this Stratos has led a hard life. It doesn’t matter that it bottomed-out hard and often on the causeway this morning and that William was continually reaching for the redline, flinging it through corners and giving this iconic, hugely desirable car hell. Because that’s the way it’s been driven for most of its life: hard, fast and often. And that’s the point.
4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS
LIKE: Hugely accelerative, plentiful torque, great forward visibility, that shape
DISLIKE: Rear visibility, stone chips, peeling paint, squeaks, creaks ... but, hey, who cares
Body 2-door, 2-seat coupe
Engine: 65-degree V6, DOHC, 12v, mid mounted
Material: alloy head/cast iron block
Bore/stroke: 92.5 x 60mm
Power: 177kW @ 9000rpm
Fuel: 98 octane
Kerb weight: 980kg
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Suspension: double A-arms, coil springs, anti-roll bars (f); struts, coil springs, radius arm, anti-roll bar (r)
Length/width/height: 3710 / 1750 / 1135mm
Brakes: ventilated discs, alloy calipers (r); ventilated discs, alloy calipers wheels 16x7.5-inch (f/r) alloy
Tyres: Bridgestone Potenza
Size: 225/45 x 16 (f), 225/45 x 16 (r)
Price: A$500,000 (estimate)