A rivalry between Bertone and Pininfarina during the late 1960s and early ’70s resulted in an amazing array of concept cars emerging from the two Italian design houses – the Marzal, the Alfa Romeo Carabo, the Bizzarrini Manta, the Alfa Romeo Iguana, the Ferrari P5, the 512S berlinetta and the Modulo.
But then came the most radical of them all, revealed on the 1970 Turin Motor Show. The car was officially named “Stratos HF.” Nuccio Bertone had initially wanted to call it “Stratolimite,” as in “limit of the stratosphere,” inspired by its space-age design. But after some time, it came to be known simply by its internal nickname: Zero.
Incredibly, the Zero was not only a design statement but a fully functioning prototype. There was a clear continuity between the 1968 Carabo, 1970 Stratos Zero and 1971 Countach prototype. Everything about the Stratos looked futuristic: the full-width row of ultra-narrow headlights; the mesh grille, ribbon taillights, fat tyres and dual exhaust offset to the side of the protruding gearbox case.
That front headlight strip was backlit by ten 55W bulbs but the rear strip was lit by no fewer than 84 tiny bulbs spread all around the perimeter of the truncated tail! The same lights were used as turn signals, lighting up in succession from the centre to the edges.
Bertone designer Eugenio Pagliano claimed that the task was simply to see how low a car they could build! Where the Modulo had been only 93.5cm tall, the Stratos was a mere 84cm (33 inches) from the ground!
The mid-engine mechanical layout used the 1.6-litre Lancia V4 engine of the Fulvia HF, which helped to enable such a low overall height. The double-wishbone with transverse leaf spring arrangement at the rear was simply the Fulvia’s front axle. At the front, short McPherson struts were used, and there were disc brakes were fitted on all four wheels.
Access to the cabin was by way of a flip-up windscreen, and a hydraulic linkage was devised so that, as the steering column was pushed forward to enable access to the driver’s seat, the windscreen would lift. The black rectangle at the bottom of the windscreen was simply a small rubber mat intended to make climbing in easier by first stepping onto the bodywork. The Lancia badge at the centre of the mat concealed a pivoting handle that popped the windscreen open.
The seating position was made as horizontal and as close to the ground as possible. A futuristic instrument panel used graphics hand-etched in the green Perspex, the steering wheel was made by Italian manufacturer Gallino-Hellebore and rear-view mirrors sunk inside the side scallops allowed for limited rear vision. A small overhead mirror was occasionally installed for road tests atop the windscreen! Behind the seats were the spare wheel and space for luggage. That “chocolate bar” pattern of the seats was carried through to the Lamborghini Countach LP500.
The cost of building the Stratos Zero in 1970 was reportedly 40M Lire (equivalent then to $65,000 or roughly $450,000 in 2010 dollars), when a brand new Lancia Fulvia Rally 1.6 HF coupé cost 2.25M Lire.
In an interview granted to Giancarlo Perini in 1977, Bertone’s Marcello Gandini remarked: “The very first Stratos was designed as freely as the [Autobianchi] Runabout and reached the aim for which it was intended: to establish a bridge between Lancia and Bertone. Having established the bridge, Lancia asked us to come up with an idea for a new sports car that would go rallying in the world championships.”
The Stratos Zero was fully restored in 2000 at Stile Bertone in Caprie, regaining its original bronze livery, which had made way for a more traditional silver soon after its initial presentation. It is exactly as it was on 28th October, 1970, the day it was launched upon unsuspecting show-goers in Turin. It is now part of an exquisite private collection.
Thanks to RM Sotheby’s for some of the historical information