THE LOWDOWN


Words Bart Lenaerts
Photography Lies De Mol

The impossibly sleek Lancia Stratos Zero stunned the motoring world at the 1970 Turin show. Five decades on, Octane joins the ultra-select list of those who've driven it.

Almost 50 Years Later  – nearly a third of the whole of automotive history – it remains understandable why people were shocked by the stratos Zero back then. In truth, many still are. It looks otherworldly but it also demonstrates all kinds of practical solutions. What first seems weird, out of place or disturbingly pure is also as logical as a Fiat Panda, and mostly it functions surprisingly well.

The black surface on the nose is a rubber household mat to improve shoe-grip during access. The geeky chocolate seat pattern feels divine and shrugs off the effects of those clumsy, stumbling shoes. There’s a simple key and the door lock is cleverly hidden in the lancia logo. There’s luggage space behind the seats, too, with room for a spare wheel, although you shouldn’t plan any trips to Ikea. Air intakes are cleverly integrated into the stylish triangular engine cover, and the windscreen wiper, sheltering under a panel, is so neatly hidden that you’ll never find it without the manual.

Conventional front and rear lights having been sacrificed at the altar of purity and slender lines, the small strip on the nose is home to ten 55-watt bulbs and the red strips at the rear house 84 smaller ones. They double as indicators, the bulbs lighting up sequentially from the centre to the preferred direction. still think Audi’s flashy displays are breaking the mould? But, as you might expect and despite all this ingenuity, it’s the windscreen that steals all the attention. It lifts so high that it would be unreachable when relaxing in the lounge chairs within the cabin. So you just pull the steering wheel towards you, and a hydraulic system closes the window simultaneously.

Although the cabin feels claustrophobic – not to mention the fact that I bash the back of my head against the window beam every time I get in or out – I fit inside, even though I’m six feet tall. Regular drivers would do well to visit the gym: any hint of a beer-belly is visible through the side windows.

The steering wheel with its spherical centre sits well in your hands, while your feet automatically fall on the pedals draped around the steering column as in a classic racing car. But your legs feel vulnerable out front in the nose – the crumple zone is basically your trousers – so even ’70s Formula 1 drivers would file a health-and-safety complaint if team orders commanded the Stratos Zero as their mount.

There’s no traditional dashboard; all functions are staged in a squared cluster at the left. The green hand-etched Perspex display looks wilder than Battlestar Galactica and is less readable than using braille while wearing gloves, but everything functions. It’s ingenious yet down-to-earth, as if the local handyman had built a spaceship for the annual parade. Quite apart from Gandini’s creativity, Bertone’s workshop guys understood their trade, too.

Although it wasn’t conceived to clock serious mileage, driving the Stratos Zero is close to addictive. It gets pretty hot on sunny days but, when you pick up speed, fresh air wafts through the side windows. These can be opened from the outside as well, by the way, so take care when you’re parking at the supermarket.

Despite the exhausts piercing out like the guns of Navarone, this is not a true screamer. The little V4 sounds like a heavily-tuned Alfa Giulia or a more refined Escort BDA: deep, slightly hollow and hoarse at lower revs and hammery when you floor it. Shame there isn’t a magical turbine-like shwwooosssssh to go with the spaceship styling, though; realising this time capsule runs on petrol like ordinary automobiles is like seeing Sophia Loren crossing a campsite with toilet paper under her arm. The 1.6-litre engine is no powerhouse but it reacts swiftly via its two twin-choke Solex carburettors, and it climbs the rev-counter like a hungry ape in a banana tree. The exact weight remains unknown, but 115bhp has no problem with this car’s BMI. The Zero accelerates as rapidly as its shape promises.

All the sensations are multiplied because you rumble along so low over the asphalt, bobsleigh-like, the steering wheel between your knees and the front wheels running parallel to your shins. The steering column moves to let you open or close the windscreen, but it’s fixed in one position while driving. Remarkably, its installation doesn’t show any flexibility and the Zero feels as taut as piano wire. You can place it with a precision and focus comparable to a Lamborghini or any other razor-sharp sports car with a cab-forward design. You barely notice that it relies on a Fulvia HF drivetrain turned around and shoehorned in the back.

‘It’s as Misunderstood as Modern Art Once was. Car Collectors have Conservative Attitudes'

The short clutch pedal is easy to use, the gear ratios are nicely spread and the gearlever clicks smoothly yet firmly through the five gears in a dog-leg layout – though the lever sits so clumsily under your knee that it’s close to impossible to select first gear. And Atlantis is easier to find than reverse. The suspension cannot hide that this concept never experienced a complete testing cycle, either, as an uncomfortable wobble crawls into the car above 40mph.

But then there’s only so much you can expect, with front MacPherson struts getting less space than a sausage in its skin, and a rear suspension assembly that was designed to keep a front-drive Fulvia planted. The aesthetically led tyre choice, ultra-high profile by today’s standards and mounted on 12in front rims and 13in rears, might not help either. But the front wheel envelopes allow easy parking manoeuvres, and the disc brakes do excellent work.

When studying pictures from the day when this space-rocket was driven into Milan, a bluish-green Alfa Romeo giulia gt constantly pops up. Apparently a back-up car seemed appropriate back then, and it still is now. not because the Lancia is unreliable or wayward; once you’ve mastered the awkward gearchanges, it’s quite easy to drive. However, it goes so far under everyone else’s radar that you’re always in other vehicles’ blind spots.

You don’t see much yourself, either. it’s OK at the front, so long as you stay far from short-skirted ladies. Lying so low in your flashy device, you just don’t want to be that guy. But the triangular rear-view mirrors exist only for show, your own blind spot is bigger than the Bermuda triangle, and you see less than nothing left or right. Luckily, the telescopic rear- view mirror paints quite a picture of what’s going on behind, even if you can’t adjust it yourself from behind the wheel.

such practicalities aren’t really relevant, though. This design study pushes the borders of the acceptable like Mark Rothko’s paintings or Joseph Beuys’ installations. it’s as misunderstood as modern art once was, too. When sold in 2011 after a thorough restoration, it brought only €761,000 to Bertone’s empty coffers. For the once-great coachbuilder to have let its ultimate masterpiece go for such a sum says a lot about car collectors’ conservative attitudes.

The stratos Zero perfectly intersects the disciplines of engineering, product design and art. Yet no matter how outlandish it looks, the stratos Zero actually works. it works pretty well, too, even half a century later.