The devil's own classic - the Lancia Stratos: CAR+ archive, May 1979

Published: 09 May 1979

► Ian Fraser, Georg Kacher go Stratos hunting
► Mission accomplished! They buy one
► The original tale, from May 1979, in CAR+ 

Georg Kacher at the Munich end of the phone was saying the sort of things that make fast decisions imperative. He had found for sale in Germany a low mileage Lancia Stratos: the description seemed glowing, the price was very reasonable and was I really interested? Georg knew that I have always like Strati and had been keeping an eye half open for a good one. Ownership of what is undoubtedly becoming one of the great classics suddenly seemed possible. Rare in Britain, Strati are also very thinly spread on the European turf, so one does not casually pick up the classifieds and decide to look at only those in the neighbouring area. It was suddenly apparent that this was to be a now-or-never decision, for Darnich’s Stratos win in the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally had re-kindled interest in the car and its price was already outstripping inflation in Chancellor-chilling leaps. Having seen Miruas, Daytonas and even Dino 246s riding the upwards spiral until they gained unreachable heights, I knew that it had to be a now! Decision. 

Georg had been thumbing through the German motoring magazine Auto Zeitung when he saw a Walz Sportwagen-Verleih advertisement proclaiming their intention to sell a Lancia Stratos. Knowing of my interest, and that he had his copy of the magazine perhaps 12 hours earlier than most German readers he sprang into action. So did I. Gulping hard, I asked Georg to inform Walz and Co that I would take the car, subject to it being as described. That gave me the breather not only to rustle up the readies and arrange for the bank to transfer them to Germany but to confirm with the Customs people that privately importing a used car would not create some ugly scenes at the port of entre. Providing there was money on hand to pay the duty, they said reassuringly, there would be no problems at all. 

The first heartstopper was that the plane I had planned to take to Frankfurt next day was chockablock full, which meant that instead of consummating the deal by early afternoon, I could not even get to see the Stratos until evening. Ever helpful Georg again phoned Walz and Co in Karlsruhe and promised my arrival at their Frankfurt showrooms by 6.30pm or thereabouts. He then set course for Munich airport to take an afternoon flight to Frankfurt while I took the train to Gatwick for a little-heard-of British Airways BAC 1-11 flight to the same destination (a very low-key, hassle-free and uncrowded service, by the way). It arrived at Frankfurt right on time, Avis had a painfully slow Fiesta waiting at the airport doors and so we committed ourselves to that city’s peak-period mechanised bunfight. Wall to wall cars and little real knowledge of the city plan are mere trivia to the determined Stratos buyer, however; and Herr Walz’s sales manager was patiently waiting our arrival. There too was the Stratos, in the front of the showroom it shared incongruously with a pair of heavy-metal Monteverdis which towered intimidatingly over it. One could only feel sympathy for the Lancia. 

Fraser flies to Germany to meet up with Georg Kacher to drive the Stratos

As it transpired, the Stratos was not without faults. For example, one of the external rear view mirrors was missing, a headlamp eyelid was sagging a little too far into the nose, the cheapo carpet had grown scruffy beneath the feet of the people who had climbed in and out but thought better of handing over a fistful of DMs. The odometer indicated 3000kilometres and the general condition of the car seemed to suggest that this was indeed right. Furthermore, it had never been registered or taxed for the road. The Walz man told us that the Stratos had been brought in by a German Lancia Dealer, during the excitement to get the vehicle FIA homologated, and had proceeded to demonstrate it to friends and prospects but had never quite got around to selling it. Finally, the Lancia dealer sold it ‘in the trade’ as they say in the trade, to Herr Walz’s thriving little organisation but, to his embarrassment, it had failed to create much interest and had been sitting around for more than six months. Seeing that Darnich had just won the Monte Carlo in a Stratos, Herr Walz decided to advertise his Stratos in the hope that the promotional spin-off would attract buyers. At that point, hawkeyed Georg was thumbing through Auto Zeitung and … 

We were just getting onto the subject of having a drive when the sales manager suggested that very thing. Perhaps I would like to drive it to Herr Walz’s main establishment in Karlsruhe next morning where, and, if everything were satisfactory, the mechanics could check over the Stratos before I pointed it towards the Channel. Herr sales manager needed some trade plates and a new battery, for the old one was exhausted. Besides, it was by now well past the hour that respectable Germans eat their evening meal and this one had to drive back to Karlsruhe, nearly 100miles away, to get it.

Georg and I, however, were ill equipped for eating. Unable to muster either a Varta or Michelin guide between us, we found the only book shop still open, at the railway station, had sold the last Varta only minutes before. Bitter experiences had shown that Frankfurt cannot produce the sort of hotels or food beloved of CAR and its entourage, so we fired up the Fiesta and headed for the Rhine, eventually finding a perfectly pleasant, modestly priced establishment on the banks of that great river, just a little downstream from the Loreley. Some local research (as well as an encounter with the village madman) uncovered a perfectly satisfactory restaurant willing to provide sustenance at the horrifically late hour of 9.30. Over the meal, we discussed the next moves. We guessed that the monetary transfer to Walz’s bank would be complete by 11am and it would then be a comparatively easy matter to forge ahead with the documentations: insurance, registration, customs formalities and acquisition of those oval, white zoll plates used when a car is being exported from Germany. At worst, we reckoned the whole thing should be complete by late afternoon, giving Georg enough time to leap on a jet back to Munich and me ample opportunity to reach the German boarder at Aachen. Such are the vision of those who lack the imagination to paint the mental pictures of what could, and nearly always does, go wrong. 

Good to his word, the sales manager was back in Frankfurt next morning, just about on time. He hauled the battery from the boot of a 280CE Mercedes, along with the trader’s plates. With a little huffing and puffing we rolled the Stratos out into the yard and after a few minutes made it cough into life. The water was down a little, the oil was okay and the tyres seemed alright. Topping up the radiator had also emptied a pint or two of water over the plugs of the trailing cylinders of the V6, making the engine blatt and pop like a garlic-eating elephant. It took a few miles to clear the plugs, but by then it was evident that the engine was way off tune, with little power low down. With the encouragement of the ales manager in the accompanying Merc, I gradually eased up the speed and made a couple of spirited sprints to around 130mph before easing off to allow the other two cars in our little convoy to catch up again. Engine tune aside, the Stratos felt good. Directional stability, even hands off at 100mph, was fine and the brakes, non-servo and fairly heavy of pedal, were able reliably to haul down the speed without grabbing or unevenness. The omens were good. So, at the busy Walz headquarters I signed on the dotted line while they phoned the bank to confirm the arrival of the transfer. No money. Give it a couple of hours, I said, and it will surely be there. Doubtless there is a method of moving money very quickly from one country to another, but it is not one that I had discovered. Umpteen phone calls to London finally revealed just how ponderous the system really is: the transfer was in the unfeeling hands of some enormous Midlands computer which would eventually deposit it in the Walz account. Understandably, Herr Walz was not for handing over the registration documents without sighting the money (he had, apparently, recently lost half a dozen Range Rovers to Arabia by being a shade too trusting) so we could do nothing but admire the Aladdin’s Cave of desirable cars in his basement. One that particularly took my eye was a superb Rolls-Royce Phantom 111, former the property of the late Duke of Kent and bearing the number plate CYR 1. It was in first class condition and very original, and I was sorry to see it in a Karlsruhe basement as I had been to see the Stratos in among the Monteverdis. Is there no one with 100,000DM who could buy it from Herr Walz and bring it home? 

Fraser ends up buying the Stratos

After exhausting the possibilities of the basement and running up Herr Walz’s phone bill by haranguing everyone in Britain who could possibly help expedite the arrival of the funds, we were about to retire in late afternoon disarray when a return bout of calls confirmed that the money was at least in Germany. Herr Walz looked relieved, for he had been turning away droves of would-be Stratos buyers, inspired by Darnich and the advertisement. However, like officialdom everywhere, German officialdom had bolted for home, so there was nothing we could do until the next morning, other than consult our newly-acquired Michelin Guide in the hope of finding comfortable accommodation and a nice meal. An adjoining town gave us what we wanted and soon after eight next morning we were buying the insurance cover from the local agent and by 9.15 we also had the registration document. The Customs people were back in Karlsruhe, though, so that meant a quick dash in the Fiesta to the big smoke for all the rubber stamping and the zoll plates. One small problem: the customs were fresh out of one of the vital forms but, they informed us, the government stationary office umpteen blocks away would have one – and it was best to walk because of the won-way system, there was no parking anyway and it wasn’t really raining all that hard. With that sorted, and after some minor monetary outlay, we had completed the formalities. It became very obvious during all this that without Georg’s help the language difficulties would have been insurmountable; what was a morning’s effort for us would have been unbelievably difficult for someone coming in cold. Further, Georg had once before helped someone buy a Porsche Turbo and therefore knew the wrinkles and sequences of the operation. Particularly enlightening was the fact that the mountain of paperwork that was necessary only a year or so ago has now been replaced by much simpler documentation, thanks to the progress of the Common Market’s efforts to break down the barriers between member countries. Instead of the tedious formalities at the border, we were told, it would be just a matter of showing passport and international registration certificate. The karlsruhe custom’s man even stamped the VAT form on the spot (to make it possible to recover the tax later) whereas it was previously part of the border rigmarole. 

Meanwhile, the Walz men were busily changing the oil and the filter, trying to make the engine run a little better, persuading the headlamps to rise out of the bodywork and horn to hoot. By lunchtime it was farewells all round; Georg decided to continue south to Munich in the Avis Fiesta rather than go up to Frankfurt airport again, while I topped up at a convenient service station, bought a fire extinguisher, a warning triangle and a couple of bars of chocolate. The homeward journey had begun, but it was lunchtime Friday and the rain was bucketing down. Although the Stratos had been checked over fairly well, I made a definite decision not to punch it hard. Nervousness over such matters as poor mixture and unknown chassis maintenance made it seem highly unwise to press on at anything like a rapid rate until the car had been thoroughly check in Britain. But an autobahn cruising speed of between 80 and 90mph proved to be the least nervewrecking both as far as the Lancia and the heavy Friday traffic were concerned. For the sheer sports car that it obviously is, the Stratos copes remarkably well with the imposed role of gentle tourer, Ride quality on the often choppy autobahns was firm but not comfortable, although there was occasionally a disturbing mechanical harshness from the back-end over sharp bumps which suggests something was amiss and needed careful treatment. Despite the four-cam 2.4litre V6 whirring out 190hp just aft of the kidneys, the Stratos is not specially noisy; I had half expected it to sound and feel like being inside a 40gallon drum rolling down a gravel path but, in fact, it reaches surprisingly high standards of refinement. Windnoisse is not a problem, or is at least sufficiently well masked by the agreeable growl of the engine and transmission to be ignorable. Those strange, rear pivoted side windows that never fully open can nevertheless be partially open most of the time because buffeting and draughts are practically absent and very little water comes in when its raining. There is a heater/demister, of course, complete with booster fan but as far as I have been able to work out it is not really possible to cut off the supply: there’s hot air and cold air, plus everything between, and it goes to the screen, the feet or both but it always seems to be going somewhere. Visibility through that great cinemascope windscreen is marvellous and the pillars never get in the way. However, three-quarter rearwards vision is awful enough to be thoroughly horrifying in traffic, especially in Britain. In other ways the left hand drive steering column is so much towards the centre line of the car that there are no great problems. 

The gentle journey to Aachen was basically twitch-free, although at times the traffic was painfully slow and tangled, with the rain spasmodically turning to sleet. The single wiper, although not sweeping very much of the screen, provided sufficient clear space to see the outside world and the impending doom therein. External difficulties are highly avoidable, though. The steering is really positive yet not, actually twitchy. It demands- and gets – a high degree of concentration from the person holding the leather-bound helm, for the short wheelbase and Citroen SM-type responsiveness leaves little scope for dreamers.

Directionally stability in crosswinds leaves something to be desired, but against that the car has a strong resistance to aquaplaning. And on the journey to Calais it was just as well, for the autoroutes were more water than bitumen, with heavy rain pouring down and water from thawing snow cascading across the surface in search of drains. Although I had run all day with the pop-up headlamps on, it was not until I was making some stupid navigational errors in darkening Belgium did I realise that even high beam was unlikely to pick out a shiny white knight on a dayglo horse at 30paces, let alone black-clad Belgians riding unlit pushbikes. My hopes of getting across the Channel that night were receding rapidly into the distance. There was nothing for it but a steady, cautious plod over into France and overnight in Calais. 

There was a bad moment on the ferry the next morning when it became evident that the Stratos was losing coolant from the plumbing under the cockpit floor. A fair quantity dribbled out onto the ferry’s deck but it subsequently proved to be no more than a duff heater connection, quickly and painlessly remedied by selecting fresh rather than warm air for the cabin. As I had suspected, Saturday is not the ideal day to import a car into Britain, specially an unusual one. However, the Dover Customs people cheered up considerably when publisher Frankl arrived on the scene, as pre-ordained with enough money to cover the estimated duty. There were promises from them and us to make further adjustments at a later date should any be necessary. As with my fears of huge hassles at the German border, visions of endless delays at Dover proved groundless: the Stratos was running on British roads within about an hour of the ferry docking!

Because the Lancia Stratos was never officially imported to the UK – although quite a number were, at one time or another, floating around Britain – there is no official service for them. Thus, we wheeled the car into Stephen Victor’s Clapham workshops to have it thoroughly checked. The verdict was that the Stratos was basically fine, that the engine was simply badly out of tune and that the suspension had suffered the ravages of neglect in that it had apparently never been properly lubricated, resulting in partial seizure, which accounted for that rather unnerving harshness I had noticed. 

Having now driven Nick Mason’s Stratos as well, my view is confirmed that in a world of appeasement and compromise, this homologation special – it is no more nor less - represents a purity of purpose that is unsurpassed. It is a function car that never had to have sales appeal (indeed, it is rumoured that many of the 556 made were actually given away). Although lacking the performance of the 24valve rally cars, the standard 2.4litre engine has enough acceleration, especially for British roads, and its compactness, coupled with such good steering, make one almost resentful of straight roads. A treasure rather than a jewel, it is most unlikely that the Lancia name will ever appear on such a car again. The steady absorption of Lancia into Fiat will make sure of that, lament it though we may. Whatever happens, I feel now that the decision Georg Kacher pushed me towards was right: I have a Stratos of my own. 

The devil's own classic, May 1979

By Ian Fraser

CAR magazine editor 1971-74, proprietor 1974-89