Why Clarkson loves the new Stratos
Towards the end of last year, I was asked by the editor of TopGear magazine to look back over all the cars that had been launched in 2010 and pick the best. Which was a bit like being asked to root around the lavatory bowl looking for the nicest stool. They were all brown and horrid. Or French.
I assumed 2011 would bring more of the same s***** misery, since cars popping out of the automotive womb now must have been conceived round about the time when Lehman Brothers went west and Iceland exploded. I imagined therefore that it would just be yards and yards of Hyundais and Kias with perhaps a bit of comic relief in the shape of a new off-road, SUV, sub-aqua Mini. But then one day, while I was minding my own business, I saw a photograph of the new Lancia Stratos. It made the hair on the back of my neck go all tingly and my teeth itch.
The old Stratos is one of my very favourite cars. It was hard to get into, hard to see out off, hard to drive and, because of the curious, scissor-style driving position, you felt like you were going sideways even before you'd turned the key.
Then, after you'd turned the key, and located the throttle pedal, which was behind the passenger sun visor, you would have an enormous accident, because the Stratos had a wheelbase of about one inch. And the brake pedal was usually still in the factory.
Of course, in the right hands, it was a formidable rally weapon. So formidable in fact that it won the World Championship in 1974, 1975 and 1976, beating such luminaries as the Ford Escort and the Vauxhall Chevette.
I wasn't that bothered about the rally cars. It was all politics back then. But I did love the Stratos as a road car. Especially if it had the big fog lamps and Alitalia paint scheme.
The idea for such a car first saw the light of day as a stupid concept in 1970, but the body was eventually styled by Marcello Gandini - a man who cut his teeth on the Lamborghini Miura and then really got stuck in with the Countach.
In the early days of gestation, Lancia really wasn't sure what its new, short-wheelbase, scissor-seating, wedge car was for. And so it had no clue what engine to use. It tried the V4 from a Fulvia, then an ordinary saloon motor from the Beta, before finally deciding that, actually, it would have the V6 from a Dino. Which was made by (but, to keep the pedants happy, not actually called a) Ferrari. The end result, no question, was a supercar, and as a result it came to live on my bedroom wall. If I were James May, I'd say now that it made the root of my penis fizz.
"The Stratos was one of my favourite cars. It was hard to get into, hard to see out of and made you feel like you were going sideways"
Of course, by the time I actually got round to driving a Stratos, the world had moved on, and it didn't feel like a supercar at all. Or even a super car. It was like climbing into your granddad's pants. It just felt old and uncomfortable. A mangle in a world of washing machines. A pretty mangle. An Alitalia mangle. But a mangle nevertheless.
Of course, those who really wanted a Stratos could buy a kit from a company called Hawk. But while this looked like a Stratos, the driving experience was - let's be kind - let's say ‘interesting'.
So I've waited and waited for the day when the powers that be at Lancia woke up one morning and said, "You know what? I fancy building a follow-up to the best car we ever made." And then I waited some more.
BMW reinvented the Mini. Fiat reinvented the 500. GM reinvented the Camaro. Take That reinvented themselves. But still Lancia continued to plod along, making a range of dreary Fiats with ugly bodies for Italian politicians who needed something local. Occasionally, someone would say they were thinking about a new Stratos. They'd even show off a few designs. But the people at Lancia were simply lifting their skirts to show us their knickers. They had no intention of going the whole way. And today, nothing's changed. Lancia is still making rubbish. And there is still no Stratos.
Then I saw January's issue of TopGear magazine. Happily, someone who is as impatient as I am, but more able and driven, has got bored with waiting and designed a Stratos for the 21st century.
In short, it's a Ferrari 430 with 200mm taken out of the chassis to create the famed short wheelbase. There's also a roll cage, ceramic brakes, a flappy-paddle gearbox (boo), a carbon-fibre interior and a new engine-management system taking the V8 up to 532bhp.
But all of this pales into obscurity - metaphorically and literally - under the carbon-fibre bodywork. It doesn't look like the old Stratos. It looks like what the Stratos would look like if Lancia hadn't spent the last 40 years making epsilons for epsilons. It looks fantastic. And to top it all off, it's built by Pininfarina. So. A Pininfarina-built, Ferrari-powered car that looks like a Stratos. How perfect is that?
Sadly, the maker's website is translated from Italian, which means it's so flowery, it appears to have been written in the juice from a hydrangea. You could read it for a week and learn nothing. And the only independent road tests seem to have been written by people who didn't want to say the truth for fear of offending the designer who had given them an exclusive. I've also heard it might cost around half-a-million quid. But, I say again - a Pininfarina-built, Ferrari-powered, Stratos look-alike. This is the sort of thing that people rob banks for. You'd pay half-a-mill to spend some time with a girl who had Mrs Thatcher's drive, Victoria Wood's sense of humour and Scarlet Johansson's body, would you not? Well, that's what this car is.
And so, perhaps a little earlier than you might have been expecting, I would like to say that despite some fairly decent opposition from the BMW 1-Series M and the Citroen DS3 Racing, my Car of the Year for 2011 is the new Lancia Stratos.
All I have to do now, of course, is drive them.
This column was first published in the February issue of Top Gear magazine