True concept cars from mainstream manufacturers—as opposed to one-off, individually commissioned designs on commercially available chassis, as was common practice in the ’20s and ’30s—are a relatively rare phenomenon. Starting with Harley Earl’s Buick Y-Job in 1939 and Chrysler’s Alex Tremulis’ Thunderbolt soon after, nothing much more happened until 1951, when Earl’s Le Sabre and the Buick XP-300 that shared its chassis and mechanical elements appeared. Since then, a veritable flood of such cars have appeared, but those “concepts” have primarily been means to suggest near-future production models, nothing more, and certainly, most have been essentially rather conventional.
To my mind, there have been only a few truly conceptual, absolutely extraordinary concept cars, in particular one from General Motors and two from Carrozzeria Bertone. Of course, principal credit for their creation goes to the design bosses, Harley Earl at the end of his career and Nuccio Bertone. But in fact the shapes of the three vehicles were the brainchildren of their brilliant subordinates: Norman James for the Firebird III gas-turbine two-seater, Franco Scaglione for the Alfa Romeo BAT 7 aerodynamic study, and Marcello Gandini for the most extreme of all, the Lancia Stratos Zero. Of the three concepts, the latter is by far the most extreme, the most improbable, and the most interesting morphologically and in terms of its consequences.
Hundreds of significant designs have come from the hand and mind of Gandini, whose spirit of creation seems to have been liberated by his free rein on the Stratos Zero. To be sure, he had already created the most beautiful supercar of the ’60s when he shaped the body of the Lamborghini Miura, but others determined its architecture; he was simply the stylist. His Lamborghini Marzal mid-engine four-seater—the first ever—showed what he could do when he could influence the mechanicals. The Marzal was simply a lengthened Miura with the front bank of its transverse V-12 removed, but that work was done by Lamborghini engineers Gian Paolo Dallara and Paolo Stanzani. Stratos Zero was all Gandini, using the existing Lancia Fulvia front-drive V-4 but in the rear end instead.
Ridiculously low, totally impractical, and utterly fascinating in its tantalizing absurdity, the Zero is one of the most extraordinary cars ever made. Its name is perfectly appropriate in that it has zero practicality, zero utility, and almost zero visibility. One of my friends actually drove this car back in the early ’70s in Los Angeles, and only for about 100 feet or so inside a building and at extremely low speed in first gear. But that brief episode was enough for him to recall the experience clearly 45 years later and to know full well he would not like to repeat it now that he’s no longer a young man. Assuming, of course, he could still get in the car in the first place. He remembers it as extremely claustrophobic, pulling the windshield/door down over his head all too much like closing the lid of a coffin. It was an exercise in pushing a concept to extremes, so it was valid for Bertone in 1970. It also led, happily, to the wonderful Lancia Stratos that had nothing more than its name—slightly modified at that—in common. Well, Gandini was a common link as well, in that he was responsible for the entire package of the incredibly successful polyvalent rally car, able to handle the extremes of the Monte Carlo winter event (three outright wins) and the East African Safari.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, wedge-shaped designs influenced by the Zero proliferated, including show examples from mainstream manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and GM, and of course limited-production cars from Lotus, Maserati, and even the lowly Triumph TR-7. Many were beautiful, striking, and impressive, but no concept or production car has ever been as extreme as this one.
1. There are 10 tiny headlights in the full-width rectangular opening in the car’s chisel-blade nose. It really is a pure wedge shape from the front-wheel centerline forward.
2. The mirrors are a joke. To actually drive the car, one was stuck up top where it could be seen through the upper edge of the windshield.
3. To some extent the lower side windows are a joke as well. There is nothing but pavement to be seen through them.
4. This very strong rising line is dead straight in pure profile, but in plan view it has a notable kink, bending inward notably toward the rear corners of the body, which are well outboard of the front ones.
5. The dramatic engine cover, made up of five superposed metal triangles that scoop air into the engine compartment, is hinged on the right and provides more than adequate access.
6. This is the first expression of the rear wheel opening that became a personal hallmark for Gandini—very successfully on the Lamborghini Countach LP400 but spectacularly ugly on the Stola S86 Diamante seen at the 2005 Geneva show. Airplane manufacturers, before jet speeds made all vertical tails virtually identical, used the shape of the vertical fin as a mark of identity; perhaps Gandini’s love of aviation led him in this direction.
7. Letting the very handsome mechanical elements hang out without even the slightest attempt to hide them lets the wedge-shaped body be psychologically divorced from what racers like to call “the oily bits.”
1. What appears in this view to be a sharp right-angle bend from the horizontal body plane to the sides is in fact a pair of lines with a subtly concave section between them, this outer line leading to the upper corner of the triangular mirror cove.
2. The black section is a rubber mat with very fine transverse ribs on which the driver and passenger step to gain access to the cockpit. The steering wheel folds forward and down out of the way as the rear-hinged windshield is lifted.
3. The big, round Lancia badge on the nose also serves as the latch for the door-cum-windshield, which is one and a half times wider at the rear edge than in front.
4. The front edge is not quite knife-sharp, as it seems in profile. It houses 10 separate headlamp elements, the slimmest then in existence, sourced in France.
5. There is a lot of careful, subtle surface modulation going on in the apparently simplistic front end. A slight rib at the edge of the welcome mat flows up into the roof, with a twisting panel framing the windshield, almost horizontal in front and becoming a near-vertical fence at the rear of the glass.
6. A kind of fence starts from the lower front corners of the windshield and reaches maximum height at the high point of the car’s profile.
7. The filler panel between the lower outer body surface and the inset panel is perforated with five holes to ingest air …
8. … whereas the upper inset panel flows into the engine compartment, constituting a scoop for cooling air.
1. It’s late-’60s Apollo-era technology perhaps, but it really does seem more like a spaceship cabin than a car’s cockpit even now.
2. There were no automotive airbags in 1970, but this padded sphere might have offered a little bit of protection. Notice the absence of safety belts.
1. Each of these sharp fender-edge hard lines derives from the upper edge of the front fenders. The upper one flows into the triangular mirror aperture that ends the fender. The other flows around the wheel opening and into the rib on the body sides.
2. Nearly mirror-image holes are cut into the body’s side surfaces. Each is framed by a hard line with a tight radius at the end of the principal inset surface. The upper indented surface becomes a scoop to bring air into the engine compartment.
3. The incised and depressed surface below the rib is less inclined toward the interior of the volume.
4. The gearbox, itself a handsome, functional ribbed surface, is allowed to be completely seen below the translucent red plastic taillight framing for the rear body aperture. Bright mechanical fastener heads are spaced around the perimeter, one of them perfectly centered on the axis of the crankshaft. The megaphone-shaped exhaust tips are asymmetrically placed entirely to the left.