For a personal profile in our November 2009 issue, I visited Marcello Gandini’s magnificent home and personal studio, coming away with a highly positive impression of a very modest, extraordinarily capable creator. When I called him this spring to ask about his memories of the Lancia Stratos Zero, his first comment was that doing the car “was really amusing.”
This may well be the lowest (semi) roadworthy two-seat car ever made, its top surface only 33 inches above the ground. It was definitely not intended for normal use, even if it was indeed used—briefly—on the streets of both Milan and Turin back when it was a new sensation. There is a wonderful story about Nuccio Bertone taking it to Lancia’s Turin headquarters early in 1971 and being refused entrance by the gate guards—so he simply drove underneath the barrier. “I wasn’t there,” Gandini said. “Gian Beppe Panicco says he was.” Panicco, a born PR man, loves colorful stories, but in this case, as it is both possible and plausible, I tend to believe it happened.
That visit to Lancia was to discuss a purpose-built rally car derived in part from the Stratos Zero. The resulting Stratos HF prototype, incidentally one of three or four of Gandini’s favorites of the hundreds of vehicles he has designed, was a full 10 inches taller than the Zero. And the production cars were taller still, a full 10 percent more than the Ford GT40, all of which puts the Zero’s extreme dimensions in perspective.
We asked Gandini if he ever drove the Stratos Zero. “No, I never had a chance to do so,” he said. “It was mainly just an exercise to get the attention of Lancia management once they’d been taken over by Fiat.” Which was unsuccessful in that no one from Lancia came calling at the Bertone stand at the Turin motor show in 1970, when the car was first presented. But it did get driven.
“We had a young racing driver come to Bertone and drive Zero quite a bit, more than anyone else ever did,” Gandini said. “Emerson Fittipaldi.” Emerson and his brother, Wilson, were always fascinated with complex cars. But who would have thought a future world champion would have ever been in the strange, tight cockpit of this bizarre bolide? “It was a lot of fun to make a car as low as we could imagine and to organize the elements however we wanted,” Gandini said. “The seating is really far forward.”
For Gandini, it was even more fun creating the Stratos HF, which carried nothing from the Zero but the Stratos name and the Lancia badge. And of course Gandini’s imagination and brilliance.