As we carve through the Italian Alps, there's plenty of sheer rock for the sound to ricochet off, and when the road opens out again, a vast, mist-cloaked vista rolls out below us. The Stratos pops, bangs and farts its way along, the very essence of explosive fuel/air internal combustion, but underpinned by a thrumming six-cylinder timbre that sounds like 1974 in mechanical form. In the Car versus Mountains battle, nature usually wins. But not today. Today, nature is being kicked in the nuts.
Sunrise is almost upon us, and following this snarling little black beastie, savouring that sound as it strafes the Dolomites and devours the road, is already right up there in my catalogue of life-affirming moments. But you know what they say: you wait ages for one Lancia Stratos to come along, then two turn up at once.
You might recognise the other one: it's the 2010 one-off car, driven by TopGear all too briefly and very carefully – at Le Castellet circuit back in issue 213. Bankrolled by German tycoon Michael Stoschek, we thought that was a pretty special day. But Mr Stoschek decided we ought to have another go, this time on a public road – one of the best in the world, in fact - in the company of his original Stratos. In so many ways, this was an offer we could not refuse.
Not that it is a casual day out for Mr Stoschek. He doesn't really do those. No, today is about commemorating an event he helped to organise back in September 1986, when 67 Lancia Stratos convened at the Hotel Armentarola in San Cassiano, Italy, to drive the epic Sella Ronda in convoy.
It took the team a year to set up, and it's an event he remembers with obvious affection. Walter Röhrl turned up, along with then Stratos kingpin and Lancia competition boss Cesare Fiorio. "The local police even closed the roads for us," Stoschek says in slight disbelief. (Later, we watch a video of the Stratos world rally, a festival not just of amazing cars, but also of hair, alarming leisurewear, and socks. "Don't mention my white socks!" Stoschek says.)
Socks apart, Stoschek is quite a guy. Having taken control of the family firm, Brose, which supplies key components to the car industry – virtually all of the car industry, as far as I can work out – back in the Eighties, he has grown it by a factor of 100. Brose now employs 20,000 people worldwide, working out of 49 different offices, and had a turnover last year of €4.5bn ($5.8bn). As a younger man, Stoschek was Bavaria's number one horse rider, and the 13th best in Germany. When a man like this asks if you fancy a day in the Dolomites with some cars, you agree.
What you don't do is crash. Or have a ‘moment', of even the teensiest proportions. "Remember, this car is worth €5m [$6.5m]," he says over the New Stratos's in-car comms system, as another gigantic tourist coach lumbers down the hillside towards us. Hands glazed in perspiration, my grip on the wheel is so vice-like I'm worried my knuckles are going to pop right out. "Yes, Mr Stoschek," I mumble, "Don't worry, I remember..."
Trouble is, this thing – a genius carbon-fibre facsimile of the legendary original – is absolutely not a car that wants to be driven slowly. In fact, it's probably one of the most aggressive cars I've ever driven, which would be fine by me were it not for its immense value, rarity (one only – that's pretty rare) and the fact that its billionaire owner is sitting about a foot away from me 2,300 metres up a bloody mountain. What's the worst that can happen? My thoughts exactly. I would die, then be killed again for good measure.
Still, no point pussyfooting around. Remember, the donor car for the New Stratos was a Ferrari 430 Scuderia, whose shiny surface bits were all thrown away, but whose gizzards have been reincarnated in a most spectacular fashion. At 1,247kg, this car is reckoned to be around 150kg lighter than the Ferrari, and, thanks to a new ECU and extraordinarily costly bespoke exhaust system (supplied by Capristo, it's made of stainless steel just 0.5mm thick), it now wrings 532bhp from its 4.3-litre, normally aspirated V8. The suspension runs new damper rates and has stiffer springs and new bushes. Brembo ceramic discs – at 398mm upfront, 350mm at the rear, they're almost the same size as the old car's wheels – provide retardation, and the tires are chunky Dunlops. This isn't a car so much as a war machine.
Crucially, the new Stratos also lops 20cm out of the Scud's aluminium chassis, so it even apes the original's truncated look. This is both exciting and worrying: such was the old Stratos's tricky polar moment of inertia, it was rare to see one travelling in a straight line, even as it racked up three back-to-back world rally championships in the mid-1970s. Its propensity to sideways behaviour was mainly due to its Ferrari V6 sitting relatively high and transverse in the middle of the chassis, but also because of that comically stumpy wheelbase.
Back in the New One, it's clear that this is a vehicle that turns the outside world into a liquidised blur. I remember from my brief acquaintance at Le Castellet just how tightly wound it felt, and how it turned in so sharply it almost carved a line in the tarmac. Well, it's even more bewildering up here. Stoschek claims that it's 30 per cent stiffer than the Scud, which was hardly a floppy car, but it feels stiffer even than that.
An FIA roll cage helps, and the total absence of anything soft or fluffy inside underlines its ruthless mien. A four-point harness and sensationally good seats turn your body into an almost structural element. Those seats, by the way, only weigh 11.3kg each, down from the fatty boom-boom 18kg the Scud's weigh.
This is one of those cars that doesn't just accelerate, it beams itself down the road. You are at Point A; now you are at Point B. The bit in the middle is pulverised. There is absolutely no sense of mass at all; it just goes where you tell it to go and gets there while you're still thinking about it. Ferrari's electronic diff has been replaced by a Drexler mechanical item used in the WRC, which not only weighs 23kg less, but also helps fire the Stratos through corners with fantastic aggression. Dial out the traction control, and it'll slide in a heartbeat. You're less busy at the wheel than you would be in Ferrari's 458 Italia, but it's still a fast-moving, almost hyper-real experience. Even in a car park.
A power-to-weight ratio of 427bhp per tonne tells its own story: 62mph is history in 3.3 seconds, 120mph a memory in under 10 seconds. All of this in a one-off car, that is stunningly well realised, a hunk of gorgeous carbon fibre fashioned into a shape that drags the original Stratos into the 21st century.
It's also a car that clearly reflects its owner's character; as a wealthy industrialist who has won, among others, the epic Carrera Panamericana rally three times, we're not messing around here. "I'm a total carbon-fibre freak," Stoschek admits. He's even made his own mountain bike out of it - with a frame that weighs just 5kg, you can lift it with one finger.
Then again, the original Stratos was pretty crazy too, a product of the ‘70s when the drugs were stronger, the hair longer and anything went. Judged in this current era of automotive bloat, the old Stratos is a tiny, barely there cartoon of a car, with a proper cockpit and a deep well of glass for a windscreen. When the FIA's officials came to inspect the 400 homologated road cars, Lancia showed them 200 finished vehicles, before whisking the delegation off for lunch. The story is that the inspectors didn't notice that it was the same 200 cars they viewed after lunch...
Apocrypha like this somehow imbues the Stratos with its character. The defiantly odd driving position helps too, and it's best to remember that first gear is on a dog-leg... It's also so cramped inside that I have no idea how Walter Röhrl – a man of giraffe-like proportions – even fit into it. But then there are ergonomic strokes of genius, like the doorbins that are swollen to accommodate crash helmets.
God, it's fun to drive. Again, the lack of mass means that it gathers velocity in that instant, uncorrupted manner typical of most powerful old cars. No electronics to gum things up, no assistance, no extra fat: just a 2.4-litre V6 howling away behind your head as the needle in the rev-counter wanders drunkenly towards the red line. "Don't brake, don't brake!" Stoschek shouts, as we pile down the mountainside and my foot naturally glues itself to the middle pedal. With its whip-crack throttle response, wonderfully direct steering and wieldy little body, it's not difficult to imagine doing some serious business in a Stratos on some dusty rally stage. It even understeers helpfully – on the road, at least – before physics intervenes and those fat back tires let go.
When we get to the bottom of the mountain, there's really only one thing to do – turn around and head straight back up. The Stratos farts and blares its appreciation all across the valley.
This story originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine.
This is one of those cars that doesn't just accelerate, it beams itself down the road.