Hands down, one of the coolest cars ever to come out of the European rally scene was the Lancia Stratos. Packing a Ferrari Dino V6 behind its two seats, the Bertone-designed wedge dominated the Group 4 World Rally class in 1974, 1975 and 1976. And even though none were produced after 1974, it continued to win into the 1980s, with its final victory at the Tour de Corse in 1981. Given its track record, a victory at the 24 Hours of LeMons, the inventive low-budget enduro series created by Jay Lamm, should be a foregone conclusion.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about LeMons knows there’s a $500 cap on the value of each entrant, clearly eliminating the ultra-rare Lancia from contention almost by default. Lancia built only 500 Stratoses for FIA homologation (though the prevailing rumor is only 492 were completed), and today their values are well into the six figures when they become available for sale. Which is why the car you see here is not a Lancia Stratos. It’s a fake. But the similarities are striking, especially in the dark.
This car, dubbed the Launcha Splatos, is a perfect example of the kind of tongue-in-cheek vehicles that race in the LeMons series. It’s a homebuilt budget racer that takes itself just seriously enough. As in, the safety equipment is very real, but not much else is. And calling it homebuilt is a bit unfair as well, since it was put together by one of the country’s most notable independent Alfa Romeo — and by default, anything else Italian — gurus, Mike Besic of Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
The base stock for the race car is a 1986 Bertone X1/9, penned in the early 1970s, not surprisingly, by the same brilliant hands as the Stratos. Like its inspiration, the X1/9 (originally sold as a Fiat until the company pulled out of the US in 1982) was designed as a two-seat, mid/rear-engined sports coupe. Unlike the Stratos, thousands were produced and they’re still relatively cheap. And relatively slow, since even the most powerful versions were fitted with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder that churned out a whopping 75 horsepower in fuel-injected form.
Despite its somewhat balanced performance package (all handling, no power or brakes), running a bone-stock X1/9 would have gone against the spirit of LeMons. It would have also put a wet blanket on Besic’s years-long vision of building a Stratos replica. So back in December the project was hatched. A donor Bertone was found for $500, and the process of parting it out for performance dollars began.
From the outset, Besic knew exactly what would power his Lancia rep — an Alfa Romeo V6. It’s only natural, since he spends most days with his hands in Alfa engine bays anyways. The mill of choice would be the uprated 3.0-liter from a 1991 front-drive 164 S, which would also give up its transverse gearbox and axles. Output would be almost identical to the actual Stratos’s 190 horses, with the benefit of additional torque from an extra 0.6 liters of displacement compared to the Ferrari six.
A fair amount of fabrication made the swap a reality. The entire front subframe made the move, including parts of the steering system, minus the rack and pinion. The tie rods are still there, bolted to a mounting block and now serving to dial in rear toe. The shift linkage involves a repurposed steering column joint to clear certain components, but the original shift pattern was preserved and the shift action is probably sharper than any X1/9 on the road today.
A custom exhaust was bent, incorporating a MagnaFlow muffler. For a race car, it’s surprisingly quiet, but the most impressive part is just how sweetly Italian the little V6 sings when the throttle is flicked. Were this car to pass you on the road, the sound of it might be just enough to convince you it’s the real thing. Well, if you only glanced quickly.
The additional 120 or so horsepower necessitated other upgrades, namely to the brake system. The adorable little nine-inch rotors that came from Fiat would’ve been no match for the added mass and speed that come with the V6. Luckily a set of 10.1-inch rear rotors from an Alfa 164 bolted right under the stock calipers. Another set of 164 front brakes were fitted in back as well. Wheels are a mixed set, with four-bolt Alfetta GT alloys up front (the 164 discs were re-drilled to accommodate) and five-bolt wheels from a Milano Verde in back.
Sufficient cooling has always been an issue for high-performance Italian cars; fortunately, a Corvette radiator squeezed into the available space in the modified nose, more than doubling the car’s cooling capacity. An off-the-shelf 19-gallon fuel cell sits in the space where luggage would have once been squashed.
To achieve the right look for the Splatos, Besic fabbed up a new rear deck from aluminum, incorporating the signature louvers (albeit, fashioned in plywood). The rectangular Fiat taillights were pulled (and sold) to make room for a pair of large, round brake lights, a la Stratos. The nose was subject to similar cosmetic surgery, though the four-light rally cluster on the hood was made from four plastic coffee cans with cleverly applied lens graphics. They’re, um, lightweight.
The classic red and green Alitalia livery came by way of Krylon spray cans, applied over top of a quick-and-dirty coat of white primer. The wheels also received a dose of rattle-can therapy, in signal yellow of course. The splatted tomato graphics carry the Splatos theme to its logical conclusion (aided by an old Contadina tomato sauce can that serves as an oil catch can under the hood). It’s all very fitting for the 24 Hours of LeMons.
While Besic and his team are veterans of past LeMons events, the Launcha Splatos made its debut this past weekend at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. The goal according to Besic was to just finish the race with the wild hybrid intact. Easier said than done, given the disproportionate weight and power the X1/9’s chassis was forced to deal with. The team finished the race with a solid mid-pack performance, crossing the line 29th of 64 cars; it even managed a very respectable fast lap of 1:44.656 in the miserable, winter-like conditions.
Having survived to race another day, the Splatos will likely return for another LeMons challenge this summer. Perhaps with a few bugs sorted out and better weather, it will be the start long string of victories for Besic and company. But don’t count on it dominating like its inspiration.