Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
If the “New Stratos” doesn’t feel all that new anymore, that’s because it’s been a very long time coming. To date, Manifattura Automobili Torino — the Italian boutique automaker responsible for building the car — has sold eight of its planned 25-vehicle run. But it took more than 16 years to even get that far through fits and starts, changings of hands and moving targets. Today, we’re remembering the concept that inspired it all.
The lineage of MAT’s Stratos can be traced back to an unlikely design study that was the talk of the 2005 Geneva Motor Show. Called the Fenomenon Stratos, it was named for Christian Hrabalek’s Fenomenon Holistic Design studio. It was also the second reimagining of Lancia’s fabled rallying hero after the Stola S81 Concept. Like the original Stratos, the S81 was designed by Marcello Gandini.
That Hrabalek’s vision made it to Geneva at all required something of a stroke of luck. Fenomenon’s efforts were backed, in part, by a group of Stratos owners and fans. Hrabalek actually met Michael Stoschek — the guy who would later commission Pininfarina to pen the design that ultimately became the New Stratos — on the side of a road in Spain in 2002, broken down in a Dino 246 GT.
In the years that followed, Hrabalek and fellow designer Serge Porscher hammered away at their pitch. The Fenomenon Stratos didn’t have a drivetrain or interior upon its first showing, but that didn’t really matter. This was a modern Stratos, blocky and edgy in the typical mid-aughts way but still clearly evocative of Gandini’s iconic high-riding wedge.
The prominent front wheel arches pushed to the absolute corners, wrap-around visor-like greenhouse and sharp drop-off of the rear deck made the car’s heritage immediately clear, even to those who happened to miss the Stratos decals ahead of the rear wheels.
I recall being blown away by the concept all those years ago, though today I can’t help but feel age hasn’t been kind. From some angles, Fenomenon’s interpretation still looks great. Yet in profile, it’s comically stubby. The Stratos was always renowned for its short wheelbase and petit proportions of course, but the 2005 concept resembles a scaled-up go-kart, or one of those Lamborghini Power Wheels you see at Walmart. In white, it almost looks like a Ford GT90 that was trapped in a vice.
But it was a hit all the same, and Hrabalek and company had big plans for it. A Classic Driver story dated several months after the concept’s reveal said Fenomenon had contracted Prodrive to engineer a road version, and was planning to churn out 50 cars per year for three years. Each would sell for £150,000, or about $204,000. For the engine, the company was angling to source Ferrari’s 3.6-liter, 425-horsepower V8 as used in the Challenge Stradale. It’s possible one running prototype may have been built, based on later images of a white Fenomenon Stratos being driven at speed — though details are murky.
The fact the Fenomenon website now links to a blank page inviting interested parties to buy its domain is a cryptic sign that none of Hrabalek’s plans really bore out the way he intended. Fortunately, a number of other Stratos superfans, each deep-pocketed, was prepared to swoop in to rescue the project at various points.
Remember Michael Stoschek? His family owns Brose, the German automotive supplier that also happened to be one of the Wehrmacht’s biggest industrial boosters throughout the 1930s. Go figure! Anyway, Stoschek had the means to get Pininfarina to whip up its own take on a modern Stratos, without totally throwing Hrabalek and Porscher’s earlier work in the recycling bin.
The shape of the headlights are the most obvious similarity between the two concepts, as well as the shape of the lower rear bumper. Still, the Pininfarina’s “New Stratos,” which debuted in 2010, was clearly a more production-ready machine than the empty shell that Fenomenon left off on.
For starters, this one actually had an interior. It also was built atop a shortened F430 chassis, derived its power from the same V8 inside Ferrari’s supercar and — I think we can all agree — was simply nicer to look at overall.
Concept cars often lose something in the transition to production. The very ideas that make them so unusual and striking to begin with tend to bring them into conflict with safety regulations and other practical considerations. When it comes time to translate the aesthetic to a mass-produced product, the result can seem watered-down, failing to surprise and delight the way the designers intended.
Every now and then however, a car comes along and bucks this trend. Occasionally, the process of commercializing a concept gives artists and engineers a chance to rethink some aspects that perhaps aged poorly in the interim.
I think that, combined with the fact that the folks at Pininfarina are quite good at what they do, ultimately produced a more elegant modern Stratos. Some pedantic readers will argue that Pininfarina’s and Fenomenon’s interpretations are two distinct cars, not directly related in any sense other than the fact they share the same inspiration. Technically, they wouldn’t be wrong. But given the personnel overlap between the projects, and their proximity to one and another, the New Stratos can also be viewed as an evolution of Fenomenon’s first stab. In that sense, it developed into something more angular, leaner, and proportionally evocative of Gandini’s original vision.
There was no shortage of journalists who managed to get behind the wheel of Pininfarina’s Stratos a decade ago. The car was real and apparently pin-sharp to drive, and all signs suggested it was happening. But then, Stoschek’s efforts were stalled when Ferrari refused to give its blessing toward the car’s continued development. The F430 was still in production, after all, and the Prancing Horse had no desire to race against itself.
Once again, things got quiet. Years passed. Until late last decade, when Paolo Garella’s MAT picked up the rights to manufacture the New Stratos, with the caveat that the startup wouldn’t attempt to get the goods from Maranello. Rather, owners would have to donate their F430s to go under the knife. Garella, as it turned out, was actually Special Projects Manager at Pininfarina when Stoschek first brought his request to the design house. Stratos fans: You find them high and low, and evidently, they refuse to take no for an answer.
The Fenomenon Stratos may be long forgotten today in favor of its replacement, though it did manage to wind up in one video game: 2007's Colin McRae: Dirt.
In Dirt, the “Fenom Stratos,” as Travis Pastrana calls it in-game, is lumped in with the other rear-wheel drive beasts of the ’70s and ’80s. It can also be raced in the familiar Alitalia white, green and red livery of the car that inspired it.
Codemasters fully modeled interiors for all of Dirt’s cars — but of course, the interior of this Stratos was never shown to the public, if it existed at all. The artists had no choice but to make it up as they went along, which is probably why the concept in-game essentially lifts the dashboard design from the original Stratos road car.
The result is a jarring mismatch between the forward-thinking exterior, the pillarless split windshield design and the dated analog instrument cluster. Of course, it’s no fault of the developer that the model turned out this way, but it does add to its mystique. Thankfully, it’s forever immortalized in digital form.