The Lancia Stratos is first because of the impact it had on rally racing.
In the early 1970s, Lancia proposed entering rally racing with a car built uniquely for that purpose.
Prior to the Stratos, existing cars were modified for sport use but no car had been designed purely for competition. The Stratos would forever change the rally racing world.
Designed by Bertone designer Marcello Gandini and first revealed as the Stratos Zero concept car in 1970. The car was low to the ground and wide, resembling supercars such as today's Lamborghini LP640 and Ferrari F430. The 1971 Stratos HF prototype would serve as the production model and featured three different engines: Lancia's Fulva and Beta 4-cylinder engines and a Ferrari V6 borrowed from the Dino sportscar. Lancia opted for the Ferrari V6 for both the street and rally cars.
To meet homologation requirements (certain number of street cars to be produced to qualify for rallying) for the World Rally Championship (WRC), Lancia had to produce 400 Stratos for consumers. In 1973 Lancia did fulfilled the requirement making them eligible to race the Stratos in the 1974 WRC season onwards.
The Stratos rally car used the mid-mounted Ferrari V6 engine that was in the consumer model, but was modified from 190 bhp to 280. Although Ferrari replaced the Dino's V6 in 1974, it provided Lancia with 500 engines which the Stratos rally cars would continue to use.
The Stratos won its first race at Lancia's (and Fiat's) home event the Rally Sanremo with driver Sandro Munari besting Fiat's Giulio Bisulli by eight seconds. Munari repeated his success at the next event in Canada. Teammate Jean-Claude Andruet won the Rally Tour de Corse (France), providing Lancia with a Manufacturer's Championship in the first season of competition in the WRC.
Lancia returned in 1975 to defend its title and did so with the addition of Swedish driver Bjorn Waldegaard. Munari won the first event of the season, once again beating out two Fiats for the victory.
Waldegaard pulled off a stunning victory in the next round winning his home event over countryman Stig Blomqvist. Waldegaard went on to win the Rally Sanremo and third driver Bernard Darniche won the Tour de Course by half a second to provide the Stratos' fourth win of the season. This was more than enough for a second consecutive Manufacturer's Championship, once again over parent company Fiat.
The Italian-squad showed they meant business when at the Rally Monte Carlo Rally it was an all-Lancia podium with Munari, Waldegaard, and Darniche finishing on the podium together for the first time. Munari went on to win the third event of the season, the Rally Portugal.
The Lancia crew did it once more in Finland at the 1000 Lakes Rally when Waldegaard won, Munari finished second, and Italian Raffaele Pinto finished third. The next event, the French Tour de Corse saw Munari and Darniche finishing one-two, making it Lancia's third consecutive Tour de Corse victory. Lancia's performance was utter dominance as they claimed their third consecutive Manufacturer's title.
Munari won the Monte Carlo in 1977 making it three consecutive victories for Lancia at the event. However due to conflict with parent company Fiat who wanted to have a more successful program and win the Manufacturer's Championship (which they did), Lancia did not compete to its fullest extent and only finished on the podium twice during the rest of the season.
Munari however, still edged out former teammates Waldegaard and Darniche for the FIA Cup for Drivers (now the WRC Driver's Championship).
Lancia did not see success in 1978 'til late in the season, when Markku Alen won the Rally Sanremo providing the Italian-make with their first victory since the Monte Carlo Rally in 1977.
Tony Carello would go on to win the Spanish Rally. The two victories, however, would not be enough to place in the top five in the Manufacturer's standings and once again marked a disappointing season for Lancia and the Stratos.
The Stratos continued to win in 1979, despite being an aging machine. Darniche returned to the wheel of a Stratos and won the first event of the season, the Rally Monte Carlo. The Stratos won again in Rally Sanremo with Antonio Fassina driving and in Darniche again in France. The three victories was enough for third place in the Manufacturer's standings—however, they were all privateer victories, as Lancia's factory team was not as successful.
The Stratos finished once on the podium in 1980 and won its last event at the 1981 Tour de Corse with Bernard Darniche once again piloting it to success.
The sleek and very "alien" Stratos (aptly named) had a profound impact on rallying. Not only was it extremely successful, but the rear-wheel drive supercar displayed the success a brand had when it built a car for rallying purposes. Since then, manufacturers have either created cars for rallying (such as the Audi Quattro or Subaru Impreza) or heavily modified cars (Peugeot 307), following in Lancia's steps.
The Stratos is by some still considered one of the finest designed rally cars to this day, and not many can disagree that it is one of the best rally cars of all time.