The Lancista’s Lancia turns 70.
If one was to carry out a poll amongst Lanciaphiles as to the quintessential model in the storied marque’s history, there is likely to be a certain amount of heated debate. While some might cleave to the innovative and undoubtedly influential Lambda of 1922, it’s probably more likely the Aurelia would garner the majority vote.
Borgo San Paolo’s 1950 entrant was Lancia’s first genuinely new product of the post-hostility period, replacing the emblematic Aprilia, which ceased production the previous year; the latter model itself a ground breaker in design terms mating fully independent suspension, a narrow-angle V4 engine and pillarless construction within an aerodynamically streamlined, stressed bodyshell.
The Aurelia was intended as a larger, more refined car, aimed at the affluent owner-driver. Italy was for the most part impoverished and war-torn from years of conflict by the close of the 1940s, with large swathes of the population who could only dream of car ownership, but there remained a base of professionals, wealthy industrialists and titled nobility who could afford a superior product to Fiat’s and Alfa Romeo’s contemporary offerings.
Vincenzo Lancia died in 1937, just as the Aprilia was introduced, but the carmaker retained a family connection with his son, Gianni, taking over the business in 1948. Lancia’s technical strength was bolstered considerably by the presence of former Alfa Romeo engineering lynchpin, Vittorio Jano, the man credited with legions of legendary road and racing models carrying the illustrious Biscione of Milan, and a young engineering graduate who had joined the company fresh out of technical college, Francesco De Virgilio.
Lancia even then was something of an anomaly in carmaking terms, having most of the trappings of a large scale manufacturer, having their own foundry, making their own spare parts and developing their own manufacturing processes. Little was bought in. Constant reinvention was the order of play. Yet production figures were in the specialist car arena – Aurelia production totalling around 18,000 over eight years. Lancia also made trucks and buses, but this side of the business was by the mid-50s merely a sideline to car production.
By its 1948 demise, few rivals had even approached the technical advances embodied within the Aprilia, yet Lancia, Jano and his engineers believed the car was obsolete, opting instead to start with a clean sheet. Virtually nothing was carried over, apart perhaps for the basic premise of a relatively compact, spacious and refined saloon, with an emphasis on nimble chassis characteristics, light weight, and a relaxed sense of driver well-being.
One of the core principles employed within the Aurelia was the location of the car’s masses. A primary example of this being the rear axle-mounted transmission, which was combined with the clutch and inboard drum brakes, reducing unsprung weight.
Coupled to this was the Aurelia’s rear suspension, which like the Aprilia, was fully independent. However, unlike the earlier car, this patented layout was entirely new and unique to the car – described in Lancia parlance as “inclined diverging arms and coil springs,” but was in effect a pair of triangulated trailing arms and coil springs – careful mounting being pivotal to its well regarded handling characteristics. The use of radial ply tyres also aided matters. Front suspension employed sliding pillars, which comprised of an integral spring and shock absorber acting upon a large vertical set pin inside the assembly, the pillars themselves being attached to a lateral beam axle.
Power came via the first production V6 engine. Lancia already had a long history of inclined power units, being virtually synonymous with the V4 layout since the 1920s. Because the Aurelia was to be a larger, more expensive car than the more compact Aprilia, larger capacity engines were a necessity, Gianni Lancia clearly keen to maintain his father’s pioneering spirit.
However, up to that point there were seemingly intractable crankshaft balancing issues with the V6 layout. Francesco De Virgilio was the engineer credited with both solving this problem, and for the design of the engine itself, held to be the template for every subsequent inclined-vee six cylinder power unit. Early prototypes were running during 1945 with a capacity of 1569 cc, before being enlarged to 1754 cc for production. The crankcase, block and cylinder head was cast from aluminium, resulting in a compact and lightweight powerplant.
From the company’s inception in 1906, Lancia provided rolling chassis’ to coachbuilders to practice their art to customer’s specifications. The Aurelia saw this practice continue. The B50, as it was known, could be ordered from the outset of Aurelia production as a rolling chassis for bespoke bodies to be constructed by the carrozzieri.
But in addition to the B10 berlina, which was an in-house design credited to Amedeo Piatti, there was also a stretched six-light berlina allungata (B15), in addition to a factory-sanctioned drophead with elegant lines by carrozzeria Pininfarina. Perhaps the best loved and not just the most highly regarded, but also most influential Aurelia remains the fastback B20 GT, introduced in 1951 and built (although not designed) by Pininfarina.
To some extent then, the Aurelia wasn’t a single car, nor even a range of cars, but a whole series of really quite different offerings, in an broad array of bodystyles and engine capacities; De Virgilio’s V6 for instance being offered in four different engine capacities and innumerable states of tune, over the production run. Indeed, it would require years of study to fully unravel the myriad versions offered, not to mention the bewildering amount of technical changes which took place.
The most significant of these came in 1954 with the second series cars, which in berlina form embodied a reprofiled body style, a further engine enlargement to 2.5 litres, a redesigned transaxle and the adoption of a de Dion suspension arrangement employing leaf springs to replace the original semi trailing arms. With so much was changed, it begged the question as to exactly what was wrong with the earlier car?
These changes were also reflected in the B20 GT, not to mention the pretty two-seater B24 Spider and convertible, designed and built by Pininfarina, which debuted the same year. Because if there was one single, unifying aspect, it was perhaps only the Aurelia nameplate itself, and aspects of the technical layout.
There is a strong argument to be made that Lancia’s determination to produce cars such as these, in so many differing versions and subject to such wide-ranging technical changes, almost annually, laid the foundations for the troubles which would beset them in later years. Because while we can look at the results and appreciate the elegant lines, fine engineering and superb build, we ought not ignore the sheer commercial illogic.
It is customary on these pages to hail Lancias of this era as archetypes of a kind of carmaking some of us wish still took place (and this author has been amongst them), but one must ask how Lancia under Gianni (and Ingegnere Jano) could possibly have maintained a viable business making automobiles such as these – especially in Italy, where the market for such nobly-wrought motor cars could only shrink over time.
Quintessence can embody many things, but in the Aurelia’s case, the car’s undoubted exceptional qualities are equally the very same which in the fullness of time would seal Lancia’s fate.
This site contains a wealth of information on the Aurelia, including this fascinating schematic.