The Aurelian Way

The Lancista’s Lancia turns 70. 

1950 Lancia Aurelia B10 -(c) carstylecritic

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.

B20 Aurelia GT. (c) DTW

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.

B24 Aurelia Convertible by Pininfarina. (With hardtop) (c) carstyling

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “The Aurelian Way”

  1. One of the more absurd aspects of old Lancias is their Don Quixote like fight against the Imperial measuring system in cars. Some things like tyres and brake hydraulics are Imperial to this day but no so for Lancia. They made their own brake master and slave cylinders in metric dimensions and they even forced Michelin to make tyres of 175HR400 dimension so Lancia could use their own metric wheels.
    This combined with their production numbers likd 251 B24 Spiders or 500 B24 Convertibles was a sure way into desaster.

    If someone can manage to salvage the Andrea Doria’s wreck he would find 50 B24S Spiders on board. (B24S means ‘sinistra’ for LHD. Until 1955 all Lancias were RHD…)

    1. Lancia really was a hugely ambitious and innovative company. The specification of the Aurelia would have seemed advanced even two decades later. It’s a great shame that the company couldn’t have monetized (to use an ugly but apt word) its engineering brilliance to sustain the company as an independent manufacturer.

      Incidentally, I was particularly struck by the standard fitment of radial tyres, having assumed that these were a later (1960’s ) invention.

      Here’s another photo of the B20 GT, a car previously unknown to me. It has a formal elegance that is just sublime:

    2. Here’s my favourite Aurelia:

      Radial tyres were introduced in the early Fifties when a Michelin subsidiary called Citroen used Michelin Xs on late Traction Avants and made them standard equipment on DSs from the beginning. I remember quite well that during the Sixties all French cars came with radials as standard equipment and Audi still asked extra money for them.

  2. In my experience, ‘Lancia types’ tend to be more outgoing and relaxed than a lot of other marque obsessives, although there are always exceptions. But if by chance you really want to lose the will to live one day, engage an exponent on the subject of ‘the last true Lancia’. Between those who reckon there is nothing ‘proper’ after Vincenzo’s death, those who hand-wave away the Pesenti cars as ‘not part of the family hierarchy’, those who reject anything post-Fiat, those who like the Beta but reckon the Delta is just a Strada… although on the plus side, I’ve never met one who even acknowledges the Chrysler rebadges, so at least we can find consensus on that point.

    Anyway, the reason for mentioning is that it’s not often appreciated that under Vincenzo, Lancia was generally a commercially-sane organisation – high-quality, certainly, but selling to a clientele that was prepared to pay for quality in viable numbers. It was really after the war and under Gianni that the notion of commercial non-viability took root. I think it is Nigel Trow’s book that relates the anecdote of factory testbed testing of Flaminia transaxles. The story goes that every completed one was run on a dedicated setup in the factory in situ for 20 minutes or an hour (it’s been a while since I read this, but one of those two numbers rings a bell), and if they emitted any noise whatsoever during the test, off to the scrapyard it went. But then this is a company whose idea of cost-saving was switching from brass as the finisher on early Flaminia coupes to stainless steel.

  3. I’ve always assumed that in the heirachy of car makes 1950/60’s Lancia was up there with Mercedes and Rover, all building cars to a standard and not a price. The difference between them being that while Mercedes also built large numbers of commercial vehicles and “Maybach” diesel engines and Rover had Land-Rover to fall back on with it’s military contracts [And both of them had lucrative licensing deals, Bristol Siddeley for the MB655 engines, Minerva etc for Land-Rover], which could support the car making, Lancia’s commercial vehicles were a peripheral activity.

    Regarding the B20 GT, surely anyone who doesn’t love that car has no soul!

    Also, does anyone know if if is a B10 saloon that Don Tommasino is in when he gets shot in The Godfather part lll? That scene has always stuck in my mind, not just for the presence of an ambiguous Lancia but because I we once got hopelessly lost driving this same stretch or road in Sicily again and again and when I saw the film I recognised “Our road” straight away.

    1. It’s a long time since I’ve seen the movie Richard, but a quick look on the web confirms that there was indeed a number of Lancias featured in Godfather 3. A second-series Aurelia berlina featured in an assassination scene in Sicily, while a second series Gamma cropped up elsewhere in the movie.

    2. I would not say that in the Fifties the commercial vehicles were a peripheral activity.
      Lancia had a long tradition in civilian and military trucks, and in the Fifties they provided the Italian Army with the light truck CL51, ubiquitous in the Army until the Eighties. I suppose that through the years they sold some thousands of them.
      The civilian market was served by the big Esa- series: Esagamma, Esadelta, Esatau, sold by thousand(s) per year.
      I find the following numbers in Wikipedia:

      Esatau : 1950-1963 – 13.362 esemplari,
      Beta : 1950-1961 – 2.351 esemplari,
      Esadelta A : 1959-1963 – 7.053 esemplari,
      Esadelta B e C: 1963-1970 – ?
      Esagamma : 1962-1971 – 6.648 esemplari.

      The production numbers appear to be at least comparable to those of the Aurelia presented in the nice diagram of the site cited in the article, so it would appear that the heavy truck production was at least as important as the car production, and also comparable (more or less 1000/year) we should not forget the commercial Appia and Jolly vans.

      All in all, it would appear that in the Fifties the main part of the revenue was provided by the heavy, military and commercial vehicles, due to their higher price/unit ratio and to the substantial parity of sold pieces in the different categories.

  4. If independent Lancia had most of the trappings of a large scale manufacturer before it was acquired by Fiat, is it known how much production capacity the company possessed had?

    Read Lancia looked at a more Tatra-like rear-engined V8 proposal prior to the Aurelia. Find the Aurelia an attractive car whereas the Flaminia was pretty derivative.

    Is it known whether there was enough stretch in the Lancia V6 to grow from 2.8-litres to 3-litres+ or if an OHC development of the Lancia V6 was ever looked at?

    1. Just a clarification. The Flaminia design might look derivative but it was other cars which took inspiration from the Flaminia (most of the times thanks to the intervention of the same Pininfarina) and not the other way around!
      In 1955 Pininfarina presented the Lancia Florida, a prototype based on the Aurelia Chassis, which had most of the stylistic characteristics that we will find in the Flaminia, whose production will start in 1957. Later on Pininfarina went on using the same stylistic cues on many other cars (from the Peugeot 504 to the Fiat 1800/2300 and many more) and other designers took inspiration from this style.
      At the end of the day, rather than being derivative the Flaminia’s design (or rather the Lancia Florida’s) should be considered the source of that style.

    2. Welcome to DTW, Carlo and let me add my voice to yours on this matter. Pininfarina certainly got their money’s worth with the Florida/ Flaminia design, seeing as it was essentially replicated for so many other carmakers around the same time. It could be said that Lancia got a bit of a raw deal out of it really, given that the Peugeot, Fiat and BMC replicants were of a less prestigious nature, (and in BMC’s case notably inferior in execution) while owing to the Flaminia’s rarity, becoming far better known.

      Anastasio: Thanks for the info on Lancia’s commercial and military vehicles.

    3. My bad, slipped my mind on the Flaminia design being the original design theme by Pininfarina that reached production. Compared to the Aurelia, the Flaminia and other iterations of Pininfarina’s styling theme (used by Fiat, Peugeot and BMC) never looked fully resolved IMO.

      The Peugeot 404 comes the closest, along with the reduced or more subtle tailfins at the rear of the Fiat 2300 saloon.

  5. Anastasio – you have me imagining an alternative future for Lancia as a truck maker. Not so strange given the progress of Albion, Berliet, Officine Meccaniche, Pegaso, Isuzu et al.

    Lancia would probably have ended up as part of IVECO, Paccar, or Trumpton, and there would have been no White Hen. No Fulvia, Stratos, Delta, nor Lybra either.

    In this case, reality was far better than contra-factuality.

    1. Robertas, in fact we could, in same way, consider the Lancia heavy production still alive, since the ex-IVECO Bolzano/Bozen factory, built in 1937 by Lancia for military production, still produces military vehicles.
      In the site below there is a short summary of the heavy Lancia production, started in 1912 and survived through various property and name changes until today.

  6. On the trucks – years ago did a financial analysis on cash flow through the decades. The numbers vary but overall, sales of the commercials is about ⅓ of the overall revenue. What is more important was probably the steady cash flow, as commercial sales were likely more steady than the cars. For instance in the war years, 10,000 3Ro trucks sold to the Italian Army with very few cars. There is an interesting story to be told on the truck engines, and “getting to the six” of the Esatau and later truck motors, but what may not be well appreciated is the rare Omicron of the late 1920s – a DOHC 6 cyl gas truck engine!
    Aurelia production sits in the middle of transitions – with both factory made bodies and chassis, and then a variety of custom ones – from one-offs, to semi-production models such as the B50 and B20 coupe. Then there are the variations, practically yearly, which seem bewildering until one looks at them as improvements from the engineering-focused company. If interested in the Aurelia, its engineering origins, and the family story behind it , suggest the book, “Lancia and De Virgilio, At the Center”, now being reprinted (hint hint).

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