Lancia Aurelia – Pushing the boundaries

Gianni Lancia was an ambitious and passionate man, keen to leave his mark in the company’s history. He wanted the first post-war Lancia model to push the boundaries of automobile engineering. To make the world stop and take notice.
The task fell onto the shoulders of these two men: Vittorio Jano, the man behind Alfa Romeo’s pre-war racing glory days, and young engineer Francesco De Virgilio.
The result of their work was the Aurelia B10, named after the road built under Roman Emperor Aurelianus Augustus, and that to this day connects Rome to Ventimiglia. Unveiled in 1950 at the Turin Motor Show, the Aurelia was a significantly larger and more expensive car than the Aprilia it replaced. How expensive?
Around 2 Million Italian Liras, roughly equivalent to 2 year’s salary for a company manager in 1950.
Under its bonnet sat De Virgilio’s masterpiece: the very first V6 engine in automobile history, a 1.8 liters unit whose block and heads were all cast in lightweight aluminum. Lancia invented unibody construction back in 1922 with the Lambda, so the Aurelia was a unibody too. Suspensions were independent on all four corners, and, as if all this wasn’t heady enough for 1950, the Aurelia also sported a sophisticated transaxle configuration.
Clutch, gearbox, and differential were mounted at the rear in a single casing, to improve weight distribution.
The Aurelia B10’s engine output was 56HP, very low by today’s standards, but enough to warrant the relatively lightweight saloon some sporting credentials in the period. Not nearly enough to keep up with the Alfa Romeo 1900 though, leading Lancia to enlarge the V6 up to two liters for the B21 saloon and the later B22, whose 90HP and 160Km/h top speed transform the Aurelia in a “sports saloon” ante litteram.
Equipped with the same two-liter V6 engine of the B21, the coupé Aurelia B20 debuted in 1951 and its design, with its restrained elegance, is universally considered one of the finest examples of Italian automobile design. Yet there’s a bit of controversy about who actually designed the B20. Its lines have been generally attributed to Battista Pininfarina, given his close personal ties to the Lancia family and the fact his company actually built almost all the B20 bodies. Many years later, Felice Mario Boano claimed to have designed the B20 while at Ghia. Regardless of who did it, the Aurelia B20’s design was very well received, with brisk sales over the first year despite its 30% price premium over the saloon.

Sales also got a welcome boost from some impressive racing exploits, chiefly among those the second place at the 1951’s Mille Miglia of Giovanni Bracco and Umberto Maglioli, beaten only by a Ferrari with an engine double the size of the Lancia. During its production run, the Aurelia B20 Coupé was updated continuously, so much so that six different series were produced over its seven years production run.

The series two models from ’52 are easily identified by the small tailfins, but perhaps it’s with its third series that the Aurelia B20 reached full maturity.
The whole design was given a very subtle yet effective revision, and the rear end lost the clumsy fins of the ’52 cars. The 1953 B20s were also faster, thanks to their 2.5 liters V6 engine and longer final drive.
That year marked the beginning of Gianni Lancia’s pursuit of motor racing glory, but also a comprehensive revision of the Aurelia saloon, the B12, whose V6 was stretched to 2.3 liters to counterbalance the weight increase from its restyled and more luxuriously appointed body. The fourth series of the Aurelia B20 and the B12 saloon also received a completely new rear suspension: a De-Dion axle with cart springs… A somewhat unusual step backward from the original independent design.
Built from 1955 a shortened B20 Series IV platform, the B24 Spider inherited the coupé’s 2.5 liters V6 and transaxle configuration. Changes to the mechanical components were minimal and only made for exquisitely aesthetic purposes: the engine’s air filter and cooling fan were redesigned according to the Spider’s lower bonnet line.
The Coupé B20 and the Spider B24 shared the same underpinnings but could not be more different in character: The B24, with its panoramic windscreen, its tiny doors without handles nor windows, was clearly aimed at San Francisco rather than San Remo.
The Aurelia B24 was as glamorous as the B20 was understated, yet just as pure in its form language. If the Aurelia was a beautiful woman, the B20 is a sharp business suit, while the B24 is a bikini. Unfortunately, neither the Aurelia or the smaller Appia lived up tho their sales potential: Lancia’s share of the Italian market dropped from 10% of 1950 to less than 5 in the space of a few years.
The Lancia family ended up ceding control of the company to the construction magnate Carlo Pesenti between 1955 and 1956, the year production of the Aurelia B12 saloon ceased, leaving just the Coupé B20 and Spider B24.
Lancia’s new chief engineer Antonio Fessia was against motor racing, so the last two series of the B20 gained in refinement at the expense of their sporting edge.
April of 1956 also brought a comprehensively redesigned B24 at the Turin motor show: the new model received more traditional bumpers and windscreen, while the doors were enlarged to fit winding side windows and quarter lights.
Built until 1958, this B24 model is the one immortalized by the classic Italian road-movie “Il Sorpasso,” starring the great Antonio Gassman.
The sixth and final series of Aurelia B20 Coupés can be easily recognized by the quarter lights on the doors, and its production of all Aurelias came to an end in November 1958.

Lancia Aurelia - The Story

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