Veteran to classic: Lancia Aurelia B20

Your flexible friend!

From my viewpoint, the difficulty with enthusing over Classic cars is that cars change so quickly. What seemed an outstanding motor car some years ago soon pales into mediocrity, although vintage and veteran cars are sufficiently far removed in time for these feelings not to apply.

No-one was more set on the Volkswagen Beetle in the mid-1950s than me, for instance, but I would not want to own one as a first car now. When the 80-bore raked-rear-window Ford Anglia came out I liked it, but today I would not want to go further in it than to collect the post (although specialised rallies are another matter).

One lastingly memorable Classic, however, was the Lancia Aurelia. This was the post-war enlargement, as it were, of the Aprilia, which was itself a car of which I have happy memories — I regarded it as quite the finest of the small pre-war saloons. But what would it feel like in modern traffic?

Named after an ancient Roman highway, the Aurelia made its appearance at the 1950 Turin Show, a couple of years or so after serious work on it had begun. They say Lancia never made a bad car, apart from that 1919 V12 we wrote of last month perhaps, and among the first to admire this new model were the Italian President Einaudi and his lady.

That first Aurelia was the 1754cc B10, whose 60° V6 was claimed to be the very first production V6, although I await corrections on that count with trepidation! The cylinderblock was a light-alloy casting in which the wet liners were inserted, and the heads were aluminium. Bore and stroke were 70mm x 76mm, the counterbalanced crankshaft ran in four white-metal bearings, and a short duplex chain drove the central camshaft.

Engineers should have been captivated enough by the valve-gear alone, the inclined overhead valves being set in line with the crankshaft instead of laterally and actuated by light push-rods and short tappets. The motorcycle layout kept the engine narrow. With a compression ratio of 6.85:1 and unexciting valve-timing, the power output was 56 bhp at 4000 rpm, and the maximum torque from this flexible engine was produced at 2750 rpm.

The new Lancia was the design of Francesco de Virgilio, working under the great racing-car engineer Vittorio Jano. Retaining the famous Lancia independent front suspension from Lambda days, the Aurelia followed the Aprilia’s use of unitary-construction and independent rear suspension, with brakes mounted by the differential casing to reduce unsprung weight, but with semi-trailing arms to a system patented in 1947.

By 1951 the 2-litre B20 coupe had arrived, and there were to be other variants such as the B21 and B22, but it is the Aurelia B20 GT coupe with which I am concerned here.

The B20 ran through several series, and the Pininfarina 2 + 2 Gran Turismo coupe actually switched rear-suspension layouts half-way, abandoning the semi-trailing arms for a leaf-spring De Dion system. Its wheelbase was 8ft 8in, against the 9ft 4in of the B10, and the engine capacity had been increased to 21/2 litres.

In fact, the first B20 remained a 2-litre car, but two Weber 32DR carburettors and an 8.4:1 compression ratio produced 75 bhp at 4500 rpm, and this power-unit was said to be the most compact over-2-litre of its day. By 1953 the car was into its third-series form, with the 21/2-litre (2451cc) engine of 78mm x 851/2mm bore and stroke using new heads, a B22 camshaft, and a Weber 40 DCF to develop 118 bhp at 5000 rpm. This 2500 GT was almost a 115 mph car, but it suffered from considerable oversteer.

The ultimate B20 arrived with the fourth series. With De Dion rear suspension, Vandervell main bearings, a 40DCZ Weber and a final-drive ratio of just over 4:1, it pioneered the GT concept and was perhaps the finest car of its kind for at least the next four years.

One very enjoyable run I had in an Aurelia B20 two-door GT was from Hampshire to Devon and back in heavy rain in December 1955. The test-car (9 CMV) was equipped with the steering-column gearshift, which functioned lightly and smoothly but could be indefinite (a Nardi floor-change was offered as an option on late series cars). There was also a pistol-grip handbrake, but at least it was out of the way . . .

I drove as fast as I could, holding 100 mph across Salisbury Plain. The test-car was geared at 25 mph per 1000 rpm in its 3.68:1 top gear, and would do 78 mph in third and 50 mph in second.

Shod with Michelin X 165-400 tyres on bolt-on steel wheels, its kerb weight with two gallons of fuel aboard came out at 23 cwt 21 lb. The steering was set at 331/4 turns lock-to-lock, and power output was quoted at 118 bhp at 5000 rpm, up to which mark the engine ran willingly. The price at the time, ex-Wembley, was just under £3174 inclusive of import duty and purchase tax.

My abiding impression was of how very safe and how comfortable this fast Aurelia was under difficult high-speed conditions. There was also ample luggage space, but I decided that this was an enthusiast’s car rather than an express for business tycoons. “Vibration is evident,” I wrote, “through the floor, the exhaust booms away behind, and the Michelin Xs sing their song.”

An enthusiast’s car, yes…the clutch was either in or out, the transmission snatched, the engine was not exactly silent, the noisy windscreen wipers were ineffective in the pelting rain, the washers inoperative, demisting poor, and wind-noise intrusive. The wiper blades would not park properly, nor were the lamps much good on dip.

Despite these setbacks we made good time on our journey, thanks to its truly sure-footed handling, its excellent balance and its “throwability” in the wet, coupled with good acceleration and braking. Lancia did not let us keep this enjoyable Aurelia for long, and the only acceleration check I made was a casual standing-start quarter-mile in the wet, which took exactly 20 seconds. Running-in speed, by the way, was 94 mph!

Though there were aspects of the bodywork which made me think Italians were better at putting together mechanicals than enclosing them and their occupants, the 2500 GT was most impressive in its day. How it would seem more than thirty years later is another matter, but anyway the Flarninia replaced it and, for me, things were never quite the same again.

Remember, however, that the Lancia Aurelia GT was also a successful competition car. Bracco was beaten only by a 4.1-litre Ferrari in the 1951 Mille Miglia, and Aurelias were first and second in the Dolomite Cup, and second (again behind a Ferrari) in the Stella Alpina that same year. 1952 yielded second, third and fourth in the Tour de Sicily, and third place for Fagioli (vanquishing Alfa Romeo) in the Mile Miglia, before Benetto won the Targa Florio ahead of the Lancias of Valenzano and Anselmi.

Finally, to name but one more achievement, Maglioli brought an Aurelia home fourth in the 1952 PanAmerican road-race using a Roots supercharger mounted between the vee and driven by six belts from the flywheel. They say that output was thus increased to 150 bhp at 5800 rpm, giving the B20 a speed of 133 mph. WB