Veteran to classic: Lancia Aurelia B20 GT

Classic coupe

A Lancia Aurelia B20 coupe is hardly a common sight nowadays. Yet when we decided to follow up WB’s musing on how the car he recalled driving in 1955 would seem today, we very quickly found we had an embarrassment of riches: a range of cars to choose from.

We selected arguably the three most significant models from the B20’s history; a Series 1 with Nardi carb and floor-change conversions, a Series 4, reckoned to be the prime sporting model, and the last B20 coupe, a Series 6 of 1958.

Recently bought from California, the S 1 (known as “Gina” because it is reputed to be the one featured in the film “Three Coins in the Fountain” with Gina Lollabrigida) is currently in the care of Martin Cliffe, who runs the Aurelia Spares Consortium as well as his Omicron restoration company near Norwich. The 2-litre car was fitted with the Nardi parts from new, and features a special camshaft and six downdraught motorcycle carburettors in line on a special manifold.

In fact, this set-up could never really be made to work at the time, due to fuel surge problems on the right-hand bends, and this example has a much modified system with aircraft-style surge-compensation, two pressure regulators, and a fuel-cooler, all of which makes it work properly. “But”, says Martin, “it is just not as rewarding to drive as the later 21/2-litre cars because it lacks their torque”.

Lancia was keen to keep the front bench clear so that three people might use it, hence the column change, but many owners had the floor-change fitted; the large chrome ball-and-socket is bolted to the floor alongside the transmission tunnel with the lever cranked over to the centre. The result is a shorter crisper shift better suited to the sporting aims of the car.

Although this car has been retrimmed, the log-book shows that it has always been brown in colour, with cream high-lighting the metal dash and its huge round dials. Body differences show around the tail, where vestigial fins end in tiny smooth red lamps, banned for later series by new regulations in Italy, and the front wings, which are slightly raked back with ornate projecting headlamp glasses.

It was this, the early trailing-arm design which was so successful in competition; even in 2-litre form the works cars were reaching 125 bhp, and for the Carrera PanAmerica superchargers pushed this to 150 bhp. Six aluminium-bodied racers were built for the 1952 season as part of an official Scuderia Lancia entry, their softer lines presaging the shape of third and subsequent series production cars, and these not only challenged the nearest showroom rival of the B20, the Alfa Romeo 1900, in rallying, but even took on the V12 Ferraris and Mercedes 300 on equal terms in road-racing.

One of the characteristics which made the Aurelia coupe an excellent racer was its tendency to oversteer, but this was not quite so useful on the road. For fourth-series cars, like that belonging to Mike Darrieulat, Lancia substituted a De Dion tube on leaf springs, with a Panhard rod, and we took the opportunity to inspect the set-up on one of the ramps in Darrieulat’s Lancia garage, Talon Engineering.

From below, the two-piece prop-shaft which sent so much vibration through the car can be seen joining the V6 lump to the rear transaxle. Keeping the clutch small meant less intrusion into the rear passenger space and allowed the unit to be easily removed, but as we found when we took the car out, the famous Aurelia clutch-judder cannot be hidden. An oddity of the layout, because of the width of the transwde and its inboard brake-drums, is that to keep the half-shaft as long as possible and reduce angular deflection, it pokes right through the wheel with the u/j on the outside, covered by a bulbous hub-cap.

Mike also pointed out other advanced maintenance features of the B20: Bentley-style thermostatic radiator shutters, brake fluid indicator, self-bleed device, and front damper adjustment from the underbonnet reservoir, simple handbrake adjustment, removeable grille for steering-box fettling. Sophisticated though the Aurelia was, it was not hard to maintain in its day (except for working on the sliding-pillar front suspension with its integral damper — both Cliffe and Darrieulat singled this out as the worst job).

With the fourth-series 21/2-litre engine, the B20 has 118 bhp, and this version is often thought the most desirable. Darrieulat feels lucky still to have his: “I made the mistake of selling it once, but two years later it turned up again, one of a pair offered for breaking”. Inevitably he bought it back, and now resists offers to buy. When other projects (such as the Turner he drives in HSCC racing) allow, it will get the respray and re-trim it needs.

Our last-series Aurelia belongs to Martin Cliffe, and is certainly the most refined. Lancia tackled the vibration problem with different prop-shaft couplings and a larger clutch on fifth and sixth-series cars, and fitted a stiffer front axle beam to counteract brake judder. There are also cooling airscoops on the drum back-plates, fed from the small grilles in the nose.

Driving the B20 on Norfolk roads proved the tremendous flexibility of the torquey V6 with its loud and rumbling exhaust; it will spin to 5000 rpm, very high revs for the period, but has impressive pulling power low down. Perhaps it is less smooth than today’s equivalent, but the rest of the transmission is considerably more relaxed than the S4 Aurelia, with smoother clutch engagement through the sensitive pedal.

There is a good foot of movement in the column lever, but selection is positive, even fast with a little practice. First (no synchro) and second are nearest the wheel, third and fourth further away and reverse close to the dash. Like the fifth series, the sixth is a heavier car than previous models, but where the former was slower as a result of having less power, the latter gained extra urge to compensate. It is no quicker than an S4, but top speed is a little higher.

The large upright wheel feels very direct, providing lots of feel from the simple steering: one idler arm from the steering box and a one piece track-rod. On winding country roads the ratio is very good, and the car quickly settles into a neutral stance through corners. It feels as if more throttle will start to push the tail wide, and I am told that opposite lock is fun, though I was too circumspect to experiment even in the light traffic.

But overtaking is rapid, much quicker than a 30-year-old car might be expected to turn in; in fact, with its powerful yet flexible engine and accurate steering, the Aurelia feels remarkably modern. Its brakes are firm with none of the judder of the early cars, the ride is very comfortable, and it can easily be propelled at today’s traffic speeds. And that lovely Farina shape, simple as it is, brought everyday practicality and high performance together in a form which was to influence Grand Touring cars for years afterwards. GC