Far more than just an elegant tourer, the B20 GT defines an era when the Italian marque was known for groundbreaking engineering and superior build quality
By Richard Heseltine / Photography by Howard Simmons
Time was when Lancia had its own unique style and disdained convention. Its cars were often inordinately beautiful or, at the very least, resonantly elegant in their thinking. None more so than the Aurelia B20 GT, which married timeless style with idiosyncratic engineering and an enviable competition pedigree. It remains one of the most captivating Lancias ever, and so by definition one of the most enthralling of all road cars, period.
This was, after all, the daily driver of Juan Manuel Fangio, Jean Behra and Mike Hawthorn (the latter even racing his), which is a pretty resounding endorsement. The same model for which the term Gran Turismo took on an altogether more contemporaneous air, one in which Louis Chiron drove to victory in the 1954 Monte Carlo Rally. This was a car for the connoisseur, for the trendsetter and – tellingly – for the enthusiastic driver.
All of which came at a price. In 1957, seven years into its eight-year production life, an Aurelia B20 GT cost an eye-watering £3346, of which a good third was taken up by Britain’s thumping import duty on luxury cars. In comparison, a homegrown Aston Martin DB MkIII was almost £300 cheaper. And marginally faster, too. Hell, a Rolls-Royce chassis cost only £7 more. You really had to want an Aurelia. No great surprise, then, that just 25 were officially imported by Lancia England, which didn’t even bother quoting prices in print.
So why the enduring appeal? It seems highly improbable now for generations raised on warmed-over Fiat-derivations, but this century-old marque really was once renowned for its superior build quality and the originality of its architecture. Sure, Lancia never factored in the whole making-a-profit thing, eventually selling out to Fiat in 1969 for the grand sum of six lire, but it made cars that mattered.
Envisioned by legendary engineer Vittorio Jano, the original Aurelia B10 was at the vanguard of car design: the B20 GT simply raised the bar even further. At its launch in 1951 there wasn’t anything else like it. The Aurelia was the first production car to be manufactured in volume with a V6 engine. Of course, V-configuration engines had long been a Lancia staple, starting with the sublimely capable Lambda (V4) from 1922. The only reason, it seems, that Lancia’s backroom boffins hadn’t got round to devising a V6 sooner was because it was thought this layout would resonate too much ever to be as smooth as an in-line unit.
But then Lancia was rarely a slave to convention. Designed by Francesco De Virgilio under Jano’s direction, this 1991cc 60-degree unit had a short alloy block mounted on rubber to absorb vibration through the rev range. It makes do with a single camshaft and has in-line valves in hemispherical combustion chambers. A twin-choke Weber carb sits in the centre of the V. This was also one of the lightest engines of the day, popular legend having it that spanner-wielders at the Lancia factory could often be seen holding a block under one arm and the heads under the other.
Equally unusual was the use of a rear-mounted, alloy-cased gearbox housing the clutch, gears, final drive and mountings for the inboard drum brakes. Front suspension was predictably by Lancia’s traditional sliding pillar arrangement, with the rear on semi-trailing arms, replaced roughly halfway through the model’s production life by a de Dion set-up.
Topping all this off was one of the great outlines of the immediate post-war era. Who, precisely, styled the B20 remains shrouded in intrigue, but then famed carrozzeria Pinin Farina (two words until 1959) which also fabricated the bodies – along with the likes of Viotti and Maggiore – rarely attributed output to individual stylists: there’s no ‘I’ in team and all that. It certainly borrowed cues from the firm’s earlier landmark Cisitalia 202, although the height of the engine necessitated a loftier bonnet line. Unsubstantiated reports claim that the design was actually the work of an unheralded artisan at Ghia, but as the firm had by then been reduced to making bicycles, this is doubtful. Whatever the truth, the GT’s was a pure, uncluttered silhouette and staunchly futurist in outlook.
Although conceived as a GT, the Aurelia swiftly proved as adept at setting the pace in races and rallies as covering long distances across Europe in utter civility. Within a matter of months of its launch, the Giovanni Bracco and Umberto Maglioli entry came home an astounding second overall on the 1951 Mille Miglia, beaten only by Gigi Villoresi’s Ferrari 340 which had twice the displacement. Bracco and Count ‘Johnny’ Lurani would go on to win the 2-litre class at Le Mans that year in the same car. Add in Felice Bonetto’s outright win on the 1952 Targa Florio and Johnny Claes’s super-human feat to win the ’53 Liège-Rome-Liège rally (he was forced to drive solo for 36 hours and 1500 miles after his co-driver, Ginet Trasenster, fell ill) and you couldn’t hope for a finer competition pedigree for a proper, unalloyed production car.
Over the years the B20 was honed and refined, but the fundamentals remained much the same. This is the abridged version of the story: the retrospectively named first-series cars gave sway to the series two editions in April 1952 – they had a higher-compression engine and lower gear ratios. A year on, the third series arrived with capacity increased to 2451cc (hence the largely forgotten GT 2500 tag), providing a useful 118bhp at 5000rpm. New, smoother rear wings did away with the vestigial fins and a larger rear window aided visibility. Within 12 months, the fourth series went over to the new de Dion set-up. Then followed a bit of a gap to 1956 and the fifth series, which had a softer cam – power was slightly reduced, but torque was improved. That gave way to the sixth series a year on with mostly minor detail changes. Production ended in June 1958, and by this time 3121 of all types had been made.
So even the most youthful iteration is 50 years old, which is difficult to comprehend when experienced first-hand: the GT feels so much newer. Overlooking the outer beauty, it’s the cabin that draws you in. Not so much because it’s especially dazzling but because it’s an antidote to the British ‘cow and trees’ approach. The painted dash is sparsely equipped, with Bakelite switches and gorgeous, large Veglia instruments (Jaeger on later cars), the speedo working counter-clockwise. Everything has a feeling of well-oiled precision right down to the tautness of the ashtray’s spring-loading and the slow gearing of the window winders. It’s all very muted glamour, and honed-from-solid engineering.
In period, Lancia did cheapen things a little with a plastic-rimmed steering wheel, which was prone to cracking. The vast Nardi item seen here was a contemporary – and popular – option. Same, too, for the firm’s floor-shift conversion in place of the regular column-mounted gearchange. The floor-hinged clutch pedal is weighty, heel-and-toeing requiring a fair amount of ankle articulation due to the throttle being set too far back to be truly comfortable. But that’s where criticism begins and ends.
Turn the key through 180 degrees, press the starter button and the Aurelia is surprisingly loud on start-up. Thereafter, only under load does it sound as vocal: you can rev the V6 safely past 6000rpm but such is the refinement here, you probably won’t want to indulge in such hairy-palmed excess. And acceleration isn’t lacking. Independent figures of the day quoted a 0-60mph time of around 12 seconds, which doesn’t sound very impressive by modern standards but there’s bags of torque and mid-range urge is inspiring. It just seems so smooth and untemperamental, 4000rpm in top gear equating to 87mph for the admittedly higher-geared series six cars.
Despite the lengthy gear linkages, the actual shift action is super-smooth for its vintage and it’s easy to guide the vast lever between short planes, even if does look like it belongs in a lorry. The light worm-and-sector steering allows fingertip control and the ride quality is eerily smooth. Being a good 150kg lighter than subsequent iterations, this 1953 series three car is marginally quicker than those which followed, although history has it that the later cars handle better. Truth is, most who’ve tried both claim there’s little in the way of trade-off until you’re really pressing on, though the semi-trailing-arm cars are apparently prone to snap oversteer when pushed near the limit. Driven with moderate enthusiasm, it seems light years more predictable than most of its contemporaries.
You will probably never read a negative report on the Aurelia B20 GT. And that’s because it is truly – genuinely – brilliant. Nothing from the same period comes close for polished road manners. And that’s before you even look at one. If only Lancia’s top bods had invested as much effort in figuring out how to make money from building cars as they did in giving engineers free rein, the marque’s sheen wouldn’t have been besmirched by the rust scandal, awful saloons (have you seen the Lybra?) and the withdrawal from the global market which followed.
An oversimplification perhaps, but then it’s equally likely that, had accountants been given more of a say, we’d never have had the Aurelia as we know it. Or at all. And the world would be a much poorer place for that.
Thanks to Mike Jennings, the Aurelia registrar, and the Lancia Motor Club (www.lanciamotorclub.co.uk)