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The Glove Box: Lancia Aurelia

Photo from Alden Jewell on Flickr

Lancia (‘lan-cha). Italy’s most innovative carmaker. Dominated world rallying in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And now? It makes one car, the Ypsilon, a rebodied Fiat 500 with desperate hopes of being fashionable. Lancia was once a leader in all aspects, and now Sergio Marchionne might just kill it off. Among recently defunct carmakers, not even Saab has a richer history than Lancia. Somehow, just somehow, we can’t let Lancia leave us. Maybe this will help. Today, let’s remember one of Lancia’s high points: the Aurelia, which cemented the Italian manufacturer as a technology pioneer.

It’s time to look in The Glove Box again for another weekly look into old cars and what I think about them. Last week, I subjected you to a ramble about a large wood-paneled SUV; this week, we’re back to the weird. And expensive. The Lancia Aurelia is the first vehicle I’ve featured that a College Prep graduate, many years in the future, might struggle to purchase with a year’s wages. But wait, don’t click away yet! If your car, like many others, has a V6 engine, the Aurelia is its predecessor.

Photo from deltagfab on Flickr

All of the past cars from The Glove Box have come from brand names familiar enough to the American public, with the possible exception of Citroën. But even in the weird-car paradise known as the Bay Area, I might see a Lancia in person every six months at best. (To see a Citroën, by contrast, simply go down to San Pablo Ave. between Ashby and Gilman and look in parking lots.) Narrow that down to the time period before 1969, when Fiat rescued Lancia from financial peril, and the pickings are even slimmer.

I’ve chosen to spotlight Lancia, and may do so again, because of its unique combination of importance and obscurity. Other automakers may have dabbled in the same technologies, but Lancia almost always put them into series production (as opposed to limiting them to prototypes or one-offs) first. At the same time, Lancia in the past had relatively little direct competition from other car brands, in spite of good sales numbers and motorsport successes. Contrast this to other advanced brands like Mercedes, which must always be evaluated in the context of BMW and Audi.

In 1922, Lancia built its Lambda with a unibody structure, the company’s first notable technological innovation. In contrast to body-on-frame construction, only used by trucks and some SUVs today, unibody construction integrates the load-bearing components of a car into the body itself, integrating the structure and design and allowing for a sleeker, lighter car. Other innovations include four-wheel disc brakes, a common safety feature today but unheard of when the 1960 Flavia introduced it. Radial tires, safer and stronger than the prevailing cross-ply tires of the 1950s, yet viewed as a hoax by stubborn American automakers, saw their first standard fitment on the Aurelia in 1950. Twincharging, the combination of a supercharger and a turbocharger to produce usable power in a small engine, saw its first use in the bonkers Delta S4 rally car in 1985. Volvo is building its worldwide comeback on twincharged four-cylinder engines. V engines, though, are my focus today. Lancia fully believed and made great use of the V4, an uncommon engine format smoother, but more expensive, than the ubiquitous inline-4 of the modern era. The Lambda used the first Lancia V4, which had a narrow V angle that influenced the design of some Volkswagen engines in this millennium. The small V engine that lasted, however, was definitely the V6. Lancia was the first to produce the V6 in meaningful quantities in the Aurelia.

But now, shall we admire this beautiful specimen of an automobile? In typical Italian midcentury fashion, the Aurelia’s body styles varied considerably over its lifespan over the base V6 and rear-wheel-drive platform. The Aurelia began the Lancia tradition of naming cars after Roman roads. The Via Aurelia went from Rome to present-day Pisa. (Lancias Appia, Fulvia, Flavia, and Flaminia all continued this tradition.) Stately sedans were the bread and butter. Highly regarded coachbuilders Pininfarina and Ghia collaborated to produce refined coupes like the one in this article’s cover image. Outside designers, for a price, made some of the most beautiful examples. Designs evolved over time in an almost American fashion of constant updates, but the B24 series of convertibles stood out. The Aurelia B24 almost certainly comes to mind first when a car enthusiast thinks about Lancia before it entered rallying. While other Aurelias go for a mere pittance of a couple hundred thousand dollars, any example of a B24 can fetch over a million dollars. We now, though, run into a dilemma about cars too special for their own good.

Photo from Auto Clasico on Flickr

There’s admittedly not much of a cultural argument to be made here, other than that this is pretty heady stuff we’re into now: the car culture of the well-endowed. I’m not as comfortable here. I prefer to stick with the jeans-wearers who daily-drive their BMW 2002s. Unfortunately for people like me who aren’t just looking for a trailer queen, the Aurelia B24 (and the others) are technologically advanced and drive quite well, especially for their age. Long-distance road racing was Lancia’s game in the 1950s. Lancia, though stylish, has never put fashion above mechanical substance, so it is a tragedy that most Aurelias scarcely get driven anymore. But it’s not as big a tragedy as the current state of Lancia in light of what the company has achieved. Really, I could have turned my Glove Box spotlight on any Lancia model (as we saw in the laundry list of series-production firsts) and produced a similar story of classic design and advanced engineering. Let’s remember some of Lancia’s successes, and maybe Marchionne will hear our pleas for a return to form.

As for next week, the excitement continues with another car you probably haven’t heard of, but certainly will enjoy. An Italian car designer may well be involved once again, so at least if you don’t like my droning on about transaxles you can gawk at the car for a few moments. See you then.


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