Following the sad, early death of the founder, Lancia stuck with its innovative approach well into the 1950s – but then it needed to if the company was to conceive a successor truly worthy of the sensational little Aprilia.
Largely the creation of company heir Gianni Lancia – helped here in no small part by two brilliant engineers, Vittorio Jano (see Alfa) and Francesco de Virgilio – the answer came in the form of a somewhat larger, more powerful machine called the Aurelia. The first production car ever to employ a V6 engine, and with a host of other technical innovations to its name as well, the Aurelia in all its guises was to enjoy success not just in the showroom but out on the circuit as well.
Fangio and Hawthorn were just two world champion drivers who expressed a preference for the Aurelia, and from 1951 until 1958 many of their rivals – big stars in their day, and including Villoresi, Bracco and Ascari – notched up huge numbers of outright and class wins with these cars; including at Le Mans and on the Mille Miglia where one chalked up an historic second place behind a much larger, more powerful 4.0 litre Ferrari. Later still another Aurelia driven by Belgian Johnny Claes – driving solo for an incredible 36 hours after his co-pilot fell sick – took the chequered flag in the Liege-Rome-Liege race with another four Aurelia’s occupying every place from fourth to seventh.
Like the Aprilia the Aurelia stayed in production for many years, but unlike the Aprilia it was to appear in a number of quite distinct versions including a chunky, slightly lumbering berlina (or saloon), a much cleaner-looking two-door fastback and a spectacularly lythe spider. Now, as then, prices vary widely across the range, with the faster and much rarer spider routinely costing in excess of five or six times as much as the saloons.
The car’s design process is known to have started with the engine, the V6 in theory offering the opportunity to increase capacity and power within the smallest possible space – but only if a number of problems could be ironed out, chief among them a certain teeth-loosening vibration. Many different configurations and vee-angles were tried, but they got there in the end although the effort and expense almost killed the company. Part of the expense was in building the especially complex unitary bodies, though a battery of engineering innovations helped push the price up too so that, for example in the UK, a B20 coupé could actually cost more than a competition-ready Jaguar D-Type. Little wonder that they only shifted 25 of them when new ….
Naturally it’s a good idea to consider all this today, as then, suddenly, these cars begin to look like something of a bargain: good coupés cost less than a well-sorted E-Type and even the ultra-rare spider – almost comically rakish and absolutely one of the great looking designs of the post-war era – is likely to cost no more than a vastly inferior Aston DB2/4.
Whatever your budget, and whichever you go for, it’s sensible to buy the best you can with these cars, as the cost of restoration of a basket case will prove much higher than the final value. Again rust is a particular bugbear, and many small but important parts can be expensive, with little alternative but to pay the going rate. This is not simply because the models’ relative rarity means the chances of organised remanufacture are slim (to say the least) but also because some of the kit on the Aurelia was pretty exotic: the coupé’s Weber 40DCLS5 carbs, for example, were shared with the Ferrari 250 GT. Trim is another area to keep an eye on, because it was always fragile and because replacements of even tiny components can cost a small fortune.
What this means is that it is essential to check prospects carefully, especially around the sills and wheel arches where any visible rust on the outside will almost certainly be merely the tip of a very large iceberg. The greater value of spiders means that the chance of finding a rough one is pretty low, although one needs to bear in mind the fact that what little weather protection was offered to owners when the cars were new was only ever semi-effective. Clearly not one for the faint-hearted or impecunious, the Aurelia is nevertheless in a class of its own. Fast, stylish, technically clever and deliciously Italian, it was a car which, at the time, no-one but Lancia could have created. Would that they still could.