Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Discovering The Lancia Aurelia

This Aurelia B 24 went for $561,000 at a Gooding & Co. auction in 2012.

When I was young, the Aurelia was barely on my radar.  It seemed an Italian Thunderbird: an overpriced, overstyled, underperformer.  The upright grille struck me as prewar, old-fashioned.  In the decades since, I didn't think about the Aurelia at all.  So when one went for $561,000 at auction in 2012 (which I saw recently on TV), it was an eyebrow raiser.  And last year another one went for $803,000. Wow!  That's Ferrari money.  Why?

The Aurelia claim to fame I knew of back in the day was that it was Juan Fangio's daily driver.  If the World Champion chose to drive an Aurelia, that's high praise.  Why?  In the 1950's, Jaguar and Ferrari easily outperformed the Aurelia, and some Alfa Romeos and Porsches equaled or bettered it.  In those days, before private jets and helicopters, a Grand Prix racer's daily driver was how he got to the events, in trips that took 1-3 days.  So the Aurelia was an interesting choice.  Maybe Fangio had a deal with Lancia.  (In 1954-55 Mercedes supplied him with a car.  That was a major product placement failure by Enzo Ferrari, for whom Fangio drove in 1956.)

Fangio with one of his several Aurelia  B 20 GT's.  He also owned at least one B 24 convertible.  If any other front-rank
Grand Prix driver of the 1950's drove an Aurelia by choice, like Fangio seems to have,  I'm unaware of it.  Of course,
Fangio was from Argentina and didn't have to "represent."  In those days, unless they were under contract to a
foreign manufacturer, British, German, and Italian racers drove cars road made in their home country.

A "product placement" deal aside, one reason Fangio might have chosen an Aurelia was that it was an engineering tour de force.  It had the first V-6 in a production car.  Aluminum.  That's no big deal in 2014, but there are balance issues in a V-6 that don't exist in a straight 6, so props to Lancia for solving them first.  It had pushrod overhead valves and ranged in size from 1.8 to 2.5 liters over the life of the car.  The larger engines made 125 horsepower.  To balance the car itself, Lancia put the gearbox and clutch  in the back with a transaxle and inboard brakes.  The Aurelia had fully independent suspension: a De Dion tube in the rear and Lancia's patented sliding pillars in the front.  It was one of the first to be equipped with radial tires.  Sophisticated stuff for an immediate postwar design.  The car was designed under the supervision of Vittorio Jano (there he is again!).

The Aurelia was produced from 1950 to 1958 in small numbers: 18,000 total, across four body styles, and not more than 4700 in a single year.  With these numbers and this specification, it's easy to see why it was an expensive car.  But I can also see why Fangio drove one: public road performance and comfort comparable if not equal to 3 liter (and bigger) GT's in elegant engineering and style.

Glub, glub.  Lancia made only 376 Aurelias in 1956, so I hope the 20-odd that went down with the Andrea Doria
were insured.  This disaster is my own earliest memory of a "public event."  I remember seeing this picture on the
front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and being compelled to read the article and follow subsequent news
coverage.  Fifty people died, but they were all killed in the collision with the Stockholm.  The rest of the
passengers got off safely even though the ship was listing so heavily that only the starboard lifeboats
could be used.  It was probably this event that caused me to read my first adult book, A Night To
Remember, by Walter Lord, about the sinking of the Titanic.  The fact that a shipment of
Aurelias went down with the Andrea Doria wasn't mentioned in the news coverage.

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