Lancia Aurelia B24

Today and yesterday’s actress

After looking for a thousand of ways not to start this article by mentioning “il Sorpasso” (The Easy Life), I bowed to the facts that I couldn’t do without it. It seemed impossible to separate the Aurelia B24 image from the frames of the movie directed by Dino Risi. How to forget Gassman, the rascal and ham who had been driving for kilometres of film, taking with him, adventure after adventure, a timid and reluctant Jean Louis Trintignant till the dramatic ending of a risky overtaking. How do not hear the bitonality horn which squawked along the roads of an Italy pending between the old and the new, the roar of an engine driven by a foot that would have dominated the fate but at the end, had to surrender to its inexorable going on. How don’t laugh and don’t be moved. If Risi hadn’t used the B24 model for his film, should we still remember of it? A doubt we don’t feel to deny completely. Nevertheless, this car should deserve to be remembered, besides being an actress in this so famous film, starting from its mechanical parts, derived from “Aurelia”, rich of innovations and strokes of genius: the first V six-cylinder engine in the car history, the first hydraulic chain stretcher, the use of the bearing body, a De Dion rear axle that was sculpture and refined technology as a whole. And then the body, made by Battista Pininfarina’s hands, balanced and perfect, the prelude of what Giulietta Spider should have been. Nevertheless, in spite of these brilliant characteristics, B24 was less successful than it was expected. So many reasons: high price, slow production process, an unsuitable structure of the dealer network, a production life of only four years and the financial breakers which invested the company in the second half of the ‘50s, culminated in the transfer of propriety from the family promoter to the Pesentis. To go along the B24 history again, it means, after all, in part to revive the attempt of a daring “overtaking” from Lancia to the disadvantage of the competition, based on an innovative production, refined technologically and on ambitious sports plans. It was a generous attempt to an outcome not so much different from the end of Dino Risi’s film.

Was it a watch or an engine?

The birth of the first V6 engine in the car history making has been starting from a distance. A 60 degree design had been already hypothesized by German Hans Schron in 1939, a university teacher at Technische Hocheschule. By that time Germany was at the top of the car technology in the world thanks to the shower of DM invested in motor racing by the Nazis regime and home industry, which was represented by great car companies like Mercedes, Auto Union and BMW. The war outbreak probably prevented from achieving also this further leadership, but the idea was taken again in Italy only a few years afterwards. In 1943 the peninsula was submitted to the heavy and continuous bombardments of the allied that intended to bring the production centre of the country to its knees. The answer of the regime was the industrial decentralisation from the big cities to the provinces. At those days, Lancia engineering department had been moved to Padua, with a reduced staff but of the utmost expertise: in the Engineering Direction there was Giuseppe Vaccarino, at the experimental department Vittorio Jano and his assistant Francesco De Virgilio, a young engineer from Calabria, chief of special studies and patents. Notwithstanding poor resources and the production needs, they had found the time to indulge in fancies and work out technological solutions which, may be, once the war was finished, they would have come into production. The Lancia motor-engineering tradition of the pre-war period had its strengths in 4-cyl with narrow V engines. It was just following this philosophy that one Lancia engineer studied a six-cylinder engine with only 39° design, drawing De Virgilio’s attention to it for its possible patent. The engineer took it into consideration, but he discovered that the project made on the basis of calculations was substantially wrong and the engine wouldn’t have been balanced. However the idea spurred his curiosity so much, that led him to deal with the problem personally. Among all possible arrangements obtainable with six pistons divided into two banks, they achieved to select 8-throw crankshaft 60 degrees and four with one at 120°, all equally balanced. Among these alternatives De Virgilio chose the 60° one, therefore he designed a crankshaft with cranks having a phase displacement 60 degree angle according to a right hand flying arm, matching the advantage of balancing with equally spaced induction flows, i.e. every 240° rotation of the crankshaft, and the alternating firing in sequence between one cylinder bank and the other At the end of the war the Lancia engineering staff had come back to Turin , where the conversion from the war production to the civil one was planned. At the beginning it was envisaged to go on with Aprilia, renovating its contents and performance, already of the first level, by the introduction of a new six-cylinder engine. The only problem was the car hood, which was so narrow as to prevent from mounting an engine with a too large angle, among the cylinder banks. This limit obliged De Virgilio to change his mind for 45° angle. In 1947 they built a first prototype with 1569 cc and then a second one, which was mounted on Giovanni Lancia’s personal Aprilia and was used to go to and fro Pisa, where the young and brilliant son and heir was finishing his study. In 1949 the Company engineering direction realised that Aprilia was by then an out-of-date car and started designing the future Aurelia. Thus De Virgilio could go back to his first idea of V60° engine. The displacement was 1750 cc, they said, to discourage any sports use of the car. As for the material they made a large use of aluminium, not so easy to dominate with the technology of that time: the cylinder block was in chill casting instead of in ordinary moulding sand, obtaining a more accurate cylinder block and with smoother surface. Cylinder liners were, on the contrary, in cast iron, in direct contact with the coolant. The complex shaft in steel was obtained from the core due to the impossibility of forging it. Cylinder heads in aluminium alloy were studied to obtain a hemispherical combustion chamber of good performance, thanks to special position of valve stems, equipped with a nipple in hardened steel and inserted in bronze seats with the valve guide in cast iron. The timing system used a camshaft positioned in the middle of the V made by cylinder banks, which activated duralumin pushrods and steel-alloy rocker arms. The motion from shaft to different auxiliary elements and timing was assured by a double-way belt kept in tension, for the first time in the automobile history, by a hydraulic stretcher designed under a Lancia patent: at the engine-power-off the correct tension was given by a standard spring. For the feed it was sufficient a twin carburettor between two cylinder banks, even if in some forced elaborations they managed to insert three carburettors. Connecting rods were pressed and fitted with antifriction bearings in bronze, while for pistons with three gas rings and two scraper rings, they used an aluminium alloy. The cooling system used two thermostats, one between engine and radiator to control the water pressure and the other on the same radiator to actuate the louver adjusting the airflow. If, at first, all that seemed to presume a high complexity of the whole, it must be said that the propelling force was studied for an easy and simple maintenance. Rationality which had led its design had also repercussions on the dimensions: the whole weighed 150 kg and was only 61 cm in length from the fan, being more compact and lighter than the other contemporaneous six cylinders of the same cubic content. Performance compared with the respected capacity was: 56 hp at 4000 rpm and 10.8 Kg/m max torque at 2500-3000 rpm. Notwithstanding first good intentions in keeping too performing engines away, they didn’t resist temptation to start the race for horsepower: the first level of development, introduced in 1981, brought to 1991 cc designed for the new B20, the coupe of Aurelia generation. Power jumped to 65 hp at 4000 rpm and 12.5 kg/m torque at 4000 rpm. From the same engine they progressively got 70 hp at 4500 rpm and 13 Kg/m at 4500 rpm by working on the feed, and later on 90 hp at 4500 rpm and 14 kg/m at 3000 rpm. Next step brought to the construction of two engines: 2266 cc and 2451 cc, the former was the B12 berlina and the latter the B20 new generation, by then a real grand tourism with the soul of a racing car. The small unit produced 87 hp at 4500 rpm with 16 Kg/m torque at 2500-3000 rpm. The engine with a bigger capacity, later on used for the B24, had 78 mm bore and 85.5 mm stroke and produced 118 hp at 5300 rpm, but a higher horse power was produced by special engines for racing cars, thanks also to the use of positive displacement blowers, but this is another story.

From Berlina to Spider

When it was put on the market in 1950, the Aurelia B10 was a berlina version which was in the lead in technology with a functional and simple style. The reduced dimensions of the engine had created a wide room for the interior compartment, made more comfortable by the combination of clutch, gearbox and differential on the rear axle. Such solution also allowed a better distribution of weights favouring a good driveability. The access to the cockpit was made comfortable by double doors which had already characterized previous Aprilia. Road-holding was assured by independent suspensions on both axles: on the front they newly proposed the experimented Lancia design with sliding pillar and adjustable telescopic dampers, with heliptic springs inside. The rear suspension had more innovation: the system was studied so as to inscribe the motions of the trailing arms in a cone having its vertex on the axis of the gearbox – differential unit. By that time it was judged too sophisticated, it was realized and proposed by BMW and Mercedes only many years later. The body style was officially the result of inside Lancia studies, however with Battista Pininfarina’s consultancy. The result was a front side characterized by the Lancia shield shaped grill and double lights, while its sides escaped from the temptation to recall subjects too connected with the pre war style, both the “American style” with too round shapes and odd frills: in brief, that correct balance that brings to keep up with the times. Thanks to a 1754 cc engine the B10 could run up to a top speed of 135 km/h: even though many body parts were made in aluminium, its weight still remained 1080 kg and the Lancia designers felt by then closely followed by more powerful the 1900 cc Alfa Romeos, that in the Super versions reached 160 km/h. In 1951 the first B21 was released with a 2 litre engine, while one year later the B22 appeared with the same engine brought to 90 hp. That same year the B15, they built a limousine version, powered by a 2 litre engine with 65 hp. Finally in 1954 they introduced the B12, unanimously considered more balanced than all the other versions for the performances of the six-cylinder engine brought to 2.3 litres. On the contrary, the B20 debut dates 1951: with the 2-litre 65 hp engine it was an elegant sports car, but appeared in 1953 with the 2451 cc engine, and the de Dion rear axle designed by Vittorio Jano for race competitions, the coupe turned out a wolf in sheep’s clothing, in a position to bring a harvest of wins to Lancia in various categories. In 1954, at the Trophy race of Supercortemaggiore (the Italian petrol, as per Eni publicity) Gigi Villoresi driver appeared at the wheel of a Lancia Aurelia Spider beige coloured and the inside green: this was the official birth of the B24. The same car (chassis 1001) was later on used by Gianni Lancia for his moves in Turin, before disappearing mysteriously.

"Acquarama" on the road

The new car was created on the B20 chassis reduced by 20 cm. Thus the wheelbase was equal to 2450 mm, 4200 mm in length, while reached 1555 mm in width. Also mechanical parts were derived from the coupe version: six-cylinder 2.4 litre version, equipped with a double carburettor “Weber 40 DCZ5” and a compression ratio equal to 8.1:1, produced 118 hp at 5000 rpm and 18.5 kg/m torque at 3500 rpm. The de Dion rear axle, which combined clutch, gearbox, differential and inboard-mounted drum brakes, was linked to the engine by a propeller shaft in two arms with an intermediate support and flexible couplings at the ends. The gearbox had four gear ratios + reverse gear, out of them three synchromesh gears, while the rear-axle ratio was equal to 4.26:1. Front suspensions followed the usual Lancia layout in common with all other Aurelias, while braking was assured by drums of 30 cm diameter. on the front and 28 cm on the rear. For that basis Pininfarina created a body inspired with overseas style, starting from the panoramic windscreen which had already equipped several American versions and also the “Acquarama” the luxurious motorboat from Cantieri Riva, very fashionable by that time. The front section was less impressive than the one of other Aurelias, but it wasn’t different from the general point of view: the leading part was still the small grill in the shape of shield, together with the round lights in chromed frame and direction indicators. On the chassis 1001 the crash protection was assured by two beaks, but as for the series version they used bumpers with double blades converging on the small grill. The plucky vent on the hood was nothing less than a device to hold the air filter, thinner in comparison with the other versions of the series: in fact the slim front section got narrower for the engine dimensions, to the point that engineers were obliged to lower the vent some millimetres. A panoramic windscreen contributed to eat away a hood portion, making it shorter visually and, at the same time, causing a feeling of a wider room in the cockpit. The waist line found its origin from the rear lights to go up softly above the wheelhouses and go down to the doors. Not far behind, from the bulged outline, which created the rear mudguards, there was the final waist line ending in small fins cut down by the lights. A thick chromed outline under the doors eased the side view. On the contrary, the tail was dominated by the hatchback, which gave the impression of a considerable capacity of the trunk (boot). On the final version, a big strip was added to strengthen the outline, while bumpers repeated the layout already proposed on the front. In those days the Spider concept was related to a very Spartan version of a coupe: therefore no handle and a thin inside string was used to open the doors, while a device allowed the release of the trunk (boot) on the inside. Very high doors envisaged a not very comfortable access to the cockpit, and the presence of a panoramic windscreen hindered the use of side drop windows, replaced by detachable Plexiglas panels fitted with a quarter went. The hood disappeared completely behind the seats, emphasizing the aspect of a discovery without coming to a compromise. It was easy to unfold; it looked functional more than elegant: in alternative it was always possible to employ a hardtop, fastened with three wing nuts to the windscreen and two of them to the body. The cockpit, simple and elegant, could count on the upholstery in artificial leather “Rosinflex”, which also covered the top of the dashboard. The dashboard was painted in the same colour of the body, but on request it could be adapted to the colours of the inside. There was a glove box without lid in front of the passenger, crossed horizontally by a handle, where the occasional blonde, a driver’s girl friend, could seize it during the jolts caused by a bright drive. On the contrary, the driver could get hold of a thin three spoke steering wheel, in aluminium with a wide wooden rim. Before him, the instrument panel gathered in three circular groups: on the left the rev counter, in the middle the speedometer and on the left the fuel, water, olio indicators. The gear change lever was at the beginning on the wheel, but after the first models was moved onto the floor. The trunk (boot), contrary to most of the spiders existing by that time, was very appreciated for its capacity, thanks to the spare wheel drowned in the flat bottom and the 60 litre fuel tank moved onward, behind the seats. The new car was officially shown in the Bruxelles motor show, in January 1955, but it was moderately successful with specialized press. The “Auto Italian comments” were the following: “Pinin Farina has clearly devoted all his talent to this car according to his pure and exquisite Italian style. As for some points only he wanted and was obliged to adopt a few details not at all Italian. We are referring to the distinctive panoramic windscreen, to the upholstery of the cockpit and the false spoke wheels that, in any case, don’t disfigure on the whole car”. Then the rims were replaced by a new model of wire wheels while, due to the difficulties of shrinking off on the big hubs, Borrani wire wheels were only available later on. Pinin Farina’s proposal eclipsed Vignale’s Cabriolet fame on the same occasion. Spider, launched on the market at the astronomical price of 2,822,000 Italian liras, was available in two versions: B24 in right-hand drive and B24S left-hand drive forms. In fact Lancia was the only Italian maker that still believed in the right-hand drive form: on one hand there was the advantage of better following the side of the road, but on the other it was more difficult to overtake. Because of the increasing motorization and the heavy road traffic, this last requirement would have prevailed. At the end of 1955 the B24 produced were 59 and the B24S were 180: many of the last ones were exported to the United States, reference market for coupe cars. The models envisaged to cross the ocean mounted an engine with a camshaft having a feature less pushed to its limits, which cut down 10 hp on its power and from the tubular bar connecting the two front bumpers, protecting the grille. Since the first production year Lancia Company had already been deciding to reposition B24 differently on the market, an operation which involved the general project revision and enrichment of its contents: Spider was ready to an earlier retirement.

From Spider to Convertible

In those years there was a big difference between Spider and Convertible: more or less the one that was between a common woman and a noblewoman. True Spiders were those terrible English small boxes which combined low powered engines with a light chassis and body, sacrificing every comfort to the need of saving weight. That was something if they had a capote and, however, very often, it wasn’t up to much. Perhaps the B24 was too expensive and refined to be a true spider: it was worth while making a convertible of it. Changes were concerning every department, starting from mechanical parts, which followed the Aurelia B20, six series faithfully: horsepower went down to 110 at 5000 rpm, while the clutch passed from mechanical control to hydraulic one. Fourth gear became top gear and hypoid crown wheel and pinion were modified. There were new drum brakes with the use of aluminium alloy and cast iron strips. Also Pinin Farina had to sit down at his drawing table again and refine his creature style: first of all, eliminating the panoramic windscreen, this was a so special feature of Spider. A standard windscreen introduction with vent wings allowed the use of lateral drop windows. There was a new cut of doors with a lower rabbet to permit a comfortable access to the cockpit. Finally the door handles made their appearance, and also a lock on the drive side. The twin bumpers were replaced by only a blade unit: the front one was shaped in the middle to protect and match the protruding grille, now enriched by a major number of chromed elementsAnother chrome profile refined the air intake on the bonnet (hood). On the rear at the beginning they had only changed the bumpers with the new type in a unitary construction, but since 1957 they had been adding the handle and the lock to open the trunk, overlapped by two crossed small flags which marked the happy marriage between Lancia and Pininfarina. The tips of the rear bumpers were redesigned higher and stretched, with the finned ends more receding. The rationalised dashboard, gathered the main indicators in two instruments, while the glove box, before the passenger, was protected by a lid with a lock. This beauty treatment had affected two different features: length passed from 4200 to 4230 mm, weight from 1050 to 1215, while speed was reduced from 180 of Spider to 175 km/h. Obviously, also the required expensive increased to bring home this jewel: 2,922,000 It liras, with the addition of 180,000 It liras if we wished the hard top. So high was the cost of a car like the B24 Convertible: elegant, comfortable, fast, with an excellent standard of finishing guaranteed by the production systems closer to the handicrafts than to mass production. There was a relative number of few people crazy enough to buy it: the Convertible was built in 521 units, out of which 96 were exported to US. By a twist of fate, the most successful year was 1958 with 195 units, but it was also the last year of this car production.

How deep is the sea!

Lucio Dalla was singing: how deep is the sea! And in the depth of the sea, the legend has it that some B24 rested down there: it was on the night of the 25th July 1956 in front of New York bay when, due to a wall of fog, Andrea Doria, the pride of the Italian fleet, had the collision with Swedish icebreaker Stockholm. While the former was sinking with the hull horribly torn open, the latter is still in regular service, as a cruise liner. Fantastic stories were told about many treasures on board of Andrea Doria when it was sinking; there was some talk about a few B24 Aurelias to be sent to US. And there were many people who thought that another B24 Aurelia should have irremediably been lost: the car fallen into a ravine during final pictures of the film mentioned above “Il Sorpasso” (The Easy Life). But, contrary to all expectations, on the occasion they flung down a Siata 1400 Cabriolet. And all of us had always thought that the car used in that film was white, but even this time we didn’t guess it. The B24s used for filming were two: one light blue for shots on location and one sea green for interior shots and till now both of them have been enjoying good health in private collectors’ hands. However, still before devoting itself to pictures, B24 had tried the sports career and had got enough time to run the last “Mille Miglia” which was also the best result in its career: overall nineteenth and seventh in the category, it was driven to the finishing line by Guido Maria Terzi, the gentleman driver. Certainly, the car hadn’t the right horsepower to follow Ferrari cars, even if for the greedy of power, Nardi Company performed the miracle of placing three carburettors in the scant room between the engine and the dummy air scoop on the bonnet (hood). And that was entirely music. On the whole, it was an adventurous life, which many other cars hadn’t lived. Perhaps there’s the grief that this car didn’t make it completely understood or only when it was too late. Later on, time proved it was right: courted by the collectors with pots of money, B24 “coupe and super compressed” speaking as Bruno Cortona-Vittorio Gassman said: it makes you turn back when it goes past you, and there’s nothing to be said “Once it should have been a beautiful car!”, but to notice that it’s still a beautiful car today.

Stefano Costantino

We take this occasion to thank “Museo dell’Automobile Carlo Biscaretti di Ruffia” for putting at our disposal its precious Archivio and Club Lancia for the permission to take photographs of the models of this report...

  • Deganello E., Gentildonna nuovo stampo, in Ruoteclassiche, febbraio 1995.
  • Deganello E., Io ti battezzo Gran Turismo, in Ruoteclassiche, aprile 1992.
  • Alfieri I., Un sogno per pochi, in Auto d'Epoca, 6 giugno 1966.
  • De Monti D., Gran fascino del made in Italy, in La Manovella, maggio 2004.
  • Barnabò F., Lancia Aurelia GT, Edizioni Libreria dell'Automobile, 1983 Milano.
  • Sulla presentazione della B24 al Salone di Bruxelles vedi Auto Italiana, Gennaio 1955.

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Graphic & Engineering by Fabio Carrera