The Great Motor Men : Part Five – Vincenzo Lancia

AROnline Contributor Martyn Kelham has produced this series on the great motoring men. Here, in the fifth part, he discusses the Engineer Vincenzo Lancia – the man behind the great Italian motor maker that produced some of the industry’s finest cars.

Vincenzo Lancia

They say ‘mud sticks’. In the UK there can be no greater example of this than remembering the name of Lancia. Mention it to a chum at the bar and you’ll likely get – ‘Oh crikey, Lancia? They just rusted away and the engines fell out!’

Three things are relevant:

  • A lot of other makes rusted away in the same period – 1972 to 1983
  • This broad brush approach to a great Italian car designer and maker conveniently ignores the company history. Lancia was, in fact, one of the most innovative and ‘advanced thinking’ companies in the business and produced some of the most competent cars on the planet
  • Despite wild stories, no subframe actually fell out of a Beta! Owners with early rust prone cars were offered a ‘buy-back’ by Fiat – even when six years old and on its second or third owner!

So, having got that out of way – what about this extraordinary man, Vincenzo Lancia?

Vincenzo Lancia

Born in 1881 in a village near the Monte-Rosa massif, he began his career as a book keeper with car manufacturer, Ceirano . Whilst still in Turin, he became a test driver for Fiat and later became, for a time, one of the world’s greatest drivers. With a friend – Claudio Fogolin – he established Lancia in 1906 and, in 1919, he patented the monocoque construction body which was used for the 1922 Lambda. This car was extraordinary for many other initiatives, but we’ll discuss those a little later.

Lancia was an interesting character. He is known to have been a ‘dreamer’ and quite impulsive, but very generous – and was a great lover of Wagner. He was a real artist and dedicated his company to technical non-conformity. He hated ‘short-cuts’ or any solutions that went against proper engineering ideals.

In 1937, Lancia died of a heart attack at just 56. His son Gianni and his wife Adele succeeded him and, after the World War Two, Lancia introduced the revolutionary Ardea and Aprillia. In 1950, the Aurelia was released – this was mostly designed by Vittorio Jano, who was  previously with Alfa Romeo and responsible for, among other models, the glorious 6C.

The Early Cars

Lancia Lambda

Anyway, back to Vincenzo. The Theta of 1913 was the first car to have a ‘complete’ electrical system as standard – certainly in Europe.

The Lambda (above) of 1922 to 1931 used the Lancia-pioneered narrow angle V engine, whose four cylinders were inclined at 13 degrees – and cast in a single aluminium block. At this time Ford and others were using the more usual 90 degree block. The result was a very compact little engine (22 inches from fan to flywheel) which used a single overhead camshaft – again differing from standard convention because the accepted practice was one camshaft per bank or the camshaft centrally placed with valves operated by pushrods. Certainly Vincenzo’s engines were extremely smooth – they were so short and so compact – and rigid in all planes. Thus they did not suffer from torsional flutter.

It is worth noting that we are talking about a 1920s car that was quite capable of 70mph when many 1930s and 1940s cars struggled to reach 60mph. There were in total nine series of the Lambda.

In terms of mass production, Citroën must take the prize for the first monocoque-bodied car that sold in huge numbers – but this was later, in 1934. (It has been suggested that the first true ‘monocoque’ construction was the Mercedes Benz in 1901!)

However, the Lambda was long, low-slung and wide for the period and together with its innovative construction – a monocoque roofless car – it also had independent front suspension using sliding pillars and vertical coils, designed by Lancia’s assistant, Falchetto. Morgan had already used this system for its three-wheelers, but Lancia incorporated telescopic dampers. The low slung effect was due in part to the passengers sitting alongside the transmission tunnel, rather than above it. The backs of the seats were part of the integral structure. The resultant design was very light for the period and around 13,000 were produced. The car was also notable for having four-wheel brakes when many cars relied on rear brakes only. It also had water cooling via a pump when many cars were still ‘thermosyphon’  – and it had full pressure lubrication. In the matter of steering, suspension, chassis and body design, I bow to the knowledgeable LJK Setright’s view that Lancia never made a technical error!

Lancia may not have invented all the technologies used in the Lambda, but the Lambda was the first car to bring them all together to form a masterpiece of engineering and, depending on your personal view, style.

Some later Lambda models had a more traditional platform chassis to please the coachbuilders – after all, this was the era of the coachbuilder. Many other models followed, all using narrow angle compact engines including the V8 Dilambda.

The Ardea: (1939-1953)

Lancia Ardea

The writer is privileged to have driven one of these amazing little cars. His son owns what is believed to be the original Earls Court Motor Show car from 1948. It feels incredibly modern – especially compared to standard British fare of the day. A secondary consideration is that it sounds absolutely gorgeous!

The car had the smallest of the narrow angle V engines of 900cc. The overhead valves were sited behind each other, rather than next to each other.

Almost 23,000 standard cars were built and around 8,500 commercial models – both vans and pick-ups. Some taxis were also produced. The third series were the first production cars to have a five-speed gearbox as standard.

Aprillia: (1937-1949)

Lancia Aprilia

More than 27,000 Aprillias were made. The car had an amazingly low drag coefficient of .47 and was a full four-door, four-seater with a 1352cc V4 providing just under 50bhp. Later cars had a slight increase in cc to 1486. Sadly, this was the last of Vincenzo’s designs. Interestingly, the model was made for two years in France, but Citroën’s home-grown offerings were also very revolutionary and gave the Aprillia a hard time. Production was cut short anyway when hostilities loomed in 1939. As with the smaller Ardea, the doors opened to reveal no centre pillar.

Post War

Lancia continued after the war to produce interesting cars that always had that ‘magic something.’ The 1950s Aurelia was available in saloon, coupe or ‘spider’ (convertible) versions. The B20 coupe was an outstanding car that is highly respected today – supported by significant auction values and an enthusiastic following.  The earlier B10 was not particularly fast but boasted superb handling especially when fitted with the new Michelin radial tyres. With later engines (narrow angle V6s), the B20 became famous for its ability in competition. Braco came second in the Mille Miglia and Claes won the gruelling Liege-Rome-Liege Rally. Supercharged versions of the engine went on to power a series of sports-racing cars. In 1954, Chiron won the Monte Carlo Rally in a 2500GT version.

As this piece is about Vincenzo I’ll resist the temptation to major on post-War models, but no reference to Lancia would be complete without mentioning the marques huge rallying heritage and success throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, they still hold more Manufacturers’ Championships than any other make – despite not competing in the World Rally Championship since 1992!

Lancia models better known in later years include the Flaminia, Appia, Flavia, Fulvia and Beta, as well as the Stratos, Gamma and Delta. Lancia was independent until 1969 when Fiat bought it out. Subsequent models such as the Thema, used a shared platform with the Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma and Saab 9000. The car we know as the Chrysler 300C was also a Lancia in many European countries.

The Ypsilon (below), based on an upgraded Fiat 500 platform, was the second best-selling car in Italy in 2019, but is not sold outside of Italy – and is the only Lancia model which is still in production.

Lancia Yspsilon

1 Comment

  1. It was such a shame what happened to Lancia. They were one of the great creative motor companies with a great reputation. Then the 70s came. Rust, terrible electrics and engine failures. Funny how Fiat had taken over just before the decline. The Beta was a fab car, when it worked and didn’t fall apart. Had it been built to the standard pre 70s, Lancia could have been the Italian version of the German giants.

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