1955 Lancia Aurelia Spyder. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
Related link: Viva-Lancia.com
V6 engines are so common today that we don’t give them a second thought. They offer a good combination of power, performance and economy in a package that is easier to accommodate in shrinking engine bays and front-wheel drive packaging than an inline six or a V8.
Like so many creations in the arts and sciences, we can thank the Italians for the world’s first production V6 engine. It appeared at the Turin Auto Show in 1950 in the Aurelia model from Lancia, the first new post-World War II car from this Turin car building company. Turin has been called the cradle of the Italian automobile industry. Lancia dated from 1906, and was known for its technical novelty and excellence. It is, for example, credited with the introduction of automobile unit construction in its 1922 Lambda model.
The first Aurelia V6 engine was quite small, displacing only 1754 cc and developing 56 horsepower at 4,000 rpm. To satisfy the need for more power the displacement would be increased in several stages over the life of the model.
Lancia’s V6 had an aluminum block and heads with the pistons running in wet cylinder sleeves. The vee angle was 60 degrees (narrow angle V-type engines were a Lancia specialty), ideal for a V6 engine, and overhead valves in hemispherical combustion chambers were actuated by unusual bell-crank shaped rocker arms.
In addition to its technically interesting engine, the rest of the Aurelia was also quite advanced. Rather than mounting the column shifted, four-speed manual transmission at the back of the engine in the conventional position, the Aurelia combined it with the rear axle for better weight distribution.
Suspension was all-independent using coil springs, with Lancia’s sliding pillars (a feature since 1922) in front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, said to be the first use of this type of rear suspension. To reduce unsprung weight the rear brakes were mounted inboard next to the transaxle.
The first Aurelia, a pillarless sedan, was well received but it was the Lancia Aurelia Gran Turismo coupe introduced in 1951 that really made the model’s reputation. Almost single-handedly it launched the two-plus-two GT genre.
The sleek unit-construction fastback styled by Pinin Farina was ideally suited for luxurious touring by two people on the grand motor routes of Europe. An open Spider model would also be offered.
The GT had all the right credentials: styling and technical sophistication wrapped in a delightfully compact package. Overall length was 4,267 mm (168 in.), wheelbase was 2,668 mm (105 in.) and weight was only 978 kg (2,150 lb.). Engine displacement had been increased to 1,991 cc which gave 75 horsepower, a more reasonable output for this class of car.
But the question yet to be answered was whether the GT’s handling, performance and durability would match the promise of its advanced technical specifications.
It didn’t take the Aurelia GT long to prove that it had the necessary speed and robustness. Just three days before its official introduction, GTs finished first and second in the Tour of Sicily’s over-1500 cc GT class.
Then a couple of months later it astounded everyone by finishing second in the 1951 running of the legendary Italian Mille Miglia (1,000 mile race), beaten only by a Ferrari with more than twice the engine displacement. It’s no wonder that Aurelia GTs soon became the personal road transportation of choice for many famous racing drivers.
The Aurelia came to the attention of North Americans when a supercharged GT finished fourth over-all in the 1952 running of the wild and grueling 3,114 km (1,934 mi.) Carrera Panamericana, better known as the Mexican Road Race. It was beaten only by two of Mercedes-Benz’s fabulous new 300SLs and a Ferrari. To prove that this was no fluke, in 1953 Lancia followed this up in Mexico by sweeping its class one-two-three.
In road trim the GT was quite spirited. The British motoring publication Autocar tested a Series 4 version in 1954 (the car would ultimately reach Series 9), by now up to 2,451 cc. They recorded a zero to 96 km/ time of 12.3 seconds, and a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph).
This was the year that the semi-trailing arm rear suspension was replaced by a De Dion type, with leaf springs supplanting coils. This assured that the rear wheels remained perpendicular to the road for more predictable handling.
Although a few Lancia Aurelias were imported into North America they never enjoyed much popularity, mostly because they were quite expensive (up to $6,000). Also, although well respected in Italy, the Lancia name was little known over here.
Production of the Lancia Aurelia was carried on until 1958. During its eight-year run, over 4,000 GTs and Spiders and something in the order of 15,000 of the more prosaic models were produced.
Although never reaching high production numbers, the Lancia set an engineering benchmark by pioneering the V6 engine. And its Gran Turismo styling was an early template for compact, agile, technically sophisticated two-plus-two luxury touring cars.