Lancia’s road warrior – a rare track test of the only D23 left from the Carrera Panamericana assault. This D23 is the last-remaining reminder of Lancia’s first entry into the international elite of sports car racing. Words by Ton Roks. Photography by Frits Van Eldik.
SOUL SURVIVOR FLAT-OUT IN A UNIQUE LANCIA D23 SPIDER
The D23 is from a time when Lancia pursued successes in international motorsport with full force. It formed an important connection between two other legendary Lancia racing cars, the D20 and the D24, and recalls the Carrera Panamericana, one of the toughest, greatest and most dangerous street races of all.
The 1953 Lancia D23 Spyder Pinin Farina that is waiting for us on Zandvoort circuit’s hallowed Tarmac is on loan from the Louwman Museum in The Hague and is a survivor in the truest sense of the word: of the three D23s that emerged from the Turin works only this car, chassis 0002, still exists.
‘The D23 provided the link between the D20 and D24, which established itself as among the most technically advanced sports-racers of its time’
To understand the D23’s place in the history of Lancia, we have to start with its predecessor, the D20. In the early 1950s, Lancia raced and rallied with its elegant six-cylinder coupé, the Aurelia B20 GT, with great aplomb, including second on the 1951 Mille Miglia and a class victory at Le Mans. But for Gianni Lancia, son of founder Vincenzo, that was not enough. He was hungry for success on the world stage, so he had a sports-racer developed specially for road races such as the Mille Miglia.
On 26 April 1953, up the famous Brescia start ramp rolled the D20, a full-blooded racing car with a chassis of thin steel tubes and its roof integrated as a stressed member. Fully independent front suspension via double trailing arms and a transverse leaf meant no more sliding pillars on the front axle, while under the bonnet was a new 60º V6 from Ettore Zaccone Mina.
Apart from its V6 configuration, the engine had little in common with the original Aurelia unit. The valves were no longer operated by pushrods, but by four overhead camshafts. The six cylinders were fuelled by three twin-choke Webers and had hemispherical combustion chambers, with two spark plugs for each pot. This new racing engine delivered 220bhp, extremely high for just under three litres at the time. That power was fed to the rear wheels via a four-speed transaxle gearbox.
‘The Ferraris couldn’t match the handling of the Lancias: Bonetto claimed the first section, Taruffi the second, Bonetto led after the third’
The drum brakes were placed inboard all round to keep the unsprung weight as low as possible. The telescopic dampers were assisted by additional friction dampers, which could be adjusted from the cockpit by a chain. The body was aluminium, by Pinin Farina.
Lancia entered the 1953 Mille Miglia with four D20s and a quartet of first-class drivers: the experienced ‘Silver Fox’ Piero Taruffi; the precocious 25-year-old talent Umberto Maglioli; the ever-smoking Felice Bonetto; and Clemente Biondetti. No fewer than 481 cars took part, including a strong entry from Alfa Romeo with its 6C-3000 CM, and an armada of Ferraris with the fast and powerful 3- and 4-litre V12s. The Lancias were quick off the mark, but only two D20s made it to the finish; Bonetto was the best of them in an excellent third position.
Maglioli scored the first victory with the D20 in the Palermo-Monte Pellegrino hillclimb, and soon after retained Lancia’s crown on the Targa Florio – although Taruffi left the road in the latter as he chased his younger teammate. For the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans, Lancia equipped the D20s with a Roots supercharger because Maglioli had proved to be rapid during the Carrera Panamericana with a supercharged Aurelia B20. Success did not follow, however: despite their higher power, the Lancia coupés failed to reach 140mph on the Mulsanne Straight, let alone the 150mph-plus top speed of the Alfa Romeos, Jaguars and Ferraris. No Lancias reached the finish.
A week later, during the Grand Prix of Oporto in Portugal, the two factory D20s were fast but unreliable. The other three, meanwhile, were each being stripped of their roofs after the heat in their cockpits had become too much. These ‘new’ Spiders, christened D23s, were built in supreme haste at the Scuderia, yet the badge of Pinin Farina remained on the front wings as a silent reminder of their previous lives.
The D23 looks wild, with its hungry bloodred mouth. And spartan, too; a real racing car built with one mission: to make Ferrari’s life miserable by swallowing up as much asphalt as possible in the shortest time possible. The car was red when it was added to the Louwman collection, but there were traces to indicate that it had previously been light blue.
Indeed, when the D23s first went into battle at Monza, they were blue with red ‘eyebrows’ above their headlights and a red grille, Lancia’s preferred racing colours on home soil. This particular D23 upheld the honour of the Scuderia at Monza: Bonetto finished second behind the Ferrari 250MM of Luigi Villoresi. When the Scuderia sent two D23s, plus three newer D24s, to the Carrera Panamericana they were painted traditional Italian racing red.
Now returned to its original blue, the D23’s body envelops the passenger seat to improve the airflow. From beneath that seat cover emerge the handbrake, gearlever and taps for the two fuel tanks. The cockpit is surprisingly simple, fronted by the dominant 8000rpm Jaeger tachometer. There is not much metal: even the spinners of its wire wheels are drilled, helping the Spider down to 800kg on the scales, 50kg less than the coupé. Behind the front axle sits the V6, a pure racing engine with green cam covers and a trio of twin-choke 42DCF7 Webers painted satin black.
The airbox on top of those carbs connects to the scoop on top of the nose, and at speed the air is forcefully pushed into the Webers, a kind of ram effect to their hungry inlet throats.
After switching on the ignition and fuel pump, and pulling the starter lever under the dash, the V6 erupts with a sound that is loud, but not deafening. It is moody and raw, yet vibration-free once warm. The clutch requires a firm push – a graceful exit is not on the menu and it sprints down the pitlane like a greyhound after a hare.
‘The D23 is a racing car with one mission: to make Ferrari’s life miserable, by swallowing up as much asphalt as possible in the shortest time possible’
When it ran at the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed the engine was temperamental and its brakes pulled to the right. And so it proves once again as soon as you touch the middle pedal, but it is only a short pulse and is easily overcome. The gearlever has a long throw, but you can change quickly enough to give the V6 no time to drop off the boil and it picks up speed eagerly, with no need for double-declutching.
The mechanical rev counter is of little use, the long needle occasionally making only a shocked leap around the dial, but the V6 pulls like a bear so there’s no need to trouble the higher reaches of the Lancia’s rev range.
The small Perspex wind deflector offers just enough protection from the cold air, though it can distort your vision through corners and make it tricky to find the apex. As the brakes heat up, that tendency to pull to the right disappears and the 66-year-old Italian scrubs off speed remarkably well and in a straight line. This is a car from a time when braking performance lagged far behind that of the engine, but they are still impressive: the pedal can be modulated well, the car remains stable, and the warmer the drums get the better the D23 slows.
The V6 becomes much more friendly when its fluids are up to temperature. It reacts quickly and produces an impressive roar without ever sounding particularly melodic. The quirks at Goodwood were undoubtedly because the Lancia was cold on that short sprint.
Traction is plentiful, and the V6 is by no means a motor with a narrow powerband: the torque is widespread and ideal for road racing. The relative ease with which the D23 can be driven and the confidence it gives is striking, but feedback is not particularly abundant.
The steering is fine, though, and once you get used to the flexibility in the sidewalls of the Michelin Racing Pilote X tyres it is not difficult to place the car exactly where you want it. Within a few laps the braking distances become shorter and the entry speed for the famous Scheivlak Corner gets higher and higher.
The D23 was clearly innovative. It boasted a transaxle ’box, inboard brakes and a de Dion rear end while Jaguar and Ferrari were still using rigid back axles, and the Lancia proved itself during the 1953 Portuguese Grand Prix, when Bonetto was first across the finish line – leaving one Stirling Moss in a Jaguar C-type in his wake. On the fast straight of Zandvoort thoughts inevitably turn to the Carrera Panamericana.
This was a treacherous event with extremely high speeds, and was held only five times. But in that short period it suffered more casualties than any other street race. It pierced straight through Mexico, over the new north-south highway, and the Mexicans were rightly proud of the scenic race, its constant-radius curves leading through beautiful landscapes, which made the drivers’ lives a little easier. But the road surface was rough, which caused a lot of punctures, and long stretches at high altitude meant constant adjustments of the carburettors were required.
It must have felt incredible to race this D23 flat-out through Mexico, staring into the distance for hundreds of miles each day, awaiting the nasty surprises along the 3000km route.
Many competitors drove without a navigator to save weight, and only if you had a fairly certain victory in sight did you take a riding mechanic for any on-the-hoof repairs. During their reconnaissance runs some drivers painted warnings on signposts or walls, especially for the vados – trenches that ran across the road in villages to drain rainwater. If you ran into one of them at high speed, your car would be launched out of control, high into the air.
Lancia had come close to victory in 1952, with Maglioli fourth across the line in a supercharged Aurelia B20 behind two Mercedes-Benz 300SLs and a Ferrari 340 Mexico. For 1953 the Scuderia entered five cars, and there was no expense spared, with 20 engineers and the huge Lancia Esatau race transporter sent along for support. Gianni Lancia himself followed the race in a rented aircraft and filmed it as often as possible.
The ambitions of Sig Lancia were illustrated by the pace at which he ordered still faster racing cars to be developed. While the new D23 was still being prepared, Lancia’s brilliant engineer Vittorio Jano had already been commissioned to develop the D24, an even more potent sportsracer with a larger 3.3-litre, 265bhp V6, a shorter wheelbase and the transaxle gearbox moved behind the rear axle line for better traction. This would prove to be a powerful weapon, and at the Nürburgring 1000km in August Taruffi was faster than the 4.5-litre Ferrari 375MM of Alberto Ascari and Guiseppe Farina, but retired.
The five Lancias entered into the Carrera in November were three D24s for Fangio, Bonetto and Taruffi, and two D23s for Giovanni Bracco and the 23-year-old Eugenio Castellotti, who had distinguished himself at Ferrari before being signed by Lancia. The cars left the port of Le Havre on 17 October and arrived in New York six days later, from where they travelled nearly 3800km to Mexico City on a truck.
Bracco drove ‘our’ D23, chassis 0002. The toughest opponents were the seven privateer Ferraris, which were mostly 375s and included a 330bhp version driven by former Lancia hotshoe Maglioli. Though they were fast, reliability and handling were not the strongest points of the powerful V12s from Maranello.
The race developed into a fierce battle between Taruffi and Bonetto in their D24s, both wanting to add the Carrera to their name, because the Ferraris couldn’t match the superior handling of the Lancias. Bonetto claimed the first section from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to Oaxaca, Taruffi won the second to Puebla, but after the third Bonetto was in the lead. Maglioli, in the fast Ferrari, followed in fifth.
On the fourth day, two stages had to be driven totalling 950km, first to León and then to Durango, with a 30-minute break. Just 41 seconds split the leading Bonetto and Taruffi, and for 200km they pushed each other to the limit at speeds of up to 155mph.
Just before the village of Silao, the two cars touched when Bonetto braked harder than Taruffi was expecting. Taruffi left the road and had to stop because of a bent steering arm. Il Pirata drove on, as if he were being chased by the devil, but fate struck in Silao.
There were warning signs for the vados, painted by Bonetto himself, but he must have missed his own marks. The D24 hit the trench at speed and the Lancia was catapulted into the air before crashing into a wall, killing its driver. Taruffi, knowing nothing of his teammate’s accident, fixed the steering arm with a welding torch he’d borrowed at a petrol station and continued, having lost 20 minutes. In Silao he saw the battered Lancia among the crowds, but couldn’t see what was happening so pressed on and won the stage, only to be told at the finish that his rival had died in the accident.
It was a huge blow for the Scuderia, and Gianni Lancia immediately ordered his drivers to stop competing with each other. There was no longer an imminent threat from the Ferraris, because Maglioli’s car had failed: he lost a rear wheel due to a broken bearing when haring along at speeds in excess of 160mph. He just managed to keep the Ferrari on the road, rolling to a stop on the large brake drum.
Maglioli took over the 375MM of Mario Ricci, who hadn’t felt at all comfortable in his race car, and gave chase to the Lancias, driving so fast that the Mexican press called him ‘suicidal’ and nicknamed him ‘The Mad Italian’. He won stages six, seven and eight – setting a 138mph average speed that remains a record for a street race – but he was no longer in the running, and Fangio led after Taruffi’s excursion.
The remaining two D24s and Castellotti’s D23 were able to drive to the finish more or less in formation, accompanied by mechanics in case of breakdowns. The trio crossed the line with Fangio in first from Taruffi and Castellotti – with Bracco in ‘our’ D23 failing to finish having broken his Lancia’s rear suspension.
After the Carrera, the career of the D23 was over. But although its racing life was short, it was far from insignificant. It had been an important player in the Scuderia’s offensive, and provided the link between the D20 and D24, which established itself as among the most technically advanced sports-racers of its time.
The model had shown its worth in Mexico, too, by finishing on the podium. Castellotti averaged 104mph over the entire race to Fangio’s 105mph in the D24. But while Lancia celebrated a glorious 1-2-3, it also mourned one of its most dramatic losses in the great Bonetto.
Thanks to the Louwman Museum (louwmanmuseum.nl); Wim Oude Weernink
The Lancias were down on power compared to rivals, but the D23’s light weight means it is nimble and direct, clipping apices with abandon. Spare wheel and spark plugs in the boot for running repairs Three-spoke wheel frames the big central rev counter.
Felice Bonetto lights his pipe before the start of the 1953 Carrera Panamericana – the event that would cost him his life.
Green cam covers show a lovely patina, hinting at its originality. Above: three 42DCF7 Weber carburettors contrast in satin black paint.
The cockpit is cocooned by its wraparound windscreen and the passenger-side seat cover – so very ’50s.
Curved ’screen keeps weather at bay but affects vision. Top, from left: deep sills mean it’s up-and-over for access; gearlever angles beneath seat cover.