The Lancia Aurelia was conceived, designed and built as Italy struggled to get back on to its feet after World War Two, finally going on sale in 1950. It must have seemed impossibly sophisticated against a background of Fiat Topolinos (over there) and Ford Tens (over here) – aircraft streamlining meets understated, boutique luxury. Lancia fans consider it to be one of the company’s three greatest models – the other two being the Lambda and Aprilia – and each is celebrated both for its technological leaps forward and the effect these had on the way they drove. But unlike the Lambda and the Aprilia, the Aurelia is recognised mostly for its sporting variants – the B20 GT and glamorous B24 Spider and Convertible. We never seem to hear about the car that provided the crucial bulk of sales but which is now a very rare sight – the Berlina.
Perhaps I can help to put that right today because I’ll be driving one on a varied test route that will ultimately take me to Britain’s best-known classic Lancia specialist, Omicron Engineering near Norwich. The Aurelia belongs to Paul Libovitz who inherited it from his grandfather in 1970. A desirable two-litre 90bhp model, it was in need of attention after 17 years of regular use – 13 of them with Paul’s grandfather – and today feels beautifully mellowed but well preserved after its restoration in 1971.
It’s an unusual-looking thing. The combination of shape, colour and antique detail such as those moulded headlamp lenses would stand out in any company. Other Fifties saloons conformed to rather different trends; most were either stuck in a pre-war styling throwback or following a steadily more Americanised look. This 1953 Aurelia B22 saloon on the other hand does not – to my eye, at least – owe an aesthetic debt to anything that came before it. It’s rare too; of the 18,000 Aurelias built – including GTs, Convertibles, Spiders, limousines and unclothed chassis for outside coachbuilders to complete – just 1176 were B22s like this one.
1953 Lancia Aurelia B22 road test
Lancia’s all-powerful engineers were notorious for making changes to established models in a continuous and costly programme of improvement but the Francesco de Virgilio-designed V6 engine – developed under the direction of Vittorio Jano – was a constant, though it grew over the years from 1.8 to 2.5 litres. It was a production car world first too. The gearbox sits within a transaxle between the rear wheels, which also houses the clutch and final drive. Inboard rear drum brakes keep the unsprung weight down and suspension is by Lancia’s famous sliding-pillar at the front and a patented semi-trailing arm layout at the rear, though this was changed on the 1954 B12 to a De Dion axle.
‘Trying too hard to slot the gearlever in the gate is counterproductive – it gets slicker the less effort I put into it’
Such complexity seems at odds with the cabin’s simplicity. The modest front and rear bench seats sit on ribbed rubber mats and the dashboard is a painted steel pressing containing just three dials. Only the steering wheel’s T-shaped spokes hint at something special.
Turning the tiny key and pushing the starter button brings the little V6 to life, its thrum cultured if slightly off-beat. I push the column gear lever forward then up into first, reach under the dashboard to release the stubby handbrake lever and away we go.
My route takes me west out of Norwich on to the B1108 towards Hackford. The Aurelia soon begins to reveal its character once clear of the traffic. The first thing I notice – other than the enjoyably fruity note from a stainless steel exhaust – is the ride. It doesn’t float like a Citroën DS or iron the bumps flat like a Bentley MkVI, but hits a happy medium of absorbing minor tremors while keeping me informed about the road surface. This well-controlled, well-damped feel makes for total composure in faster bends.
I soon discover that the T-shaped steering wheel spokes aren’t just attractive, they also leave my hands resting naturally at the ten-to-two position. From there, the column shift is a perfect distance away, with second straight down from first, then third an easy move towards me and up. Top gear is straight down from there.
1953 Lancia Aurelia B22 interior. Aurelia feels stiff and planted in the corners, despite having no B-pillars. Nigel tries – and fails – to find a road that upsets the Aurelia’s composure.
I learn that trying too hard to slot the lever into the gate is counterproductive; the shift seems slicker the less effort I put into it, which is remarkable when you consider the route the linkage has to take all the way back to between the rear wheels.
The B1108 threads its way through farmland and over the Mid-Norfolk Railway, treating me to a variety of surfaces as it twists and turns among the fields and demonstrating just how stiff the Aurelia is. That’s worth thinking about – the body has clap-hands doors, slim windscreen pillars and no separate chassis and yet scuttle shake is non-existent; I’ve noticed more flexing in the shell of a modern Alfa Romeo than I can detect in this Aurelia.
I turn south at Watton and push it harder down the straights of the A1075. Its four-speed gearbox makes a five-speeder seem rather pointless, not because the engine has infinite torque but because the ratios are perfectly chosen. The V6 is certainly flexible and would have revved higher than most two-litre engines of its day, but I never have to stir it very hard to make brisk cross-country progress. It couldn’t be happier at 60mph, humming along as if it would never tire. There’s no temperature gauge – something that must have caught out countless owners who skimped on maintenance and weren’t used to aluminium engines – but at no point does it smell hot or misbehave in any way.
I park up outside a pretty pub to examine a few of the Aurelia’s details. For what looks a rather undecorated design, it’s scattered with intriguing features. The shiny little buttons set into each sill, for example, push in under finger pressure and allow you to insert a jack – simply reach inside the car to push them back out again.
1953 Lancia Aurelia B22 road test
Elsewhere there’s a boot release lever on the floor in front of the back seat and the fuel filler inside the boot has a dipstick in the cap, an infallible check should the fuel gauge fail. The front bench slides and tilts too so drivers of all shapes and sizes can get comfortable.
The steering wheel is on the right, not because this is a UK car but because almost all Aurelias were right-hand drive. Italy switched to driving on the right in the Twenties but Lancia mostly stuck with right-hand drive well into the Fifties. In fact it regarded left-hand drive as an extra-cost option and so-designed cars had an S in their chassis numbers, denoting sinistra, the Italian word for ‘left’.
With all this pondering about the steering wheel, it isn’t until I dive off into the country lanes through Stow Bedon and Shropham that I realise I haven’t really noticed the steering itself. That’s actually a compliment because the weight and accuracy are so good that I never consciously make an effort to place the car where I want it.
‘The Aurelia’s steering weight and accuracy are so good that placing it in the corners is effortless’
Amazingly, it uses a theoretically less precise worm-and-sector box, making me question the dogma that rack-and-pinion is best I find myself outside Snetterton circuit and pull in to watch younger, noisier cars taking part in a track day. People clearly like the look of the Aurelia but most approach it with a slight frown or with their head on one side, trying to figure out what it is. ‘Is it a Saab?’ asks a man in marshal’s overalls. I bet you wouldn’t get that with a B20 GT. It’s probably the first time he’s seen a Lancia Aurelia Berlina in the metal.
Later I join the A11 dual carriageway to rack up a few high-speed miles, something that doesn’t trouble the 63-year-old Lancia at all. A minor vibration at 70-75mph that wasn’t there at 60mph also makes me realise that the central dial is a different colour from the others. This might be because this Aurelia was a UK export and needed a speedometer calibrated in miles per hour, but the only instrument available at the time was an older green and bronze type. It’s quiet at speed too – the doors close very tightly so any wind noise means you probably haven’t shut one of them properly.
If I allow any concession to the Aurelia’s age, it’s when it comes to braking distances. The rear drums on this car could do with a once-over, something that should restore confidence after the current rumbling and squeaking is eliminated.
The final leg of my trip takes me off the A11 again, past the Lotus HQ at Hethel and around the pretty village green in Mulbarton, home of Omicron. The first thing I see is a beautiful pale blue B20 GT, a 1955 fourth-series car with a Nardi floor-mounted gear shift. Its owner, David Winter, is chatting with Omicron’s Andrew Cliffe and company founders Martin and Elizabeth Cliffe when I arrive.
1953 Lancia Aurelia B22 road test. Aurelias outside contrast with Fiat-era Lancia Beta front subframe beginning a stripdown. Mechanism on top of Aurelia’s radiator operates grille shutters with a thermostatic control. Martin shows Nigel a Fulvia panel pressed using Omicron’s own purpose-made tool (left).
Martin started the business 35 years ago when he left Lotus but wanted to stay in a part of the country he loved. Omicron’s premises, services and general reputation have grown steadily ever since although some things haven’t changed. Elizabeth still runs the spare parts department – which represents a significant chunk of Omicron’s business – often startling customers with her encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Lancia-related.
Omicron has looked after David Winter’s B20 for some time, though it was restored before he bought it ten years ago. He regularly takes it on family holidays in the UK and abroad and rallies it from time to time, though he’s keen to keep it as standard as possible. ‘I keep the tripmeters and clocks on a separate panel so it doesn’t look like a rally car all the time,’ he says.
Its smooth, soft shape is a clever piece of work. The identity of the stylist has never been confirmed though some think it was designed by Felice Boano during his time at Ghia. Whoever was responsible managed to make the car look like a first cousin to the Berlina, but with a grace all of its own.
Inside the workshop I spot a Beta HPE whose entire front subframe has been removed and is being cleaned up and checked over while work continues on the rest of the car. Parked to the right of it is another fourth-series B20, looking achingly beautiful in its duck-egg blue paint. Moving round further still we pass by a red Fulvia and a couple of Martin‘s favourite cars – an engineless Ardea and its Aprilia big brother.
Nigel ponders a tiny 803cc Ardea. He was delighted to fit inside comfortably.
‘Have you seen how one of these works?’ he says, raising the Aprilia on a four-post ramp. ‘Take a look at the rear suspension. There are short torsion bars that function as an anti-roll mechanism rather than part of the weight-bearing springing of the car. That job’s done by a transverse leaf spring. The torsion bars locate in the semitrailing arms at their outboard end, but are splined at both ends and allow for very fine adjustment of the way the car handles and rides.’
Martin continues my guided tour in the body shop, where his own Aprilia awaits its turn for attention next to a Fulvia 1300 GT being worked on by mechanic Iain Slade. It’s needed some extremely skilled panel-making to repair its seriously rusty wings.
Martin shows us an impressive forming tool made from GRP that allows Omicron to press its own bonnet-closing panels for Fulvias, another notorious rot-spot. Further back, a Flaminia GT is nearing the end of a full restoration that involved patient and careful unwrapping to reveal and repair the Superleggera steel tubes hiding beneath the aluminium outer panels.
Back in the workshop, Martin points out another rare saloon car – a Flaminia Berlina. It’s in for an engine rebuild following cylinder head gasket failure but will soon be back to peak fitness.
‘These are such beautifully made cars,’ he says. ‘Lancia devoted a great deal of its development to the saloons; the sporting models may be prettier and more desirable but they’re not so well built and don’t ride as nicely. Whether it’s Aurelia, Flaminia, Fulvia or even Flavia, the saloons are always the best.’
Still pondering Martin’s words, it’s time to take the Aurelia home. It’s proved to be an extremely satisfying way to travel, displaying a combination of comfort, ability and design ingenuity that belies its age. Yes, the B20GT’s fame and glory is entirely justified, but what of the Berlina? It’s that rare thing in today’s classic car scene – an undervalued thoroughbred.
Thanks to: Paul Libovitz, David Winter and all at Omicron Engineering Ltd (omicron.uk.com)
TECHNICAL DATA 1953 Lancia Aurelia B22
Engine 1991cc, V6, ohv, Weber 40 DCF5 twin-choke downdraught carburettor
Power and torque 89bhp @ 5000rpm, 101lb ft @ 2750rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Brakes Hydraulic drums front and rear
Suspension Front: independent by sliding pillar, hydraulic dampers / Rear: independent by semi-trailing arm, coil springs, lever-arm hydraulic dampers SteeringWorm and sector
Weight 1180kg (2601lb)
Fuel consumption 26mpg
Cost new £2862
Values now £12,500-£30,000
The Guru Martin Cliffe
Martin worked as an engineer for Ford and turbo specialist Holset before running Lotus’s Turbo Esprit programme. Since he and Elizabeth set up Omicron in 1981 they’ve seen all manner of exotics, not least Martin’s own Lamborghini. ‘It was the last cheap Miura, a wreck I bought for just under £10k in the Eighties’, he says. ‘It had been hillclimbed so we restored it to SV spec. Other highlights included a Hispano-Suiza H6B bought by Ian Fraser of Car magazine. ‘When we found Australian pennies soldered over the core plugs, he knew it was the same car he’d owned as a young man in Australia.’
OUR TEST ROUTE
Our route takes in city centre traffic in Norwich, fast B-roads, dual carriageways and twisting lanes. Omicron’s staff often assess cars in all sorts of conditions and this route’s variety of surfaces and speeds provides a stern work-out.