Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet

| 6 Apr 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet

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It looks like a cross between a bottle opener and an early satellite. It weighs several ounces, is a few inches long and is crowned by a chrome finisher. It could be a deadly cigarette lighter issued by Q Branch; or perhaps, the reason for C-3PO’s rather peculiar walk.

There are many examples of Lancia’s drive for pioneering design and over-engineering, of naïvely prioritising advanced product ahead of the latest mass-production techniques.

It was an approach that ultimately led the firm to take-overs and near-death experiences. This particular Aurelia, though, has headed even further down the path marked ‘motoring excellence’.

I don’t know what you would call the object in my hand – a plug, cover, cap or stopper – but its job is to protect the sill jacking point.

It is made from metal components, includes a retaining spring, and is without doubt the most involved contraption that I’ve seen for such a task.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
The Lancia’s V6 was an industry first

Little wonder it can be argued that the Aurelia was Lancia attaining peak Lancia; the Aprilia’s replacement is peppered with seminal thinking.

Fingers are frequently pointed, explanations given, “blimey” and “my giddy aunt” oft uttered.

The Aurelia is powered by the world’s first series-produced V6 – an all-alloy, iron-linered, 60º 1754cc overhead-valve unit that develops 56bhp at 4000rpm.

Its suspension is independent at both ends – via sliding pillars at the front, with coil-sprung semi-trailing arms following behind (the latter earning Lancia another entry in the history books).

It is rear-wheel drive, but with a four-speed all-synchro transaxle mounted at the back with the differential. The brakes are drums all round (inboard at the rear).

The Aurelia was even trail-blazingly shod with the world’s first radial-ply tyre, the Michelin X. There isn’t the slightest hint of swing-axle sadism, cart-sprung cost-cutting or live-axle bias-ply Luddism to be found here.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
The Lancia’s graceful and upright nose features neatly integrated Marchal driving lamps

A prototype was up and running in 1948. In keeping with the company’s new naming system – where the ‘A’ prefix denoted large cars, ‘B’ medium models, ‘C’ something intimate and ‘D’ competition machinery – the car that would become the Aurelia Berlina was code-named B10.

The V6, designed by Francesco De Virgilio (technical director Vittorio Jano’s assistant), had been intended for the Aprilia, but that car was regarded as being too old by general manager, Gianni Lancia.

Vincenzo’s only son – another engineer, naturalmente – deemed that only a new model would do justice to the compact ‘six’.

Designed by Lancia, Jano and De Virgilio, and styled with input from Pinin Farina, the B10 was launched at the 1950 Turin Salon.

Alongside it were the B50 and B51 – rolling chassis or autotelai that were intended to be more amenable to specialist coachbuilders than the monocoque B10.

Both were steel box-sectioned platform chassis with wheelbases four inches longer than the B10, but the B51 had a wider track, wider wheels and a lower final drive than the B50.

Listed in Lancia’s catalogue, the B51 was first bodied by Viotti as a wood-framed giardinetta (47 built), while the B50 was initially clothed by Pinin Farina as a five-seater cabriolet.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
The hood is very well engineered

The branches of the Aurelia family tree spread outward and upward, but today we are sidestepping the hot-shoe relatives.

The B50 and B51 were in production until 1952 – with 484 B50s and 98 B51s built.

The B52 of 1952, meanwhile, incorporated the 70bhp 1991cc V6 from the B21 because Lancia had failed to hit its sales target of 700 B50s and 200 B51s. Only 97 B52s were made, while 85 B53s were produced (with larger tyres and higher optional final drive).

A mere five B55 and four B56 chassis were then constructed from 1954 to ’55, the last of the seven B55Ss and a solitary B56S (‘S’ for sinistra, or left-hand drive) were powered by the 87bhp 2266cc V6 and featured B12 de Dion rear suspension.

The 2.3-litre ‘second series’ was when the autotelai was withdrawn from volume production.

The decline of the coachbuilt Aurelia coupé was due to the rising popularity of Lancia’s B20 GT.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
The folding occasional seats in the rear are best suited to short journeys

Most Pinin Farina Cabriolets were built on the B50 chassis between 1950-’52, although a few were based on the B52.

It is believed that about 265 were built in all, but this is hard to confirm because it is said that some Pininfarina (as the coachbuilder became known on 26 October 1961) records were destroyed following De Tomaso’s acquisition of the Grugliasco plant.

Although the Cabriolet was officially part of the Lancia range and sold through its dealers, Farina maintained the right to build special examples that it could sell to the public. Of the designs fitted to the autotelai, Pinin Farina’s offerings were among the most successful, with the Cabriolet accounting for the majority of B50 production. Most of the remainder were clothed by Vignale.

Some chassis were bodied with great success, but others struggled beneath the weight of star-spangled burglary: a touch of Studebaker here, some elephantiasis there, and a front impaled with more unhappy metal than the Somme.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
The Aurelia’s elegant profile epitomises early-’50s Italian glamour

Believed to have been constructed in late 1950 for the 1951 Geneva Salon, ‘our’ B50 Aurelia Cabriolet belongs to Chris Sherwood.

“Being a show car it was built with some special features – integrated Marchal auxiliary lamps, cut-glass style indicator lenses, chromed rear-wing stoneguards and perforated exhaust silencer covers beneath the sills,” says Sherwood.

Further touches were added to the interior, with a surfeit of chrome detailing – including the hood frame and kickplates – an instrument layout with a flat-bottomed decimalised speedo and a pristine ivory steering wheel.

It is also fitted with two occasional rear seats. “The car was bought off the show stand by an English lady, Mrs Anna Payne-Jennings, who then took it to the United States,” remarks Sherwood.

The SFr32,532 sale – £155,000 in today’s money – was handled by W Ramsetter & Cie, a Geneva-based Lancia concessionaire.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
The understated cockpit is dominated by the huge three-spoke steering wheel

He adds: “It resided there with a single owner for about 40 years, after being sold in 1953 by Payne-Jennings to a Mr Jenkins of Virginia. The Aurelia shared garage space with Jenkins’ Mercedes Gullwing until he passed away.

“In 2000, the Cabriolet was sold by his son to a Los Angeles restorer, Rick Fitzgerald. He rebuilt the Lancia to a high standard for his personal use, completing it just in time for the 2005 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where it was placed third in class.

“Unfortunately, a divorce – possibly due to the amount of time he’d devoted to the car – forced Fitzgerald to sell the Lancia. It was brought to the UK in around 2010.”

The Cabriolet’s lines grow on you, flowing with bridal-gown elegance.

Any potentially jarring impact from the chrome embellishment – especially those exuberant stone-guards – is toned down by its complementary monochrome ensemble.

And if this Aurelia doesn’t romance you at first sight, it will have you on first touch. Close-fitting parallel shutlines stand resolute with parade ground discipline. Take a bow, Farina.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
Left-right: stylish chrome-rimmed dials lend a touch of class to the simple painted-metal fascia; the nicely finished interior is awash with quality fixtures and fittings

To enter, you press a button that releases a delightful flush-fitting looped handle.

Once aboard the front bench’s mushroom leather, the door closes behind you with railway-carriage surety. Not a budget-conscious, freezer-door sort of thud – cultivated to mimic quality – this is closer to genuine Victorian longevity.

With the windows and hood down, out there becomes in here – or is it vice versa?

Beaming with pride, England’s summer is behaving well. Cerulean skies punctuated with powder-puff clouds and vapour-trail doodles: this could almost be the Lancia’s homeland.

The driving position is straightforward and comfortable.

Clutch and brake pedals sprout through the floor’s pragmatic rubber covering next to an organ-pedal throttle.

The view is filled with a smart supporting cast of horn-rimmed wheel, minimal switchgear, painted dashboard, Art Deco dials, green Jelly Tot warning lights, deft chrome touches and tinted see-through sunvisors.

There isn’t a wireless, so rather than listening to a tinny rendition of Mario Lanza or Mantovani, we are instead accompanied by the V6, gear whine, soft turbulence and birdsong.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
Thanks to sophisticated running gear, the Aurelia can dispatch corners with remarkable composure, but the car is more suited to gentle cruising than it is to spirited driving

There is little point in attempting to hurl the Cabriolet around with pallid knuckles, pouting egotism and your masculinity trailing in the wind. It isn’t that sort of car.

Yes, it will corner with remarkable confidence – an accidental discovery during my re-acquaintance with unassisted drums – but although the B50 handles with surprising panache, it is not a car for sidewall sadism.

You can sense the disapproval as surely as the slight shiver through the steering column. Flamboyance is further restrained by a top speed of 80mph or so, a 2734lb kerb weight and a mileage of just 27,500.

The Aurelia has an almost Californian confidence about its grace. It sidesteps the clumsy pudginess of BMW’s baroque ’n’ roll 501 or the trimmed in stuffy antiquity and Reform Club veneer of a Park Ward Bentley MkVI.

It is a grand Italian contradiction – a premium egalitarian that dissents against boorish demographic bracketing.

The worm-and-wheel steering and radial tyres bless the car with a fine amount of front-end information, precision and dependability.

Unwind as the manual tiller loses heft but not concentration with greater speed, tracking true and faithfully without slop or wander.

The unassisted drum brakes are typical of their period, requiring muscle and clairvoyant levels of anticipation when confronted with the fully illuminated rear of a kamikaze ABS millennial.

Classic & Sports Car – Falling in love again with the Lancia Aurelia B50 Cabriolet
The Aurelia’s curvaceous tail is particularly neat

The song from the single-carburettor V6, piped out via twin exhausts, is rich, burblesome and moreish; it could almost be running on your grandmother’s finest homemade gravy.

The speedo is as much use as the non-existent tacho for yours unmetrically, so revs are governed by earholes and an understanding of what feels and sounds like a spot of happiness – probably between 3000 and 4000rpm – where progress is swift enough to avoid modernity’s hectoring.

No, this Aurelia is at its best on empty rural roads. Quietly cruising around in calm contemplation, basking aboard your own little cloud of Fellini chic with your hair misbehaving.

Perhaps sparing a thought about the fate of this undead marque… ultimately, it is an antidote to stress and crowding – a tonic that is as relaxing and enjoyable as a contented sigh.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to Hurst Park Automobiles


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