Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

| 3 Nov 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

Streamlining was all the fashion in Italy in 1934, the year in which the National Fascist Party reinforced its grip on power in a single-party general election.

The sensational Macchi M72 racing seaplane claimed new World Speed Records across Lake Garda, and Guy Moll won at Avus in a one-off low-drag GP Alfa.

Aerodinamica was the buzzword at car shows, as coachbuilders embraced the new trend with cowled radiators and fastback bodywork.

The handsome Lancia Astura featured here was an early exponent of the new sleek look, but the bold Castagna body was first fitted to an Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 ‘Lungo’ that was the talking point of the 1934 Salone de Milano.

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

The dramatic rear has the look of the Fiat 508 Aerodinamica

Visitors to the show included the Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and his sons, who were greatly taken by the stylish grey coupé on the Castagna stand.

The Milanese carrozzeria was so proud of the bold design, it was featured on the cover of a lavish new company brochure.

Story has it that Il Duce requested the body be removed from the Alfa and fitted by the Lancia works to a shortened (Corto) Astura Series II chassis for his favourite and youngest son, Bruno. Aged just 16, Mussolini Jnr had already developed a passion for speed, and soon became Italy’s youngest pilot.

Boxing, fast cars and beautiful women were his main passions, and the rakish coupé perfectly suited his lifestyle.

No records for Castagna survive because the factory at Venegono was destroyed by Allied bombing raids in 1943, but the streamlined Lancia marked a transition for Italy’s oldest coachbuilder when Emilio Castagna, who’d previously directed every design, left the company.

From traditional bodies for marques such as Isotta-Fraschini, the firm now turned to France for influence. The sensation of the Milan show would be the first of a new aero look for ’34.

Some Italian historians claim that three, or possibly four, streamlined Asturas were built by Castagna on both short and long chassis, with one later appearing at the 1936 Olympia Show.

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback
Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

Left-right: proudly displaying the coachbuilder’s crest; the illustrious name dates back to 1908

The first, Mussolini’s car, was entered for the Targa Abruzzo by the Scuderia Parioli team with Enrico Minetti and Aldo Gerardi as drivers.

Minetti, a Lancia dealer based in Milan, and a respected racer, was a close friend of the Mussolini family, and is believed to have handled arrangements for the special Astura. Scuderia Parioli was also known as Scuderia Giovinezza (the team of young men) after the official anthem of the Italian fascist party.

Starting at night and running through the intense heat of the following day, the Astura fixed-head ran as high as third place until a fuel-pump problem forced its retirement.

After the race, the Lancia was repaired and driven back to Rome by Bruno Mussolini.

The following month, the coupé lined up at the prestigious Concorso d’Eleganza di Como, possibly entered by Eugenio Borroni, where it was runner-up to a Castagna-bodied Dilambda.

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

Short chassis and independent front suspension give neat handling

Mussolini didn’t keep the Astura long, and in 1936 it changed hands several times until Lancia agent and works driver Felice Bonetto sold it to an English buyer.

A mystery photo shows the car at Crystal Palace before WW2, but little is known of its history during this period other than that it was involved in an accident.

In early 1956, it was acquired as a restoration project by journalist and long-term Astura enthusiast, Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker. The body and interior were in a sad state, and several mechanical parts were missing.

Barker lacked the time and the resources to complete the restoration, so sold it for £85 to fellow Lancia Motor Club member TA Rogers.

With the help of respected specialist ‘Bunny’ Prideaux of Rex Engineering, the Astura was stripped down for a full rebuild. During the work, Rogers started researching the Castagna’s history, encouraged by the rumour from Barker that it had been built for the Mille Miglia. A link to Switzerland led Rogers to an RV Bird, who had owned the coupé from 1946-’54.

‘She’s a bit of a bastard,’ recalled Rogers in the Lancia Motor Club Journal. ‘It has a 1932 standard Astura chassis that was chopped in half and shortened. A late-series 1936 engine was mated to a 1932 rear axle, and the body, though by Castagna, came off an Alfa Romeo.

‘She was specially constructed at the Lancia works to Bruno Mussolini’s orders for the Mille Miglia. He didn’t drive the car, but his chauffeuse practised in it. I don’t think it competed in the race.’

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback
Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

Left-right: twin rows of vents, but the bulges are just for show; the filler for the dry sump

Rogers also discovered that the Astura had been involved in an accident in England when a previous owner had wrapped it around a telegraph pole at the outset of war in 1939.

Much of the rebuild was done by a Lancia agent in South Kensington, when a Morris Eight grille was fitted. Bird recalled several other modifications, including special disc wheels that were made in Switzerland.

‘It had two spares in the tail and a 37-gallon petrol tank. The lamps were Zeiss with glass mirror reflectors, and the side windows were beautifully streamlined double-curvature efforts. Bird had also fitted a steering wheel from a Lambda that he’d raced before the war.

‘She was a car of great character but no comfort,’ he wrote. ‘My wife detested her, and in the end financial difficulties, coupled with the car’s great thirst – 12mpg! – forced me to sell her for the princely sum of £80, fully restored. As regards performance, I used to reckon 60mph in third and 80 in top. I found the brakes inadequate, in spite of the drums’ great diameter.’

The sleekly styled Astura went through a series of owners during the 1960s – including Paul Foulkes-Halbard of Filching Manor, and Bryan Briggs – before it disappeared again.

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

This car’s body first appeared on a Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 ‘Lungo’

Eventually, Michael Scott, a good friend of Barker and a keen Astura enthusiast who’d discovered a beautiful fourth-series Pinin Farina cabriolet, tracked down the Castagna coupé.

The car was restored, but retained the disc wheels and the chromed radiator grille. Finished in bright red, the Lancia was shown at several English events, including the VSCC concours at Oulton Park in the late ’70s.

It was later acquired by German collector Peter Kaus for his Rosso Bianco museum near Aschaffenburg, where it was displayed among a remarkable set of pre-war streamliners including a ‘Teardrop’ TalbotLago, and the Lancefield Lagonda coupé.

When Rosso Bianco closed in 2006, the exhibits were split up, with many of the star attractions going to the Louwman Museum in The Netherlands while others were auctioned by Bonhams.

A partner in the museum deal chose two cars to keep – an Alfa 8C Mille Miglia Spider and the Astura.

Many Lancia enthusiasts had presumed the latter had long been sold, because a silver Astura with Castagna-style body had appeared at German events. This turned out, however, to be a replica, copied from Kaus’ car.

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

It was entered for the Targa Abruzzo by the Scuderia Parioli team, but retired

The Alfa and Lancia were despatched to British specialist Paul Grist of Traction-Seabert. Priority went to the 8C, but work began in earnest on the Astura in 2013.

The body was removed and the car stripped down to the last nut and bolt.

“We could see where the frame had been cut and shortened,” says Grist. “As with all Lancias, it was beautifully engineered and very labour intensive. The dry-sump V8 had been rebuilt in Holland, but the coachwork remained the biggest challenge.

“We’ve done a few coupés over the years, including the ex-Raymond Sommer Alfa 8C-2900 for Mike Sparken, but this was the toughest. Over time the body and interior had been modified and repaired with different ideas.”

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

The narrow-angle V8 delivers its power smoothly and progressively

All of Grist’s team and trusted specialists were called in for the restoration, including the late Bob Hingerton, a former Grand Prix Metalcraft employee who joined Traction-Seabert in the ’90s: “Bob was an exceptional craftsman. He did all the panel work and made the missing chrome detailing. It was sadly his last project.”

While the rebuild progressed, the Astura’s history was researched in Italy and rare photographs of the car at Villa d’Este in 1935 were discovered.

These proved essential reference for getting the grille and aluminium wings correct (the main body is steel). Rear spats were also remade for shows. “They make it look more exotic,” says Grist.

The paintwork proved to be another significant challenge. The Villa d’Este photographs taken in the ’30s indicate a metallic finish, but the shots from the Targa Abruzzo confirm a darker colour.

Nearly 30 different shades were tried on sample panels before the final colour was agreed, the grey looking too military in sunlight.

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

The cabin represented the biggest challenge of the rebuild

The owner sourced leather for the upholstery in Italy, enlisting John Foy’s Tony Smith to do the trimming.

With no photographic reference for the interior, the cockpit was the biggest headache of all the coachwork challenges – particularly the door and window mechanisms.

The original woodwork had been lost and replaced with a padded leather design in the ’70s but Fred Franklin, an ex-Vanden Plas craftsman, did a superb job remaking the ’screen surround and the door tops.

With the help of Belgian specialist Raoul San Giorgi (who has vast experience with pre-war coupés, having also completed the Mercedes-Benz 540K Stromlinie project), Grist searched out parts. These included a correct three-spoke steering wheel, a pair of Marchal headlamps and other fittings.

Thankfully, the instruments were complete. “Finding the correct trim rubbers was a nightmare,” says Grist, who gave the owner a superb Italian Cicca rear-view mirror, which looks perfect for the Lancia. “We also decided to convert it to twin wiper motors because the layout looked more symmetrical.”

After nearly two years’ work, the Astura was virtually complete, needing just a few details such as the registration number to finish. When shown at Villa d’Este, it carried a Milanese plate (11902-MI) and the entry number 57.

Frustratingly, the demanding nature of the restoration meant that the work took longer than planned and the Castagna coupé missed the 80th anniversary of its concours debut.

Prior to delivery to the new owner’s home in France, the Lancia was tested at Milbrook where it rasped around the banking without a problem, despite having been off the road for 50 years. 

Classic & Sports Car – Lancia Astura: Mussolini’s bespoke fastback

The Astura is a work of art

The narrow-angle V8 has a very distinctive note, sounding more like a straight-six, and initially the 2.6-litre motor with twin-choke Zenith carburettor feels rather underwhelming – with the second-series unit delivering only 65bhp, it was mostly found in flamboyant coachbuilt models rather than performance cars.

But like many Lancias, the Astura’s character develops the more miles you cover, the engine delivering smooth, progressive power. Refinement was a high priority with this compact design.

Although the worm-and-sector steering is on the heavy side while manoeuvring, it soon lightens with speed, and the ride quality is superb thanks to the sliding-pillar front suspension and the Siata-type dampers at the rear.

The new owner prefers to drive his cars rather than show them, and the restored Astura keeps company with an Aurelia B20 Spider at his home in Provence – the perfect open and closed pair for touring this beautiful region.

Images: Tony Baker


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