Lancia B20: Under-Appreciated Gem with Surprising Tech

Noted for unconventional & innovative engineering, Lancias were also lovely to drive

by | Feb 17, 2019 | Car Profiles

John Lamm

Lancia B20: Under-Appreciated Gem with Surprising Tech

Noted for unconventional & innovative engineering, Lancias were also lovely to drive

by | Feb 17, 2019 | Car Profiles

John Lamm

Kabam! It sounded like a helicopter crashed in my front lawn. Nope, a Buick had plowed into my Lancia B20 parked nose out in the driveway. We lived at the top of a T intersection and the driver slid through the stop sign and across the street. The entire front of the Lancia was crumpled. Truth be told, there was so much Bondo body filler in the old Italian it looked liked there’d been an explosion in a pottery shack.

The insurance settlement was enough to buy another vintage car and for me it had to be a Lancia. Little known by most U.S. enthusiasts at that point in mid-1980s, Lancia’s reputation had not been bolstered by the cars it tried to sell here in the late 1970s. Yet the small company has had an impressive, outsized history, with numerous innovations in body, suspension and engine design, as well as several firsts in the auto industry.

There’s good reason the Miles Collier Collections of historically significant vehicles includes three Lancias: a 1927 Lancia Lambda, a 1952 Lancia B20 2nd series and an exact replica of a 1955 Lancia D50 Grand Prix car (assembled by ex-Lancia Corse engineers and mechanics, combining a new chassis and body with an original driveline and other components.)

Lancia B20 Aurelia in the Miles Collier Collections. Photo: David Harholdt

After the unfortunate crash, I told Phil Hill of my search for another Lancia. Several suitable examples were available, but my colleague Larry Crane, art assistant at Road & Track, was willing to part with his 4th series B20. It was a financial stretch, but Phil explained, “When I first began racing in Europe many of the top drivers had B20s. It was the car you could drive just as quickly on a secondary road as an autobahn.” That sealed the deal.

Vincenzo Lancia’s automobiles were, to say the least, ground-breaking. His Lambdas (1922-1931) featured a unit body, sliding pillar independent front suspension with fluid shocks and a single overhead cam V-4 with — depending on the year — a 13-degree, 14-degree or 13-degree, 40-minute Vee between cylinder banks. Those very narrow angles are rare even today (recent Volkswagens have used 10.5 and 15 degrees), but Lancia was employing them almost 100 years ago.

Lancia B20’s inventive engine.

Lancia B20’s interior is elegantly minimalist.

Third series B20s used the same basic chassis, but with the V-6 now at 2.5 liters and 118 horsepower. Fourth series models swapped the independent rear suspension for a DeDion design. With the 5th and 6th series versions, Lancia made the B20s less a sports coupe and more a Grand Tourer. Horsepower dipped a bit but the comfort level increased.

Design of the body — an early 2+2 — is generally credited to Mario Felice Boano working at Carrozzeria Ghia with some changes made by Pinin Farina when it took over production of the B20s after a few early examples. First and 2nd series are distinguished by beautifully sculpted headlamps and tiny, curvy tailfins. Third-6th series look a bit more rounded. As an owner I was delighted when Bruno Sacco, then director of design at Mercedes-Benz, called the Lancia B20 the best GT design of the 1950s. Which of the six B20s is best? Want to start an argument at a Lancia club meeting?

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There were also the B24 Spyder and the 217-to-240-horsepower chopped-roof, lower-waistline competition B20 Da Corsas, but those are stories for another day. There are, however, racing stories with the “normal” B20s, like Giovanni Bracco’s and Umberto Maglioli’s second overall in the 1951 Mille Miglia behind a Ferrari 340. Another B20 was in fifth and yet another B20 was third overall in 1952. Class wins at Le Mans in 1951 and 1952 followed.

It was easy to enjoy my B20, thanks to my late friend Martin Swig’s California Mille, which winds through Northern California. I partnered with Phil on one Mille and with Murray Smith and Tom Bryant, editor of Road & Track, on another. Legendary vintage-car wrench Ivan Zaremba driving his 2-liter Maserati and I in my Lancia had a delightful always-turning-never-flat run from Ferndale out to the Pacific Ocean, then through Petrolia and Honeydew — honest, real names — and through the Redwoods. Scott George, VP of the Revs Institute, had the Miles Collier Collections’ B20 on one Mille, and we were able to enjoy our two cars together.

Red wasn’t an authorized color but it looks right.

Driving a B20 is a breeze. The steering is light; the aftermarket Nardi floor shifter smooth; the brakes never a problem. Phil showed me how to drive it properly and while there was some understeer, I never pushed it that hard. Over several Milles, the car never failed me, whether driving along the shore of the Pacific Ocean or through the snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Funny little side story. In the early years of the Monterey Historic Automobile Races, two B20s regularly attended, both painted red: Larry Crane’s (number 332) and Dr. Dick Buckingham’s (number 101). A few years ago I stopped by the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion pit of Terry Hefty. A longtime vintage racer, Terry and I went to high school together in Middleton, Wisconsin (population about 3500). There was a gray B20 nearby, and I mentioned I had one but it was red, an incorrect, non-production color. Terry had one too…also red. Turned out the two guys from little Middleton–40 years later–owned the Crane and Buckingham B20s. Small world, eh?

From the Sierras to the beach, the Lancia B20 handled it all.

Fun coincidence, but circumstances had changed. I’d just turned 70, had several friends with Alzheimer’s and tough cancers. I knew Jim Farley, then executive VP and president of Global Markets at Ford and an enthusiast with a broad appreciation of great automobiles, was interested in my Lancia. The deal was done quickly with about two emails, for a car I’d owned for 30 years. He has had the Lancia restored to like-new condition, and I’ve learned how important it is to sell your treasures to the best owner. Well done, Jim.

The B20’s replacement? A Porsche 911 Carrera with PDK, satellite radio, heated and cooled seats and an affinity for long-distance cruises.

Times change.

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