The Family of 1108

Four decades in the life of a Lancia Aurelia B20

by | Sep 19, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photo Credit: John Lamm

The Family of 1108

Four decades in the life of a Lancia Aurelia B20

by | Sep 19, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photo Credit: John Lamm

Good heavens, it was actually happening. Looking down at the 2019 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance awards ramp, a burgundy 1955 Lancia B20 was gliding up to take 3rd place in the O2 class, Postwar Touring. Its driver, Jim Farley, and his wife Lia were smiling and waving. In the back seat was their trio of kids, Lilly, Jameson and Grace.

They had won – or, in a sense, we had won. Jim, Larry Crane and me. For the past 40 years or so, that Lancia Aurelia B20, chassis 1108, had been our “family” car, been under us for 1000s of miles. In Italy, in the snow, along the seashore and now up the ramp at Pebble.

Yes, and now I had a few tears in my eyes.

Many cars have had a similar ownership chain, passed on from one enthusiast to another. Sharing that enjoyment, and providing confirmation of how important it is to sell your vintage car to the right person.

Lancia B20

First stop on the Pebble Beach Tour, parked next to a Bugatti.

Larry Crane starts the story:

“When I was working for Steve Earle doing Vintage Racer magazine I was looking for a B20. I just loved the car… loved it for years, tracking ads all over the place.”

Ironically, he found one near his home in Santa Barbara. He was smitten and explains, “It was this beautiful, bright red B20. I must have bought it for $6,000. I sold two Alfa Romeos to buy it.”

Within the month, Larry was asked to take the car to Italy for a celebration of the 100th birthday of Vincenzo Lancia. The automaker would ship the car, so Larry and his wife borrowed money and made the trip.

“We spent a month there,” he recounts, “After the Lancia event, we used the 1957 Mille Miglia route map as a tour guide and did the longest lap ever of the Mille Miglia — three weeks.”

When the B20 was back in California, Larry started racing it, which he did for four years in Earle’s Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca each August. He once raced two Mercedes-Benz Gullwings, “doing the same lap time they were,” he says with a grin. “They were scary in the corners and I never had to lift.”

Lancia B20

Larry Crane racing B20 1088 at Laguna Seca’ Monterey Historic Automobile Races.

“I also drove the B20 as a daily car and in four years, I probably put 6,000, maybe 8,000 miles on it.”

Here is where I step in.

Larry and I worked at Road & Track. He had just remarried and wanted a house, so his B20 was up for sale, but at $10,000 was a financial stretch for me. I called my old friend Phil Hill to see if I should spend that much. He quickly said yes. He then explained that when he began racing in Europe many of the Formula 1 drivers had B20s because with their suspension they were equally quick on a variety of road surfaces.

I stretched the budget and bought Larry’s car, 1955 Lancia B20 serial number 1108. It was the perfect model, a 4th Series. These were the first built with left hand drive, had 118 horsepower from the aluminum 2.5-liter V-6 and introduced a DeDion rear suspension. And it was beautiful.

Lancia B20

Up in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the snow.

Family needs kept it in the garage more than I liked, but over the 30 or so years I owned it, I put about 8,000 miles on the B20. Many of those were on the California Mille thanks to Martin Swig. The B20 never missed a beat from roads winding along the Pacific Ocean or up at snowy Lake Tahoe.

Then the V-6 started pumping a little smoke, diagnosed as a broken piston ring. Time for an engine rebuild, so the car went to famous Lancia expert Tony Nicosia. The rebuild took a while and when finally watching and hearing the beautiful V-6 Tony said, “Now all we need to do is rebuild the transmission and front suspension.”

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I’d just turned 70, had two friends struggling with serious cancer and another descending into Alzheimer’s. I wondered if it was time for a Porsche 911 with an automatic transmission. I knew Jim Farley was a big B20 fan and within a few emails it was his. It wasn’t easy watching it go onto the truck bed and down the street.

Now it is Jim’s turn and we should explain that he is the Ford Motor Company’s President – New Businesses, Technology & Strategy. His love of Lancias began while working in the restoration shop of two Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance legends, Phil Hill and Ken Vaughn. Farley also spent a summer as a young man working at Road & Track: “Being in the industry I’ve always been curious about not just beautiful cars, but technically important cars. When I worked at Hill and Vaughn, Phil talked about Lancia race cars in the 1950s like the D50, which I didn’t know much about.

Lancia B20

The Lancia’s interior before restoration

“This was in the mid-1980s, I was in my 20s and so I had Lancia on my radar screen early. I didn’t know much about foreign cars then, but got my PhD in the car technology business at Hill and Vaughn during 15-minute coffee breaks. I started asking, ‘Tell me more about these Lancias.’ There was a guy there, Jan Voboril, who had a real passion about them. He was able to fill me in on the history and the various models from Lancia.

“Sometime later, I was working for Toyota and moved to Brussels. An Italian friend gave me a book about the Mille Miglia. I read about B20s and how accomplished they were despite being down on horsepower, but being rugged and fine handling cars. What got me interested was the combination of high build quality and innovation. It wasn’t just that it was an aluminum V-6, but it had the right amount of torque. And the suspension…that DeDion design in back with the in-board brakes… all thoughtfully orchestrated so the car is really rewarding to drive.

Lancia B20

Stripped and ready for repaint.

“The eye opener came after the restoration and I had the B20 at ‘home’ in Carmel. I had almost no experience in 1950s cars and headed out Highway 68, then up and over the Laureles Grade Road to the Carmel Valley. I was completely shocked. I literally couldn’t stop talking about it all day. I thought the handling was just so sublime, the steering feel and just the way the car drove. I could visualize being in it for three or four hours and never getting tired, enjoying it. I just couldn’t
believe it was a mid-1950s car. It was more enjoyable than a modern car.”

Pebble Beach accepted B20 1108 for the 2019 concours, but Jim couldn’t be there Thursday and asked me to drive the car on the Tour. This is a 70-mile swing down Highway 1 to Big Sur, then back to Carmel for lunch. He didn’t have to ask twice.

My friends Trish Serratorre and Ken Gross joined me on the drive and I was quickly in love with 1108 again. The restoration is sensational and the driving even better than before. I could feel the torque of the V-6, shifting through the Nardi floor-linkage and that superb steering, now through a proper thin-wood-rim steering wheel.

And the huge crowds out on Highway 1 almost all the way down the coast to Big Sur, lining the corners, waving, cheering… older fans, little kids, teenagers, families. It’s such a great way to see all the cars… and it’s free.

Lancia B20

The crowds were impressive along Highway 1.

Come Sunday, Jim asked if I would like to drive the car onto the judging field with him. Again, no need to ask twice. This is at 6 am and Hagerty’s Dawn Patrol has lines of enthusiasts creating a human hallway out onto the display field.

And Larry Crane was there, so the “family” was intact.

Jim and I had judging duties and then the awards began. Still much to do for me, photographing the event…and then Jim’s class was announced.

And there were Jim, his family and the Lancia gliding up the awards ramp.

Lancia B20

Lia and Jim, all smiles in the B20 on the concours award ramp after winning 3nd in class.

Those tears were back.

I’ve got to stop being so emotional about the B20. Good heavens, it’s just a car… but what a car, right, Larry and Jim?

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