Vincenzo Lancia (1881 - 1937)
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Vincenzo Lancia

Vincenzo Lancia

Giovanni Ceirano

VINCENZO LANCIA was born at Fobello, in the foot-hills of the Appennines, northwest of Milan, on August 24, 1881. His father, a wealthy soup manufacturer, began young Lancia's education at a nearby school, then sent him to the technical college in Turin to study accountancy. That plan soon fell through. When Lancia started at college in 1898, he stayed at the family's winter house in the town. There was a small two-roomed shop on the property, and a mechanic, Giovanni Ceirano, had rented it for a bicycle repair business.

Vincenzo quickly became bored with accountancy. He passed Ceirano's shop four times a day, and was fascinated by the machinery and rools. Ceirano had progressed to making his own bicycles and was designing a light petrol-engined car. The motor age was dawning and the world of motoring captured Lancia's imagination. His father let him drop out of college, and he was hired by Ceirano as an accountant. It's not likely he spent much time in the office, but in the workshop he turned out to be a quick learner.

The Principles Of Motor Engineering

It didn't take Lancia long to grasp the principles of motor enginering, and he developed a knack for speedy diagnosis and repair of faults. Ceirano had taken on the youth as a favor to his landlord, but before he was 20 young Lancia was the little factory's chief tester. In 1900, the Fabbrica Italiana Auto-mobili Torino took over Ceirano's works. Giovanni Agnelli, Fiat's managing director, recognised Lancia's skill at the wheel and promoted him to the racing team.

Lancia looked the part of a pioneer racing driver. He was a dark, burly young man with fierce eyes and a bristling black moustache. Drivers of the day needed daring, willpower, strong nerves, strong arms and a heavy right boot, and Lancia soon showed he had those too. His sporting career started on July 1, 1900, at a meeting in Padua, where he won his race in a 6 hp Fiat. In a couple of years he'd graduated to international events. His first big race was the tragic, aborted Paris-Madrid race of 1903, when he drove one of two Fiats in the light car class.

Driving the Coppa Florio

In 1904 the company sent Lancia to Sicily for the Coppa Florio. He scored his first major victory, averaging almost 116 km/h over 371 km. He came third in the same race the next year. In 1905 Vincenzo crossed the Atlantic for the first time, to drive a Fiat in the Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island. Hemery's Darracq won, but Lancia made the fastest lap at 117 km/h. In the same year he was one of the three Fiat drivers for Italy in the Gordon Bennett Cup race on the Auvergne circuit in France. Lancia set a hot pace from the start. He was in front for the first two laps and built up a time advantage of nearly 13 minutes. On his third lap he passed the French ace Thery, who'd started 15 minutes earlier.

"He is going faster than I, but I think we shall see him again before the end," Thery commented to his mechanic. Sure enough, a chunk of stone holed the Fiat's radiator. Thery passed Lancia a couple of kilometres before the end of the same lap, pulled up in the rain with a seized piston. But once again, he'd made the fastest lap at almost 85 km/h. In 1906 he finished fifth in the first French Grand Prix, a gruelling two-day battle and toward the end of the year drove in the Vanderbilt Cup Race again. The race was poorly organised, and flimsy barricades let the crowd push through on to the track itself. The drivers had to take it easy, and perhaps for that reason Lancia's car stood up to his demands for once. Lancia, the Belgian Jenatzy and the Frenchman Wagner raced neck and neck, lap after lap through the day.

"These giants were pitted against each other for a titanic struggle," wrote an eyewitness, "with rarely more than a minute's interval on any part of the course. I was fortunate enough to see the most thrilling moment of the whole race, when Jenatzy, Wagner, Lancia and Tracy arrived at this corner at practically the same moment. The excitement was terrific and it was worth going across the Atlantic to see." Wagner clung to the lead throughout. For a change Lancia didn't make the fastest lap, but finished second at the head of a close field.

Driving the Targa Florio

Next year Lancia led the Fiats in the second Targa Florio in Sicily. He took the lead from the start, with a pack of Italian drivers on his heels. On the second long lap Nazzaro's Fiat took over the lead and Wagner's Darracq moved into second place, but the Darracq's transmission gave out. Lancia finished second, 12 minutes behind Nazzaro, with Fabry in the other Fiat third. A few weeks later Lancia made the fastest lap in the German Kaiserpreis race on an old Gordon Bennett circuit. On his first lap he'd been slowed by engine trouble, but it picked up and ran evenly and he improved his position in the field from 28th to sixth.

1908 Lancia Alfa
Lancia's first production car, the Alfa of 1908.

Lancia Theta
The sturdy Theta chassis was a popular base for elegant coupe de ville bodies.

Lancia Dilambda
Unlike the unit-construction Lambdas with their V6 engines, the Dilambda reverted to seperate chassis and revived the V8 configuration first used by Lancia in 1922 for the Trikappa.

Lancia Astura with Viotti Torpedo body
The Lancia Astura model of the early 1930's used a 2.6 litre V8. Pictured is a "Torpedo" version, bodied by Viotti.

Lancia Artena
The Lancia Artena was produced from early to mid 1930s as an upper-middle class two-litre V4 model.

Lancia Aprilia
Lancia approved the prototype but did not live to see the brilliant Aprilia reach production in 1937.

A special bodied Lancia Aprilia
A special bodied Lancia Aprilia.

Lancia V4 Ardea
Released in 1939, the 903cm V4 Ardea was effectively a smaller, simpler and lighter Aprilia. More than 30,000 were made up to 1950.

1907 French Grand Prix

Lancia drove heroically again in the French Grand Prix of 1907. He was first away, and the rest followed at one-minute intervals. He duelled with Duray's Lorraine-Dietrich for eight of the 10 laps, until the Fiat slowed with a misfiring engine and stopped with a broken clutch. Duray's car broke down with a seized bearing and Nazzaro went through to win for Fiat again. By this time Lancia was losing interest in racing. But in 1908 he returned for the Coppa Florio, made the fastest lap at 132.4 km/h and led for the first four laps. His Fiat then suffered a broken valve and rocker arm, and Vincenzo limped home into fifth place. His sporting career ended at Modena in July 1910, when he set a mile record at over 114 km/h in a car of his own make.

Lancia won few major races, but he drove in an era when there were fewer of them in a season. On the other hand, he made more fastest laps than any other driver of his day. He was hard on his cars, but twice, by accident or not, he broke his car breaking the opposition, letting Nazzaro's team car win. In that massive history of Grand Prix racing, "Power and Glory", William Court rates Lancia as one of the six greatest drivers of his time. "Lancia was cast in the heroic mould . . ." he writes. "... Lancia on his day was the fastest driver in the world." One of Bonaparte's staff officers once made a long speech to the tyrant praising another senior officer's military skill. "Yes, yes, yes," Bonaparte snapped, "but is he lucky?".

A Great Driver, An Unlucky Driver

Vincenzo Lancia was a better driver than the records show. He was a great driver but not a lucky one. He tried hard, perhaps too hard. He drove in nearly all the big races of his decade and never scored a lucky win. Lancia still drove Fiats after 1906, but was by then in business for himself. On November 29, 1906, he formed a partnership with Fiat test driver Claudio Fogolin. Each put up 50,000 lire to start making cars on their own account. Before the end of the year they rented a small factory in Turin, previously used by Itala. Lancia devoted himself to design and engineering work and Fogolin took care of the business side.

For the first year the firm's books showed heavy expenses and no income. A fire in the works in February, 1907, was a disaster. Machinery was damaged, and plans and patterns were destroyed. But Lancia was determined to press on. On the day after the fire he declared he'd already made up his mind to start work again on the prototype. That evening he turned up at a friend's house in Turin for a regular game of cards. September 1907 saw the first Lancia ready to run. Then it was found that the little factory's front doorway was too narrow to let the car through. A lesser man might have dismantled the car. In another display of sang-froid, the burly Lancia took a pick and smashed away enough brickwork to let the car through.That first real Lancia was only a painted, polished chassis with two rough seats amidships.

The chassis was long, light and low. The four-cylinder side-valve 2543 cm3 engine ran at 1450 rpm, fast for the day. It had shaft drive, an advanced feature although not a revolutionary one. The car owed little to the monster racers Vincenzo was still driving. It was light, clean-cut and handy. Lancia thought it was full of promise for a first try, and he was right. While it was being tested he laid down a second prototype. At the end of the year a third chassis was fitted with elegant double phaeton bodywork. That model went into production. It had a 2.5-litre side-valve engine, a four-speed gearbox and three-quarter elliptic rear suspension. It was called the 18/24 hp first, then renamed the Alfa. A chassis cost 400 pounds in England.

Manufacturing Lancia Automobiles

The first Lancias were criticised for chassis lightness and high engine revs, but more than 100 were sold. The London agents, in particular, did good business. Vincenzo Lancia moved the works to larger premises in Turin. In 1908 he released the Lancia Dialfa, powered by one of the first production six-cylinder engines. It was a 3.8-litre unit developed from the Alfa's four, and it propelled the Dialfa at nearly 110 km/h. But the car was too far ahead of its time; buyers shied off and only 23 were made.

In 1909 Lancia produced the Beta, with a four-cylinder 3.1-litre monobloc engine. This car and the Gamma that followed established the Lancia formula of a willing four-cylinder engine of advanced design in a low-slung light chassis. Lancia built 250 Gammas and expanded premises again. By then Lancia had given up his racing career for good, and despite his cars' fine performance he never let his company become involved in motor sport. While at Fiat he'd seen that running a works competition department put a strain on factory resources and drew the best brains away from the central issue of road car production. This didn't stop private owners, of course.

By now Lancias had crossed the Atlantic, and one driven by Hilliard had won the Savannah race as early as 1908. In 1910 Billy Knipper won the Tiedeman Trophy race on the same track. In 1911 a near copy of a four-cylinder Lancia, the SGV, was made in Reading, Pennsylvania. Over the next few years Lancia produced a succession of models and introduced a dry-plate clutch and a standardised electrical layout. The 25/35 hp Theta arrived in 1913; nearly 1700 were built. dIn 1914 Italy was allied to Germany and Austria, but the Italian government hung fire for a few months until, cynics suggested, it could pick the side most likely to win. Lancia had already built a class of military light trucks, and the government named the factory a war auxiliary plant. For the next four years Lancia built staff cars and light trucks, and made parts for Ansaldo armored cars.

The Lancia company was the biggest Italian maker of military vehicles after Fiat, and many were supplied to Britain and France. During the war Lancia factory area doubled again. By 1918 Vincenzo Lancia could see Allied victory ahead, and he planned his peacetime future. In 1914 Lancia engineers had been working on a new V8 and in September 1918 Lancia took out two new V8 patents. But the first postwar cars were an improved four-cylinder model, the Kappa, and a hefty eight-litre V12 shown in Paris and London in 1919.

The Lancia Lambda - Vincenzo's Masterpiece

The V12 drew a lot of favorable attention, but Lancia decided it would be uneconomic to build. He let it go without ever pinning a Greek-letter name on it. On the other hand the Kappa was a regular Lancia, fast, neat and light, and it became a big seller. The Dikappa of 1921 was a high-performance Kappa. The Tri-kappa of 1922 was a big luxury car with a 4.5-litre V8 engine. The other Lancia of 1922 was Vincenzo Lancia's masterpiece ... the Lambda. It appeared in October at the Paris and London motor shows. For the first time, a ca's chassis and body frame were made as one unit. They formed a light, rigid, strong hollow box of sheet metal and struts.

The floor of the passenger space was the bottom of the body box, not a deck over the chassis, so the Lambda's body line was low, good for stability and nice to look at. For the first time, the propeller shaft ran in a tunnel humped under the seats. The tapered tail was a closed box that resisted body strain and gave luggage space. The 2120 cm3 engine was a narrow V-four with its cylinders staggered and set at a 20-degree angle. Aluminium pistons ran in aluminium cylinders with steel liners. It made 3250 rpm, which was notably fast for the day. The other big innovation in the Lambda was independent front suspension, with vertical coils replacing the old solid axle's leaf spring. This gave it even better stability, good handling and a smooth ride.

The Lambda was a big car, but it was light, strong and powerful. Vincenzo Lancia himself road-tested it and took his design team out to dinner afterwards. When it went on sale, its looks, handling and performance offset minor qualms about its structural strength. It turned out to be a rugged car in the long run, anyway. Lancia didn't mean the Lambda for a sports car, but with 49 hp it could reach 114 km/h when most cars in its class couldn't reach 95. As late as 1928, a standard Lambda came close to winning the Mille Miglia from a supercharged Alfa Romeo. It became the basic Lancia car until 1931, and about 13,000 were built in nine series.

The Lancia Dilambda

In 1929 the four-litre Dilambda joined the Lambda in the showrooms. The new big Lancia had a V8 engine with staggered cylinders like the Lambda's, giving 100 hp at 4000 rpm. It was handsome, light, powerful and manoeuvrable, and it would accelerate smoothly from a walking pace to 120 km/h in top gear. In 1931 the aging Lambda was replaced by two new models, the Artena, with a two-litre four-cylinder engine, and the Astura, with a 2.6-litre V8. They were much alike and showed their descent in their suspension, lightness, speed and handling, although they had conventional separate chassis and bodies.

The Lancia Augusta of late 1932, however, adopted unitary construction. It was a light four-door saloon aimed toward Vincenzo Lancia's idea of the popular market, with a 1.2-litre 35 hp V4 engine giving it a top speed of about 105 km/h. It was no threat to Fiat, Ford, Austin and Morris, but it found favor with the intelligent middle classes in the post-Depression years. At the same time, Vincenzo Lancia, or his design team, took out a patent for a futuristic light car with a teardrop-shaped body, a small compact engine forward of the front axle, and three front seats with a central driving position. It would be interesting to know who dreamed it up. It's known Lancia himself liked square-cut, classic body styles. In any case, somebody realised the design was years ahead of its time even as an experiment, and it was never built.

The Lancia Aprilia

Instead, Lancia started planning the Aprilia light sedan. This was to be another popular car, but it had nearly as many novel features as the Lambda. It followed the Lancia formula of a light structure and a small, powerful engine, and it emerged as a mildly streamlined sedan with a 1351 cm3 V4 engine, developing about 48 hp at 4300 rpm, and independent suspension all round. The Aprilia was road-tested in late 1935 and early 1936. Vincenzo Lancia was tied up with other problems and took no part in the tests until they were nearly over. He went as a passenger in the unfamiliar car, and pointed out a few errors of detail to the mechanics with him. But near the end, at the outskirts of Turin, he threw up his hands. "What a magnificent car," he said.

The final version of the prototype was approved, and orders were taken for it. But Vincenzo Lancia didn't live to see the first Aprilia come off the produciton line. He died suddenly on February 15, 1937, only 55 years old. The Aprilia stayed in production until 1949, and there wasn't a completely new Lancia model until 1950. The Lancia company stayed in the hands of the Lancia family until 1955, sticking to th$ course that Vincenzo had laid out. Since then, under Fiat's wing, it's gone much the same way, steering clear of the big luxury car market and the cheap family car field, offering well-made middle-class cars with a good bit extra.

The bit extra is what counts and it's what the company still owes to its founder. All Lancias have been carefully thought out, technically advanced, light, handling well and drawing a lot of power from surprisingly small engines. Most have been among the best-looking cars of their day. One reason for this might be Vincenzo Lancia's background. Most early car makers drove in some kind of competition, and a lot of racing drivers have become involved in car-making. But Lancia is the only first-rank racing driver of any era who went on to become a major maker.

Enzo Ferrari drove Alfa Romeos in the '20s, and the Maserati brothers drove their own cars, Diattos and Maseratis, and others before and after World War One. The experience must have been a lot of help to them, but they were never in the top class on the track. For a modern equivalent of Lancia's career, you would have to imagine Stirling Moss retiring in the late '50s and suddenly turning into Colin Chapman. Vincenzo Lancia was a great driver, a great designer and a decent man. It's a pity he couldn't have been around a while longer. But he did a good job while he was here.
A six-seater roadster version of the 1910 Gamma, with Vincenzo Lancia
A six-seater roadster version of the 1910 Gamma, with Vincenzo Lancia second from right.
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