This is a report of the experiences of driving a s.2 B20. In general, there is very little information on the early B20s as the cars are mostly tucked away in Europe and rarely experienced by the press. This report is from a 1952 s. 2 B20, sn. 1739, a car that was originally brought from Italy to the US in the late 1950s and registered in Chicago in 1962. It was abandoned in Pennsylvania in 1963 while being driven to NY with a blown engine. An old friend collected the car in 1976, in poor shape and stored it for some thirty years. It came to me in 2005, and was restored by 2008. First impressions from driving it then are below.
General Qualities The early 2 liter cars are rarely experienced. Initially used by the factory in their early competition efforts, they were replaced in 1953 with the 2.5 liter 3rd series. Lancia’s early competition success with their Aurelias came with the early cars with their smaller motors, IRS, and yes, lighter weight, as the early B20’s are the lightest.
Overall, the car is a rather delightful piece of early 1950’s history. A handmade car needs miles to “bed in” and to get that “all of one” feeling – it doesn’t come instantly. This was a car that had not run since 1963, and with its restoration everything was rebuilt - every screw, knob, fitting, pipe, bearing, etc. Nothing untouched. As a result, all the systems and major aspects work quite nicely. The motor starts up cleanly, idles well, and revs freely. Each trip, each set of miles, it just gets better and better as the rings seat in a bit more. After a few miles, the gear box has opened up, second gear is responding nicely. When warm, its like butter. When cold, second is stubborn, but third and fourth are fine. The transaxles up through the 4th series have a tight motion and a more mechanical feel in their shifting - as does this one, which does not disappoint.
Body Painted light tan, the car has a light tan mohair interior, with an overall feeling of airiness. The RHD was initially a challenge, but one gets used to it. Outside mirrors help – and the rear window is smaller, for less visibility out of the back. The earlier cars have subtly different bodies– the s.1 and s.2 have small tail fins, more pronounced on the s.2. The rear of the later cars is more elegant and refined, best in the s.3 or 4, but the fins on the s.2 are special. There is a line, starting at the “teardrop glass” headlights, the top of the fender, bottom of the window, all the way to the rear, ending in the fin…. There is another view of the car, almost an inside portion, which starts from the grill in front to the trunk, and one can see the car design is about how those two work together. In the earlier B20s, this resolution is less classical than in the later cars, but it has enthusiasm, and is a bit more lighthearted.
Detailing for the early B20s is full of charm but is also a bit less refined than in the later series. The glass covers on the headlights carry the line of the car well, the taillights flush with the rear fender. Trunk access is different, coming from inside the car, not by turning a light on the outside. The trunk is smaller than on the later cars- after the spare tire and a toolkit, there isn’t really much room for more than a suitcase. Thank goodness for the area behind the seats. The doors are more crudely secured with a big catch and clunk sounding more like an early Pininfarina Ferrari than a Lancia, not the same as that magic latch snick of the later cars. But its pleasant and a bit different.
Openness There is a more open feel in the earlier B20, compared to a s.4. the later car has a restricted windshield, and for a tall person, its a bit hard to see the sky. The earlier car is different, with the glass held between alum trim without rubber gaskets, and the thinner moldings give a wider view and panorama. The view from inside is like the early B20 brochures, seductive. Another small detail, not often noticed, is that the dashboard is about 1 1/2" further forward than in the late cars, again giving a sense of more room.
Impression of speed While not faster than later B20s, the early car moves well enough. Overall speed seems to be about 10 mph off from a strong s.4, as the earlier car is geared differently, cruising is around 70-75. Third gear in the later cars is magical, a special gear, but in the earlier B20 it tops out around 65, not the 75 of the later ones. You use 4th gear more. The gearing matches the car – so while you lose a bit of speed, it still all feels right.
Motor The 2 liter motor is a bit different from the later 2.5 liter motor. With less reciprocating mass, the engine revs quite freely, similar perhaps to theAlfa 1300 vs. 1600. Smaller pistons are more lightweight, and the engine presence is "backstage", less intrusive, and with total smoothness over 3000 rpm. It pulls from down low (1000-1500 rpm), spins up to 4000 freely . Above 3000 rpm, there is no vibration whatsoever - you could wonder if there is a motor in the car at all. There is a bit of low end driveshaft rumble around 1500-2200, and the motor could be a bit smoother from 2000-3000. Its a motor that isn’t all high end, and has a delightful slow character. It starts up and idles calmly, and you can drive it down low like a sedan, as its docile. The car will start from stop in second gear, and the motor is happy both high and low in the rev range. This particular car came with some welded header pipes, which look like the 3:1 exhaust manifolds from the 2.5 liter motor; these may influence the motor's willingness to rev.
Oddly, the high revs of the motor are up around 4500-5000, and these are not more than in the 2.5 liter engine, which had its redlines higher yet. Lancia gave two redlines - one for sustained revs, one for peak. The one issue to note with the 2 liter motors are the conrods and the revs - the engines are so happy to rev that they could be over-revved and break a rod. This was the original problem with the car in 1963, and has been known to happen to other 2 liters. So new conrods were made and the car fitted with shell bearings (not in the initial restoration, but later). Converting to shell bearings means the oil pump has to be changed, and the filter too, going to paper instead of the original wire mesh. Its not hard, but worth doing.
Trans and Gearing The gearing in B20s was carefully considered by Lancia, and they changed the differential ratios for their different versions: Ring /pinion ratiofinal drive ratio s. 1, 2 9/40 4.44 3.82 s.3 9/38 4.22 3.62 s.4 11/47 4.27 3.67
The 3rd and 4th series are about 5% taller than the 1st and 2nd series – and you don’t really notice the lesser power in the smaller engined cars . The gear ratios are (as in all Lancias) really well spaced. The lovely third gear is a better gear in the later cars (read Nigel Trow on this), as it doesn't stretch as far in the earlier car, and the gap between third and fourth is less than in the later cars. While the overall speed is down perhaps about 10%, the car feels well balanced with good ratios. The rest of the trans is like other Aurelias – very good when warmed up, a bit slow when cold. Very tactile and reassuring. No sense you are 6’ away from the transaxle – you feel like you are right on top of it. The early transmissions have a wonderful short throw to them, very mechanical feel. This car is fitted with a Nardi gear shift, with some reinforcing in the floor to make the shift solid. While there is some noise from the differential, I find it rather reassuring, not intrusive. First gear is fairly loud, not to be used for general driving.
Steering and Suspension The steering in the car is direct. Rebuilding the steering box is recommended, and this car has a bit of a dead spot straight on. Likely due to worn gears in the box.. There is very little self centering, tho. The brakes have good stopping power, no problem there, but they have to be manually trimmed every once in a while, a bit tedious. The car is fitted with the factory lever shocks in the rear, and they work well enough. They seem a bit different from the tube shocks of the later cars, but not so much to suggest a change, although I have the kit for putting the later type shocks on the earlier car.
With the de Dion Aurelias, you can hang the rear out nicely if you find the right roads with long turns. But for quick cut and thrust, the de Dion is slower, more cautious, perhaps a bit laden down. So with its good “plantedness”, there is also a bit of sluggishness. Some of that must be due to the weight cars, but perhaps it is also attributable to the suspension workings. The de Dion cars are fine up to 8 or 9/10ths, without an issue. The earlier cars are less forgiving, but more agile. Youthful, with indiscretions, perhaps, but also a sense of spirit. Puts a smile on your face- “oh you’re that kind, are you?”. Trailing throttle, or letting off the throttle on any serious curve with high speed is to be avoided. That isn’t for any Aurelia, as it just rises up on these skinny tires, and while you think about rubber contact area, its certainly straining.
On the s.2, you can kick out the rear by “letting off the throttle”. It doesn’t “stick” like the de Dion cars: its more lively, controllable, and direct In the IRS car, the driver is more of the equation. The relationship is just that much more tactile – you are more in control. That’s probably why the racing drivers preferred it – it responds more quickly to skill, and doesn’t tolerate inadequacy. You need to pay attention, and its responsive. Find a good road, and it drives like its a line, a string on a violin: you play it just so well, so smoothly - no roll, no rear end bias, just a single unit. Its mesmerizing in that way, very different (to this writer) than the later cars. Driving the car is all about looking for these moments, and while they may take a day to find the road, they are what this car is for.
Plantedness of the later cars is replaced with liveliness and participation in the earlier cars. The biggest pleasure is just the lightness of the whole experience. You think about a corner, a shift of direction, and it just flows there. That magic Aurelia "directability" is there. It flows into corners, without roll. One looks for corners, places with curves, places just to experience the dynamics of the car yet again. Its intoxicating and delightful. It feels like a Guilietta with a larger motor. Its not just the suspension, it has to do with the lighter weight and no rear end bias and no roll. In all of this, the 2 liter motor is well suited to the car. While the larger 2.5 liter motor in the s.3 would seem to be the best of both worlds, something seems just that much sweeter in the earlier cars with the smaller motor.
The later Aurelias are of course also very smooth , but they have a slight "held back" feeling. In the later s.6, for example, the weight in the rear is felt, something that is even more pronounced in the Flaminia. They flow nicely, on high speed roads, and even on gentle country roads, but on the tighter corners, one finds a "conversation" with direction changes. It might be lag or just the weight, but in the s.2 , that conversation disappears. You turn, it goes. There is no hesitation, no roll, no setup. Rather you go together and at the same time. Much more direct and more fluid.
A running s. 2 has been weighed in England at 2420 lbs (wet, 1/2 tank of fuel), and a comparable s. 4 B20 weighed in at 2720 lbs. Just for interest, a B24 s.6 convertible was 2780 lbs. These are real, modern weights, not factory ones. The s.2 is 300 lbs lighter than the s.4, about 12%. A series 6 B20 weigh even more, reasonably as much as another 200 lbs more than the s. 4, or 500 lbs more than a s.2. While Lancia did a superb job disguising this with more power and revised gearing, and the additional refinement is quite delightful, the added weight does impact the subtle aspects of driving the car. This is not to take anything away from the later cars - as they have their own pleasures. Ian Frasier of Octane wrote some time back that the s.6 was his favorite as the more refined of all the Aurelias.
Conclusion The early car has less torque, less power, and shorter gearing – and for the long highway cruise, later Aurelias are superior. The later cars are more comfortable, less nervous, and steadier.The earlier cars are more handbuilt, with a bit less refinement. The instrumentation is less informative (no water temp), the wipers work even more tenderly, its all a bit older and cruder. You wouldn't think another two years of development for the s.4 would make such a difference. But the s.4 is Flaminia-like in its build quality and in refinement. The s.2 is more like a late 1940's car - its all there, and works, but think early Ducati, not later. Everthing is a bit more touchy than in the later cars.
But the s.2 gives the feeling of driving a special car, with a strong personality. It is a piece of history and teaches me something every time it goes out. For the shorter trip of a day or so, it provides great combinations of feedback and sensation, of view and vista. There is a delight to driving it - a thoroughbred, special to use. It would be even more fun in a land of hills and curvy roads. The feeling is hard to put a finger on, to be sure. It is no surprise these early cars remain tucked away.
PS The above notes were largely written in 2008 just as the car had been restored. Shortly thereafter, while returning from a trip to the East coast Lancia Club reunion, the car's babbitt bearings failed. After a couple of years, the engine was rebuilt with new conrods and shell bearings. Another few years of fettling included rebuilding the front suspension (again). The suspension was shipped to Thornley Kelham, who rebuilt it and tested it on the road before shipping it back. And it is now quite fine, and one realizes how truly excellent the front suspension is once refreshed. Its precise, supple and very elegant in its responses. Well worth doing.
The car gets out less frequently, but its been reliable. It did the Colorado Grand in 2015 (1,000 miles) and a trip to Connecticut and back in 2016 (3,000 miles), both without incident. Strong stuff indeed.
Note from John Baker (another s.2 owner), April 25, 2008 Hullo Geoff, Nigel kindly forwarded your recent road test of your B20 second series. Beautifully written with much enthusiasm and feeling--most enjoyable and far superior to most modern motor magazine articles. Not one mention of terminal oversteer through a suburban roundabout! Your car looks superb and no doubt will go as well. I agree with your comments about the vision and the interior, both very good. I have improved my seating by the little trick of solid block foam rubber beneath the seat squab, so you are in effect sitting directly supported by the floor pan. I did not want to put bucket seats into the car. The engine is good and will rev and rev. My car will cruise all day between 3/4000 RPM and it is very easy to allow the revs to go on and on. I have seen an easy 5000 rpm on the clock and had to back off as the engine showed no signs of running out of steam. However I rarely go so far for all the known reasons. Early mornings in the cool air with little traffic is best, then one can appreciate Lancia cars; comfortable, excellent steering, very good brakes and an ability to cruise 65-75mph on back roads just the sort the car knew originally. A delight! It loves corners- I agree.
A run a couple of years ago against a friends' tweaked 1960 Giulietta left him perspiring and me observing. I use 30W in front suspension. On the rear I have fitted telescopic Konis although I have the original dampers put away. Very good rear end results. Gear box is slow until warm then rifle bolt, although second gear one can feel. Best, is to change by the feel in your hand and treat the box with consideration. I am sure you know what I mean. The ratios are a little low except on winding country roads when 3rd and 4th are just right. Built for mountain roads. My local hill is steep and narrow and on the few times I can get to the top without being baulked by a modern, the Aurelia is in its element.
My car weighs spot on 1100 kgs, 2420 lbs with five galls fuel, no bodies. I am very pleased you have finished the car and I am confident it will provide you with much pleasure. I sometimes sit in mine in the garage - it changes my mood! I would love a third series, but would not part with the second! Many congratulations. If I can be of help, just ask. Very Best Wishes,
John Baker PS: The point at which the rear lets you know you have overdone it is when it starts to hop! I agree, never take your foot off the throttle on a tight bend taken with enthusiasm. The car beats moderns in roundabouts, but this can be embarrassing because one finds oneself on the outside lane with insufficient power to carry the act through and the modern then overtakes you on the inside usually accompanied by a puzzled look. A little later when the Aurelia revs have built up the process is repeated in the next roundabout! Silly but fun.
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