This is a report on driving a 1952 s.2 B20, one of the early Aurelia coupes. In general, there is very little information on the early cars, especially not in the US. Most are tucked away in Europe and were rarely experienced by the press. This report is from B20 sn. 1739, a car brought from Italy to the US in the late 1950s and registered in Chicago in 1962. It was abandoned in Pennsylvania in 1963 with a blown engine on its way being driven to NY. In 1976, an old friend collected the car which was in poor shape. He stored it for some thirty years - and I got it in 2005, and was restored by 2008. (Actually I had first bought it sight unseen in 1976, and had it for a few weeks until he got it. He then took this "too much to do" project off my hands!).
General Qualities The early 2 liter cars were initially used by the factory in early competitions before being replaced first by the Corsa in 1952 (based on them) and then with 2.5 liter s.3 Competition cars in 1953. Lancia’s early competition success came with these early cars with smaller motors, IRS, and yes, lighter weight.
Overall, the car is a rather delightful piece of early 1950s history. A handmade car needs miles to “bed in” and to get that “all of one” feeling – it doesn’t come instantly. This car had not run since 1963, and 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. After a few miles, the gear box has opened up, second gear responding nicely. When all is warm, the gearbox is like butter, but cold, second is stubborn, third and fourth are fine. The transaxles through the 4th series have a more mechanical feel in their shifting - and do not disappoint.
Body The car has a light tan mohair interior, and a light tan body. It has 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, with less visibility. The earlier cars have subtly different bodies– the s.1 and s.2 have their small tail fins, more pronounced on the s.2. The rear of the later cars is more elegant and refined, but the fins are nice too. One can see a line, starting at the “teardrop glass” headlights, across the top of the fender and the bottom of the window, all the way to the rear, ending in the fin…. Another view of the car reveals that there is another line, almost a second shape, tucked inside the outer line, which starts at the grill in the front and extends all the way to the trunk, and the design is about how those two work together. This resolution is less classical in the earlier cars than in the later ones, but the earlier ones have more enthusiasm, and are a bit more lighthearted.
Detailing is also full of charm but a bit less refined than the later series. Glass covers on the headlights carry the line of the car well, taillights are flush with the rear fender. Trunk access is from inside the car, and the trunk is smaller - with the spare tire and a toolkit, there isn’t really much room for more than a suitcase, so one uses the area behind the seats. The doors are secured with a 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 The earlier car has a more open feel than the s.4, as the later car has a different mounting for the windshield, and that takes about ½" away on all the sides. In the later cars, its a bit hard for a tall person to see the sky, but not so in the earlier one, which has its glass held in alum trim without rubber gaskets, and these thinner moldings allow for a wider panorama. The view from inside is like the early B20 brochures, seductive, and for me, significant. Another detail, not often noticed, is that the dashboard in the early cars is more forward, about 1 ½", than in the late cars, again for a sense of more room.
Impression of speed The s.2 is not faster than later series, but moves well enough. Overall speed seems to be about 10 mph off from a strong s.4, as the s.2 is geared to cruise in 4th gear is around 70-75. The later cars have the magical third gear, but in the earlier B20 it tops out around 65, not the 75 of the later ones, and you use 4th gear more. The gearing is well matched to the car – so while you lose a bit of speed, it feels fine.
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. The piston size difference is similar to an Alfa 1300 Giulietta vs. 1600 Guilia, and the engine presence is very much "backstage", less intrusive, with total smoothness over 3000 rpm. It pulls from down low (1000-1500 rpm), but not with as much low end grunt as the 2.5 liters. It spins up to 4000 freely, and above 3000 rpm, no vibration whatsoever - you wonder if there is a motor in the car. There is the low end driveshaft rumble around 1500-2200, and the motor could be a bit smoother from 2000-3000. It isn’t all high end, tho, and its slower revving character is nice too - it idles calmly and you can drive it down low and docile like a sedan. One day, I came back from the suburbs on secondary roads into the city - the traffic moved, and the car was totally at home. It will start from a stop in second gear, and the motor is happy both high and low in the rev range. This particular car has the original two single barrel carbs, but it also came with welded header pipes, looking like 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 around 4500-5000 are less than in the 2.5 liter engine, which had a higher redline. The 2 liter motors had a couple of soft spots - the valves and their conrods. The engines are so happy to rev that some were overextended and broke a rod. This was the original problem with this car in 1963, which was already on its second engine by then. It 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.
The valves for the s.2 are similar in stem thickness to the s.1, but are longer with the revised heads. The combination of extended length and thinness is a bit much - after a broken valve head, all were replaced with stainless ones. No problems since.
Trans and Gearing The gearing in B20s was carefully considered by Lancia, and they changed the differential ratios for their different versions: 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. While overall speed is down about 10%, the car feels well balanced. 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 cuts , the de Dion is more cautious, perhaps a bit laden down. Some of that is due to the weight, but perhaps also the suspension. 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?”. Letting off the throttle on any serious curve is to be avoided, as the Aurelia just rises up on skinny tires, and.... strains.... as you think about the small rubber contact area.
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. The driver is more of the equation. The relationship is just more tactile – you are more in control. That’s probably why the racing drivers preferred it – it responds quickly to skill and doesn’t tolerate inadequacy - you need to pay attention while it is responsive. Find a good road, and it drives on a line, a string on a violin: you play it so smoothly - no roll, no rear end bias, just a single unit. Its mesmerizing, different (to this writer) than the later cars. Driving the car is to look for these moments. It may take a day to find that road, but that is what this car is for.
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 as it flows into corners. One looks for corners, places with curves, places just to experience the dynamics of the car yet again. 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 is just sweeter with the smaller motor.
The later Aurelias are of course also very smooth , but they have a slight "held back" feeling. They offer plantedness instead of liveliness and there is a virtue there too. They flow very nicely on gentle country roads, but on the tighter corners, there is a bit of a "conversation" with rapid direction changes. In the s.2 , that conversation disappears - you turn, it goes, no hesitation, together and at the same time. Much 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%. B20 s.6 weighs even more, as much as another 300 lbs more than s.4, or 600 lbs than a s.2. The later cars offer refinement, which is a delight too, but it's different. Lancia did a superb job disguising this with more power and revised gearing. 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. For the long highway cruise, later Aurelias are superior, as they are more comfortable, steadier and less nervous.The earlier cars are more handbuilt, with less refinement. Another two years of development with the s.4 made a difference, as it 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 tender. Everthing is a bit more touchy. But the s.2 is like driving a car with a strong personality. It is a piece of history and teaches something every time. There is a delight to driving a thoroughbred, . 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, the engine had to be rebuilt with new conrods and shell bearings, with a few years of fettling and rebuilding the front suspension which was shipped to Thornley Kelham (thank you). All is now finally fine, with the front suspension like new, 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.
PSS Took the car to Pittsburgh for their vintage races in 2021. It fired up fine, but had a sticky valve from lack of use, but after warming up and sitting overnight, that fixed itself. Drove it the 400 miles, then back again, with really no issues - the only problem being a flat tire at 10PM, when I was just about home. Nothing like a long day of driving, and then having to change a tire by the side of the road in the dark! But all was well, car very happy to be out and about.
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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