As I was saying a couple weeks ago in my Daihatsu Compagno post, I found two great CC subjects in one day. The Daihatsu was one, this was the other. The stars aligned for me that day, for while there are a few ‘60s Japanese cars here and there in this country, finding an Italian wartime classic is really not a daily occurrence.
If a car changes hands (or even if it’s just been restored and repainted), the Thai authorities want to know. And if you’re planning to use it on the road, you must go to this place to get an MOT and pay the yearly car tax. This Aprilia was sitting at the same place where I caught a 1964 “Plodge” Valiant a few weeks back. Unlike said (sad?) Valiant, the Lancia had just come out of restoration. The paint, the upholstery, the tyres and most of the brightwork had been thoroughly refreshed.
The owner of the car was there. Although he was quite busy with the Dep’t of Land Transport folks who were looking at various aspects of the car, he did tell me the Lancia’s birth year. Nineteen forty six. Wow. The idea that Italy, a mere two years after it had been invaded from all sides, bombed from above and left politically unstable by a buffoon surrounded by cowards, was able to manufacture a car like this was mind-blowing. It’s hard enough to make cars when things are doing ok, but just imagine how difficult it must have been for Lancia to keep their factories open back then.
The war years were not great for automobile production. As we recently discussed, French car production was cut drastically in 1940 and became infinitesimal from 1941 to 1946. British carmakers halted production during 1940 also (barring a tiny number of VIP staff cars), but recovered quicker than the French after the war. They even started putting car adverts here and there, just to give readers something to look forward to, in 1944. In America, the famous “rump model year” 1942s only lasted for until February, a few weeks after Pearl Harbour. Automobile production ceased for just under four years, though it is rumoured a few 1942-model staff cars might have been put together, largely by hand, after that date.
Automakers based in the Axis powers seem to have had a similar experience, although for a while, Hitler’s policy was to try and keep German civilian life almost unaffected by the war – the guns and butter approach. Though many suspended production after 1940, some German, Austrian and Czech automakers were still making civilian cars in 1941-42. After that, only a few KdFs, armoured Benz or Maybach limousines and Tatra 87s were still made, all VIP-only. In Italy, Alfa Romeo and Fiat continued making a trickle of cars – more as a side-line than anything else – pretty much throughout the war, and the larger carrozzerie were still designing sublime bespoke bodies for very wealthy and well-connected customers. It’s weird to imagine ordering a new sports car in 1943, what with the bombers overhead and both the Germans and the Allies about to invade, but it did happen.
When Italy entered the war mid-1940, civilian production was severely curtailed, but not entirely stopped. A military Aprilia convertible was made, but the car was a bit too complex for extensive Army use. Aprilia Tipo 438 Berlina (standard saloon) production plummeted from 400 units in 1942 to 56 in 1943 and zero in 1944. The Tipo 439 (chassis-only) came back to production in 1945 (86 made, plus one 438 saloon), but standard saloons like our CC only came back to life in 1946. A Tipo 539 Lungo chassis, a 30 cm stretched platform that strangely reverted to a live rear axle setup, was introduced for coachbuilt saloons and wagons. That year, 932 Lancia Aprilia berlinas were made, plus 464 chassis-only versions (LWB included). So it’s rare – the clue was in the model year, really. But much more importantly, it’s also an absolute jewel of advanced automotive engineering.
The Aprilia was a significant car in Lancia’s history for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious one: it was Vincenzo Lancia’s testament, the last model whose development he supervised. The Aprilia was premiered at the Milan Motor Show (after it had been seen in Paris and London) in late October 1936. It is rumoured that Henry Ford, who had a thing for Italian cars, was granted a private after-hours tour of the Parisian show that October, spending most of it ogling the new Lancia. Setting up the Aprilia’s complex assembly line delayed production for a few months. Unfortunately, on the 15th of February 1937, Vincenzo Lancia died of a heart attack aged 55, mere days before the first Aprilias came off the production line.
When the time came to design a new small Lancia to take over from the Augusta, Vincenzo Lancia made a few key decisions. He understood the value of lightness and aerodynamics, especially for smaller cars, so his directives were that the new Lancia should (like its direct predecessor, the Augusta) have an all-steel monocoque, along with the then-obligatory platform/chassis-only version for outside coachbuilders. Particular care was taken to make the monocoque saloon actually aerodynamic: the Aprilia was one of the first cars tested in a wind tunnel and boasts a Cd of 0.47, which is quite good in the ‘30s context (though others did even better).
Vincenzo Lancia famously thought the prototypes were too fast and told his chief engineer Manlio Gracco to limit the production car’s top speed to 125 kph. The Aprilia’s success, which Vincenzo never saw, was due to the car’s highly advanced engineering more than its looks. The trip to the wind tunnel probably dictated the berlina’s hunchback shape, which was somewhat in vogue in the late ‘30s, but appears a bit exaggerated on this particular car. It did allow for a great amount of room inside though, especially now that the chassis was gone.
The suspension was traditional Lancia, meaning completely unlike anything else on the road. The front featured the patented sliding pillar IFS seen on Lancias since the early ‘20s. At the back, a very intriguing mix of torsion bars and transverse leaf spring guided an unusual type of independent suspension, as the differential is bolted to the body and had in-board hydraulic brakes. Yes, it’s a little ahead of the ’37 Ford in terms of technology. And we haven’t even looked under the hood yet.
And under that hood, we find a narrow-angle (18°) single-block all-alloy V4 hemi with a single overhead camshaft, in the Lancia tradition. Originally a 1352cc (46 hp), it was augmented to 1486cc (48 hp) in the summer of 1939, both to improve smoothness and to “make room” for the smaller new 0.9 litre Ardea. Once again, it was very Lancia and very unlike anything else. Seeing our feature car’s engine was a bit shocking – I had never seen an Aprilia’s innards, and it seemed so small, clever and simple.
Lancia tried hard to break into the big market next door — French GDP was three times Italy’s in those days, so it was important to try and make it there. To avoid the 150% import tax (and perhaps influenced by Fiat’s French operations, later known as Simca), a new “Lancia-France” subsidiary was created in 1931 and a factory was built in Bonneuil-sur-Marne to produce the Augusta (renamed “Belna”) 100% locally. This worked well enough until they launched the French-built Aprilia, marketed as the Lancia Ardennes. The Aprilia/Ardennes’ increased complexity meant costs and prices were spiraling ever upward. By 1938, the 1.3 litre Lancia Ardennes cost as much as an aristocratic 2.3 litre Salmson or a huge 6-cyl. 4-litre Renault like the one above – an impossible sell. French production was halted that year, by which time fewer than 700 “Ardennes” had been made.
The Aprilia’s major rival was supposed to be the Citroën Traction Avant – especially in “neutral” markets. They matched quite well in terms of sophistication and size, but not in price or refinement. The Traction was a high-volume car that did not really target the same clientele as Lancia. The same was true of the Alder Trumpf. Other 1500cc “luxury” compacts of the ‘30s (e.g. Licorne 9CV, Riley 12, Rover P1, Steyr 200, Stoewer Greif, etc.) were far less technologically advanced. Perhaps the closest thing to a European “rival” was the 1.75 litre Tatra T97, launched around the same time as the Aprilia. Pity production stopped in 1939…
The Lancia’s only real domestic rival was the 6-cyl. Fiat 1500, which was quite a bit cruder but also much cheaper and, after a nose job in 1940 seen above, rather good-looking too. Not surprisingly, Fiat sold two 1500s for every Aprilia. But as with the Traction Avant, the 1500 was built to compete in the high-volume end of the segment.
Not keen on Hunchie McHunchback here? Not to worry. There were dozens of carrozzerie literally making dozens of low-volume variants and one-off specials for the Lancia Aprilia over the years. It’s impossible to show them all, even if we restrict ourselves to the second half of the ‘40s. But here are a few of these beauties, for your (and especially my) viewing pleasure.
Most of these could be included in my fantasy garage’s Italian section. The pre-war coachbuilt Aprilias would also have right of place, but if we start getting into those, the CC server will probably explode (with delight).
Lancia made just over 20,000 Aprilia berlinas from 1937 to 1949, but they also sold over 7500 chassis for coachbuilt specials. A considerable number of folks were tempted by something other than the Aprilia standard saloon, which is quite understandable. As we can see above, Boneschi could whip up anything, from a limo to a cabriolet, on the 439/539 platform.
I mean, just look at these – all PininFarina, all from the later ‘40s, all drop-dead gorgeous. For a fistful of lire more than the standard saloon, of course, but it was worth it. Italian coachbuilders were always very good, style-wise, but they hit an artistic and creative peak after 1945 that arguably lasted for a couple of decades. American and European influences were expertly blended to create anything from sober and clean volumes to flamboyant (sometimes a tad heavy-looking) à la française follies.
And to be fair, some bespoke Aprilias of the period were a bit… peculiar. Some of these would be good candidates for my “Nightmare garage,” which would also include some 1960-62 Exner designs, a few ‘70s Japanese and British cars, most post-war French haute-couture blobmobiles, the Docker Daimlers and anything SsangYong have ever made.
As fascinating as coachbuilt cars can be, the vision Lancia had with this model was the standard saloon. It may not have had the glamour of some of these exotics, but it was better built and so superbly engineered that, in reality, it could only be the best Aprilia of the lot. The one thing I would change on our featured car is the roof rack: I want to see that hint of dorsal fin in all its glory. New windshield wipers would be on the list, too.
There is room in my fantasy garage for an Aprilia factory saloon. The shape isn’t as gracious as it could be, but it still has loads of character. And the detailing on these cars is nothing short of extraordinary. The embossed hubcaps. The classic Lancia grille. The pillar-less doors. And it was featured in one of the best Tintin books, The Black Gold (1950) – Hergé had a soft spot for Lancias, it seems…
I got a hunch(back) this might be a genuinely ancient Thai number plate. I love the wood insert to fit the Italian-sized housing – which also looks rather weathered. As old as 72 years? Maybe. This Lancia could have been exported here at the time – hey, if Tintin can drive one out in the Arabian desert, why couldn’t some Siamese connoisseur do likewise back in 1946?
Perhaps the coolest feature, which I hadn’t noticed previously (this was the first time I could really look at one of these cars up close), was this license plate / light fixture thingy on the trunk lid. Not many European automakers were as attentive to detail as Lancia – especially in 1946. Who wrote the model name in lights apart from those crazy ragazzi in Turin?
On this car, the trafficators have vanished in favour of two large taillamps (which also look old, but everything ages rapidly in the tropics) that were certainly not put there in Turin. Any guesses as to their provenance, by the way? I’m not 100% sure what the car had originally, but it seems one central stop light, below the license plate, plus trafficators was good enough for most of Europe in 1946. Thai law states that cars require two stop lights minimum and trafficators are notoriously unreliable, so these modifications were probably made locally, sometime in the distant past.
The steering wheel is massive, as expected in a car from this era. It’s also nice and plain, not unlike the one used in contemporary Traction Avants. But it was always on the “wrong” side (which just happens to be the correct side for Thailand). Alfa went LHD with the 1900, but Lancia waited until the Appia (1953) to put the wheel where it should be for countries that drive on the right. One cannot be avant-garde in all matters.
The rear legroom is pretty impressive for a car designed in the mid-‘30s; the Aprilia shows its age more in terms of width. The interior was as spotless as the rest. Even more so at the rear, where plastic sheeting still covered most of the new upholstery. This gave the car a surreal “just out of the factory” feel to it. The few unrestored bits and pieces were all the more noticeable, but that only added to the car’s charm.
I later saw this Aprilia leaving the inspection ramp and puttering about in the traffic, on its way home. It was a really heartening sight, especially compared to that Valiant. Lancia may be a zombified Fiat now, but this 1946 Aprilia was how they were at the top of their game: way up there with Tatra, Cord and Citroën at the forefront of automotive innovation.
Carshow Classics: Highlights From MotorClassica 2017, by Don Andreina