Part 8: Pinin Farina and the 1946 Lancia Aprilia Cabriolet Speciale
By David Cavaliere
After the end of the Second World War, automakers were changing over from wartime production to the manufacturing of cars. Plans that had been shelved for years were dusted off and show cars were produced for the 33rd Salon de l’Automobile de Paris in October, 1946. Most of the cars brought to the show were pre-war designs of utilitarian vehicles. After an eight-year hiatus, the auto show nevertheless generated significant excitement. Twice as many people attended the show (809,000) as had in 1938. Lines of people stretched from the main gate all the way to the Seine. Two things were missing however. Car makers from Germany and Italy were banned from the show that year (so was Japan, but that wasn’t considered to be significant). Gian Battista “Pinin” Farina had produced two cars that he fully intended to bring to the show – ban or not! With his 20 year old son Sergio, and accompanied by a couple of family friends, the group set off from Turin for the drive to Paris. Gian Battista drove the Lancia Aprilia Cabriolet and Sergio took the wheel of the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Speciale. They stopped at a local garage, cleaned up the cars and set off to display the new creations. Since he knew that the cars would be denied entrance to Grand Palais, Gian Battista (and Sergio) slowly drove to the exhibit and parked the cars on Avenue Winston-Churchill, right in front of the Palais. The manager of the show was furious, but the crowd that gathered was thick and the press photographers were enthusiastic. The renowned magazine l’Illustration produced a special Motor Show edition and paid tribute to the talent of Pinin Farina by placing the Lancia and the Alfa Romeo on the cover. Such was the excitement created by the stunning speciale automobili that the frustrated show officials threw up their hands and allowed the two automobiles to remain parked outside the exhibition, becoming the unofficial stars of the show.
In the second feature of this series, I had mentioned the 1939 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Sport Berlinetta. Last month, the UK Concourse Magazine Octane ran a feature on the 1946 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Speciale. Recently, a seven-year, two million dollar restoration of the car was completed by David Grainger and his company, The Guild of Automotive Restorers of Bradford, Ontario, Canada. It is a stunning automobile. A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from Sonny Abagnale. He has been buying and selling cars for 60 odd years. Before retirement, his business had been renting cars for movies and television. “I was reading about your story about Alfa Romeo,” he said, and proceeded to talk about Pinin Farina’s exclusion from the Paris Auto Show. “You know he brought two cars there, the Alfa and a Lancia; well, I have the Lancia.”
Suffice it to say I was excited. When I visited his shop to see the Lancia, the first car standing before me was a blue 1937 Cord. I knew this was going to be a good day. The little cabriolet was parked between a ’34 Duesenberg SJ and a 1947 Nash Woody (Ambassador Suburban). It looked like a toy between the two cars. Sonny acquired the Lancia about a year ago from a private collector. As I looked at the 70-year old car, I was astounded by the condition. It looked as though it had just been driven out of the factory. One would never imagine that the hand hammered aluminum body of this car was made from old P-51 Mustang drop tanks from WWII.
In 1939, Lancia began producing the Aprilia. It used a V4 engine configuration, unique at the time to the auto manufacturer. Lancia pioneered the narrow-angle V engine design. By using very shallow V-angles (between 10° and 20°), both rows of cylinders could be housed in an engine block with a single cylinder head, like an inline four engine; however, with a much shorter overall length. This narrow angle format has been used in more recent times by the Volkswagen Group; in fact the Bugatti Veyron’s W16 engine uses two narrow bank 8-cylinder heads and four turbochargers to produce its 1,000 HP.
After the war, Lancia resumed production of the small car, continuing until 1949. Special designs were built on these cars by such legendary coachbuilders as Zagato, Carrozzeria Touring, Bertone and Vignale, but it is generally agreed that the most beautiful ever built is the Pinin Farina speciale cabriolet.
In the pre-war and immediate post-war years, most coachbuilders designed cars with long hoods, due to the length of the engine. With the compact Lancia 1482cc V4 engine, Pinin Farina built the show car with a shorter nose, enabling a more centrally positioned passenger compartment and with slender, elegant rear styling. It was a shape that would be seen again in future years – compare the lines of the Pinin Farina design to the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Roadster.
The Lancia remained in France and was registered in 1949 in the name of the company Roblou, 98 Avenue Bourdon à Neuilly sur Seine, the headquarters of the Lancia importer until 1965. The car was also exhibited at the Geneva Motor Show. At that event it appeared painted in white. A Belgian dealer discovered the car in the north of France in 2010 and subsequently undertook a full restoration in Pisa, Italy. The concour d’elegance quality automobile was restored to its original color combination – blue grey with a maroon interior. The restoration took three years to complete. In 2013, the car and its owner were invited to be part of a special tribute to Pinin Farina taking place outside London. Sergio Farina had passed away the previous year. At the exhibition, Sergio’s son Paolo, full of emotion, took to the wheel of the cabriolet, driven so brazenly by his grandfather to Paris, some 67 years earlier.
It was a thrill to visit with Sonny Abagnale and walk through time while viewing his cars. From his pre-war Cadillacs to the finest Jaguar XK 140 I have ever laid eyes on, it was a treat for me and an educational experience as well. I look forward to bringing our readers additional features on car collections and encourage readers to call, or write to the Italian Tribune about the historic cars that they own.
Next week I will return to the Italian automobile manufacturers for a feature on a company that started as a bicycle maker, went on to produce cars, created another company with Fiat and Pirelli and ultimately had its car manufacturing merged into Lancia.