A personal motoring mission is always an exciting adventure, especially when it covers some 850 miles through Europe. This particular adventure involved brothers Jonathan and Simon Connolly and their second cousin, Anthony Hussey… and me. Of course, the heroes of this road trip were the two Lancia Aurelias: Jonathan’s 1953 Third Series Aurelia B20GT and Anthony’s 1955 B24 Spider.
Both are extremely rare cars. Only 3424 GTs were produced from ’53 to ’58; Spiders were even fewer at 240, of which only 59 were right-hand drive – so not many examples about, then. But I was fortunate to have been invited along because, 35 years ago, I owned a 1953 Aurelia B20GT, also painted red! My father then owned an Aurelia Spider, almost identical to Anthony’s, and Jonathan, Anthony and I have become firm Aurelia friends.
And so Jonathan and Anthony leapt into the Spider and drove down to Como to collect the B20GT, which had been interred at Autoriperazione Clerici Gilberto in Villa Guardia, Italy, undergoing a total and utter restoration. Simon and I flew into Malpensa airport near Milan to meet up with the cars for the return trip to England.
Sitting on the tarmac outside the airport, the B20GT looked superb in deep Amarento Montebello red, next to Hussey’s Spider in its eye-catching Aqua Verde (or ‘bidet green’ as they refer to it). It was actually quite a moving moment because, there before me, was the perfect example of the car of my youth. In totally immaculate and correct condition, it was the car that I dreamed of creating but – at the age of 16! – was never going to achieve. The instruments, doorhandles, gearlever and all the other little details are the same as my car’s, except this one looks brand new. Hussey’s Spider was also exactly the same right-hand-drive model as my father’s now long-gone Aurelia; the one he’d let me drive down to the beach because it was the car into which it was easiest to shove a salty and sandy surfboard…
The Connollys and Hussey (all of the Connolly Leather family) have long been Aurelia aficionados. Anthony bought his Spider on 5 November 1966 for £375 and set about driving it properly. Jonathan first drove it years ago with Anthony on the Coronation Rally, where he remembers yumping it too firmly over a hump-back bridge. Realising the Spider was too good to thrash, he bought the B20GT from Lancia expert Nigel Trow in 1984 for £300.
Needless to say, the car was a bit rough and had an MG Magnette engine under the bonnet. It was rusty and bodged but ran fine and Jonathan started to race and rally it, with a correct V6 engine fitted – clearly a car that provided its owner with great motoring enjoyment. The Aurelia became the subject of a rolling restoration but eventually the complex, rust-prone coachwork began to look ragged and the mechanicals were very tired – especially after it competed in the tough Circuit of Ireland rally as a Lancia O’Reillya!
Anthony Hussey has always rallied his sublime Spider hard, including such masochistic events as Le Jog, so it was treated to a full restoration some years ago and has been seen at all the best Concours d’Elegance meetings since. But it’s no show queen; the B24 is well used and jaunts down to Como have been dispatched quite regularly.
On that sunny afternoon we piled into the Lancias and headed for the Alps. I was passengering with Hussey in the Spider and, as soon as it moved off the mark, accompanied by that characteristic first gear growl and the bark of the sweet 2.5-litre V6 engine, I was transported back to my youth.
Porsche and Ferrari driver Simon Connolly is a keen superbike rider and he knows this route like the back of his hand, as he and a gaggle of fast riders often do the run back to Calais from here on Ducatis and Fireblades. So I just hung on as he directed the red car in front and we flew down the D50 autostrada through Piedmont and up the 6578ft Simplon Pass into grey-skied Switzerland for the first stop in Villars.
The next morning was wet but Anthony Hussey nonchalantly tossed me the keys to his valuable Spider and I immediately felt at home. His B24 is a superb example, feeling taut and well sorted – not surprising, because it has been through Omicron Engineering and Jim Stokes Workshops, and you can tell. Along the Swiss mountain roads the Spider felt pliant and composed.
The V6 engine is ‘slightly tweaked’ (Anthony’s words) to 120bhp and, thanks to its advanced de Dion rear suspension, power is effectively translated to the road. The clutch is light, the gearshift (linked to the rear-mounted transaxle) absolutely accurate, and the large and powerful drum brakes proved almost redundant as the balanced Spider sped through the corners. As we headed north through eastern France in the rain, it became clear that my usual mount, the Jaguar XK140, has quite a bit more grunt but is not as capable of getting it all laid down as is this delectable Lancia.
We spent that evening in the imposing Hotel Château Fort in Sedan, where the excellent wine list was attacked with gusto. No time for a lie-in the morning after, though: it was my turn to drive the B20GT. The car is small and spare and, with the interior lavishly upholstered in period-correct Connolly Vaumol leather, it smells like an expensive handbag boutique on Sloane Street. But start the engine and it fizzes with intent. The engine, gearbox and suspension have all been rebuilt so the Aurelia feels tight, and firmer than the Spider – it is also wearing wider rims with bigger tyres. On the road, the engine felt free-revving and strong, able to exploit the extra grip.
With the large white-faced Veglia instruments swinging in opposite directions in the painted dash and the thin wood-rimmed steering wheel in my hands, I was again transported back to the days of my old Aurelia – except this example is infinitely better. This Third Series B20GT does without the later de Dion rear end, so it was interesting to note the difference between it and the Spider. It seems to turn in readily and the rear end is a bit looser, giving it more of a raw character. But the sliding pillar front suspension and great brakes make it damn effective on the road.
We pulled in at Vimy Ridge in northern France, the poignant war memorial to 11,000 Canadians who perished in the First World War, then we motored hard to catch the next Eurotunnel crossing to Folkestone. The exemplary Lancia Aurelias proved fast and impressive. But what was most affecting was to observe two generations of a family savouring rare time together, experiencing the joy of driving old cars some distance along the sweeping backroads of Europe.