Italian Conquest Leads To The Austrian Empire
Story and Photography by Chris Robins & Hans Abrahams
It had been a year-long quest to acquire one of the iconic cars of mid-century automotive history, Lancia’s famed Aurelia B20. Introduced in 1951, the car was designed by Vittorio Jano who, prior to joining Lancia, designed some of the most beautiful Alfa Romeo models ever, the 6C and 8C.
How good was the B20? It was the car that Giovanni Bracco placed second overall in the 1951 Mille Miglia to Ferrari’s 4.1-litre monster, the car Bracco and Gianni Lurani drove to Le Mans just to see the race, were invited to participate, and finished first (!) in the under 2-litre class, then as was the norm in those days, the pair drove back to Italy.
More success? A B20 placed first in the 1952 Targa Florio, and was the car that won the 1953 Liege-Rome-Liege rally with Belgian Johnny Claes at the wheel. It was so good because of its engineering; it had the first production aluminum 60-degree V6 engine with independent rear suspension, rear-mounted transaxle with inboard aluminum finned brakes, and the first to use radial ply tires.
And less notably, but perhaps equally important, it’s the car in which Sergio Pinin Farina drove to see Enzo Ferrari in a meeting to become a named carrozzeria for Ferrari. Lore has it that when Pinin Farina stepped out of the Pinin Farina-designed B20, the “Old Man” didn’t hesitate to sign the company. To drive a Lancia Aurelia B20 is to be transported back to 1950s Italy, behind the wheel of a car that the great Juan Miguel Fangio used as his daily driver.
Lancia’s Aurelia B20, in my very humble opinion, is the true automotive connoisseur’s car. So I bought one.
While telling my friend Hans Abrahams (of recent Petrolicious fame) the story of the Aurelia, he came upon an idea: keep the car in Italy and do a European rally. Hans and I had originally planned to do the famed Tour Auto in France in his works replica 1966 Volvo 123GT, however, after working up the costs to ship a car to and from Europe, we shelved that idea. Still on my bucket list of rallies to complete are the Tour Auto, along with the Mille Miglia, Peking-to-Paris, Argentine, Colorado Grand, and the Copper State 1000, to name a few. We quickly crossed the Mille Miglia off the list, not because the car is not eligible to participate, it is, but for two other reasons; timing—it was too late to apply to the 2014 event—and we wanted to drive in the spirit of the mid-’50s, in a non-technological event, with no electronic timers, route maps, or GPS. So we settled on the famed Ennstal-Classic that runs for 1,000 km (620 miles) through the heartland of Austria’s Ennstal region.
In Europe, the rally scene is a very active one, with innumerable events available to exercise one’s classic to the fullest. The roads are magnificent, and the enthusiasm simply tremendous for vintage cars. One of the most widely-supported and subscribed-to events is the Ennstal-Classic, which takes place in the Steyr region of Central Austria, south of Salzburg. It is a three day rally of about 1000 kms (620 miles) in total, with around 200 participating cars ranging from pre-war Alfa Romeos to ’60s Shelby Ford Mustangs. The central ethos of the rally is that it eschews the use of modern timing devices, and instead harkens back to an older time, when mechanical stopwatches ruled the day; it is a completely analog experience.
The first day is around 400 kms (250 miles) of driving, the second day about 500 kms (310 miles), and the last day is a celebration in the town of Grobming itself, the starting location of the rally.
A few more months of work to get the B20 ready, plus getting the requisite rally certifications, ownership documents, insurance, etc lead to no shortage of pre-rally anxiety as Hans and I would be hopping off our flight from New York to Milan, driving to Brescia, giving the Aurelia one final inspection, and getting on our way in our own pre-rally rally driving from Brescia across the Great Dolomite Road to Cortina d’Ampezzo, on through the lower Alps to Salzburg/Fuschl, then on to Aigen Im Ennstal and Grobming in Austria for the Ennstal-Classic. Ahead of us were 800 km (500 miles), driven over the great Dolomite peaks before our 1000 km rally across Austria…lots of prayers to the “Great Car Gods” including Jano, DeVirgilio, and Gianni Lancia to keep the Aurelia going!
The autostrada from Brescia leads northeast to Bolzano, where you turn onto the SS242 into the foothills of the Dolomites. Stopping to buy old-school Michelin roadmaps of northern Italy and Austria, we made it to each of our marked waypoints. We figured out how much gas the tank would hold—a lot, as it turns out, and so we could drive 450 km (280 miles) without stopping. We figured out that it drink a lot of water, and so to stay running cool, we had to fill the radiator every day. We figured out that the Aurelia didn’t use a lot of oil and so while we had some extra 20-50, along with an extra battery, fuel-pump, spark plugs, hoses, fan belt, spare, an assortment of tools and jack, we were quickly getting to know the ins and outs of this icon of automotive mechanics and design.
We learned that it is next to impossible to find non-synthetic oil at any roadside gas station, as they don’t carry standard motor oil like in the states. We learned that gas is Euro 1.70 per liter and that 1-gallon is 3.78 litres, so at US $6.43/gallon, gas is not cheap. At least we could get 95, 98 and +100 octane gas! (Editor’s note: Gasoline in North America is nearly identical to fuel in Europe as far as its actual octane is concerned, but the number on European pumps is calculated differently, and at a glance will appear to have more octane.)
A bonus: after all these years, the car gets tremendous gas mileage, upwards of 25 U.S. mpg.
There is something magical about driving in Europe. One thinks of the majesty of the Alpine passes, the mystique of the Autobahn, the romance of a country road in rural France or Italy. One thinks of the epic racing battles on these roads, the Mille Miglia, the Alpine rally and of course the Monte Carlo rally. The vistas are the very ones the eyes of Moss, Fangio, Collins and Bera visited, driving those very cars that today we so admire and desire, including the 1954 Series IV Lancia Aurelia B20S (#008), a car Fangio and Moss both embraced as road cars when participating in the Continental racing scene of the ’50s.
Having completed a truly epic and wondrous drive from Brescia to Grobming, we drove with anticipation from Fuschl, Austria to Grobming. The conditions were not the most optimal with a steady rain beating upon the Aurelia, but, the V6 engine growled, and the wipers were quite efficient. As we neared Grobming, we took note of the increasing pageantry signaling the event with flags and signs growing in number, not to mention the increasingly common sightings of other classic cars. Driving a classic car is always interesting, but it is tremendously more fun when one is surrounded by a 6C Alfa Romeo or 4-cam Porsche Carrera rather than yet another BMW 3 Series or towering SUV. One forgets how very colorful driving must have been all those years ago; not every car was grey, white or black with the sound of a muffled Dyson vacuum and nary a truly unique or differentiating design characteristic.
The Ennstal-Classic is an Austrian rally in its truest sense, thus the organization and order was simply impeccable. Having reluctantly torn ourselves away from a truly superb concours quality gathering outside the welcome tent, we proceeded to obtain our rally documents, badges, clothing and route book that would be our guide for the next 3 days.
We were directed to proceed with our car to a tent where would receive our rally plates, stickers and timing devices, all put on by a team of scrutineers that would see the Aurelia transform in a matter of minutes from touring GT Coupe to an early ‘50’s rally car a la Mille Miglia and Targa Florio. Our cars would be tracked at hidden checkpoints throughout the rally, and our times would posted at the end of the day so one’s standings were always available.
The atmosphere was tremendous, with people and exquisite cars everywhere. With more true Germanic efficiency and nary a wait or delay, the Aurelia was soon festooned with its Chopard and Ennstal-Classic livery. The Celeste blue B20S stood resplendent and engendered many an admiring glance. Alongside us, Porsche, the central automotive sponsor of the event, had its own tent containing several stunning examples of the marque from the Porsche Museum that would be running in the rally, including a 356 GT that exemplifies everything we love about the 356. Its central exit Sebring exhaust sounded awesome over the days to come. We soon met our friends Tom Smith and Don Polak from Nashville, TN, who brought a 1947 Healey Elliott, and made many new friends over the course of the event.
The absolute highlight of the opening party was being able to meet and spend time with Sir Stirling and Lady Susan Moss. To have the chance to discuss with him his own drives in the B20 as well as his 1955 Mille Miglia victory was truly one of our most precious moments. Sir Stirling and Lady Moss could not have been more welcoming, kind and generous with their time.
The rally itself started exactly on time with every car waved off at a set interval articulated in your route book according to your starting number. We set off behind an AC Bristol, while to our rear was a Jaguar XK150. Everywhere one looked was a classic car! Simply nirvana. With the smell of Castrol battling with the scent of Alpine woodlands we set off on the hill-climb which started the rally.
The vistas and roads were simply stunning, a sentence we would repeat incessantly. The rally even encompassed a speed test on the Red Bull Ring. What absolute dream to be on an epic racetrack, dicing with DB2’s and 300 SLs at speed!
The rally would see us travel innumerable Alpine passes, ascending and descending roads that must have been penned in heaven. We stopped for lunch in wonderfully picturesque towns and were welcomed with great fanfare and cheer from all assembled. Every night, an exquisite dinner of regional specialties was offered with lively discussion of the day’s events and activities. To describe each pass or road is impossible, and the included photos do a tremendously better job of describing our adventure.
The entire experience was even more than we had expected, from arriving in Brescia to take delivery of the Aurelia, to driving it north and east via the Great Dolomite Road to Grobming, and then on the rally itself. We traveled almost 2000 kms (1240 miles) in total, and the Lancia never faltered once. It ran magnificently!
When we look back on the trip perhaps it was a bit crazy to drive 800 kms (530 miles) just to arrive at the rally through Alpine passes, occasionally in the rain and the dark, with nary someone to help if a problem should occur. It was an absolute throwback to one of the most epic times to drive a car, and, it proved to be a trip of a lifetime.
Classic cars are superb to look at, but infinitely better are to drive and to hear. With the friendships made and bonds solidified, the scene is even more rewarding.