hero worship


Words John Simister
Webb Bland Amy Shore

Two heroes in one story here: Mike Hawthorn, Britain’s first F1 champion, and a Lancia Aurelia with special memories for Octane’s senior contributor

 

We’re advised never to meet our heroes. But what if your first encounter with the hero is when he/she/it is a faded, disreputable, down-at-heel disintegration of a former self and you’re still blown away? And then, with the heroic status still lodged in your memory, you meet again and the decrepitude has been magicked away? Now, past assumptions of youthful beauty and vitality are made real: the rehab has worked.

Actually there are two heroes in this story. Mike Hawthorn, Britain’s first F1 World Champion, he of the blond hair and polka-dot bow tie, who had beaten Stirling Moss to the title by just one point in 1958 (with a little help from Moss), is one. A year later he was gone, his Jaguar 3.4 destroyed on the Guildford by-pass even as he sought post-racing-retirement thrills with the knowledge that an incurable kidney condition might soon take him anyway.

The other, excitingly connected to the first, is the hero I have met, twice. It’s the fourth-series Lancia Aurelia B20 GT you see here, built in 1954 and supplied new to Hawthorn possibly as part-payment by Ferrari to pay off his contract when the ‘Golden Boy’ left Maranello – temporarily, as it turned out – to join the Vanwall team. Its Surrey registration goes with the Hawthorn family’s Tourist Trophy Garage business in Farnham, and it’s one of very few B20s to have been supplied new to the UK. Although it wasn’t a standard ordering process, as we shall see.

An Aurelia owned and driven by Hawthorn. This was the stuff of dreams to the teenage me in 1972, when WPD 10 was owned by Hawker Siddeley aircraft engineer Mike Rogers, whose daughter and I were great pals. She and I were collected from a Genesis concert by Mike and the Lancia one Saturday evening, the rorty beat from its Abarth exhaust system as it approached us in the dark every bit as uplifting to the aural soul as the sounds we had heard earlier.

 

‘an aurelia was a perfect car for hawthorn’

 

It didn’t matter that the Lancia, at that stage in its life, was a bit of a heap. Its aristocracy shone past the patchy paint, the rust bubbles, the way the rear tyres could be seen from inside the boot via the absent inner wheelarches. And Mike drove it with the gusto that the earlier Mike doubtless employed, and would take me in enthusiastic detail through its plethora of engineering niceties. He would do the same with his yet tattier Aprilia, too, and his pair of Borgwards. These are cars that engineering types just can’t resist.

And so it is today. I knew through the Lancia Motor Club that WPD 10 underwent a monster and meticulous restoration a while ago, and I was consumed with a desire to meet it again, see it as it looked when Hawthorn owned it – and, 47 years after that first encounter, finally get to drive it. Its current owner and restorer John Cundy was a Rolls-Royce aero engine engineer before he retired, and he has written several learned treatises on the hows and whys of Lancia’s engineering methods as applied to the Aurelia. This car, to the Lancia fancier, is an icon in the temple of technical intrigue.

Why so? Because it has the world’s first quantity-production V6 engine, it has a rear-mounted transaxle flanked by inboard brakes, and through its evolution it featured two innovative rear suspension systems, both optimised for Michelin X radials. The first used semi-trailing arms and coil springs, a system not widely adopted until a decade later, in the the early 1960s. The second, as in this car, was a leaf-sprung de Dion design. Then there are the looks, initially drawn by Mario Felice Boano of Ghia, which built the prototype B20 body, later massaged by Pinin Farina, which built all the bodies from the second series onwards. By the time of WPD 10’s construction, which started on 3 April 1954, the tail had lost the raised continuations of the rear wing line – very blunt fins, almost – in favour of a purer, more rounded look that complemented the stark simplicity of the rest of this trendsetting gran turismo’s shape. The only flank adornment is the bright strip along the sills, and even that is arguably superfluous (and missing on the first-series cars).

So an Aurelia was a perfect car for Hawthorn. Just to make sure, though, he specified various deviations from the standard specification. The bucket seats were similar to those of – and perhaps left over from a batch made for – the Aurelia Corsa sports-racer, and here were trimmed in leather with the rear seat finished to match. The floor-mounted gearchange has similar provenance; it replaced the standard column shift (imagine the linkage), and is different from the Nardi floor-shift often found in sporting Aurelias.

Also specified for the interior were carpets placed over the rubber mats normally found in sporting Lancias, and a Nardi four-spoke steering wheel whose walnut rim had prominent grip-enhancing studs on the side away from the driver. Ferrari’s Grand Prix cars had the same type of steering wheel, and Hawthorn wouldn’t countenance anything else, having grown to like them in the Rileys that first got him noticed as a quick driver (see Overdrive). Finally, there was that Abarth exhaust with four tailpipes.

All these changes earned this Aurelia a genre speciale tag and a badge on the bootlid depicting the crossed flags of Lancia and Pinin Farina. Hawthorn’s dark green B20 was finished on 22 June 1954 but, for reasons still unknown, it didn’t arrive in the UK until December. As reported by Julian Crossley, who tested the Lancia in the March 1955 issue of Motor Racing magazine with its owner (plus dog) in attendance, Tourist Trophy mechanic Britt Pearce travelled to Turin to pick it up from the factory and drive it back to the UK. It must have been quite a driving adventure, Alpine passes and all. Hawthorn, still recovering from an accident in the Syracuse Grand Prix, got his new toy just in time for Christmas.

It was registered on 6 January 1955, and on 30 April it took part in a club race at Ibsley, Hampshire, by which time the B20 might have gained the Corsa-spec, longer-legged rear axle ratio that Hawthorn was considering when Crossley did his road test. Or maybe that came later. Nominally, the Lancia was entered by one Lt Cdr HM Kidston, but the driving force was probably Col Ronnie Hoare, who later set up Maranello Concessionaires to import Ferraris – an activity that Hawthorn had been planning for himself before fate intervened. ‘JM Hawthorn’ set the race’s fastest lap, unsurprisingly, but was beaten in the (handicap) race by an Austin A30.

TODAY, THE AURELIA looks almost exactly as it must have looked in Hawthorn’s time, bar a little patina and the replacement of the Abarth exhaust by a standard system. It’s as if the intervening decrepitude had never happened, but neither has history been obliterated. More has been added since, John Cundy having driven over 40,000 miles in the Lancia, all over western Europe, since he finished it in 2001. He bought it in 1995, becoming the tenth owner (Mike Rogers was the sixth).

 

‘it’s almost exactly as it must have looked in Hawthorn’s time’

 

The seat leather, for example, is as sat on by Hawthorn himself, the steering wheel is as grasped by him. John has managed to revive the original materials, conceding defeat only to the carpet. Most of the body below the waistline, however, had to be replaced with new panels, hand-formed and butt-welded in much the same way as Pinin Farina would have done it. Only the bulkhead, engine bay, boot floor and centre tunnel remain of the original nether regions. New steel bonnet and bootlids were made, too, replacing aluminium ones fabricated in the late 1970s.

John enthuses about Pinin Farina’s way of creating perfectly flat flanks, reproduced in the restoration. ‘Usually the edges of door skins are folded around the inner shell, but that creates a convexity,’ he tells me. ‘Pinin Farina instead cut the outer skin flush with the inner, then welded and leaded the join. That’s why the shutlines are so good.’

A very deep mechanical rebuild – in effect, everything – included remedying the aftermath of Tourist Trophy Garage’s attempts to extract more than the factory 118bhp from the all-aluminium 90º V6’s 2451cc. Enthusiastic gas-flowing of the heads’ and inlet manifolds’ ports left the remaining aluminium perilously thin, and shortening the valve guides encouraged them to loosen and deprived the valve stems of vital support.

‘It was bloody disastrous,’ opines John, deeply irritated by the valve head that severed soon after he’d got the engine – seized when he acquired the car – rebuilt and running. ‘So I needed two new heads and manifolds, which were not easy to find. As ever, Lancia’s designers knew best.’

There are some lovely details, too, including a Tourist Trophy Garage St Christopher badge on the dashboard and a Condor radio, found for John by Italian Lancia enthusiast Francesco Gandolfi and mirroring what would have been fitted originally – complete with electric aerial. And where is the petrol filler? In the boot, of course, in order not to sully those curves.

And now, I’m to drive it. I’ve driven a third-series Aurelia with a column shift and a fifth-series with a Nardi shift, but WPD 10 was in my mind on both occasions. For me it’s the definitive B20, and I can’t believe this is happening. ‘The speedo reads very slow,’ John is warning me as I slip into a 1972-flavoured reverie. ‘An indicated 70 is a true 90.’ Actually it’s an indicated 7, for aesthetic reasons; for the actual value, you multiply the reading by ten (and a bit) for the speedo, by 1000 for the rev-counter.

The long gearlever sprouts from the floor to the right of the narrow centre tunnel. It likes to be moved gently but deliberately, and the usual technique of helping aged synchromesh along with a double-declutch when you want a quicker shift doesn’t work here. This car likes to do things its own way, as defined by engineers who did everything a little differently, and a downshift into the unsynchronised first while on the move is off the agenda.

There’s a little judder from the unfeasibly small-diameter clutch at times, and the big drum brakes don’t always pull evenly on initial application, but you can drive around these foibles. Soon I’ve got the Aurelia flowing, its engine trumpeting its slightly dirty beat as the revs roam free, a sense of expensive engineering pervading every action.

Bends are taken with a feeling of planted confidence, the grippy de Dion rear suspension encouraging more stabilising understeer under power than the earlier semi-trailing design offered. As with most old Lancias, the more keenly you drive it, the sharper and lighter it feels. This is a capable machine for a 64-year-old, I’m thinking after a particularly satisfying S-bend – and then I remind myself that we’ve just been through it nearly 30% faster than the speedo was suggesting.When I first saw WPD 10, it was 18 years old and very tired. It’s now the same number of years since its restoration, and WPD 10 is still immaculate. Different times, different attitudes… but just imagine how thrilled Mike Hawthorn, who reputedly loved his Aurelia, would have been to see it now.