Somehow it is equally sad, yet completely appropriate that Gianni Lancia, son of company founder Vicenzo, should die in the same year that the Fiat Group appears to have finally decided to bury the last vestige of this once magnificent marque.
There are those who revere Gianni as the embodiment of his father’s pioneering spirit and those who regard him as an arrogant kid who almost willfully came close to destroying a great company. If the truth lies somewhere in between it still arguable that he is one of the least understood and appreciated figures in the world of 20th century automobile production.
On his watch, the incredibly advanced Lancia Aurelia B10 sedan was launched- a car with the first production V-6 engine, rear transaxle, inboard rear brakes and radial tires- in an upmarket family car in 1950, 5 years after Lancia’s factories were rubble. That the Aurelia B20 coupe took 2nd place overall in the 1951 Mille Miglia and 12th overall and 1st in class at Le Mans the same year also was rather impressive.
The exploits of the competition Lancias of the early fifties- the sports racing cars D20, D23, D24 and of course the magnificent D50 Formula One car are amazing and moreso considering the resources available. The possibilities, had the funds and time been available for real development, are mind boggling. It is not hyperbole to suggest that if things had been slightly different, Lancia could be as well known and prized today for sports cars as Ferrari, Aston Martin or Maserati.
I have heard various stories about why Lancia never received Marshall Plan funds after WWII, related to an alleged membership Gianni may have had as a student in a Communist-sympathetic organization. I would like to know more about this, because its certain the company was certainly deserving of support and this might have made a difference. That Gianni Lancia himself didn’t let that stop him and forged ahead full-steam tells me all I need to know to decide that he was certainly his father’s son.
Below, a remembrance, from Italian auto magazine Quattroruote. The translation from the Italian is mine.
“In the way he had lived, at least from a point onward, Gianni Lancia is gone: in silence. A brief obituary appeared yesterday in La Stampa and signed by his wife Jacqueline Sassard, sons and grandsons, informing (with the funeral past, bearing witness to a strict policy of privacy) of the passing at 90 years old the last Lancia to have led the family business.
In the company:He came in 1947, after the death of his father Vincenzo in 1937. Only 24 years old, he was just out of the College of Pisa. And immediately he gives an unexpected direction to the company, calling Vittorio Jano and leaping into racing. The old leadership had little liking for the turn of events and it is said that the internal battles were somewhat fierce. Gianni does not care. The results on the track come in soon, but those in the industrial sector don’t. Lancia restructures the factories of Turin and invests enormously to build the skyscraper which bears his name. The decision will prove fatal to the company’s accounts. And the fatal accident of Alberto Ascari – Lancia’s top driver-in 1955, at Monza, when he dies in an accident after being asked by Castellotti to test his Ferrari.
The concession: Gianni decides to abandon racing and faces a range of opponents calling for the coming of a new owner. Gruppo Pesenti comes forward, to which Lancia owes money for the construction of the skyscraper in Turin. Giampiero Pesenti poses a condition: Gianni must leave, he does not want the rest of the family involved (even sisters Anna Maria and Eleonora, who were in talks with Mercedes, will be removed soon). So it happens. Gianni flees to Brazil, which will become his second country, and then settles on the Côte d’Azur. Since that time he disappears from the story of Italian industry, always refusing to talk about “his” Lancia. Now he rests in the cemetery of Fobello (VC), the birthplace of the family Lancia, next to his father.
May the Earth be mild, Gianni. R.I.P.”