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Gianni Lancia 1924-2014

Nigel Trow recalls the life of a motoring heir whose company fell on troubled times.

By Nigel Trow

14th July 2014

 

Gianni Lancia, son of the car company founder Vincenzo, died in Cap Ferrat, France, on 30 June. His life was ill-starred, marked by great achievements, failure and personal tragedy that left him silent and reclusive for much of it. His father died suddenly in 1937 when he 12 years old. His mother, Adele, immediately took charge of the company, and the boy, with his sisters Anna Maria and Eleonora, must have found the change in circumstances disturbing.

Although Lancia continued to thrive, war forced changes in production, bombing raids damaged the Turin plant and German occupation put the firm under military control. Gianni, a student, avoided armed service and enrolled in the University of Pisa to read engineering. In 1947 he became joint managing director with his uncle, Arturo, a man experienced in the American auto industry. A year later Arturo died and Gianni found himself alone at the top at the age of 24.

Sudden power didn’t daunt him. Although the company was still selling Aprilia and Ardea cars and heavy commercials, new models were needed. During the war Vittorio Jano and his associate Giovanni de Virgilio had spent much time on a V6 engine. In the late 1940s Gianni instructed that it be used in the new Aurelia B10, which had a five-seat, pillarless body on fully independent suspension, with a rear transaxle and clutch taking its drive directly from the 1750cc all-alloy V6. When first shown at the 1950 Turin Salon it received admiring reports; promising sales led to the prompt development of the B20 coupé, a fastback GT intended to shift Lancia into another gear.

Vincenzo had been a formidable racer. As a car builder he rejected the track, but Gianni loved it. In the 1952 Mille Miglia, Giovanni Bracco’s 2.0-litre B20 finished second to Luigi Villoresi’s 4.2-litre Ferrari after a wet race, and the pattern was set. Racing success became Gianni’s goal and three years later Lancia was a powerful force in international motor racing, building in quick succession the D20 coupé, the open D23 derivative, the great D24, the D25, a skyscraper headquarters and the intriguing, difficult D50 single- seater – a short-wheelbase, pannier-tanked, low-polar-moment W196 challenger that Ascari, Villoresi and Castellotti drove with skill.

Then it all failed. The company was broke. Ascari died at Monza. Industrialist Carlo Pesenti bought up the Lancia family shares and the D50s were given to an ungrateful but needy Enzo Ferrari. Gianni, with a ruined company and a failing marriage behind him, took flight to Brazil, bought land, built a cattle ranch, married French actress Jaqueline Sassard and never spoke of Lancia again.

He was buried at Fobello, the family home near Monte Rosa. He is survived by his wife, three children and six grandchildren.