Lancia and the Birth of the V6

October 3, 2022

Today the V6 engine is one of the most common engine configurations in road cars, as well as powering the entire contemporary Formula One grid. It is a workhorse due to its compact size combined with its power-to-weight ratio. However, it arrived quite late on the scene due to the technical challenges of balancing an odd number of cylinders in each bank.

While there was some early experimentation with the V6 configuration, it took a small, scrappy, and ingenious team at Lancia to finally crack the V6 code. They presented their solution in the 1950 Lancia Aurelia saloon car. Over the next few years, Lancia would prove the V6's worthiness by using it to power race-winning sports cars. The lineage would be carried on in the successful Dino program at Ferrari.

Francesco De Virgilio at his drafting table at Lancia.

Lancia's Innovative Mindset

The Lancia & C. Fabbrica Automobili (pr. “laan’ chya”) emerged in 1906 in the automobile hotbed of Turin. Founder Vincenzo Lancia introduced the company’s first car, the Tipo 51 or “12 HP,” which had a small four-cylinder engine. 

The marque quickly earned a reputation for innovation with a number of “firsts” such as the first European production car to have a complete electrical system as standard equipment, an independent front suspension that had the spring and shock in a single unit (“sliding pillar”), and the first monocoque chassis in the 1922 Lambda. More importantly, the Lambda was also the first production car with a V-4 engine using a 20-degree narrow-angle "V." It would not be the last of the “firsts.”

Vincenzo died of a heart attack in 1937 and his widow Adele and young son Gianni took over the company. Gianni Lancia was born in 1924, so he didn’t emerge as a leader until after the hostilities of WWII concluded when he was in his twenties.

In the meantime, serendipity smiled on the company when famed automobile designer Vittorio Jano was persuaded to join the firm. Having led Alfa Romeo to the highest heights of motorsport, Jano had a falling out with Alfa's management, and he was shoved aside in 1937 by Wilfredo Ricart. It was said he was “too old” to design a successful car any longer. 

Jano joined as the head of Lancia's “experimental department” where his vast experience was put to good use. There he would partner with Francesco De Virgilio who joined Lancia in 1938, fresh out of engineering school. Later, the dashing young engineer officially became a member of the Lancia family when he married Rita Lancia, a cousin of Gianni.

Lancia Aurelia 2.5L V6 Engine

Solving the V6 Puzzle

The V6 was not a new idea when De Virgilio started pursuing it. It had been produced in limited quantities and independently by Marmon (USA) before 1910, Deutz (Germany), and Delahaye (France) with their Type 44 which utilized a 30-degree 3.2L V6 engine, the first time a V6 was put into production in 1911. Amédée Varlet was credited with that invention, but the Type 44 was a failure and only a few were built.  While there was some early dabbling with the V6 engine, it had some challenges that never allowed it to displace an inline configuration.

In 1936, Franco (as he was known) De Virgilio graduated from the Turin Polytechnic with a mechanical engineering degree -- and a keen interest in automobiles. Through his connections, he joined Lancia after a year of military service in 1939. He would work there for the next 36 years.

Surprisingly, Lancia continued operations during the war. De Virgilio decamped along with the rest of the technical department to Padua in 1943 to escape the torrid Allied bombing in Turin. This is where De Virgilio began exploring how to make a proper V6 engine. 

Up to this point, V6 engines were thought to be unworkable due to their violent vibrations. The challenge was balancing the engine’s rotation and firing order to get a smooth-running engine despite the uneven number of cylinders per bank.

End view of V6 crank.

He ultimately arrived at the solution: a 60-degree “V” coupled with a crankshaft with individual crankpins for each cylinder that fired sequentially every 60 degrees of rotation. The ingenious solution balanced the internal inertial forces in the engine. He drew his first sketches in April 1943, and refined them throughout the rest of the year.

Before he could see his solution come to fruition, De Virgilio had to work through other proposed options being investigated by the technical department. He was asked to review a design for a 39-degree V6 which, using his theoretical knowledge, he was able to understand was unsuitable. However, perhaps owing to his youth, he had to test the other options first. Using an experimental engine, they tested the 39-degree angle in 1944-45 and the 50-degree angle in 1946. Finally, in 1948 in close collaboration with Jano, De Virgilio was able to start proving that his 60-degree design was the way forward. He drew up plans and started testing the B10 engine.

Lancia Aurelia earning 2nd overall at 1951 Mille Miglia.

Aurelia’s Arrival

The Lancia Aurelia was introduced in April 1950 Turin Motor Show with its centerpiece being the radical 1.8L V6 engine with a light-alloy block. That wasn’t all it had to offer, though. True to Lancia’s innovative mindset, the Aurelia had independent front and rear suspension, a rear transaxle, inboard-mounted drum brakes, and a monocoque (or “unitary”) chassis. 

The B10 Aurelia was well-received, so in 1951 they made substantial improvements by way of the B20, a more sporting version with a larger displacement 2.0L V6 engine. Aurelia’s had three configurations with a berlina, coupe, and convertible (i.e. spider).

Jano and Gianni Lancia.

In1947 with Jano at the helm and 23-year-old Gianni Lancia as CEO, Lanciawanted to prove the Aurelia, and the V6 engine, in competition. At the 1951 Mille Miglia, a 2.0L Aurelia B20 GT scored a shocking second place overall followed by a virtually stock Aurelia taking first in class and 12th overall at the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

Lancia won overall in the 1952, 1953, and 1954 Targa Florio road races in Sicily. The 1953 race was won in a D20, which was a modified Aurelia B20 using a 3.0L supercharged engine. Lancia continued to up its game which resulted in the D24.

The D24 featured a 3.3L V6 that was naturally aspirated and produced an impressive 265 hp that could push that car past 160 mph. The D24 had tubular frame chassis with a gorgeous Pinin Farina body, and a transaxle for balanced driving. Lancia lured Juan-Manuel Fangio to drive it in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana and Alberto Ascari in the 1954 Mille Miglia. Both won.

Unfortunately, Lancia struggled with the cost of expensive prototypes and a disjointed product line. In 1956, Gianni Lancia sold the company to Carlo Pesenti of Italcementi. Gianni moved to Brazil. De Virgilio stayed on and continued to design engines and components until his retirement in 1975. 

Fangio driving a Lancia D24 at the 1953 Carrera Panamericana.

Ferrari's Dino Program

Jano, now in his golden years, moved on to become a consultant with Ferrari. He mentored Enzo Ferrari’s son, Dino, until he passed away. They collaborated on a V6 engine that would be known as the “Dino” engine. Many elements were similar to the Aurelia engine, including the 60-degree angle individual crankpins for each piston. 

Dino 206 GT

Yet there was one final chapter for Jano and the evolution of the V6. He also led the development at Ferrari of a 65-degree version with individual six crankpins, offset by 55 degrees for an even firing order. This is the engine that was used in the Dino mid-engined sports cars. In a final twist that closed the circle, this version was used in the all-conquering Lancia Stratos rally car in the 1970s. 

Since its beginnings as a modern power plant that emerged in war-torn Italy, the V6 has risen to such popularity that it is nearly equal in market share for road cars with the V-4. Once De Virgilio cracked the code, it unlocked a transformative evolution that allowed all of us to benefit from a powerplant that was compact and powerful. So much so that we watch it regularly on Sundays in the most popular form of motorsport in the world!

Acknowledgement: Geoff Goldberg deserves a special recognition for his tireless and exhaustive research that resulted in Lancia and De Virigilio: At the Center. This important work highlights De Virigilio’s contributions through primary research. If this article inspires you to learn more, your first stop should be that publication.

Sources:

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