The Lancia name conjures images of boxy little cars draped in Martini colors, tearing up rally stages. And rightfully so, given the Italian marque's array of world rally championship titles.
But nowadays, few remember that Lancia's racing heritage stretches much beyond rallying: this is the story of the Lancia D24 and the marque's brief yet successful spell in the world's sportscar championship.
In the early post-war years, Lancia still was a family-run, independent business, with engineer Gianni Lancia, the son of company founder Vincenzo, at the helm. But Gianni Lancia did not just inherit his father's company but also his boundless love for the automobile and advanced engineering solutions, as the company's first post-war design, the Aurelia, clearly showed.
the D24 sports racer, whose star shone just over a year, but very, very brightly indeed
Designed under the direction of the already legendary Vittorio Jano and packing the very first V6 engine ever produced, the Aurelia not only was among the finest automobiles money could buy but also proved quite a competitive racing machine. In 1951, the Aurelia B20 GT won its class in both the Mille Miglia and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, for example.
Contrary to his father Vincenzo, who happily left to privateers the job of representing Lancia in motor racing, Gianni was firmly convinced of the positive impact that direct involvement at the highest level of motorsport could have on Lancia's sales and prestige.
Therefore, class wins with lightly modified Aurelias only served to whet Gianni's appetite for motor racing glory. The boss now wanted from Jano and his engineering team a full-fat racing prototype, able to compete with the likes of Ferrari and Jaguar for overall honors. That process culminated in August 1953, with the D24 sports racer, whose star shone just over a year, but very, very brightly indeed.
as it was all too common in those days, the triumph was marred by tragedy
The D24, dressed in an elegant yet functional aluminum body by none other than Pininfarina, was an all-new design sharing little from the previous D23 racer. The 3.3 liters, quad-cam, double ignition V6 had been entirely redesigned by Ettore Zaccone Mina, the same man who, years later, would design the Fulvia HF's 1.6 liters V4.
To lower the center of gravity and the bonnet line, the 60° V6 engine was equipped with a dry-sump lubrification system. The unit sent its 270 HP to the rear wheels via a rear-mounted clutch, gearbox, and differential assembly.
Lancia prepared its participation in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana down to the very last detail, sending four cars, two support trucks, and no less than thirty mechanics. After all, the roughly 3000 Km route was notoriously treacherous, crossing almost the entirety of Mexico, from the border with Guatemala up to Ciudad Juarez, close to the US frontier.
The D24 was driven to victory by the Argentinian champion Juan Manuel Fangio, but, as it was all too common in those days, the triumph was marred by tragedy, as another Lancia driver, Felice Bonetto, was killed in a crash while he was leading the race.
However, the success in the Carrera gave Lancia hope for the 1954 championship, whose first race was the Mille Miglia, the legendary road race from Brescia to Rome and back. This time, the Italian Formula One world champion Alberto Ascari drove the D24 to victory, adding another prestigious trophy to Lancia's lore. But, by then, Gianni Lancia had already shifted his attention to Lancia's ambitious Formula One program, drawing more and more resources away from sports car racing.
Lancia's Formula One car, the D50, first raced in October of 1954 in Barcelona.
But that's a story for another time.