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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

The Unsung Genius Behind The First V6 Engine

V6 engines are so ubiquitous that few people realize they are a relatively recent invention, for which we have to thank an Italian engineer working in a war-torn country. Welcome to the story of the world's first production V6 engine and the man behind it...


Our story begins in the spring of 1943.

The experimental department of the Turinese Company Lancia had been relocated to the north-eastern city of Padua, away from the Allied bombing raids that were targeting Italy's industrial facilities, including Lancia's.


Despite the rather gloomy situation, work is underway on new designs for the post-war future, among those a larger, more powerful engine for the existing Lancia Aprilia.


Uncharted territory

The tight space available in the Aprilia's engine bay led to the design of a 39° V6 engine that, however, turned out to have severe vibration issues.

It must be said that V6 engines were uncharted territory back then: not only did they not exist in production, but they weren't even mentioned in the period's technical literature.


And that's when the engineer Francesco De Virgilio, in force at Lancia's technical department under Vittorio Jano since 1939, began his painstaking research into the optimal configuration for a V6 engine in terms of V angle and crankshaft design.

Making automobile history

By the time hostilities ended and Lancia had resumed production of the Aprilia, the Company's management had decided to design an all-new car to eventually replace it, which broke cover in late 1950 at the Turin motor show under the name Aurelia.


Under its bonnet sat De Virgilio's masterpiece: a 1.8 liter, all-aluminum V6, the first of its kind ever produced.

Rated at a rather sedate 56 HP due to the low (6.8:1) compression ratio needed to run on the cheaper "regular" gas, it had a 60° angle between the cylinder banks and a crankshaft whose six crankpins were spaced at 60° intervals for an even 1-2-3-4-5-6 firing sequence.

Development and Success

The year 1951 saw the launch of the beautiful Aurelia B20 GT coupé, equipped with a higher-compression V6 enlarged up to two liters of displacement and rated at 75 HP.


The Aurelia B20 GT was one of the world's most advanced and sophisticated cars, but also a surprisingly competitive racer, taking a close second place in the legendary Mille Miglia behind a Ferrari with an engine twice the size and winning its class in the Le Mans 24h the same year.


By the time Franco Martinengo of Pininfarina penned the utterly gorgeous Aurelia B24 Spider, the world's first V6 had matured into its ultimate form, producing 118 HP from a displacement of 2.5 liters, close to the block's structural limit.

Beyond the Aurelia

Even though the 2.5 liters V6 under the bonnet of Lancia's new flagship for 1957, the Flaminia, may look very much like an Aurelia engine at first glance, it was the result of a comprehensive redesign, with different internal measurements and improved coolant passages.

Most of the work that led to the engine used on the Flaminia was done under Ettore Zaccone Mina because De Virgilio was banished to Lancia's truck division following a falling out with the Company's newly-appointed technical director Antonio Fessia.

The Flaminia's V6 was rated at 100 HP at 4800 Rpm but, given it was a significantly larger and heavier car than the Aurelia, performance initially wasn't up to the customers' expectations, leading the Company to launch an enlarged 2.8 liters version in 1963 that would then carry the elegant Flaminia to the end of its production run.

Epilogue

It's a somewhat ironic twist of fate that Lancia, after having invented the V6 engine, ultimately never got to design another one.

Even though the Marque has offered several models equipped with V6 engines during the decades following Fiat's takeover in 1969, they all came from other manufacturers.


First came the Stratos, famously equipped with Ferrari's Dino 2.4 liters V6. Then came the successful Thema, fitted with the rather lackluster PRV engine before Fiat's acquisition of Alfa Romeo led to the adoption of Arese's lusty "Busso" V6 up until the latter ceased production in late 2005.

The engineer Francesco De Virgilio kept working at Lancia until his retirement in 1975 but was retained as a consultant for the racing team until 1984 and with Alfa Corse until 1986. He passed away in 1995.

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