My Lancia 911 Porsche B20

by | July 2016

My love of Lancias goes back to the Lambda in the 1920s. Such innovation, like the first unit body and that sliding pillar independent front suspension. The engines, a 13- or 14-degree V4 in a rectangular block tucked under a cylinder head with its sole camshaft.

Tip of the hat to Vincenzo Lancia.

Then there were elegant Asturas, the innovative Aprilia, Pinin Farina’s Florida, and a real soul stirrer, the Marcello Gandini-designed Stratos.

Yet for all-around beauty and usefulness, it has to be the Aurelia B20s. Built in six series between 1951 and 1958, they have a lovely Ghia-designed, Pinin Farina-built coupe body. Power comes from the first series-produced V6, done in aluminum. Famed for their ability to rush down any road surface, smooth or gnarly, one finished 2nd overall in the weather-fouled 1951 Mille Miglia and B20s took four of the top eight spots the next year.

It didn’t help that my good friend at Road & Track, Larry Crane, had a red 4th series B20. So when he found a B20 for sale in LA I scrounged up $2,000 to buy it. A 5th series, it needed work so I’d pull it out of my garage and fiddle with it. By the way, I’m a lousy fiddler.

Parked nose out one rainy day, it was center punched by a Buick that slid into the driveway. I wouldn’t suggest there was a lot of fix-it body filler in my Lancia, but the driveway looked like an explosion at the Pottery Shack.

Another friend, Mike Sheehan, hauled the B20 off to his shop and convinced the driver’s insurance firm that my mangled B20 was worth $7,500. Whoa, I was $5,500 ahead and looking for another Lancia.

It just so happened that newly married Larry Crane wanted to buy a house and would sell his B20 for $10,000. A lot of dough for a B20 back then and there were Lancia alternatives, even a Flaminia Zagato.

Another friend, Formula 1 champ Phil Hill, suggested, “When I started racing in Europe many of the Grand Prix drivers had B20s because it was the one car that could go anywhere, down any road in a hurry.”

Enough said, it was 1986 and I bought Larry’s B20, serial number 1108.

Martin Swig and I had been friends since we were the only Americans on the first historic Mille Miglia run in 1982. So when he started the California Mille he invited me as his guest. The Lancia and I did quite a few Milles. One with my pal Murray Smith who holds that excellent vintage event at Lime Rock every Labor Day weekend. Phil Hill joined me one year and showed me how a B20 should be driven.

I hope you’ve had a chance to enjoy an old car the way I did the B20. My wife, Scheri, and I chased legendary mechanic Ivan Zaremba and Joey Beard in his 2.0-liter Maserati one Mille and we’ve been friends ever since. Chased Scott George in the Collier Collection’s 2nd Series B20 on the twisty roads north of San Francisco.

At left, the Collier Collection/Revs Institute right hand drive 2nd Series B20 coupe with collection vice president Scott George (hand on the car), along side Lamm’s left-hand drive red coupe #1108 during a break in the California Mille. A B24 and a Lambda hide behind John’s car.

Can your car be your pal? I’m not certain what else I would call my relationship with my B20. We went through a great deal together. Countless miles on everything from freeways to winding single-lane paths. Five moves to different addresses, always with garage space for 1108. Snowy roads in the Sierras. Never a hassle, never a missed beat.

Until…I was on the Mille, this time with another friend, Tom Bryant, editor of Road & Track. I was doing a photo with the Lancia in a spot of sunlight in the shadowy Redwoods. Tom started the B20 and out came this ominous blue smoke. Not much, but enough.

Both Ivan and Scott, experts on the subject of vintage cars, agreed the V6 had a broken piston ring. I could drive the Lancia home, but it needed help.

You don’t take an ailing pal to a quack, so the answer was Tony Nicosia. One of the best Lancia wrenches in the world, Tony didn’t live far away and agreed to redo the engine. It would take a while, he warned, but what can you do? Rush a master?

Naturally Tony did it right. It was a pricey repair and when he was done, we were gazing into the nicely finished engine compartment as the B20’s V6 heart thrummed along beautifully. Ah, such bliss, such harmony…

“Now,” Tony said, “all we need to do is rebuild the transmission and the front suspension.”

I wouldn’t say I had an epiphany just then. It wasn’t quite that sudden and yet I knew things were going to change. It wasn’t the money. It was my other pals besides the Lancia.

I’d just turned 70 and survived Vietnam and two bouts of cancer, but my other pals weren’t as fortunate. One had died recently of a stroke, others were dealing with tough cancers, another with Alzheimer’s, with others depressed about not being 40 anymore.

It was time to part with my pal and I knew just the person to have it: Jim Farley.

Currently Jim has the title of Ford’s Executive Vice President and President, Europe, Middle East and Africa. Heady stuff, but what you’d appreciate is his love of old cars. And racing. I wish you could have seen the tank slapper he saved after hitting an oil patch in his Cobra out of the last turn at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

I’d known Jim loved B20s and wanted one. We did the deal in about 2 emails. Bata Mataja, the well-known restorer in Los Angeles, came for the Lancia and as he took it away on his hauler, did I have a tear in my eye?

Maybe…but I also had a plan.

I now had the financial resources to choose from a number of great machines. I love the Corvette C7, but it’s a bit too sassy for my tastes. Jaguar’s F-Type is gorgeous and I’ve known their chief designer, Ian Callum, for years. Only car in the world I would buy in white. I’ve always loved the Ferrari F355 coupe and it would fit in the budget. But in the end it had to be a Porsche 911.

John’s drive home to California started at in Alabama at the SS Alabama memorial.

I’ve long loved the history of automobiles…photographed hundreds of vintage cars, am on the organizing committee of the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Working with the Revs Institute in Naples, Florida is a dream job.

So there’s great respect for the history of an automaker. To how a marque’s present relates to its past. The thing about 911s is that when you buy one you aren’t getting so much a new or used one, but a point in time. It could be a 930 or 964 or 993 or 991. Air or water cooled. Carrera or Targa. Makes little difference. The point is, you have a 911.

John’s wife Scheri enjoys the 911, in this, her first drive in the car.

For all my love of vintage cars and fond memories of driving the B20 with the windows down and no music being pumped in my ears, it was time for something different. Like air conditioning, satellite radio, heated seats and, pure heresy, an automatic transmission.

There were also favored colors, Amaranth red outside and Luxor beige inside. The thought was to buy a Certified Pre Owned Porsche, which is a great way to save money. Easy if you want a silver, black, or guards red 911, but not my color combo. I like to think of it as rare, but more likely it was unpopular. It’s no longer offered.

Perhaps John’s most enthusiastic passenger is his grandson Casey.

So it came down to putting the funds in the bank and checking the CPO list every day until the right car came on the market. Then, within days of getting the money, I was sent an Internet ad for exactly the car I wanted, right down to the Carrera Classic wheels. It was as though I’d custom ordered the car. And it was on sale…a 2014 model in the inventory for 6 months and the 2015 models were arriving.

Location? McCary Porsche in Mobile, Alabama. Just so happened I was headed to Texas for a press trip to drive a new Ram pickup. I called the dealership, made the deal, flew on from Texas and drove my 911 home.

That was 16 months ago and I have just over 17,000 miles on the car. Drove it back to Road America, my original home track, for the Brian Redman vintage races last summer. Plan to drive it to Seattle this September for a meeting of my old Vietnam pals. I didn’t buy my 911 just to look at it.

It isn’t a track car. I get to use automaker’s vehicles for that. But I love touring in the Porsche and have become as attached to it as I was to the Lancia. The B20’s restoration is almost finished and I can’t wait to see it. I had no idea how important it was to sell your old car to the right person, but Jim Farley is just that. Knowing that somehow makes me even more comfortable, more at ease when I’m driving the 911. As though the journey I began decades ago with the Lancia just continues with the Porsche.

Well, was that cathartic or what?

Soon after John acquired the car, he attached this Mille Miglia badge in honor of his friend and event founder Martin Swig.

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