Design of the Year

By Design: 1936 Lancia Astura Pininfarina Cabriolet

At last, a black Lancia!

A truly great man in automotive history, Vincenzo Lancia accomplished a fair deal more than many others who are far better known yet contributed far less to the accumulation of data and techniques shared by the whole world’s automotive community. Yet those who know great engineering design relish Lancia’s cars. In the early 1920s, they had independent front suspension, along with steering considered the best in the world — and all of it mounted on integrated body-chassis structures in 1922. Lancias were the first cars in Europe to have complete electrical systems, each with narrow-angle V engines, first V-4s, then V-8s.

Vincenzo Lancia’s 1937 Aprilia with fully independent suspension and a lovely compact V-4 in a unibody chassis was the archetype for the modern car—decades ahead of the rest of the world—and who knows what Vincenzo might have accomplished had he not succumbed to a heart attack that same year. His widow and son kept the business going until bankruptcy in the 1960s put the firm into Fiat’s hands. Under Fiat’s direction, Lancia won the Carrera Panamericana and introduced the world’s first production five-speed gearbox as well as the first V-6 engines in production. And even though Fiat eventually denatured and virtually destroyed the marque (it exists only in the Italian market today with a truncated, uninteresting product line), it nonetheless allowed development of multiple rally championship models, including the iconic Stratos and the incredibly capable, all-wheel-drive, supercharged and turbocharged Delta Integrale.

In terms of elegance, few marques are as well-qualified as Lancia. Yet until this year, none had ever won Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. That amazed me until the 1936 Astura here took the 66th event, confirming once more the unwritten but almost always observed rule: The car needs to be black and the trim bright and eye-catching. A few years ago, a similar but somewhat more flamboyant 1936 Astura by Pininfarina was on the field with the same body and more chrome (even sporting a pastiche of the 1935 Pontiac’s “silver streak”) that I thought could have been a Best of Show winner. Alas, it was painted white.

Never mind, this black and chrome Astura was a worthy — and honest — winner. Presented as conceived and built originally, neither absurdly lowered to modern standards nor “sweetened” in line or form. Richard Mattei’s Lancia fully deserved its public accolade, and I am delighted to be able to freely endorse its win without cavil or commentary on the arcane practices that have for so long determined Pebble Beach award winners. This is a car everyone can enjoy.

By Design 1936 Lancia Astura front three quarter

1. Plump bumper guards seem anachronistic but simply show Pininfarina was ahead of the game in 1936.

2. Foglights were really necessary in Italy’s Po Valley, so Pininfarina made them standard on this design, carefully placing them to enhance the front end’s graphic composition.

3. Chrome lamp shells were fading away by 1936 in favor of cheaper paint, but they were a strong, positive element in this design.

4. The rounded rise above the grille is a precursor of the European pedestrian safety forms of recent years, although there is absolutely no relationship between them.

5. The long, bright spear on the side of the body wraps around the tail and dips toward the upper corner of the radiator grille, a mark of Pininfarina’s design mastery.

6. The interlaced strips of leather on the seat backrests are a detail of supreme elegance—and craftsmanship.

7. The top stack stands above the nominal body surface but is not as intrusive as the overstuffed stacks typical of German cars of the period.

8. One senses but does not really see the fluted wheel cover disc beneath the rear fender skirts.

9. The vestigial running board is a gesture to a feature on its way toward extinction.

10. The spun wheel covers are magnificent, a wonderful detail that gives the Astura modernity beyond its time.

11. There still had to be an opening for a hand crank in the mid-1930s, thus the scallop in the bumper surface ahead of it.

By Design 1936 Lancia Astura rear three quarter

12. The balloon front fender form is a nod toward aerodynamic wheel pants on many aircraft of the period.

13. Notice the slight inverse curve as the fender profile charges toward the tail to the form of a water droplet. Elegant and not easy to achieve.

14. A lot of effort went to exhausting engine compartment heat. This portion of very slight, curved bright metal strips matches the curved spear above …

15. … while unobtrusive louvers below the decorated portion provide still more area for hot air to exit.

16. The rigidly rectilinear windshields are the least fluid elements of the design but allow both halves of the V screen to be folded forward, at which point the whole is gorgeous.

17. This scallop as the side trim meets the rear fender is splendid and shows the supreme craftsmanship of Pininfarina’s workers.

18. The elaborate and quite tall license plate frame gives an excuse for humping the rear body upward to provide decent luggage space, although a spare wheel inside made the external luggage rack necessary.

19. Add-on taillights seem a bit out of place on such a modern rear body form.

20. Once again the bumper cross section seems well in advance of contemporary practice.

21. A nice conceit is adding the center cap of the wheel covers to the outside of the skirt, providing a clear perspective to the wheelbase.

By Design 1936 Lancia Astura interior

22. The tiny, non-tilting rearview mirror is a clear time stamp for the interior. The meanest economy car today has a much more elaborate solution.

23. The chased surface of the metal panel surrounding the instruments is certainly elegant but might be distressingly reflective in bright sunlight.

24. Again, even ultra-cheap cars have electric controls for side glass. One wonders why there are two cranks on the door, as there do not seem to be quarter lights.

25. Colored warning lights bring a modern touch to the panel.

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