The inspiring restoration of a famous, once-lost Lancia race car

British restorers tell the story of rediscovering the hulk of the unique 1951 Aurelia and bringing it back to its period racing spec

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The restored Lancia Aurelia was shown at the Pebble Beach Concours | Photos courtesy of Thornley Kelham

A legendary 1951 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT, with a uniquely lowered roofline and a short but impressive history of competition, was thought to have been lost forever after it fell off the radar in the early 1950s. 

The Lancia was originally purchased by well-known privateer Giovanni Bracco, who drove it to second place in the 1951 Mille Miglia, then to a class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and overall victories at the Caracalla and Pescara endurance races.

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Giovanni Bracco lines up for the Carrera Panamericana in this period photo

Historians believe the roof was lowered by Lancia as an experiment to improve the car’s aerodynamics for racing.  After the bodywork was finished, Bracco entered the Lancia in the grueling Carrera Panamericana cross-country race in Mexico, but crashed out on the fourth day of the 1,200-mile competition.

A year later, it was back at Panamericana repaired and driven by its new privateer owner, a Mexican architect, who came in 9th in class.  After that, the coupe with the intriguing roofline was rarely seen and eventually assumed to be lost.

Many years later, the Lancia was rediscovered in the US, found in modified and derelict condition, and shipped to the UK on its way to Italy.  While being stored in a London warehouse, the car came to the notice of Simon Thornley of Thornley Kelham restoration specialists in Cotswold, England. He determined through examination and research that this battered hulk was indeed the world-famous Bracco race car.

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The Lancia pretty much as it was found in London

“Following a chance encounter in a storage facility in Southend, the Thornley Kelham team’s journey to return one of the most-famous Lancias to its former glory began,” according to a Thornley Kelham news release.

“In partnership with its owner, Thornley Kelham’s challenge was to restore this car back to the condition in which it lined up at the 1951 Carrera Panamericana with Bracco at the wheel, preserving as much of its originality as possible.”

The intense restoration took three years and required the full range of expertise from the Cotswold restorers, including extensive rust repair and unwinding the ill-advised modifications that had been done to the shapely coupe.

The lowered roofline of the ex-Bracco Aurelia (left) is obvious when compared with a standard example

“The whole rear had to be removed and a new one was crafted by the Thornley Kelham team to specifications gleaned from 3D scanning and fiberglass molds,” the release says. “The metalwork team were also responsible for making the body structurally sound, salvaging what they could of the original and strengthening where necessary.

“With most of the original floor missing, this was no mean feat. Getting the profile just right was a huge part of the project, and the car was only prepared for paint once it had been given the blessing of a panel of Lancia experts.”

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Painting the car also presented something of a quandary, since it started out black when first raced, repainted red, then was changed back to black before its Panamerica attempt.  The solution: paint the body three times, first black, then red, then black again, the extra effort designed to make the restoration as accurate as possible.

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The Aurelia wears the same logos and trim as when it ran the Panamericana

Period images and more research were used to recreate the brand logos and colors of its Panamericana look.

The interior was an undecipherable mess, the release notes, “but careful research eventually led the team to the discovery that this Aurelia was fitted with Lancia Ardea seats in period. Using images from its race at the Carrera Panamericana, Rob O’Rourke began the process of perfectly retrimming the interior to its original specification.”

The restorers figure that “taking into account the extensive bodywork, interior trimming, mechanical restorations and paintwork, the Thornley Kelham team spent well over 4,000 hours and more than three years restoring the ex-Bracco Aurelia B20 GT.”  

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The restored interior of the ex-Bracco racer

Simon Thornley, a co-founder of the restoration business, said that from discovering the Lancia to finally completing the restoration that registered a class win at the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, his team was awed by the opportunity to bring the important car back to life.

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 “The restoration of this ex-Bracco Aurelia B20 GT was a very special moment for our business. Its discovery was a real spine-tingling revelation, and restoring it clearly came with huge responsibility,” Thornley said. “Decades of modifications and misuse made this perhaps one of the most difficult restorations we’ve ever done, but the Bracco story is infectious, and now it’s available for enthusiasts the world over to enjoy once more.”

The Thornley Kelham group were also inspired by the restoration to create its own custom-built automobile, the Lancia Aurelia B20 GT “Outlaw,” that brings forward the style of the original race car, including the signature lowered roofline. Nine of them are being produced, each a bespoke edition built to the buyer’s wishes, with an upgraded Flaminia engine, modern disc brakes and improved front suspension.

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The Lancia Aurelia ‘Outlaw’ sports the same lowered roofline

“When we were approached to develop an ‘Outlaw’ Aurelia, bringing together all our Lancia experience with a new set of ideas to create a unique interpretation of the one of the world’s great cars, we jumped at the chance,” Thornley Kelham said on its website. “This car (the restored Lancia) became the inspiration and godfather of the ‘Outlaw’ project, incorporating the innovative features adopted by the ex-Bracco Aurelia, and applied to a 21st Century ‘outlaw’.”

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Bob Golfen is a longtime automotive writer and editor, focusing on new vehicles, collector cars, car culture and the automotive lifestyle. He is the former automotive writer and editor for The Arizona Republic and SPEED.com, the website for the SPEED motorsports channel. He has written free-lance articles for a number of publications, including Autoweek, The New York Times and Barrett-Jackson auction catalogs. A collector car enthusiast with a wide range of knowledge about the old cars that we all love and desire, Bob enjoys tinkering with archaic machinery. His current obsession is a 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe.

3 COMMENTS

  1. there is something special about OUTLAW cars, exciting and brash /loud!
    no such thing as a quiet outlaw, prowling the streets lookin for action!

  2. I’m genuinely surprised that nobody jumped to my bait. Not one manual transmission snob went into print with a pithy putdown. I don’t know whether to be impressed or disappointed

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