“Exotic” might be the most over used adjective when it comes to describing the cars arrayed at Concorso Italiano show, which in this, its 35th year, moved back at the Bayonet golf course on the Seaside hill above Monterey Bay.
Concorso is full of Ferraris and Lamborghinis and Maseratis and DeTomasos, cars for which the word exotic has become a cliche.
But there was a car at the show that is truly exotic, not necessarily when viewed today but more so when it was customized and unveiled in 1927.
The car is a Lancia Lambda, produced in Italy but modified in England by the Albany Motor Works in the aftermath of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
“The car is a Seventh Series Lambda,” said its owner, Tina Byrd of Los Angeles, noting that that before the seventh series, Lancia’s Lambda had monocoque construction. The company switched to the more-typical body on frame with the seventh series, and thus its cars could have custom coachbuilt bodies.
In the case of this car, that meant aircraft styling, designed by British modernism architect Joseph Emberton. Like an airplane, the car was streamlined for its time, and was equipped with an altimeter, air-speed indicator and even a roof-mounted landing light. Like an aircraft, the body was a wood frame covered in leather-like fabric.
Wicker seats — two in front and one in the rear beneath the “conning tower” – were the same ones used in the Vickers Vimy airplane.
Dubbed “The Airway,” the car was unveiled at the 1927 Olympia Motor Show and was sold to an Australian, Lyster Jackson. He had the car’s exterior color altered from two-tone red and ivory to a monotone deeper shade of red, and had a second rear seat installed before the car was shipped around the world.
At some point in Australia, the rear roof section was removed and the car was used an open-back platform for hunting. It also fell into disrepair.
Tina and Gary Byrd acquired the car in the 1990s and commissioned its restoration in Australia by Don Wright. While being faithful to the original car in almost every way, they had the restoration done with two rear seats to fit their family of four.
Speaking of seats, they were able to trace the original wicker seats back to the company that produced them in Hong Kong — and that company still had the original patterns.
The Byrds displayed their exotic car at the Lancia Centennial in Torino, Italy, in 2006, and showed it at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2008. Soon after, Gary Byrd died, and it is only in the past few years that Tina has shared their Airway at a few selected events.
The car has a 2.3-liter V4 engine rated at 60 horsepower and linked to a non-synchromesh 4-speed manual transmission. It also has drum brakes and Lancia’s sliding-pillar independent front suspension.
The driving experience, she noted, is a far cry from the way the car was advertised at the motor show in London nearly a century ago:
“The air liner on land!” proclaimed the advertisement from Lancia’ British importer, Charles Follett. “The car that’s as smooth and speedy as a giant aeroplane, as handy and responsive as the Schneider Cup winner. The new Lancia Airway Saloon.”
Regardless of how it might drive, and regardless of how other Italian car owners might describe their vehicles, this Lancia is truly exotic.
A sampling of what we saw at Concorso Italiano