Seeing that his son Vincenzo had a thing for numbers even at an early age, Italian businessman Giuseppe Lancia sent the young man to the Turin technical school to train as an accountant. But the good old Cavalier didn’t realise that Vincenzo had already taken a fancy to mechanics and motoring, having been inspired by the Ceirano brothers — John and Matheo — who had set up their bicycle workshop in the family’s courtyard.
Vincenzo soon joined the Ceirano brothers’ workshop, but to keep his father pleased, he took up the role of bookkeeper. The garage soon started getting motor car owners as clients, and Vincezo, although he was an accountant, amazed everyone with his remarkable knowledge of the automobile and its intricacies.
His stint at this backyard garage marked his entry into the automobile industry, as it was soon taken over by the great Giovanni Agnelli, the man who founded Fiat.
Vincenzo took up a job in the Fiat factory but got bitten by the racing bug, winning his first race in Padova in 1900 behind the wheel of a Fiat 6hp. His fame as an ace racing driver was cemented by his victory in the 1902 Sassi-Superga uphill race driving a Fiat 24hp. Although racing was his passion, the mechanic in him wasn’t content with just driving cars. He wanted to make his own — and he did.
In 1906, together with his colleague Claudio Fogolin, Vincenzo left the security of a well-paid job and started his own car-manufacturing company. His first car, the Tipo51, came out in 1908 with a revolutionary tubular front axle. This was later renamed as Alpha, starting a convention of using letters from the Greek alphabet for naming car models. So the subsequent models were predictably named Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Eta and so on.
Each of these caught attention with one innovation or the other — the Gamma was the first to use monobloc cylinder casting, while the Eta with its single dry-plate clutch was the fastest Italian car when it was launched in 1911.
Then came the Theta, which was the first European automobile to have been fitted with a built-in electrical system. During this time, Vincenzo also patented two big displacement engines — a 45-degree V8 and a 22-degree V12.
In 1922 came Lancia’s breakthrough model, the Lambda, which boasted a fully independent front suspension and the world’s first unibody construction. The blend of superb dynamics and stunning good looks made the Lambda an instant favourite with Europe’s elite, and it was considered a significant technical accomplishment for the times.
Vincenzo was also unique in the way he approached car sales, as he didn’t believe in advertising his cars in the media, instead promoting them by word of mouth to discerning motorists. He also employed the most advanced tooling and machinery available, enabling the company to produce more cars than rival brands with hand-built cars by the Thirties.
The Lambda’s success gave Vincenzo more financial freedom to further streamline manufacturing methods and make even better cars like the Astura, the Augusta saloon and his masterpiece: the 1937 Aprilia. Although Vincenzo died shortly before the Aprilia was launched, he had left a glorious legacy of cutting-edge engineering, innovative design and production techniques, and most importantly an inimitable reputation for his cars that endures even to this day.