“AIRWAY – IS IT A PLANE, IS IT A CAR ….?” THE ARCHITECT’S LAMBDA

“AIRWAY – IS IT A PLANE, IS IT A CAR ….?” THE ARCHITECT’S LAMBDA

28 Mai, 2017

Aus unserem Archiv: Im Jahr 2013 stellte Bruce Lindsay aus Australien lancianews eine Reihe von Artikeln zur Verfügung, in welchen er korrespondierend zu seinem Buch „70 Years of Trailblazing“ aus dem Jahr 2009 herausragende Modelle der Marke Lancia von den 1930er bis in die 1970er-Jahre umfassend beschreibt und bewertet. Wir werden nun in unregelmäßigen Abständen diese Berichte wieder bringen.

Erster Beitrag über eine sehr spezielle Lambda


The Airway in 2006, as owned by Gary Byrd, photographed at the Lancia Club France meeting in Cognac. Photo courtesy Dr Wilhelm Kaufmann

Joseph Emberton (1889-1956) was an architect. A very fine architect. Known as perhaps the pioneer of modernism in British architecture, his design for the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex was the sole British entrant in the New York exhibition on ‘The International Style’ in 1931, while his circular casino and its spiral staircase at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach complex pushed the visual boundaries of public buildings, and still does 70+ years later.

The unitary construction of the Lancia Lambda, introduced in 1922, presented difficulties to coachbuilders wishing to apply their own artistry to the chassis, since there was no chassis. Only from the advent of the Sixth series cars in 1925 was the Lambda available ex-factory in chassis form (Tipo 217) – although retaining the integral luggage locker and stylish swept wings – which finally allowed the construction of bodies less standardised than the original torpedo and saloon.

The British Lancia distributors (until Lanca established their own works at Alperton in 1928) were the Curtis Automobile Company Ltd, operating from offices in 18 Berkeley Street in Piccadilly. They actively encouraged British coachbuilders to ply their trade on the late series Lambdas, and developed a cosy relationship with the Albany Carriage Co working in premises (from 1924) at Hanwell in London W7. Albany also served the special coachwork needs of the London Lancia agent, Charles Follett. They produced a number of novel and attractive bodies on Lambdas, some of which are illustrated on page 160 of Bill Jamieson’s pivotal work on the model, entitled Capolavoro.

Emberton, Lancia, the Curtis Automobile Co and the Albany Carriage Co came together in 1927, when Curtis commissioned Emberton to design a body on the corta or short chassis Lambda (Tipo 219). Whether specified by Curtis or emerging from his own flamboyant sense of design, Emberton’s pioneering attempt at streamlining was doubtless influenced by the universal fascination with aircraft and air travel at the time. Built by the Albany Carriage Co, the Airway saloon featured a steeply-raked windscreen and severely sloping roof-line. So restricted was rear seat head-room that the sole rear passenger enjoyed his own glazed cockpit – described in publicity material as the ‘conning tower’. That roof-line anticipated, by almost three years, the highly individual streamlined design by Gurney Nutting of the famous coupé supplied to the Bentley company’s Chairman, Woolf Barnato (incorrectly known for many years as ‘The Blue Train Bentley’).


Contemporary profile of the Airway, clearly showing its ‘conning tower’ rear roof

Reputedly similar to those in the contemporary Vickers Vimy aircraft operated by Imperial Airways, the seats were constructed of wicker and were fitted with large pneumatic cushions trimmed in red antique leather, matching the red fitted carpets. Instrumentation supplied with the car bizarrely comprised items of more use in an aeroplane than a car. They included an air-speed indicator, an altimeter, a gradient meter and a compass ‘mounted on polished walnut blocks’. A swivelling searchlight was mounted on the roof, its motion controlled by levers placed to the driver’s right. The ‘conning tower’ also had its own glazed roof hatch if the rearmost passenger wished to do some aircraft-spotting, and a retractable blind should he not wish his presence observed by the putative enemy.


The Airway as depicted in the sales brochure produced for its appearance at the 1927 Olympia Motor Show

Seated in grand isolation, he was supplied with a fan heater to keep him warm on long flights, a picnic case cum liquor cabinet (supplied by Messrs J B Brooks & Co) to help the time pass agreeably; a radio in a polished walnut cabinet (from the Halcyon Wireless Supply Co) to keep him in touch with the rest of the world while being whisked along; and a Kodak 1A ‘Autographic’ camera with which to record the passing landscape or to capture evidence of villainy. Some accounts also describe the inclusion of a pipe-rack complete with pipes.

The paint finishes selected by Emberton were suitably offbeat. “Fire Red” and “Ivory” were the favoured colours, not in themselves unusual, but their application most certainly was. Red was applied to the chassis, to both doors, to both upper rear quarters and the luggage locker, bonnet, brake drums, wheel centres and the undersides of the wings. The remainder of the bodywork was finished in ivory, including the top surfaces of the wings, the battery boxes and the radiator surround. But (said the advertising blurb reassuringly) “The Airway saloon can be finished in any standard colour to customer’s choice’.

The Albany Carriage Co was experienced in the construction of the Weymann patent fabric-covered bodywork, built over an ash frame with insulated joints, but this car was built in the ‘coachcraft’ manner, employing light aluminium panelling trimmed with felt and fabric. Conventional hinges and door hardware were used.


The Airway photographed in Australia during the ownership of Walter Lewsey (second owner, from sometime after WW2 to 1957), then powered by a Ford V8 engine

The car was promoted as “The Air Liner On Land! 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! Here it is at Olympia this year.” It was indeed exhibited at the Olympia Motor Show in October, 1927, and sales brochures were produced by the Curtis company, offering complete cars for £945 (although the wireless and picnic set were quoted as extras) – a whole £100 more than the factory torpedo. Images from that brochure confirm its original paint scheme, which this writer recalls thinking must surely be incomplete, upon seeing a black-and-white photograph of the car as displayed at Olympia.

That Show car attracted the attention of a visiting Australian motorist, Lyster Jackson, who probably bought that very car, and shipped it to Australia in 1927 or 1928. Authoritative eyewitness accounts confirm that the car was driven in Melbourne in its original red and cream livery, the oval-shaped rear window confirming its single rear seat configuration.

In its issue of April 20th, 1928, The Autocar contained a photograph of an Airway which is captioned “The Lancia-Lambda Airway saloon in its latest standardised form”, showing a widened rear passenger compartment and rectangular rear window (p793). As then reported in The Autocar on May 4th, 1928, the Airway’s unique body style “met with greater success than was anticipated. Several cars of the same type are now being constructed” (p880). This claim was contained in a detailed description of what was certainly a second version of the Airway, built with its rear passenger compartment widened to accommodate two people, its troublesome compass deleted, and its original paint scheme replaced with a more sombre single body colour with black wings. Its accompanying photograph also clearly shows the rectangular rear window fitted to the car or cars built with the extra width in the rear compartment, confirming that at least two such cars were constructed.


As displayed on the Curtis stand at Olympia, the Airway shows its unusual paint colour scheme, which included its ivory-painted radiator surround

The Jackson Airway enjoyed a somewhat chequered career in Australia. During this time the use of highly mineralised water in its cooling system hastened the onset of the galvanic corrosion to which so many Lambda alloy blocks succumbed. Shortly after WW2 Jackson sold the car to one Walter Lewsey, and a Ford V8 engine replaced the original. War surplus Ford engines were then available at giveaway prices, and it is possible that one such engine was installed in the Airway, requiring its scuttle to be cut-and-shut to accommodate it, and its steering box to be shifted rearward. In this form it served as family transport for many years in rural Australia, where in 1964 it was photographed in derelict condition.

Acquired by Sydney Lancia specialist Don Wright in 1987, the chassis was rebuilt to original specifications, including its Tipo 78 Lambda engine, and a most painstaking rebuild of its unique body was undertaken by local cabinet-maker Brian Lindberg and Brian Hawke. They reconstructed the body in the form with the widened rear section, rather than with its original single rear passenger seat. In this four-seater form it was purchased by present owner Gary Byrd, and left Australia for the USA in 1995.

To this day the Airway provokes controversy amongst Lancisti, since its body is so totally unlike anything else from its era that it is sometimes dismissed as a fraud. As shown by reference to its original sales brochure, and the original photograph of the car at the 1927 Olympia Show, it is no fraud. While it appears that at least two cars were built, the construction of any further examples must remain open to conjecture; certainly the Byrd car (chassis #17308) was the only Airway listed as imported to Australia by records held at the Australian Lancia Register, and it is most probably the actual Olympia Motor Show car.

That sole known example now lives in California. Its owner – despite maintaining the car in concours condition – until recently drove it long and fast on major international gatherings in the UK, Europe and the USA. In 2006 he took the car to Turin for the centenary of Lancia, where it was the centre of much attention and comment. Sadly he recently died, and the future of the car is unknown.

As a postscript to Joseph Emberton’s automotive designing career, we note that in 1939 he designed the cars for the ‘Wild Mouse’ entertainment ride at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach, but from their form we must presume that he chose to not draw on the gracious lines of the Derby Bentley which he drove and loved from the mid-1930s.

Bruce Lindsay (with grateful thanks for assistance from Bill Jamieson and Peter Renou)
Bruce Lindsay / Australia via Lucas Geheniau / Netherland / 1.2013

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