Lost Lancia: The Aprilia Hidden from Nazis

By Massimo Delbo • Photography by Dirk de Jager

When we find an old car, we tend to ignore the history it has lived. The reason is quite simple: Most of the time, we don’t have any clue of it. We consider ourselves lucky if we can track down a few of the dozen owners the car had, find a maintenance receipt or two, or turn up a thin stack of timeworn photos. 

It’s a pity, because cars usually live such intense lives. If only they could talk, we’d learn many very interesting stories. Take, for instance, this 1938 Lancia Aprilia Cabriolet from Carrozzeria Stabilimenti Farina. It’s a lucky car because it can talk. It remained within the Marescotti family for generations—it even survived a war—and a descendant of the original owners gives voice to the car’s incredible history.

Made to Order

At the end of the 1930s, Italy was experiencing rapid economic and technological growth. However, the country still had a stark social divide: a few wealthy people on one side, the separate working class on the other.

The Marescotti brothers, Angelo and Paolo, hailed from the privileged class. Young descendants of a noble family from the Bologna area, they shared a passion for engineering, mechanics and engines. Angelo had a beautiful airplane—a Caproni KA100 powered by a 150-horsepower Alfa Romeo 6C engine. Paolo was more focused on cars and racing; he’d been deeply involved in the formation of the Automobile Club Bologna. 

In 1938, the brothers had to reduce the engine capacity of their cars. Italy’s Fascist regime was trying to develop the country’s African colonies, and they needed as many resources as possible. One of the first steps they took was to promote autarky, which meant minimizing Italy’s use of foreign goods—including gasoline. 

The brothers scaled back their cars as large-capacity engines quickly fell from favor. They each decided to buy a Lancia Aprilia, a brand-new model that fit the government’s expectations for fuel-efficiency. It was good on gas yet still retained an aura of coolness. It was also beautiful to drive. 

To better suit the cars to their style and class, the Marescottis decided to have them bodied with the same special coachwork. Since the brothers are no longer with us, we can’t ask them why they both picked the same coachbuilder, but perhaps it was to receive a discounted price. 

At the beginning of 1938, the pair traveled to Torino to visit their coachbuilder, the famed Carrozzeria Stabilimenti Farina. We don’t know the specifics, but based on the typical process, we know they spent an entire day deciding on every detail of their cars—body type, interior setup, soft-top configuration. They could even dictate how much chrome trim would be added and where it would go.

These two custom creations would wear different colors, though. Angelo’s would be gray with a green interior, while Paolo’s car would get light green paint with a gray interior. Besides this, there was one other difference between the two cars: Only Paolo’s would have a radio. 

The coachbuilder told the Marescottis to expect the finished cars early that spring, just in time for their planned journey to Ethiopia—back then, Italy was attempting to colonize the country. Unfortunately, the cars weren’t ready in time, so they made the trip in a rented Chrysler.

Nazi Occupation

The cars were finally ready that summer. The total bill: 41,000 lire, a substantial sum at the time. The two cars were put to daily use for the next few years—even through the beginning of World War II. 

On July 16, 1943, Allied forces pummeled Bologna with an aerial assault, destroying much of the city’s historic center—which is where Angelo happened to be driving in his Aprilia that day. A bomb exploded close by, lifting the car’s back end and throwing it against a metal gate. Luckily, Angelo avoided hitting a concrete pylon. 

The car was slightly damaged, but the air raids weren’t the only risk of driving in wartime. The Germans were seizing more and more cars, which they used to escape or simply drive around the war fields. Aprilias were especially sought after, too. Their fuel economy was strong, and many examples featured open tops that allowed the German officers to stand up and command their troops from their cars. 

The Marescottis were well aware of this additional threat, and when members of the German military asked the local motor department for a full list of local car owners, the brothers decided to hide their Aprilias together. They adopted a very unusual solution: They tucked away both cars in the same barn, but after parking Angelo’s car, they built a wall and sealed it in; after storing Paolo’s car, they built another wall. Finally, they disguised that second wall with straw bales. 

The Germans later arrived and occupied the farmhouse as their local headquarters. By then, they knew that people were hiding cars behind false interior walls and stacks of straw. They regularly measured the interior and exterior dimensions of outbuildings to check for inconsistencies. Pushing a long, iron pipe into straw also revealed if anything was hiding behind it. Paolo’s car was discovered and seized, never to be seen again, but the second car remained safe and hidden until the end of the war. When the Aprilia finally emerged from its hiding place, it returned to full duty, traveling a lot in Italy and abroad. In 1946, it made its longest journey, venturing to Paris.

After racking up about 130,000 kilometers, the Aprilia was retired. Angelo had bought a brand-new Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint in 1955, and the Aprilia was put away inside a barn at his summer residence.

Out of Hiding

That residence’s current keeper, Count Galeazzo Marescotti, son of Angelo, rediscovered the Aprilia behind some wine barrels in 1977. “I knew about this car,” he tells us, “because the entire story was told by my father and my uncle. They had good memories of those cars, and that is probably the reason why my father did not sell it, saving it from being transformed into a light van, as was usually the fate back then for old cars.”

Count Marescotti continued to relate his experience with the Aprilia, keeping its story alive:

“I grew up loving cars: I learned reading with car magazines, and in 1963 my father presented me with a go-kart with a Minarelli engine—the most dreamed present ever—that many years later I passed on to my son Leone when he turned 6. At the beginning of the ’70s, for my 18th birthday, I [asked my father for] the car. At the beginning, my father [was] surprised about my request, but [he accepted], even if he complained about the fact that [paying for] the man hours to free the car and get it running again would have to be more expensive than the total value of the Lancia. 

“I do remember the emotions and the feelings of both of us while the farmers where removing all the old stuff that was covering it.

The first parts we saw were the headlights—two eyes peering through the dark, seeing light again after many years. The car was in quite good shape but not in running order. 

“I had to wait a few weeks before we did the restoration, even if it’s more appropriate to call it a big service. The engine was seized but was quite easy to free. We fixed the carburetor, changed the camshaft and the suspension bushings, and we polished the body. I do clearly remember driving the car back home from the mechanic’s shop, my very first time driving the car. My father was sitting next to me, and we were both happy and proud. 

“Unfortunately, my father passed away a few months after this. One of his deepest [worries] was to make me promise that I would always take good care of Mother and of the Aprilia. Since that day, I’ve used the car for leisure and performed only the normal maintenance. I attend every year a few local classic car meetings, drove to Aprilia (a city close to Rome) for the anniversary of the Aprilia Club, and enjoy [the car] as much as possible. 

“I only have to be careful because the car is so original that every single [bit of] damage would present a problem. It’s not just for me, but because of my family, too. My three sons are all already in love with the car. That [makes] me feel safe about the future of the Lancia within the family, and when I see my 7-year-old son Leone driving my old go-kart or asking to be on my legs to drive the Aprilia, I can’t stop thinking about how happy my father would be. 

“Only a few months ago, after [an article about my car] was published for the first time by an Italian classic car magazine, I was contacted by a now-85-year-old gentleman, Mr. Franco Forni, who told us that when he was only 15, he drove my uncle’s car from downtown Bologna to this very same country farm where both cars would be hidden. An apprentice at the local scrapyard, he was given a German officer’s hat and the mission to drive the car straight to the farm. 

“He avoided a couple of German patrols simply by speeding up and wearing the hat, receiving a military greeting from the soldiers instead of a bullet. He even remembered that he heard rumors about the ‘two sisters’ being hidden away together, but he thought [they were referring to] two ladies and never thought about the two cars. 

“That’s why this car is so important to us: because the history never ends, and it is so much connected with my family.”

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