The small Italian town of Sant'Agata Bolognese located within shouting distance of the city of Bologna is unremarkable except for one inhabitant: Lamborghini Automobili. For over 50 years Lamborghini has marched to the beat of a different drum, creating a niche market for their products that always inspires a reaction, positive or negative; no one sits on the automotive fence when it comes to "The Raging Bull".
As is fitting for such a tempestuous and individualistic brand its origins are unconventional. Ferruccio Lamborghini was one of the stars of Italian post-War industrial growth. He was famous for his tractor building business as well as other products such as boilers. His success allowed him to afford the best, including high performance sports cars, of which many were produced in his locality, Maserati and Ferrari being the most prominent.
Lamborghini was a regular customer of Ferrari and enjoyed a stormy relationship with Enzo Ferrari, who showed him little respect, either for his status or his engineering talents. Enzo was contemptuous of Ferruccio's suggestions about how to improve the clutch and transmission on Maranello's finest.
The row between the two spiralled out of control and Lamborghini decided to build his own high performance car to show Ferrari how things should be done. Some 20 years later Lamborghini recalled how this came to pass:
'You know how to drive a tractor, but you’ll never learn to drive a Ferrari.'"If Enzo Ferrari hadn't made that crack - one day early in the 1960s when I was complaining for the nth time about the insoluble clutch problems I was having with his car, I might never have built my Lamborghinis.I liked my Ferraris, but I was sick and tired of spending so much of my time burning out their clutches. And every time I went to Modena, everyone there seemed to take a malicious pleasure in making me hang around waiting. Ferrari's answer to my complaint on that score was that one day he had kept the King of Belgium waiting, so Mr. Lamborghini, the builder of tractors and boilers, really had no cause to object. As for the technical drama, he just wasn't willing to listen to my suggestions, and I was never able to obtain a reinforced clutch for my Ferrari. Finally I'd had enough. I slammed the door and vowed I would build my own car. The way I wanted it. And sturdy!"
Above is the first sketch of the 350 GTV, the work of famous designer Franco Scaglione. His greatest works were for Alfa Romeo, the three "Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica" or BAT concept cars and the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, considered by many to be the one of the most beautiful cars ever built.
Lamborghini acquired some land in Sant'Agata Bolognese and using his experience of the assembly lines in his tractor plants set about building a state of the art factory. This was ready in 1963 and by the time of the Turin Motor Show in November, Lamborghini's first car, the 350 GTV was unveiled. The story had begun; however, the 350 GTV was designed in a manner that was more racing car than street, so taking the basic principles of the 350 GTV there would have to be a rethink if this concept was to get into production.
In common with all of the Italian high performance brands, Lamborghini has prospered at times and nearly gone bankrupt at others, having several owners until, in 1998, Audi acquired the enterprise, securing the future of the marque. The Germans modernized and expanded the existing factory, and in 2001 opened a museum to celebrate the story of this icon of luxury super sports cars. I visited this art gallery representing the last fifty years of automobile history recently and this is some of what I saw...
Starting at the beginning of the story there is a 350 GT, the car that really launched the company. Powered by 3.5-liter V12 engine with twin camshafts, this powerplant was to have an extraordinary influence on the company's fortunes. Also unusual for the time was independent rear suspension, giving much better comfort and road holding compared to their competitors. The basic technical design of the 350 GT was the basis, with updates to reflect advances in technology, of the 400 GT, Jslero, Espada and Jarama, so the system was in production until 1978.
Gian Paolo Dallara, along with his colleagues Paolo Stanzani and Bob Wallace, had produced an engineering solution that stood the test of time. Dallara would later go on to be one of the great motor sport designers, with many successful projects in Formula One, Endurance Racing, Formula Three and IndyCar.
Another element of the first Lamborghini that has stood the test of time is Giotto Bizzarrini's V12 engine design. Although enlarged and updated as technology improved, fuel injection (for example) replacing the carburetors, it has powered all of Lamborghini’s V12 models until recently: the 350 GT, 400 GT, Miura, Jslero, Espada, Jarama, Countach, LM002, Diablo, Murciélago and Reventón.
Forty-seven years after being commissioned, the V12 was finally replaced with a new design, which must make it unique in the world of super-car engines. There is some controversy that the engine was not the work of the Italian company but was based on a contemporary Formula One Honda Engine. Back in the '80s, highly respected automotive writer LJK Setright went into print with this theory:
"The accepted legend is that the original engine was designed for Lamborghini by Bizzarrini, based on a design study of his for a 1.5-liter Grand Prix engine which (properly, from what I remember of it) came to nothing, and that this was subsequently modified or mollified by Dallara. Now I will admit to a good deal of respect for the work of young Dallara, but honestly I cannot see anything in the work of either of these engineers, either before or since, of comparable quality. I am therefore all the more inclined to believe what I was privately told quite authoritatively in 1975 that the design was secretly commissioned by Lamborghini from Honda."
Those involved at Lamborghini from the time have denied Setright's story, whatever the truth it adds to the mystique of the Lamborghini legend.
The next project from Lamborghini set the standards that the company has attempted to follow to the present day, that of cutting edge design, style and technology. The Lamborghini Miura was the star of the show at the 1966 Geneva Salon and was considered revolutionary. In the words of the Chief Engineer, Paolo Stanzani, "The first on-road sports car with an engine mid-mounted transversely and a gearbox cast in unit with the engine. The first to have a box chassis, in sheet metal and not in tubes; the chassis-bodywork was essentially monocoque. Also front and rear suspension were both independent."
The stunning bodywork was the creation of Marcello Gandini of the great Turin-based studio, Carrozzeria Bertone. The Miura had originally been shown in October 1965 as a bare chassis and engine at the Turin Motor Show and caught the eye of Nuccio Bertone. As soon as he saw the chassis he approached Lamborghini and declared, “I’m the one who can make the shoe to fit your foot.” The two shook hands, and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
This fine gesture had to then be translated into reality but the deadline was impossible. Gandini and the whole crew at both Bertone and Lamborghini worked around the clock for the next few months, and their efforts were rewarded at the 1966 Geneva Salon. The Miura was the sensation of the show fully justifying Ferruccio Lamborghini's gamble to build cars in opposition to Enzo Ferrari. The Miura was a car of its time, free spirited and daring, appealing to the people of the Swinging Sixties. It was the automotive equivalent of the Beatles and they rode that wave of optimism that was prevalent at that moment.
An example of how the Miura was embraced by contemporary culture is in the opening sequence of the film "The Italian Job". Italian criminal Roger Beckermann (played by Rossano Brazzi) is driving his orange Miura through the Alps to the sound of Matt Munro singing "On Days Like This". This romantic scene is rudely interrupted when the Lamborghini emerges at speed from a tunnel and hits a bulldozer in a pre-arranged Mafia hit. To emphasise the point the wreckage is then pushed off the cliff, though the original car was swapped for one that a chassis damaged beyond repair clothed in a new body. The film has a cult following in the UK some 40 years on, particularly amongst car guys and gals, and the Miura footage is a strong element in that emotion.
The car takes its name from the famous line of Spanish fighting bulls from one ranch, Ganadería Miura. This identification with the bulls continues with other Lamborghini models being named after individual famous bulls such as the Jslero, Murciélago and Reventón. The story is that Ferruccio Lamborghini was a Taurus and that he had used bulls in the past to badge his tractors and other farm equipment and that it was a logical extension to take the names of powerful fighting bulls for his exotic sports cars, another piece of the legend.
At the time of its launch, the Lamborghini Miura was claimed to be the fastest production car on sale and was by any standards a dramatic statement of automotive art.
The motoring media was impressed to say the least. The magazine Car in 1967, "We vote the Miura far and away the most exciting production development since the war - an inspired creation which will undoubtedly become a classic, fit to stand by the most desirable possessions man has yet succeeded in manufacturing for his delectation." What could I add to that purple prose?
The importance of the Miura in Lamborghini's history is illustrated by the one-off Lamborghini Miura Concept, a modern interpretation of the Lamborghini Miura, based on Murciélago mechanicals and paying homage to the 40th anniversary of the original. Thoughts that Lamborghini would use this design to join the retro styling movement were firmly rebutted at the time by Lamborghini president and CEO, Stefan Winkelmann, who stated that the concept would not mark the Miura's return to production. “The Miura was a celebration of our history, but Lamborghini is about the future. Retro design is not what we are here for. So we won’t do the Miura.”
Against original expectations the Miura sold well, 764 examples were produced but by 1972 even after a series of developments and upgrades a replacement was required. The final version, the P400 SV, was presented at the Geneva Salon but it was the startling design of the LP 500 Countach that grabbed the headlines, much in the manner of its predecessor some six year earlier. The 4-liter V12 engine was still mounted amidships but this time longitudinal which had the effect of pushing the cabin forward. This change addressed one of the problems with the Miura whose rearward weight balance bias created handling issues, making the car tail happy and challenging to drive at speed.
The design of the Countach was once more a partnership between Lamborghini and Bertone, with Stanzani and Gandini again taking the lead roles. The angular wedge shape was very much the fashion in the early '70s reflecting Lamborghini's place in the vanguard of style and stance in an automotive sense. There were a number of similar concept cars produced at the time but only the Countach made it to production in such an extreme form. Even today the statement is bold and uncompromising, the appeal of the Countach's design extended well beyond the motoring world, it has achieved iconic status.
But the Countach was not just a style accessory, Lamborghini wanted the car to be technically advanced. The changes in engine position meant that the transmission was in front of the engine giving a much better balance to the car. There was a leap forward in performance and vehicle dynamics over the Miura, this was seriously quick machine, even today, back then it was supersonic.
The Countach did not have an easy first few years, industrial unrest plagued the Italian motor industry to the point where Ferruccio Lamborghini sold his shares in his company to a pair of Swiss businessmen. The last car launched under his leadership, the Countach, was in production for 16 years and a total of 2,042 cars were built in five different specifications. It is, by any measure, one of the great sports cars of all time. The fabulous green machine illustrated above is chassis 001, a motoring treasure.
The extraordinary range of Lamborghini cars over the years is well illustrated here. An '80s attempt at an "affordable" Lamborghini, the Jalpa, is in the foreground. In the background is the LM002 an early SUV powered by a V12 Countach engine, though a 7.2-liter version used in power boats could be fitted. Between these contrasting vehicles is a Murciélago LP 670-4 SuperVeloce, the final version of that supercar, more power and less weight than the other versions.
Two generations of supercars. A Diablo VT 6.0 SE, a limited edition run from 2001, which marked the end of the road for this model. Similarly the 25th Anniversary Countach was also the final edition of that model and was named in honor of the company's 25th birthday.
Design details and style were part of the allure of Lamborghini right from the start. In this area details do matter and continue to do so. This light cluster from a Murciélago is typical of that theme that runs through the company's product line, there are no dull Lamborghinis.
The wheels are an important part of this drive for stance and have evolved over the years.
And what would a museum be with something hanging on the wall? Doubtful whether you will find an Aventador Roadster in the Tate Modern, though it would not look out of place.
Continue on to Part 2 and explore some of Lamborghini's motorsport heritage...