Celebrate 50 Years of Lamborghini
On May 7th this year, in the small commune of Sant’Agata Bolognese, Lamborghini celebrates its fiftieth year as an automobile manufacturer. Half a century of turmoil, success, failure, beautiful cars, bankruptcies, rebirths, scissor doors, V12s, V10s, and a handful of V8s later, the home of the charging bull is now stronger than ever. It’s been a long and tumultuous road to stability, though—one that, as hinted, has seen the company on the verge of death several times over the years. Here we’ll attempt to shine a little light on that long and winding path.
After making a fortune in the manufacture of farm tractors and air conditioners, Ferruccio Lamborghini was inspired to build his own gran turismo after experiencing frequent clutch problems with several of his Ferrari 250 GT’s. Legend has it that Lamborghini fitted one of these cars with a clutch from one his tractors, completely remedying a problem not even Ferrari was able to solve with frequent factory service visits. Thrilled by his simple solution, Lamborghini arranged a friendly meeting with Enzo in order to demonstrate its benefits, during which Ferrari called him a “simple peasant”, unable to understand the complexities of his purebred cars, and further suggested he should return to Sant’Agata and “drive tractors instead”! Incensed, Ferruccio vowed on the spot to never drive another Ferrari and to build his own, superior GT.
Lamborghini immediately set about hiring ex-Ferrari engineer Bizzarrini, himself responsible for Ferrari’s 250 series of cars. Lamborghini, having always felt that Ferraris were too closely related to their racing brethren to be true GT cars, instructed Bizzarrini to design a V12 of unparalleled smoothness, refinement, and power—the resultant engine displaced 3.5 liters and made 360 HP at a stratospheric 9,800 RPM. Displeased by the motor’s high-revving nature and dry-sump oiling system, both of which he saw as race-bred anathema to his request for a well-mannered, highly-civilized motor suitable for a touring car, Ferruccio refused to pay Bizzarrini for his services until ordered to do so by the courts! LJK Setright, perhaps the greatest auto journalist that ever lived, speculated that none of this was true and that credit for the V12 was actually due to Soichiro Honda—an intriguing idea backed up by some compelling evidence…
Bizzarrini’s (Honda’s?) V12 would go on to power Lamborghini’s first car, the 350 GT, albeit in a wet-sumped, detuned, 280 HP form—in fact, the main architecture of this engine was used in all Lamborghini V12s all the way through 2012, the Aventador their first-ever car with a clean-sheet twelve cylinder design.
Back to the 350 GT. With chassis engineering performed by Gian Paolo Dallara, also a highly-esteemed ex-Ferrari man, and styling by a then relatively unknown Franco Scaglione, the very first Lambo made its debut at the 1964 Geneva Motor Show—both the press and public loved it, and several cash orders were made on the spot. Production continued for two years, at the end of which 120 examples had been completed—each at a substantial loss in order to keep prices competitive with the 250 GT.
The car that really put Ferruccio’s little company on the map, though, was the gorgeous and ground-breaking Miura—the world’s first mid-engine production car. Because of their more uncompromising nature, Lamborghini was always against building a mid-engined car, having founded his company as a maker of GT’s and not outright sports cars. Sensing they may have an opportunity to sway their boss if they were only able to present him with a working car, Dallara and his fellow Lambo engineers Paolo Stanzani and Bob Wallace began working in secrecy on their time off to construct just such a car. After countless long nights and missed weekends, the team presented Lamborghini with a rough prototype chassis sometime in 1965. Though still reluctant based on the car’s (as it turned out, rightfully) presumed refinement deficiencies, Ferruccio ultimately agreed to build it, sensing a good marketing opportunity if nothing else.
Working under Bertone, a young Gandini was responsible for the Miura’s stunning looks, and its name was taken from a famous fighting bull, continuing a theme started with the earlier Islero—a practice still used at Sant’Agata today. Utilizing a transversely-mounted version of the existing V12, all but the final 96 SV models shared oil between the motor and gearbox, which proved to be quite problematic,. Furthermore it was cramped, hot, tended to self-immolate, and would become nearly airborne above 100 MPH due to flawed aerodynamics—no one cared, of course, it was too pretty to matter. Miura’s are now amongst the most-collectible and valuable of all Lamborghinis, if not the most, with prices likely to reach seven figures in the next decade.
After 764 examples made over a six year period, the Miura was ripe for replacement. What could succeed such an iconic shape, though? It was going to need to be a complete game-changer, style-wise, in order to have a fraction of the Miura’s visual impact, a measure easily met, once again by Gandini and Bertone. Designed to be more refined than the Miura, which Lamborghini thought too loud, it was decided to use a cabin-forward passenger compartment and a longitudinal engine placement as a remedy—anyone who’s ever read or seen a contemporary Countach review will find it hilarious that it’s an order of magnitude more civilized than a Miura.
Somehow, despite their apparent success, Lamborghini had already changed hands three times and been through a bankruptcy by the time Chrysler stepped in come 1987. It was under their watch that the Diablo was born, a car which took a much more evolutionary approach to its predecessor than it had itself with the Miura. The first Lambo capable of 200 MPH, the VT model also introduced the AWD layout the firm’s come to be known for. Again styled by Gandini, his final proposal was already submitted by the time Chrysler stepped in—they had found it too aggressive and had many of its most distinct elements rounded off and simplified. Livid, Gandini later sold his original vision for the Diablo to Cizeta, which was used unaltered for the mad V16T.
Ferruccio witnessed both wonderful victories and miserable failures in his quest to beat Enzo at his game, and passed away in 1993 amidst much uncertainty over the future of his former eponymous automotive empire. Today, his legend is secure, carried on by Audi, who stepped in and took control in the late 90s, brining the longest period of uninterrupted stability and success Lamborghini’s ever known. Cars developed under Audi’s watch include the end-of-run Diablo 6.0, Gallardo, Murcielago and its replacement, the Aventador—all vastly superior to the cars they replaced, yet critically, still endowed with all the character and madness of said ancestors, but finally with a level of comfort, reliability, and above all, refinement, that he had intended for his cars from the very beginning. Pretty impressive for a mere peasant.
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