50 years of the Raging Bull: A Lamborghini retrospective
There must have been something in the water in 1963. First, I was born (a very vital piece of information), McLaren Auto was established, Iron Man and X-Men debuted in Marvel Comics, the Beatles released their debut LP, TAB Cola was introduced and James Bond’s Dr. No hit theaters. It was also the year in which a young, ambitious Italian farmboy by the name of Ferruccio Lamborghini decided his talent for mechanical enhancement, engineering and marketing would be better served designing high-performance automobiles.
Even though we first see the roots of Lamborghini’s auto fixation emerging in 1963, Ferruccio actually came to being in the Italian countryside in the year 1916. During the 1950's, fresh out of WWII and armed with a solid mechanical upbringing from the farm and a reputation as an intelligent, impetuous and strong-willed leader, Lamborghini saw an opportunity to succeed in rebuilding his homeland through the highly exotic world of tractor manufacturing. So it was that throughout the decade Ferruccio would amass a small fortune from the lucrative tractor game.
Going into the 1960’s with a stable organization behind him, Ferruccio looked to branch out into other business opportunities. One such opportunity that would become the catalyst for Ferruccio’s automotive legacy came via a certain Italian automobile manufacturer whose name happened to rhyme with Ferrari.
Getting into the automobile game
There are several versions of why and how Lamborghini got into the automobile game. One legend is based on an argument between Ferrari and Lamborghini over who could build the better car. Another has it that Lamborghini was constantly annoyed with his Ferrari (i.e. the number of times the car was at the shop, the poor servicing, the nasty espressos, etc.). This seems to be the most realistic argument given his mechanical background and unique business sense. So one morning, Ferruccio woke up, kissed his wife and decided he’d had enough of what he saw as inferior exotic designs and began to make the transition from building tractors to building performance supercars. After all, except for a roof, an extra seat, top speeds exceeding 18 mph, slight styling differences and certain additional aerodynamic, handling and suspension requirements, the two are similar.Of course like many creative thinkers, many people thought Ferruccio was literally out of his olive tree. Who in their right mind would take on established, legendary marques like Ferrari, Jaguar and Maserati, and expect to survive?
But as it turns out the kid from Bologna wasn’t walking into the business blind. In his spare time Ferruccio was actually dismantling his personal Ferraris, Maseratis, etc., then examining the mechanics, chassis designs, suspension, brakes, engines and electrics all in order to see what made the cars tick.
What he discovered was that many of the parts in his vehicles were in fact the same parts used in his tractors, however, once mounted to a Ferrari, the price of an Italian Tire alternator tripled in price. So in actuality, his initial business vision wasn’t so much about designing a Miura but rather, what kind of business/revenue opportunity existed in the parts market. As we now know, this parts supply concept would eventually evolve into something way cooler.
In 1962, with this supplemental business concept in mind Lamborghini began building the foundation for his company. In May of 1963 he founded "Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini" and bought a large plot of land in Sant’Agata Bolognese in which to set up shop. Being the ever hands-on type, Ferruccio put in place what at the time was considered to be an ultra-modern design/manufacturing facility with his office space next door. This meant he could walk down to the manufacturing floor, pick up a wrench or supervise machining whenever he saw or heard something that didn’t meet his standards. We might refer to this as micro-management these days, but given that his name was on every car it is understandable that he wanted to remain vigilant about all aspects of manufacturing and design.
Within months of establishing his automotive shop in 1963, Lamborghini would put his team’s abilities to the test. This test would come in the form of a concept show car at the Turin Auto Show in November of that year. To get a sense of perspective, manufacturers today usually require six months to a year using rendering programs, model fabricating equipment and a well trained team of design engineers to bring a concept vehicle to show worthy status. Ferruccio's desire to go from breaking ground in the spring of ’63 to delivering a concept vehicle in November, with only a rag tag team of designers and engineers was very ambitious, even by today’s standards.
This meant Lamborghini had seven months to start the factory, acquire proper tooling, hire and train engineers, mechanics, designers, test engineering concepts, develop body/chassis designs, engines, build chassis to accommodate engine and then have the concept ready for the show in Turin.
The first Lamborghini
Somehow, with the odds and time against them, Ferruccio and his team managed to pull it off. Developed in time for the 1963 Turin Auto Show, the first Lamborghini was the now legendary 350 GTV prototype. This sleek Gran Turismo was a hit at the show but comments of "Batmobile" and "overdesigned" crept out from under certain critics’ lawn chairs. Overall the car was heralded as not only an excellent first attempt, but an outstanding vehicle in its own right. The 360 hp V12 that powered the 350 GTV, designed by former Ferrari engineer Giotto Bizzarrini, also caused quite a sensation and would have significant influence on future Lamborghini projects.
“In the past, I bought some of the most famous GT cars, and found several flaws," Lamborghini told Italian journalist Athos Evangelisti after the 1963 showing. "They were either; too hot, not very comfortable, not fast enough, or not finished to perfection. Now I want to make a flawless GT. Not a technical marvel, just a very normal, very conventional, perfect car.” The GTV may not have been that car, but it would make a hell of a first impression and set a solid example for future works.
Following the Turin show Ferruccio decided the GTV body designed by Franco Scaglione had not received the accolades he had wanted. He then contacted the famous Milan-based design firm of Carrozzeria Touring. Carrozzeria's Felice Bianchi Anderloni tweaked the 350 GTV’s design just enough to create the new 350 GT and the 400 GT which followed.
Throughout 1964/65 Lamborghini started to see respected auto-scribers from around the world start to take notice. After several quality reviews from American and European auto publications and newspapers, word started to reach the buyers.
The Lamborghini Miura
At the beginning of 1965 Lamborghini had continuously repeated and emphasized that he was not interested in futuristic or extravagant projects. He was not interested in concept cars, he simply wanted to make ultra-fast, flawless, "normal" cars. Two brilliant young engineers from Bologna understood this and had a working concept in mind. The idea was to design a slightly tamed down race car for the road that could be driven about the countryside, but was not simply a re-invented Gran Tourer with the engine up front. Their black-opps project, secretly codenamed 400 TP, was a visionary mid-engined design with the 400 GT’s 4-liter 12-cylinder engine transversely mounted behind the cockpit. This engine location was the car's unique selling feature – no road going sports car had previously located the engine behind the cockpit. The chassis was made of bent, welded sheet metal, drilled out to decrease weight and further enhance performance and handling capabilities.
As the story goes, the designers were scared of the reaction from the boss, but when Lamborghini finally saw the 400TP project he approved of it immediately … much to the team’s surprise. Ferruccio, despite his visionary abilities, mistakenly declared that “… a car like this should be built because it would make for ‘good advertising’, even though it will clearly never sell more than fifty worldwide.” Fifty became 500+ and from those famously misguided words came Lamborghini’s now legendary supercar, the Miura.
Setting a precedent for many future Lamborghinis, the new model's name was derived from fighting bulls. Miura bulls are supposedly the strongest of all fighting bulls, but are also considered the most intelligent and fierce. When gazing upon the Miura from the front with its winged doors open, the name seems very apt (in spite of the car’s headlights and their effeminately long eyelashes).
Again running on a crushing timeline, the Miura chassis was completed in time for the Turin Auto Show in October of 1965. The rolling prototype was an instant hit, but skeptics, who were stuck on front engine designs were unconvinced the Miura could succeed as a legitimate road car.
The legendary Nuccio Bertone and his design house made the Miura’s design the iconic bit of wonder it is today, but it was up to the son of a conductor, Marcello Gandini, to make the Miura into a viable road-going supercar. Gandini later recounted that from October of 1965 to February 1966, everyone at Lamborghini worked around the clock, seven days a week, in order to make the Miura road-ready for the Geneva Motor Show and production-ready immediately after.
The Miura prototype shown as a rolling chassis in October of 1965 had become the world’s first supercar in just four months. Four months. I can’t even do my taxes in four months.
The process wasn't without its hiccups though. Unknown to outsiders at the time, and as had happened with the debut of the 350 GTV, the Miura’s engine wouldn’t quite fit into the engine bay. Ahem. Apparently the carburetors were poking their wee heeds up a little too much in search for air, and in turn created a spacing problem with the rear bonnet. So in order to give the impression of a "weighted" car, mock ballast was added into the engine compartment. This gave the impression of a car that did indeed carry a workable powerplant. To avoid possible embarrassment by inquisitive media types, the engine cover was kept locked as a precaution.
But even without an engine, enthusiasm and interest in the Miura was off the chain. Ferruccio, being the PR genius he was, managed to raise the hype even higher by taking the Miura to the Monte Carlo Grand Prix that year. There on a warm Saturday afternoon, Ferruccio’s team strategically parked a brilliant orange Miura in one of Monte Carlo’s most famous hot spots – the front of the Hotel de Paris. The car attracted so much attention that it jammed up the square in front of the casino with potential buyers and drooling gawkers.
But the Miura still needed to prove it wasn't just another pretty face in the stables. Capable of clocking 280 km/h (174 mph) on the straights the car definitely lived up to expectations, even though the gas tank location over the front axle caused stability issues at speed. Handling and performance from the Miura were and still are considered outstanding.
The Miura’s styling also sat perfectly with the garish colors and stylistic overtones of the ‘60s. Bright orange or acid-green Miuras would dart about like over saturated fashion models. The car was so outrageous and stunning that it literally sucked the personality out of most every other car on the grey Modena streets. Almost overnight the Miura would become the favorite among playboys, movie stars, musicians and royalty around the world – the Shah of Persia, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were just a few of the big shots who would eventually acquire the car.
The Espada: A disproportionate 4-seater
After the success of the Miura and flush with cash, the company continued to experiment and evolve. From 1967 to 1971 Lamborghini experimented with a variety of different cars but the Marzal concept was perhaps one of the oddest. With gullwing doors, an inline 6-cylinder engine, extensive glass space and seating for four, the one-off concept did prove useful in providing a test bed for future models, most specifically the four-seater Espada. Not everyone's favorite design, the Espada is possessed of acres and acres of glass, a disproportionately huge, bulbous rear end, an equally long hood and still more glass. The saving grace for the Espada would be its 325 hp, front-mounted V12 and multi-tasking ability to carry four comfortably. According one Espada owner we spoke to, it's “an outstanding road car, and unlike my Miura’s it has enough room to take the family for ice cream on the weekend.” The Espada did prove successful for Lamborghini, with three series featured over a production run from 1968 to 1978.
Ferruccio’s firm was now going into the 70’s with an impressive lineup. Along with the Espada, a new Miura S was in place plus a front engined GT similar to the 350 GT – the Islero. In less than eight years Lamborghini had reached the peak of its success. Ferruccio had accomplished his goal: from nothing, he had created an automobile house that was world famous and quite legendary in the design community. His cars, in particular the Miura, had achieved enormous status in an incredibly short period of time. But in order to keep up with demand, and satisfy an evolving consumer market, Lamborghini knew he needed to expand.
Ferruccio steps down
Unfortunately in the early 1970s problems such as labor unrest in Italy, rising gas prices and a huge tractor deal that went awry created tremendous stress on Lamborghini and the company. So in 1972 after eight years at the helm, Ferruccio sold a 51 percent stake in the company to Swiss industrialist Georges-Henri Rossetti. The following year he sold his remaining shares to a friend, René Leimer. Thus, the man who had been the driving force behind the company’s meteoric rise, sadly had to remove himself from the equation. Ironically it would be the busted tractor deal, the business that had provided him the ability to start Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini in the first place, that would be his undoing.
What the Countach?
But in 1974, under new stewardship, the Lamborghini-less Lamborghini would come back with the launch of a car that, like Farrah Fawcett would become a bedroom poster requirement for millions of teenage boys around the world. "Countach" is a Piedmontese expression that translates roughly to "wow - check it out" (that's the sanitized version anyway) and the Lamborghini Countach was the fastest production car of its time with a top speed of 192 mph (309 km/h).Although it debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in 1971 as a concept, the Countach would not go into production until 1974. With its hyper-futuristic styling, masculine overtones, low stance, scissor doors, questionable ergonomics, and rarefied price point, the Countach was nothing short of an over-exaggerated, not very subtle Italian punch in the face.
Designed by Marcello Gandini of Bertone, the Countach saw production from 1974 to 1990. A 16 year production run is needless to say nothing short of incredible.
The fact that the car made it out of the birth canal right before the oil/gas shortage, and survived the automotive dark ages of the late 70s and 80s, is also nothing short of a miracle. The 70s were a time when safer driving, fuel efficiency and economy was starting to become priority … the Countach however with its 375 hp V12, anarchistic attitude towards fuel economy, and blatant speed limit mockery, would essentially became the antithesis of this generational mantra.
The Countach was, and still is to a degree, the very definition of automotive excess.
The 70s was not a great time to be in the automotive manufacturing caper, and Lamborghini would find itself being passed around three times between 1974 and 1978, before finally filing for bankruptcy in 1978.
In 1980 Swiss sugar tycoons, the Mimran Bros, picked up the receivers tab on Lamborghini. Alas their efforts to revive the company ultimately failed and in 1986 the Mimran boys approached Chrysler as a potential buyer. This dysfunctional partnering too would end in separation. For Lamborghini this game of partner swapping would continue right up until 1998.
The Countach would survive the owner swaps and bankruptcies right through the 80s. And oh did it fit in nicely into the decade of questionable everything. What with Miami Vice, Ferrari’s Testarossa, bizarre angular neon fashion statements, Germanic da-da-da synth music and 8-bit video games, the Countach, it would seem, was almost preordained for this bizarre period in the space-time continuum.
Devil at the door
In 1990, still under the ownership of Chrysler, Lamborghini released the successor to the Countach – the Diablo. A formidable 200 mph (320 km/h) flying wedge of a thing, the Diablo would run from 1990 up until 2001. Although the Diablo was the company’s key revenue maker for the 90s, it wasn’t enough to keep the company viable.
From one orphanage to another
In 1994 Chrysler found itself with problems of its own. Chrysler saw Lamborghini as a liability, so in 1994 Lamborghini was again sold off to a group of Indonesian investors. This promising change of hands would unfortunately do nothing but further destabilize Lamborghini. It was also during this time that Ferruccio passed away in Italy at the age of 76. Never knowing if his bull inspired house would ever recapture the greatness it had known in the 1960s. While there was hope that the new owners would bring a fresh vision to Lamborghini, inappropriate management appointments, direction uncertainty, and an overall lack of understanding of the company’s boutique nature, all contributed to a failed marriage. The straw that finally broke the bull’s back was the idea of bringing back the LM (Lamborghini Motore Anteriore) – a legendarily unsuccessful Jeep-like vehicle from the 80s. This maneuver definitively showed investors that the relationship needed to end.
The focus on regenerating the LM would further cause Lamborghini stress and delay any evolutionary flexibility. But just when all seemed lost and the Lamborghini thought it would have to sell papayas on the street to survive, a knight in shining armor arrived. Not a literal knight, more like a German engineer wearing glasses and driving an orange VW micro-bus.
Saved by the Germans
It was in 1997 that one Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Professor Ferdinand Porsche (yes that Porsche) and chairman of Volkswagen AG, became interested in Lamborghini. In actuality the Porsche heir had been closely following Lamborghini for years. Ferdi (can I call you Ferdi?) had visited Lamborghini as a young automotive engineer early on in his career. For an automotive engineer the halls of Lamborghini were hallowed ground, so it was serendipitous that Lamborghini should also approach Volkswagen subsidiary Audi around this time about an engine collaboration project for the what would become the Gallardo.
Ferdi took the engine proposal into consideration, but when the opportunity arose to acquire Lamborghini he moved quickly to ensure the company was not plucked from the netherworld by another ill-prepared food prep company. It was on a warm Tuesday in 1998 that the German automotive giant would wed an exotic Italian of bullish descent in a small white chapel outside Stuttguart. I might be paraphrasing.
In the following decade with VW firmly behind it, Lamborghini was finally able to get back to work without distraction, and the supercars themselves can tell the rest of the story. The first model to fall under the German/Italian alliance was the much feared Murciélago.
Raging into the 21st Century
Released in 2001, the Murciélago was Lamborghini’s first new design in over eleven years. Working off the standard mid-engined architecture the new bull incorporated an all-wheel drive system courtesy of Audi, seating for two, gull-wing doors and a 6.2 liter V12 engine. The first-gen models produced a meager 572 hp and 479 lb.ft. (649 Nm) of torque for the big bits of rubber to feed on. The LP 670-4 SuperVeloce upped the ante with a new 6.5 liter V12 (641 hp, 491 lb.ft./660 Nm of torque) that helped propel the angry beast to a top speed of 209 mph (337 km/h). Murciélago's external body panels were made of a carbon composite fiber, with the exception of steel roof and door panels. It also featured a very cool active intake system hidden above the rear flanks that pops up when engine cooling is required. Production ran from 2001 to 2010 with roughly 4100 cars built.
Lamborghini’s Gallardo has been to the company what the Mustang was to Ford in the 60s. Significantly smaller than the Murciélago, relatively affordable and with a substantial powerplant and all-wheel drive, the Gallardo has been the company’s most lucrative product since its inception in 2003. The aluminum alloy framed Gallardo initially employed a 5 liter V10 married to a 6 speed manual or auto-styled E-gearbox that developed around 500 horsepower, boasted a top speed of 192 mph (309 km/h) and made 0-60 mph (96 km/h) times in the 4 second range. Since 2003 this forward cabbed design by Giugiaro and Luc Donckerwolke has gone through several stylistic and technical changes. The 2010 Gallardo refresh, the all-wheel drive LP 570-4 Superleggera, features a 5.2 liter, 40-valve V10 generating 562 hp and 398 lb.ft. (540 Nm) of torque that translates to 0-60 in 3.4 seconds and a top speed of 202 mph (325 km/h).
The Dark Knight Rises
Batman's recent vehicle of choice, the Aventador LP 700-4, was introduced in 2011 to replace the outgoing Murciélago. The Aventador is composed of a carbon fiber monocoque with aluminum front and rear frames. The body is comprised of a carbon fiber engine cover, adjustable spoiler and side air inlets, aluminum hood, front fenders and doors. With all this carbon fiber one would expect a lighter ride, but the Aventador comes in at a not so svelte 1,575 kilograms (3,470 lbs). Still, it is a fast, thanks to a 700 hp V12 behind the driver’s head that twists out 507 lb.ft. (690 Nm) of torque to massive Pirelli rubbers measuring 19 inches up front and 20 inches out back. A 7-speed ISR gearbox puts these figures to work and helps the Aventador to a top speed of 217 mph (350 km/h) and a 0-100 km/h (62 mph) time of 2.9 seconds. The Aventador's styling is so excessive, angular and aggressive that in photos it comes off as conceptual. Huge air intakes chiseled out at the profile, sweep back and fall in sharply as they feed copious amounts of air through Aventador’s swollen rear flanks. Expansive gaping intakes on either side of the recessed grille stretch forward in search of much needed oxygen. Out back there's more of the same. Razor sharp lines run about frenetically in a chaotic auto-CAD like manner, but manage to coalesce into one intensely mean rear end. Prices for the Aventador run from just under US$400,000 to just over $441,000.
If the everyday Aventador isn’t good enough for your driveway, then try out the limited edition LP 720-4 50th Anniversary model. More powerful by 20 hp, and more exclusive at only 200 units, the bumblebee yellow/black special features mostly aesthetic tweaks but does come with its own 50th Anniversary logo, serial number and exclusively higher pricetag.
The exclusively exclusive Reventon
Making its debut at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2007, this limited edition (20) ride was the most expensive Lamborghini at US$2 million, which held until recently when the $4 million Veneno knocked it from its pedestal. Premised off the Murcielago, the Reventon’s all carbon fiber exterior styling was all new, with exaggerated air intakes and extended vent work so sharp you could shave with it. The Reventon sports Lamborghini’s 6.5 liter V12 developing 650 hp and 660 Nm of torque. A recorded top speed of 355 km/h (221 mph) helped validate its fighter jet narrative.
The Veneno, a racing prototype come road-going super-car, was designed as a limited edition for the 50th anniversary of Automobili Lamborghini. Its figures are as rarefied as the design – 750 horsepower via a 6.5 liter V12 with a 0 -100 km/h (62 mph) time of 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 355 km/h (220 mph). Veneno is essentially one big aerodynamic carbon fibered wing, with front channels feeding forward outlets, extensive venting and a serious rear wing/tail-fin configuration to manage downforce. Carbon fiber abounds on the Veneno, giving it a dry weight of 1,450 kilograms (3,190 lbs) and making it 125 kilos (275 lbs) lighter than the Aventador. Unfortunately only three Venenos were built and have already been sold out at US $3,915,300 a piece. Plus tax.
So it would seem that with the Audi/VW acquisition, Lamborghini finally secured the much needed long term stability it had so desperately sought. The incorporation of the VW Group’s technology and platform sharing between the Gallardo, Reventon and Aventador, plus substantial financial backing has seen this multicultural marriage become a success.
50th anniversary festivities
On May 8, as part of Lamborghini’s 50th Anniversary, a different type of running of the bulls took place in Italy. Starting out in Milan, a four kilometer convoy comprised of 350 Lamborghinis traveled to Lombardia then Umbria, Forte dei Marmi, Roma and San Giustino Valdarno, eventually making their way to the factory/museum in Sant’Agata Bolognese. In total over 190,000 horsepower was on hand as part of this 3-day event.
At the closing celebrations in Sant'Agata, Walter De Silva, Head of Volkswagen's Design Group, wheeled in a one-off tribute vehicle in the form of the jet fighter styled Egoista. As outrageous as anything before it, this 600 hp, single-seat on wheels was designed as tribute to and to honor the Raging Bull's past fifty years in a way most befitting of the company.
As the feisty little Italian who started it all once said: “Look at what others are not doing with their products, then work to perfect it in yours.” This reverse mantra still lives on today in the continuing evolution of the species. Fifty years on the unconventional designs and angular directness of today’s Lamborghini's would indeed make that little tractor man quite proud.