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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

50 years of the Raging Bull

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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.


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