A lot can happen in 50 years. Especially if you’re a supercar company called Lamborghini, writes The Wheel Deal
IT was one hell of a year, 1963. The Soviet Union made headlines when Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to rocket into space. Further east a little-known Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, achieved immortality by setting himself alight during a Saigon street protest. The American Dream lost its lustre after President John F Kennedy was shot in Dallas, sparking conspiracy theories which frightened and fascinated in equal part. And in between all this chaos and wonder and social revolution, the covers were whipped off a new sports car at the 13th annual Turin Auto Show.
Unmistakably Italian, the 350GTV titillated the world press with features like flip-up headlights, plenty of tasteful chrome licks and a pornographic fastback body shell. Not to mention the promise of a bespoke V12 engine that could stir your soul like the opening chords of a Fab Four radio hit.
Yet the most astonishing thing about Turin’s rock ’n’ roll newcomer was the emblem on that long, swooping bonnet. Surprisingly there wasn’t a prancing horse or red trident or Milanese serpent in sight. Instead show-goers found themselves face-to-face with a golden bull. An angry beast stamping beneath a now famous 11-letter word: Lamborghini. Forged in part out of bitter rivalry and an argument, even today it makes an aggressive statement.
A few years earlier the firm’s founder, Ferruccio Lamborghini, had arranged a meeting with The Godfather of the Italian sports-car industry, Enzo Ferrari. At the time Lamborghini was a wealthy tractor magnate who had a penchant for high-powered exotics. His garage was awash with some pretty serious metal including the now much sought-after Ferrari 250GT.
You’d think such a vehicle would make a self-made man rather happy. Well, it didn’t. Signor Lamborghini was so fed-up with the car’s temperamental clutch that he had decided to meet Ferrari and tell him how he could improve it. This didn’t go down well with the autocratic il Commendatore who basically laughed Lamborghini out his office. “What does a tractor-maker know about supercars?” he is reported to have sneered. “Go back to your farm and leave them to me.”
And this is exactly what Lamborghini did. Well, except for the last part. Starting with the 350GT (the production version of that 1963 Turin debutant), he and a close-knit group of engineers began coming up with brave new ideas and designs. At first Ferrari, ever arrogant, wasn’t losing any sleep over the cars rolling out of Sant’Agata Bolognese. But when the Miura arrived in 1966, insomnia quickly set in.
Most manufacturers couldn’t believe that this lust-inducing creation was the product of a company with just three years of industry experience. Designed by 26-year-old Marcello Gandini and named after a line of Spanish fighting bulls, the Miura was the cool 1960s epitome of sex on wheels. There was a louvered engine compartment that helped the mid-mounted V12 engine breathe better. Swivelling headlights were sandwiched between “eyelash” brake-cooling ducts. The doors ended in a mean bullhorn hook.
This tribute to Spain’s taurine destroyer was the hottest car since the Jaguar E-Type broke cover earlier in the decade. It was phenomenally fast for the era too, Lamborghini claiming a maximum speed of just over 270km/h.
All of this transformed the Miura into the next big thing; a sweet and sticky status symbol that had image-conscious celebrities clamouring for ownership papers. Some of the fortunate few included Rat Pack crooner Frank Sinatra, and mulleted rock-god Rod Stewart. The modest Shah of Iran owned two that were continually guarded by a heavy with an AK-47. Those who didn’t have the dough to garage a Miura could at least watch one roaring up the snow-capped Italian Alps in the opening scenes of Peter Collinson’s 1969 comedic crime caper, The Italian Job.
Now the problem with turning out such an icon is the prospect of following it up with something of equal impact. In 1974, two years after the Miura disappeared, Lamborghini did just this when they unleashed a geometric brain-melter called the Countach.
Still the unofficial definition for the word “supercar”, it made even the Miura look somewhat ordinary thanks to its radical origami bodywork and flamboyant scissor doors. Intersected with lots of sci-fi scoops and air ducts, this was automotive architecture at its most excessive. There was nothing like it. Which is why the Countach became the No 1 threat to Farrah Fawcett in terms of bedroom-wall real estate. For two decades.
This is the fascinating thing about Lamborghini. Whenever the company releases a new product, it becomes the poster car of a generation. No matter what the world throws at it, from countless ownership changes to being kicked in the nuts by the Arab oil embargo and declaring bankruptcy. These challenges would leave other sports-car manufacturers bleeding on the drafting-room floor.
But even in the most tumultuous of times, machines like the Diablo — you can hear one kicking off a track on Jamiroquai’s 1996 album, Travelling Without Moving — and the dictator-bating LM002 SUV kept knocking breathless expletives from our lungs. And with the marque now owned by the corporate might of Audi AG, they’re only getting more profane.
Whether you prefer the $2-million Reventón, which stole its styling cues from stealth jet-fighters, or the ultra-exclusive, 354km/h Veneno unveiled at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show, it’s clear that no other supercar company can do outrageous quite like the raging bull of Sant’Agata Bolognese.
Which is why, 50 years since their ambitious founder stuck Maranello a defiant middle finger, I’ll be reaching for a magnum of Trento. Cin cin, Lamborghini, long may your extroverted machinery thunder on.