Ferruccio Lamborghini was a man who knew what he wanted. What set him apart was that he had the drive, the obsessive compulsion and the touch of genius to turn his dreams into reality.
The possibilities of high performance sports cars is a long way from the nuts and bolts of transforming disused military vehicles into tractors, yet every story must start somewhere. And it is with lowly workhorse tractors, not high horsepower cars, that the Lamborghini story starts.
Ferruccio Lamboghini was born in Italy in 1916. Engines fascinated him from a young age: their power, their potential and their performance. During the Second World War, stationed away from the main fields of conflict on the island of Rhodes, he made use of his spare time dismantling, fixing and fine-tuning cars, trucks and motorcycles. After the war, he returned to his hometown of Modena and set up shop.
The war had created a shortage of agricultural vehicles but left a surplus of damaged military trucks. Lamborghini saw his opportunity and pounced: he realised that he could build tractors from derelict army vehicles and, as Italy's economy grew so did his business. He began building his own tractor engines before he diversified into manufacturing heaters and producing air conditioning units for buildings.
By the early 60s Lamborghini was a rich, powerful man, and one with an unfulfilled dream: to build the best super sports car ever, and to make more money out of it.
Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini S.p.A. was founded in 1963 to realise one man’s dreams. Frustrated by the performance of Ferrari engines, and by his contemptuous dismissal by Enzo Ferrari himself, it was time to show the world what a sports car should really be.
Borrowing Giampaolo Dallara who had worked on the V12 engine at Ferrari he began to turn his thoughts into action and his dreams into a dream car.
The 350 GTV prototype was ready for the Turin Auto Show of the same year. By 1964 it was on sale as the 350 GT. And it was a critical success.
As the 350 GT was succeeded by the 400 GT and the 400 GT 2+2 Lamborghini became known all over the world. Lamborghini, however, knew he had more to prove. Unlike Enzo Ferrari, whose first love was the race track, his passion was designing sports cars that could be street legal. When he discovered his engineers designing a car with race specifications he quickly adapted and modified their designs and set them to work on a new car: the Miura.
The Miura is a ferocious Spanish fighting bull and a fitting name for such an aggressive statement of intent from the Taurean owner. When the Miura was unveiled at the Turin Auto Show of 1965 it was truly ahead of its times and sent shockwaves through the car industry. It went on to set the template for much of what was to come. It established rear mid-engine (before then only seen in Formula 1 race cars) and rear wheel drive as the standard layout for high-performance cars.
Lamborghini grew rapidly, as its cars were unleashed onto the market like bulls in a china shop.
The Marzal never really got beyond a prototype, but what a prototype it was. Its vertically opening doors were a first and it was chosen to open the 1967 Monte Carlo Grand Prix adding a further shine to the already full-beam lights that lit up the Lamborghini name.
In 1968 the convertible Miura Roadster was hinted at but never fully made it into production, but, despite its high price tag, the Islero GT, a successor to the 400 GT, did. More significantly that year the Espada developed the concept of the Marzal into a truly revolutionary and utterly convincing sports car.
By 1970 the Lamborghini range had settled on the Miura S and the Espada Series II. A racing Miura was completed at the urging of New Zealand test driver Bob Wallace, and fulfilled the initial designs and intentions that lay behind this car. The Jota offered brutal speed from a lightweight, streamlined frame yet the lack of follow up it received hints strongly at Ferruccio Lamborghini’s ambivalence towards the benefits of glories on the track versus gains from the road market. Instead efforts were directed towards the SV, a modified and perfected Miura, that was unfortunately eclipsed by the rising star of the LP 500, or the Countach, as it came to be known.
The aggressive but sleek Countach once again ignored conventions to set its own design rules. It arrived, however, against a backdrop of industrial unrest in Italy that equally ignored social conventions with an aggression of its own. Lamborghini may have been winning control of the top-end of the car market but he was losing control in his factories.
In 1972 Lamborghini sold his majority stake to the Swiss Georges-Henri Rossetti, and shortly after divested himself of his remaining shares to his friend, René Leimer.
The company founder drove off into the sunset.
Standard production of the Countach finally began in 1973. The Lamborghini range now included the Countach, the Espada Series III, the Jarama S and the Urraco S.
Yet behind the scenes trouble was brewing again: this time in the form of the oil crisis created by the Arab-Israeli War. All of a sudden far from being seen as creating forward looking super cars the company was seen hopping onto its back foot as it streamlined its production range.
Collaboration with BMW Motorsport aimed to help keep the idle plant owned by Lamborghini busy. Falling sales had led to extreme difficulties yet, as with every previous foray into the world of racing, the project trickled to a halt.
Production of the Espada ended in 1978, with the Urraco and Silhouette ceasing shortly after. Only the S version of the Countach remained in production.
The company went bankrupt in 1978, and was placed in the receivership of Jean-Claude and Patrick Mimran in 1980.
The Countach S and Countach 5000 were attempts to play to Lamborghini’s strengths but introduced little new. The Jalpa sports car was introduced and the off-road model, LM 002, literally promised to break new ground. In 1985 the Countach was wholeheartedly revamped as the Quattrovalvole.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its improved performance the company was, in 1987, taken over by the US Chrysler company.
Lamborghini began producing engines for Formula 1 teams, withy some success.
The Countach's successor was first seen in 1990. The 132 was named the Diablo, after a fierce fighting bull, and it lived up to its name. The initial two-wheel drive was joined by a four-wheel drive version, the Diablo VT (Viscous Traction).
Chrysler's inexplicable sale of Lamborghini to a group of unknown Indonesian investors, in 1994, was thankfully recused by Audi’s purchase of the company in 1998.
2000 and on
The first fruits of Lamborghini’s new found stability came with the successor to the Diablo in 2001: the Murciélago, which was followed by a Murciélago Roadster and a race version, the Marciélago R-GT.
The Gallardo became the Huracán LP 610-4 at the Geneva Motorshow in 2014 and clearly signals that there is plenty of fight in Lamborghini yet: Lamborghini can still redefine the luxury sports car market and create iconic cars that challenge and exceed expectations.
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