Lamborghini is still crazy after all these years
"I decided to talk to Enzo Ferrari. I had to wait for him a very long time. 'Ferrari, your cars are rubbish!' I complained. Il Commendatore was furious. 'Lamborghini, you may be able to drive a tractor but you will never be able to handle a Ferrari properly.' This was the point when I finally decided to make a perfect car. Ferrari never spoke to me again. He was a great man, I admit, but it was so very easy to upset him."
Those were the words of the industrialist Ferruccio Lamborghini, quoted in a 1991 interview with the UK's Thoroughbred & Classic Cars magazine. Two years later, Lamborghini died, at 76, and it looked as though the supercar builder that bore his name around that time was on its last legs, too. It had been that way since the energy crisis of the early 1970s, lurching from one financial crisis to another, the business periodically changing hands while Lamborghini the man was enjoying retirement on his large, idyllic Umbria estate on the shores of Lake Trasimeno, tending to his vineyards and tinkering with his tractors.
Yet here I am in Italy, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the company that was born from a desire to teach an ignorant Enzo Ferrari the mother of all lessons. Against the odds, Automobili Lamborghini is still here, still making waves, still pushing boundaries, still upsetting the establishment. And yes, still making adults dribble like infants when they cast eyes on even the oldest of its models.
In the confines of Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, 350 of Lamborghini's extraordinary cars have gathered for the delectation and delight of thousands of fans. Coming from 29 different countries, this is the largest gathering of Lambos the world has ever seen and it's an overwhelming sight. As well as the expected Gallardos (there are 123 of them here) and Aventadors, there are 350 GTs, five 400 GTs, 17 Miuras, eight Espadas, two Jaramas, six Urracos, 15 Countachs, one LM 002, 21 Diablos and 36 Murcielagos. Someone with too much time on their hands has worked out that the combined horsepower here is more than 190,000hp. These were my poster cars, my childhood heroes. I never thought I'd get to see many of them with my own eyes, yet here they are. It's emotional.
Scanning the number plates, it's obvious that of the 29 countries represented here, the UK has the largest contingency. The Brits have no fewer than 71 cars here, of all vintages, while the Swiss, Germans and Italians have more than 30 each. There are 21 cars from the USA, 17 from China and they've come from places as far away as Kuwait, Lebanon, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, often taking months to be shipped to Italy just for this event. If anyone doubted the global reach of this brand, just a brief walk around these outlandish machines would shut them up for good.
But this half-century celebration is more than just a static display. For the past three days these cars have taken part in a Mille Miglia of sorts, starting in Turin and heading south for Rome, from where they turned north in the direction of Bologna. After the concours judging of the classics has taken place in this piazza, they will all head for the factory about 25km away, in Sant'Agata Bolognese. They're heading home.
I'd been extremely fortunate to join them last weekend, as part of the 350-strong array, in a new Gallardo Spyder Performante - essentially a convertible version of the lightweight Superleggera - on the penultimate leg between Rome and Bologna. For 10 long hours I followed the set course, which was far simpler than I had expected. Every few hundred metres, a large black arrow sign would appear to either tell drivers to keep going straight or to take the next turn. In cars as cramped as these, it was a blessing that our co-drivers didn't need to be fiddling with large maps and road books, and it was wonderful to not have to listen out for retarded directions from satnav systems. I could drive that car in the way its maker intended, with the glorious, operatic V10 wailing right behind my head.
It has been a while since I drove one of these cars on the road and, despite the moaning masses demanding a replacement for this decade-old model, apart from the antiquated Audi switchgear on the dashboard, I found myself thinking that there really is nothing wrong with it. It goes like stink, it sticks to the road like superglue, it covers huge distances with consummate ease, it sounds addictive and feels totally solid, like it's an unbreakable piece of engineering. And it still sells. Honestly, the way my car felt, it could keep going for another 10 years and I still wouldn't be bored with it.
As scintillating as it is to drive across the stunningly beautiful Umbria landscape at full chat, events like this - at least in this country - are made all the more thrilling by the involvement of the local Polizia. Yes, the police force, those boys in blue on their powerful motorcycles and in their Alfa Romeo staff cars, were undisputed heroes. No matter where we were on the route that covered hundreds of kilometres, the police kept us moving and at an incredible pace, too, I might add.
Whenever the traffic seemed to get a bit too much, whenever progress appeared to be slowing down, the sirens would gradually get louder and the bikes would force their way through, parting the traffic and getting the Lambos moving. And, when we were on the move, the police riders set a blistering pace, clearly feeling (like all of us) that this was a wonderful way to spend a day at work.
Over the police sirens and even the epic soundtrack of my own transport, the Lambos of old stole the audio show. Countach after Countach, Miura after beautiful Miura, as the high-speed convoy tore across Italy, the sounds emerging from its dual and quad tailpipes defies description. Nape-tingling, fire-cracking, whizzing, popping, banging noises that occasionally were accompanied by flames shooting from their rumps, were enough to have me powering down my windows and lowering my roof just so I could hear them in all their glory. Tellingly, the stereo wasn't turned on once.
All along our route, people lined the streets and roads, waving flags, pointing cameras and gesturing for us to give our engines a decent rev. That's almost impossible in today's cars with their robotised, clutch-less manual transmissions. But I found a way to keep the onlookers happy: slow down to a speed where neutral can be selected with a tug of both paddles at the same time. With gearbox disengaged, the engine makes itself heard and, when the thunderous cacophony erupted, even very old ladies went nuts and cheered.
I'm convinced this would only happen in Italy - supercars are in the blood of the locals, they're extremely proud of them and, when villagers in other countries would be ringing the police to complain, here they're making as much noise as the cars. And the police would probably arrest anyone for complaining anyway. It's times like this that remind me why I want to retire to this country while I'm still young enough to enjoy it. It's a cliché, I know, but there's a passion at play in Italy that simply doesn't exist anywhere else.
Back to Piazza Maggiore and the concours competition. The judges have done the rounds, checked out the classics (anything younger than a Countach is excluded) and marked their score sheets. It must have been tough choosing the winners in each class, as every car here is stunning in its own way. The Miuras, in particular, are bona fide superstars and I get the impression that the hordes that have gathered around the fenced-off perimeter are here to see only those cars. And who could blame them? In the past 40 years, since it ceased production, no car has ever come close to topping its extreme beauty, and I very much doubt anything ever will.
As each car to be awarded its prize is driven up and over the black stage area, I slink off to grab some lunch. I've been stood around for four hours and even I am starting to get a bit fractious. After yesterday's adrenalin-fuelled drive, I want to get onto the open road, surrounded by these mental machines doing what they do best. However, it is not to be.
When we do set off for Sant'Agata, it's at a far more sedate pace. The roads are crowded and even the police seem to realise there's little they can do to hasten our egress from the confines of Bologna. So we do the 25km in convoy, with the red Countach driver ahead having to lift his scissor door every time the car stops for a red light. Driving those bad boys is extremely hard work and the weather this afternoon is pretty hot. The door windows only open about 30mm, so there's only one thing for it when the air conditioning proves, as it usually does, to be ineffective: open the doors. Gloriously impractical, the Countach still shocks and awes like few other cars, especially when you see one on the road. What it must have been like to catch sight of one of them in the early 1970s, I can only imagine.
And that's what Lamborghini is all about. A shock to the system, an uncompromising jolt that tells everyone cars can still be emotive pieces of equipment. You might not like them but you'll definitely have a strong opinion on them - there's never anyone sitting on the fence when it comes to this company's products.
Seemingly in no time at all, we arrive at the factory gates, where hundreds of people are, once again, lining the road. This is it, the final time I will get to see and hear these cars in one place. I feel celebratory because this most storied of car manufacturers is still in business, and I can recall the disappointment when, as an adolescent, I read that Lamborghinis had ceased being imported into the UK. I'd never seen one, not even at the motor shows my father took me to, yet I knew they existed, like some mythical creatures. That kept my imagination active and they still make me feel a bit giddy, even now.
Dinner, and an enormous temporary building that looks like an aircraft hangar has been erected at the rear of the factory, beyond the staff car park which, understandably, is full of Audis. As we file in, I scan my fellow guests, owners and drivers. Until now I've been transfixed by their cars but this is an opportunity to see what these men and women look like. There are some strange sights, there's no denying that, but these people seem to have an irreverent sense of fun. I've been with Ferrari owners at similar gatherings and they could not be more different - perhaps, like pets, the cars reflect their owners' personalities.
As we await our food, our hosts promise us we're in store for several surprises. But before we get to those, Raffaello Porro, Lamborghini's director of communications, asks us what we think of the way the police have handled the event. Everyone starts cheering, applauding and standing up. A full minute's standing ovation by supercar owners out of respect for the traffic police? It's surreal but it's really happening and they fully deserve it.
As the evening progresses, we are treated to the sight of some of the team that developed the Miura taking the stage. Stanzani, Gandini, Balboni: illustrious names of people that were experimentalists, forward thinkers and risk takers. They wouldn't be able to operate in today's world but in the 1960s they could do pretty much whatever they wanted.
Lamborghini's past is evidently very important to the company but its future is even more exciting. A loud bark punctures the air and we know there's something incredible about to emerge from behind the curtains at the opposite end of the stage. As the low, silver car slowly makes its way up front, it is engulfed by hundreds of people, all formally dressed, desperate to see the model that, for them at least, stole this year's Geneva Motor Show: the Veneno.
Limited to just three units, it looks like the Batmobile and makes more visual sense when you see it up close for real, especially with its furious-sounding V12 shuddering the ground it rides across.
Just to upstage the Veneno's entrance and to point to a more secure future for Lamborghini, it's announced that the go-ahead for production of the wild Urus SUV has been given. Just 3,000 will be built annually from 2017 and many of those will no doubt end up in the UAE. Whatever your thoughts on a Lambo off-roader, the company does have previous form with the crazy LM002 and, anyway, if it generates enough cash for us to still have Aventadors and the like 10 years from now, that has to be a benefit.
There's more to come, however, and within a few minutes another angry sound emerges from the place the Veneno has just emerged from. The excitement in this room is palpable. What could it be this time?
The car that pokes its razor-sharp snout through the crowd that must be 10 people deep on all four sides, is unique. A barking mad creation that looks like a Transformer has morphed into a Stealth Bomber and just sprouted orange wheels. It isn't beautiful, it isn't meant to be. It's here to shock, to show us all that no, we haven't seen everything there is to see in this life. Not yet, not while Lamborghini is still around.
As it climbs the ramp onto the stage, its orange, jetfighter canopy lifts (doors would just look out of place on this car) and Lamborghini's president and CEO, Stephan Winkelmann, climbs out. He knows this is nuts, he knows people will not fully understand what is going on here, but he also knows that it will get tongues wagging and opinions splitting. The Egoista, as it is called (it means 'selfish' in Italian), exists as a celebratory statement of intent.
"Ferruccio Lamborghini had a dream," says Winkelmann, "but he was not a dreamer." Well said, sir, and if he were here right now he'd be clapping louder than any of us. Here's to another 50 years - somehow I think this company will still be here, still causing our jaws to hit the floor. And I couldn't be happier.
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Updated: May 17, 2013 04:00 AM