Raging Bull: What drives Lamborghini

Meeting the people who put Lambo back on the map

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A spring morning in early-Sixties, economic boom time, Dolce Vita-era Italy. Enzo Ferrari, sports-car manufacturer, is busy in his office in Maranello, a town near Bologna in the Terra Dei Motori, the country’s premier car-engineering region. A mechanic comes in. “The tractor guy’s here, Mr Ferrari,” he says. “He’s brought his car in to be repaired again. And this time he says he wants to see you.”

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Then in his sixties, white-haired, elegant and temperamental, Enzo Ferrari is Italian celebrity-industrial aristocracy. His sleek, powerful gran turismo cars define motoring glamour and he mixes with royals and film stars. The tractor guy, on the other hand, is a bull-necked man in his early forties and son of a poor local farmer. After serving with the Italian air force in World War II, he bought up decommissioned military vehicles and turned that scrap into Italy’s biggest agricultural tractor company. He can afford to buy Ferrari GTs now, but the clutches go when he guns the cars and he is fed up having
to constantly bring them to Maranello for mending.

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Enzo says, “Tell him I’m busy.”

The tractor guy says, “I’ll wait.”

He waits all day. He grew up poor, was a prisoner of war, and, in his thirties, watched his wife die giving birth; he can deal with Enzo sodding Ferrari.

When Il Commendatore eventually comes down, the tractor guy says, “Ferrari, your cars are rubbish.”

Enzo is furious. “What do you know?” he replies. “You may be able to drive a tractor but you will never be able to handle a Ferrari.”

The argument continues, but it is that last insult that the tractor guy will remember forever. So stung is he that, as he drives out of the factory that evening, he decides he will teach Enzo a lesson, and when he gets home, he goes to the tractor factory to clear a space.

The tractor guy’s name is Ferruccio Lamborghini, and he is going to build a car.

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Fifty years on, the car company that Ferruccio went on to create after the argument (exact details of which are, of course, debated) is currently enjoying record sales. Ferruccio himself is long gone – he sold his last interests in 1974 and died in 1993 – but some of the firm’s early spirit remains, and is being successfully leveraged by current owners Audi, particularly among the new tycoons in China. With a range comprising the V12 Aventador, the new V10 Huracán, plus the limited-run Veneno, Reventón and Sesto Elemento models, Lamborghini sold 2,530 cars worldwide last year, up from 2,121 in 2013. Famous owners include David Beckham, Kanye West, Ralph Lauren, Axl Rose, Mark Wahlberg, Rihanna and, of course, Bruce Wayne, who in The Dark Knight favoured the now-replaced Murciélago.

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Since taking over in 1998, Audi has built on Lamborghini’s reputation for sporty, high-performance outrageousness, but that is now set to alter as the brand pushes into other categories.

“Lambo is the car brand that has the most opportunities to grow,” its design director Filippo Perini tells me. “In two or three years, Lamborghini will change a lot.” Specifically, it will soon begin produce the Urus, a 4x4 that will take Lambo values into the burgeoning luxury SUV market to compete with the Porsche Cayenne and Bentley Bentayga.

Perini is based, and the cars are still built, at the factory Ferruccio eventually built in Sant’Agata Bolognese, a small town in the landscape of flat farm fields and grids of light industrial units outside Bologna. These days, the front of the building is clad in the matt charcoal-grey tiles that signify international luxe, but round the back the scene is essentially unchanged: blokes in black overalls and trainers working on sawtooth-roofed production lines, or in factory yards where they attend to low cars the intense colours of pencil leads, citrus fruit and fire engines. The fantastical cars look jarring in the context of oil, jacks and spanners; it’s like walking into a petrol station to find an X-wing fighter being refuelled, or going into a pet shop that stocks unicorns.

Perini’s Centro Stile, or styling centre, is at the far end of the complex, and this is where it goes a bit James Bond.

All factory visitors have stickers placed over their phones’ camera lenses, but in this department security is locked down tight. You first come to an immaculate white room with a long glass table, TV screen and two huge, framed, moody images, one of a cut diamond, the other of a razor blade. Leading off from the room is a frosted-glass door that can be opened only from the inside, and has no intercom. When it opens, it is almost a surprise to be greeted not by Blofeld, but an affable, quietly spoken late-fortysomething man in a navy V-neck sweater and white shirt.

Perini, who designed both the Aventador and the Huracán, grew up obsessed by cars in Piacenza, to the south of Milan, and has been at Lamborghini since 2004. He worked for other companies including Alfa Romeo, SEAT and Audi before, but Lambo is different. At this level of car design, it can be like art: as the designer is not trying to meet a consumer need so much as to show people something they want to see but cannot yet quite imagine. His watchwords include “extreme”, “unexpected”, “uncompromised” and “Italia”.

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“The Lambo way is related to the country, to the people, in that they are not afraid of a challenge,” he says. He talks fast, the ideas sometimes ahead of his English, so every now and then he pauses to let his brain catch up. “We were born out of a challenge [to Ferrari]. It’s about thinking before it becomes logic. It’s about the heart. The cars make you feel something without even going anywhere; just hearing the sound of the engine should give this feeling we call attivo, which means alive, or active.”

It must be wonderful when he sees his imagination turned into steel, glass and rubber on the production line, I say. “Not really,” he replies – he tries to avoid it, because it makes him cry, and now he’s nearly 50, married, a father to one child and stepfather to another, that can be embarrassing. It’s hard to control. Last year, he was at a media presentation of the Huracán in Spain, all lights and fanfare, everyone looking at him. Everything was under control, but then the covers were pulled off the car and Perini spontaneously burst into tears.

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The 350 GT, Lambo's first production car; only 120 were built, making it ultra-rare today
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Cars get conflated with girls in the Italian imagination (“Cars and women, joy and pain” one saying goes) and it’s hard to think of anything other than women that drives men mad like cars do. Sane men will spend all their time and money pursuing the thrill and beauty of an automobile, and although Ferruccio Lamborghini was a good businessman, he was not immune. Partly because of this, cars produced under his stewardship between 1964 and 1974 make up one of the most spectacular and influential sequences in motoring history.

Aaron Robinson, executive editor at Car and Driver magazine in the US, and an authority on Lamborghini, points out that the original plan was straightforward. Ferruccio, he says, “thought he could build a better product and service his customers better than his competitors”. What he intended to build were “businessman’s-express” cars — big, front-engined grand tourers to speed across the new motorways then opening up Europe — and after recruiting a set of young, restless engineers from Ferrari and elsewhere, his first two cars, the 350 GT and 400 GT, were just that. They sold reasonably well to the old-moneyed Europeans (and Paul McCartney, who bought a 400 GT after The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was launched), but the young employees, schooled in Ferrari’s racing stable, had other ideas.

In 1966, they persuaded the boss to produce a car, designed secretly in their spare time, that would revolutionise the entire sports car market. The Miura had its V12 engine innovatively mid-mounted behind the two front seats. The position reduced cockpit space, but spread the engine weight more evenly over the wheels, which vastly improved the handling. That, coupled with the pace (its top speed of 170mph made it the fastest road car available) and the spectacular body designed by 27-year-old Marcello Gandini at the legendary Gruppo Bertone design house in Turin, attracted an acclaim that endures today. Many say the modern high-performance, two-seater, mid-engine sports car and even the notion of the “supercar” begins here. Perini remembers seeing his first one at the age of 10, in the streets in Piacenza. It was light blue and looked very big and became “a kind of dream”. He went home and drew it.

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The name alluded to a breed of Spanish fighting bull: Ferruccio, a Taurus, had become interested in the sport after visiting Spain in 1962, and adopted the bull as the brand’s emblem. According to a long-time female member of Lambo staff I meet, however, the bodywork was designed to evoke not a bull but “a woman, which is why it has the eyelashes on the headlamps”. JG Ballard must have loved it.

The Miura was followed by the Espada, a four-seater GT, again designed by Gandini, which nowadays tends to be the favourite of the collector-purist. Named after a matador’s dagger, the Espada, Robinson says, looked far more modern and had superior engine, suspension and brakes than its rival, the Ferrari 365. Among some nice incidental touches were a set of suitcases custom-made to fit in the back. It sold well, particularly in old-money Switzerland, with more than 1,200 made between 1968 and 1978; by contrast only 474 Miuras were made, which is one reason they can now cost the best part of £1m).

Ferruccio’s own tastes were conservative: his favourite model was the Jarama, an unsporty businessman’s express that effectively succeeded the 400GT. This was the kind of safe, solid vehicle he thought the company needed, but the car that now seems his defining achievement was the opposite. The Countach, which replaced the Miura and debuted in 1971, became the definitive Seventies supercar. Successive generations of kids growing up across Europe in the Seventies and Eighties may have never seen one, but would remember it from Top Trumps sets as the car that beat all others on everything — well, everything except fuel consumption, anyway. Car enthusiasts would watch as Gandini’s new wedge-shaped design, with the cockpit forward and nose shortened, influenced supercar shapes for the next 40 years.

Its engine made it one of the fastest production cars of the decade, with a top speed near the magical 300kmh (185mph) that manufacturers were then striving for, and Gandini’s design was seen by some commentators as almost naive and inexperienced. Certainly, it required radical measures to make it work: the doors had to open upwards, and early models were designed so the rear-view mirror could be replaced by a periscope. Importantly, however, its flat, trapezoidal panels – in keeping with Ferruccio’s taste for hexagons – established a look for subsequent Lamborghinis that has continued through the stealth-jet influenced designs of the Reventon and Aventador. You can see them in the faces of the cut diamond on Perini’s wall.

Incidentally, unlike most other Lamborghinis, its name comes not from bullfighting, but from the dialect expression uttered by a Bertone security guard when the car was revealed to Ferruccio. “Countach” (pronounced “kunt-ash”) is a now old-fashioned exclamation in recognition of a beautiful woman; the car that was arguably the most beautiful vehicle of its era was thus effectively called the Lamborghini “Blimey”. Maybe it was justified. “Those first ten years were an amazing achievement for a young company run mostly by twentysomethings,” says Robinson. “So much was accomplished, so much chipping away at the old order. So much energy and such forward-looking thinking and design.”

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Sadly, before the first Countach was delivered in 1974, Ferruccio was gone, frustrated by union disputes and forced to sell when falling demand hit the tractor business and then the 1973 oil crisis damaged the market for 10mpg supercars. There were attempts at smaller cars such as the Urraco, but the new Swiss owners couldn’t arrest the decline, the original team broke up, and by 1978 the company was bankrupt and run by an Italian government nominee. Total output that year was 16 cars, and yet, somehow, the factory didn’t close.

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To understand Lamborghini, says Perini, you have to first understand the Terra Dei Motori, or “Land of the Engine”. In this 240km valley lie the bases of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati, Moto Morini and Malaguti, the racetracks of Imola and Misano, 13 motoring museums, 12 private collections and countless automotive suppliers and specialist mechanics. It is possibly the most car-obsessed area in Europe. “I think it’s because of the weather,” Perini says. “I’m not kidding. It’s very hot in summer, very cold in the winter and the land is always hung with fog in the middle seasons. It’s not normal and I think it somehow makes normal people who want to be involved with something that is far from the normal life.”

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Visiting the factory in the cold, fog-shrouded days of early spring, you can see what he means. The people looking after you take you for lunch, give you recipes for proper ragu bolognese, and have quick fags in the yard watching lads switch the wheels on a Huracán. Then, suddenly, you’re doing an interview under a huge picture of a razor blade, talking to a woman about a car with eyes whose shape looks like a lady’s, and looking outside at the sign of a mad bull shrouded in mist.

I can imagine the PR suits at Audi being uncomfortable with this image, but they shouldn’t be: it is fantastic in every sense of the word, and a lot more interesting than the usual car “brand experience”.

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Unlike Ferrari, Lamborghini never seriously engaged in car racing: Ferruccio wasn’t interested, and once claimed he couldn’t get involved because if a driver had been killed in his cars, he would have burned down the factory. In the absence of that heritage, the spectacles of the Miura and the Countach, which went on to sell more than 2,000 between 1974 and 1990, have tended to influence the brand’s destiny as what Robinson calls a “purveyor of automotive outrageousness”. Through the Eighties and Nineties, it was badly managed, first between 1980 and 1987 by sugar tycoons the Mimran brothers, then Chrysler (1987–93), and then, before Audi, the Indonesian Megatech.Yet among some forgettable projects, the factory still produced significant cars. Most notable was the Diablo, designed by Gandini in the late Eighties to replace the Countach.

Chrysler may have alienated Gandini by softening the Diablo’s shape in Detroit but it did become what Jeremy Clarkson called “the biggest head-turner in the world” and was among the first production cars to reach the coveted 200mph top speed. With its Breguet dashboard clock, it was also notably more luxurious and leather-padded inside and sold in decent numbers, though not the 500 a year envisaged by the American owner.

When, under Audi, the Diablo was replaced by the ultra-low-slung V12 Murciélago in 2001, a revival got underway, though long-term aficionados sniff at the Germans’ neglect of the brand’s GT heritage (these days, Ferrari and Lambo fans both accuse each other of neglecting classicism and embracing the vulgar flashiness ’n’ brashness in order to attract China’s nouveau riche). The 2003 Gallardo became the best-selling Lamborghini ever, and since then, Perini has reinvigorated the design language with hexagons and trapezoids inspired by American stealth jets.

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“We work a lot with geometrical lines but I ask my designers to not create surfaces because of lines, but to create lines because of volume,” he explains. “I know it’s complicated but the car should be like a cut diamond; the lines of the diamond are created because of the intersection of surfaces and that principle is the same with our cars. It’s the DNA. You see with some cars, the lines have come first. It’s interesting, it means our cars reflect light differently. We did a presentation in the desert where there was an Audi and a Lamborghini, both painted the same colour, but the Lamborghini looked much brighter.” It was this reflective capacity, he adds, that led Lambo to produce Aventadors in the matt grey that has since been adopted as status-paint by drivers of other car brands.

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The Asterion is Lamborghini's high-performance plug-in hybrid car
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The maker of modern supercars inhabits a different world from the one in which an ambitious tractor maker could knock up something in the corner of a factory to settle a grudge. The high development costs always made margins questionable, but now safety legislation is way tighter and the concentration of manufacturing in the hands of a few multinationals makes it tough for small independents to compete.

The current Lamborghini president and CEO, German Stephan Winkelmann, a former paratrooper with playboy hair and leather and bead bangles under his undone cuffs, has admitted a sports car company these days has to justify its existence beyond being about “a strong brand and beautiful cars for the happy few”. Nowadays, a supercar developer pays its way with research that feeds back into its parent company’s mainstream ranges, as Ferrari’s feeds back to Fiat. Today, Lamborghini’s people want to talk about their pioneering work with carbon fibre, eco-initiatives, brand extensions and spin-offs. It can all feel a bit… pedestrian.

“Brands like Lamborghini are expensive and needy for the tiny revenue they produce,” says Aaron Robinson. “You can’t just give them [components shared by the parent group] and slap a Lambo badge on it. The engineering and development are all unique and thus expensive. They have to go where their customers are going and leverage Volkswagen Group [Audi’s parent] platforms to reduce development costs, which means an SUV. Done right, an SUV will become Lamborghini’s flagship and its most recognised vehicle. They need to replace the Aventador with a hybrid first, because competitors have created an expectation for hybridisation among supercar purchasers. If your £200,000-plus supercar can’t move under electric power, it’s going to seem awfully antiquated in this market.”

And yet. On the spring day that I meet Filippo Perini in his office, he has earlier seen some new Ferrari renderings and has been taking notes because, “first you have to beat your competitors! When we wake up in the morning, we think, we have to beat them!”

And what do they think about Lamborghini?

“The same!”

They want to beat you as well?

“Yes! Always! But we know each other very well. We are all designers, we all feel the same pressure and we all love beautiful cars.”

Beautiful cars or fast cars? I ask.

He shakes his head. “It’s not about the speed. It’s about the heart, and the beauty. What touches a car fan is the appearance; the appearance communicates something to you, so the acceleration figure — you know that from the outside. I have known lots of racing drivers, and I have known drivers who lose races, but still love their car because it’s beautiful.

“In the end, it’s about beauty,” he says. “The beauty. Yes.”

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