Morley Safer told this story better than the rest of us.
In 1987, CBS sent the 60 Minutes correspondent to Sant'Agata to be put in the passenger's seat with famed test driver Valentino Balboni in a Countach. Safer remarked that the camera attached to the front of the red Countach was capturing the car going at speeds up to 180 MPH.
If you watch the segment (which is available on YouTube), you will get an idea of not only the moment but of a little bit of the history of the famed purveyor of supercars from the Bolognese region. There was a marketing director Safer interviewed that equated Lamborghinis as part of a man’s desire. The CBS cameras captured crowds of onlookers in Sant‘Agata and midtown Manhattan who were drawn to these expensive, desirable, and temperamental machines.
I bore witness to some not-so-rare Lamborghinis on the streets of the San Fernando Valley, Beverly Hills and everywhere else in the Los Angeles basin. Hot Wheels and Matchbox sold plenty of Miuras to the fascination of many car-loving children. Heads snap upon sight of a Silhouette, Jarama, or an Urraco. The rarity of early Lamborghinis added the mystique of the cars that wear the badge sporting the iconic bull.
Before we talk about the Lamborghinis that once traversed the streets of Los Angeles, we should look back at how this company came to be. And, perhaps, the reason why we love and revere them so much. After all, there are about 50 of them that reside in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin as we speak.
Ferruccio Lamborghini began life as a mechanic. Though his early fascination was with farm implements, he was working on military vehicles through World War II. After he was released by the Allied forces, he started to work on cars in his newly opened garage. In his spare time, he started tinkering with cars to get more performance out of them.
As Italy began to revitalize their industrial and agricultural base in the aftermath of World War II, Lamborghini found that he can get in on this revitalization by taking old military vehicle parts to build a farm tractor. Powered by old six-cylinder engines from British trucks, his Carioca tractors began to appear in the Italian countryside from the end of the 1940s on. Lamborghini Trattori was born. It was only the beginning.
With his success and newfound wealth, Lamborghini became fascinated with high performance cars. His stable in the 1950s included cars from Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz. This led him to consider buying a road car from one of the famed names in Italian automobiles – Enzo Ferrari.
Lamborghini had his eyes set on a 1958 Ferrari 250 GT. It would be his first road car from the Prancing Horse. Yet, Lamborghini became critical of the cars built at the Maranello factory. He was not fond of the quality of the interiors and had numerous issues with the interior clutches on his Ferraris. He would have to drive them to the Maranello factory for repairs.
It was through these repeated trips to the factory that Lamborghini became frustrated with Ferrari. He brought his issues to Enzo – which is never a good idea, to begin with. The Boss eventually dismissed the tractor manufacturer.
However, Lamborghini had an idea. He took one of his Ferraris and began to tinker with them. The goal was to have his Ferrari outperform factory specifications. When he figured out that he could, Lamborghini had another idea – if he could make excellent farm tractors, why not create a sports car with an emphasis on excellence and perfection.
In 1963, Automobili Lamborghini was born. Before I could say "and the rest is history," remember that not every automaker would have a smooth start to create their legacy over the next several decades. This is very true for Lamborghini.
Some of the tricks Lamborghini had up his sleeve was to take some of the parts from his tractors and find a way to fashion them onto his sports cars. That way he could gain a profit off each of these special machines. And, special is the keyword here.
His first car was the 1964 350GT. This was far from all of the iconic bulls you know and love today. It was a grand tourer wearing a notchback-like body from Carrozzeria Touring. Right off the bat, Lamborghini dropped a 3.5-liter V-12 engine underneath the hood. That engine produced 280 horsepower and turned in a top speed of 158 MPH. These were numbers that induced dreams for the mid-1960s.
After a run of 135 350GTs, Lamborghini unveiled its sequel in 1966 – the 400GT. With some nips and tucks on the design, the V-12 jumped in size by another 400cc – 3.9-liters. Power jumped to 320 horsepower and was available in both a two-seater and a 2+2 coupe. About 247 examples were built between 1966 and 1968.
One thing to understand about Lamborghini in the 1960s was the market these cars were built unto. He chose to start Automobili Lamborghini off with a grand tourer was that well-heeled Europeans of the era wanted something extremely special with a balance of motorsport performance and grand luxury. They wanted something for the weekend in Monaco or along the French and Italian Riviera. They wanted something as a work of art to adorn the chalet outside of Zurich or the manor two hours outside of London.
The company also had a badge that distinguished itself from the other producers of performance cars. The bull on the badge was intentional. It reflected Lamborghini’s love of bullfighting.
Everyone has a passion that goes beyond their work. The tie-in between Lamborghini’s passion for bullfighting and the passion for making fine Italian performance coupes would go hand-in-hand. It would drive the company’s integration of these two passions together with every vehicle they produced.
Lamborghini was just like his customers – a self-made industrialist who lived out their personal passions and gained access to the finest road cars in the world. And, he drove them. Not like Valentino Balboni, but he knew that he wanted in striking the balance between pure power and comfort for himself and his customers.
Deep down inside, what these same wealthy Europeans wanted was something beyond a powerful grand coupe. They have seen them only on the track, but not on the road. Not along the Riviera or at any given estate from England to Austria. They wanted a Le Mans champion – or, something that might look like one – to carve the Stelvio Pass in.
With the initial encouragement by the 350GT and 400GT, Lamborghini went to work on what would become its first big bull. The idea was to create a two-seat supercar with a massive power source behind the cockpit – a mid-engine monster with sexy looks. The mid-engine format lent to an unusual transverse-mounted V-12 motor that broke every rule of the era.
The sexy look was penned by Marcello Gandini at Bertone, who crafted a low slung two-door coupe design that toyed with the details. The look of this car was a perfect mix of the past and the future – exactly the kind of dream bull Lamborghini had in mind.
The car appeared at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show. Lamborghini called it the Miura.
The Miura was the kind of supercar that would be the signature of the company for the next several decades. This magnificent machine launched the mid-engine V-12 supercar genre that would be the company's signature and the object of desire for enthusiasts the world over.
The 3.9-liter V-12 from the 400GT was dropped underneath the rear shell behind the cockpit. The initial P400 models had 348 horsepower, which pushed the engineering envelope of the transverse-mounted engine driving the rear axle. Over the next several years, horsepower increases were added to the V-12. Lamborghini was pushing more power out of the Miura's engine, while fine tuning Gandini’s design.
Alongside the Miura, Lamborghini produced other V-12-powered coupes that would take the place of the 400GT as grand tourers. Mario Marazzi penned the 2+2’s successor in the Isolero, giving it a more modern look for the late 1960s. Production for this coupe would only last from 1968 to 1969.
The Isolero was sold alongside the more advanced looking Espada, penned by Gandini at Bertone. The 1968 Espada offered more interior space for four, along with an unusual hatchback cargo area behind the rear seat. This car would not only disturb the universe in terms of design, it would also attempt to set a new standard for four-seat performance luxury into the 1970s. The last Espada was produced in 1978, with 1,218 units made through its 10-year run.
The Isolero was supplanted by the sharper looking Jarama in 1970. Gandini also penned this fastback 2+2 that pushed Lamborghini further into attracting a well-heeled clientele with V-12 power and performance. Production of the Jarama would last until 1976 with just 328 units made.
While the Miura was in production from 1966 to 1973, its legacy would launch a succession of dream machines for the decades to come. Enthusiasts always point to the flagship V-12-powered supercar like the Lamborghini of boyhood dreams.
The 1971 Geneva Motor Show would be the stage where the next Lamborghini flagship would debut. The Countach not only flipped the V-12 engine to a north-south configuration behind the cockpit; it would signal a grand run of an iconic design study penned by Gandini for Bertone. After a run of angular, creased, and linear concepts, Gandini brought to life a Lamborghini full of future shock.
The Countach would also be one of Lamborghini’s most enduring vehicles. By the end of its production run in 1990, Lamborghini produced 2,000 units. It also spawned many, many more posters for the walls of many youthful bedrooms.
The Countach’s long run would yield even more iconic flagships that would follow its legacy. Names such as Diablo, Murcielago, and Aventador would be born from the iconic Countach’s wake. Each one would continue the mission to be the absolute best in its lofty segment.
However, Lamborghini produced plenty of vehicles that sat below the V-12 icons. A business case for any sports car/supercar producer is to offer something that has the feel and drama of its flagship but at a more attainable level of performance and relative price.
In 1973, Lamborghini produced its first V8 engine – a 2.0-liter unit for the new Urraco. The "little bull" debuted as an "entry" into the Lamborghini lineup and a rival to Ferrari and Maserati V8s. Gandini penned this sharp-looking 2+2 coupe with the small V8 underneath its hood. For a small V8, it did put out 180 horsepower. During its run into he 1979 model year, two engine updates were made to increase displacement and performance. In the end, 791 examples were produced.
Alongside the Urraco, Lamborghini introduced the Silhouette as a direct competitor to Ferrari’s 308GTB. It would be the first Lamborghini to place its V8 behind the cockpit and to employ a Targa roof. The Silhouette caught plenty of attention from enthusiasts whose eyes were dazzled by the Pininfarina-penned 308. The car was produced at Bertone with its signature sharpened design. It would also be a rare model, producing only 54 units from 1976 to 1979.
The mid-1970s yielded the largest lineup of vehicles in Lamborghini's history. Five models danced in front of the few enthusiasts and well-heeled customers to beg the question "which Bull would I want in my stable?"
The 1970s also spelled trouble for Ferruccio Lamborghini. In 1972, the tractor business was sold off to a rival company. The OPEC oil crisis began to affect sales of his automobiles to the point where the founder became disenchanted with the idea of producing them. By 1974, Ferruccio left the company, selling his 49% stake in it to a friend of his business partner.
The 1970s also called for some rationalization at Automobili Lamborghini. By 1981, only two models were offered – the iconic Countach and the replacement for the Silhouette, the new Jalpa. In essence, the Jalpa replaced three models at once. It also pointed Lamborghini into a strategy of concentrating its lineup into two categories – sports cars and supercars.
However, the Jalpa and Countach would be joined by a very un-Lamborghini vehicle in 1986 – the LM002. The so-called “Rambo Lambo” was an outgrowth of a couple of concepts that demonstrated producing a vehicle for military use – similar to a Jeep or the future HMMV (i.e. the Hummer H1). It would also be Lamborghini’s first production off-road vehicle. The message for this V-12 powered beast was simple: We can build it because we can. This kind of arrogance provided the company the gumption to build 328 examples until they ended production of the LM002 in 1992.
In 1987, Lee Iacocca knocked on the door of Sant'Agata. Chrysler bought the company from the second group of owners that had purchased it from Ferrucci Lamborghini. Iacocca’s dream was to include an Italian asset to his resurrected company. After their short affair with Lamborghini, Chrysler sold the company to Malaysian and Indonesian interests in 1994.
Chrysler’s money did help spurn on the successor to the Countach – the Diablo. Instead of a mish-mash of angular shapes, the Diablo was a much cleaner looking "big bull." Chrysler took on the task of designing the new flagship after they rejected Gandini's original styling proposal. The architecture remained the same as the Countach – a longitudinal-mounted V-12 placed behind the cockpit built low in height and featuring the signature scissor-opening doors.
The Diablo proved to be a popular model by Lamborghini's standards. At the end of production in 2001, Lamborghini built 2,884 Diablos for an adoring universe. The Diablo also deepened their global image with customers snapping them up along the Persian Gulf and in Asia.
In 1998, Lamborghini would be sold again. This time to the Volkswagen Group. Under the auspices of Audi, Lamborghini received some much needed upgrades to their vehicles and an enhanced manufacturing stucture. While Lamborghinis were hand-crafted at Sant’Agata, they took on the latest electronics, and technology from Audi.
Audi also saw Lamborghini as a resource in developing high performance vehicles for their lineup. Lamborghini developed a V-10 that was cut from the same block as its massive V-12. The new V-10 debuted in the Gallardo – the eventual replacement for the Jalpa. This same V-10 would be shoehorned into the engine bay of the Audi R8 – though with a different tune than in the Gallardo.
Today’s Lamborghini is a success, assisted by Volkswagen Group and Audi. While the current Huracan and Aventador remain true to the tradition of high performance machinery laid down in the mid-1960s by the Miura, a new kind of Lamborghini recently joined its ranks.
The Urus may have the look of a current Lamborghini, but it is a different breed of vehicle. The first Super Sport Utility Vehicle is built off of the platform that is shared with the Bentley Bentayga, Porsche Cayenne, and Audi Q8. The Urus is powered by a turbocharged V8 with a performance version of Audi’s Quattro system.
Has the Urus strayed from the original mission of Lamborghini? That depends on who you talk to.
In the 57 years since Ferrucci Lamborghini introduced his first automobile, the bull symbolizes a commitment to high performance for the driver that wants everything. Yet, it still has an air of difference even in the ranks of supercar fandom. Frank Sinatra once said, "If you want to be somebody, you get a Ferrari. If you are somebody, you get a Lamborghini."
Also, the late Automobile Magazine editor David E. Davis once told Safer, Lamborghini is the "ultimate outlaw statement."
Perhaps this is why we go crazy over a Lamborghini. It is a car that lives beyond the rules and doesn’t care what you think. It was the car that was produced as a result of a disagreement with Enzo Ferrari. In Italy, that is an outlaw statement in itself.
Hence why there is a bull on the badge.
Cover photo by Randy Stern