Part 52 – Lamborghini: The Early Years
The History of the Italian Automobile
Part 52 – Lamborghini: The Early Years
By: David Cavaliere
The history of ‘Lamborghini Automobili’ officially began in 1963, but the events that brought about its origin have become the stuff of legends. If Ferruccio Lamborghini hadn’t had ongoing clutch problems with his ‘58 Ferrari 250 GT, perhaps his car company would have never been created. If Enzo Ferrari had taken a different tact when Ferruccio came to him with the car’s problems, maybe Lamborghini would have remained a tractor manufacturer. What resulted was the creation of an exotic car maker that for the past 50 plus years has continually drawn a line in the sand and has challenged Ferrari to cross it.
Ferruccio Elio Arturo Lamborghini was born on April 28, 1916, in the town of Cento in the region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy. His parents were grape farmers. Like Henry Ford, as a young man, Ferruccio was interested in the farm machinery rather than farming itself. Unlike Ford, Lamborghini followed his interest in mechanics and studied at Fratelli Taddia, a technical institute near Bologna. In 1940, he was drafted into the Italian Royal Air Force and served as a mechanic on the Island of Rhodes. In 1944, the island fell to the British Armed Forces and Ferruccio became a prisoner of war. He was put to work in their motor depot, providing him first-hand experience at keeping vehicles on the road with limited parts and supplies. He was not permitted to return home until 1946, but shortly thereafter, he married Clelia Monti, who tragically was to die during child birth in 1947. Their son Tonino survived and many years later would found the Lamborghini Museum.
Once back home, Ferruccio started converting war surplus material into farm equipment for local use. After he built a tractor for his father Antonio, he started Lamborghini Trattori. By the mid-1950s, the tractor factory in Pieve di Cento had grown to become one of the most successful agricultural equipment manufacturers in Italy.
In his spare time, Ferruccio modified an old Fiat Topolino into a tiny, but roaring beast. He entered the car in the 1948 Mille Miglia, but crashed after about 700 miles. As a result, Lamborghini lost his enthusiasm for motor racing, a sentiment that lasted for many years. However, his ever-increasing wealth allowed him to purchase faster, far more expensive cars. He owned Alfa Romeos, Lancias and Maseratis. In 1958, Lamborghini traveled to Maranello to buy a Ferrari 250GT, a two-seat coupé (see Part 34 of this series - Ferrari, The Early Years, September 29, 2016). He went on to own a number of Ferraris and although he thoroughly enjoyed the performance of the cars, he also noted numerous shortcomings - poor ride quality, spartan interiors and a constant need for service. The Ferraris just weren’t up to his standards. His main complaint was that Ferrari’s clutches required constant trips to the factory in Maranello for replacement. He arranged a meeting with Enzo Ferrari, who kept him waiting for hours and following Ferruccio’s description of the problem was dismissed by the ‘Old Man,’ who told him that the problem lay not with the clutch, but with the driver. Lamborghini was furious. He had a factory mechanic look at the clutch on the 250 and found that it was a Borg Warner, similar to those used on the Lamborghini tractors. After getting over being insulted and infuriated, he realized that many of the components that were already being used in his tractors could also be used in cars. If he decided to manufacture cars, this would save development time and show higher profit margins.
The strong-willed Lamborghini decided upon this course. His cars would pick up where Ferrari left off. He felt that a Grand Tourer should have high performance, excellent ride-quality and superior interior appointments. Most importantly, it should not be a re-purposed racecar that was constantly in need of service!
He started working on the project in late 1962. Lamborghini began by commissioning a V12 engine for his cars. He chose Società Autostar led by Giotto Bizzarrini (See Part 11 of this series - Bizzarrini S.p.A., March 31, 2016), a member of the "Gang of Five" Ferrari engineers, who had been responsible for creating the immortal Ferrari 250 GTO, but were shown the door in 1961 after the infamous “Palace Revolt.” The engine Bizzarrini designed had a displacement of 3.5 liters and a maximum output of 360 hp. The engine in various displacements was used in Lamborghinis from 1963 to 2010.
Automobili Lamborghini was incorporated on October 30, 1963. Work began in a 500,000-square-foot facility that Ferruccio purchased at Via Modena 12, in the town of Sant'Agata Bolognese. The team that Lamborghini brought together for the design of his car’s chassis were young designers and engineers of extraordinary talent. Designing the chassis was Gian Paolo Dallara, who later became renowned for his designs at Ferrari, Maserati and his own racing car designs. His development team included Paolo Stanzani, then a recent college graduate, and Bob Wallace, a New Zealander who was known for his keen sense of chassis development. The body was styled by the then-relatively unknown designer Franco Scaglione.
The prototype of the 350 GTV was designed and built in only four months, in time for an October unveiling at the 1963 Turin Motor Show. At the time, one motoring journalist wrote, “This company is bound to cause Ferrari some headaches.” How true those words were, yet despite the favorable press reviews, Ferruccio decided to rework the car for production. The revised model, called the 350GT, was restyled by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan. Bizzarrini's V12 engine was detuned to produce just 280 hp for production. The car debuted the following year and remained in production for another two years, with a total of 120 cars sold.
In 1965, improvements were made to the Bizzarrini V12, increasing its displacement to 3.9 liters and power to 320 hp. The engine was first installed in the 400GT, essentially a 350GT with the larger engine. At the 1966 Geneva Auto Show, Lamborghini debuted the 400GT 2+2, a stretched version that featured 2+2 seating. The car had beautiful proportions, but it was not the show-stopper.
During 1965, Dallara, Stanzani and Wallace had used some downtime to develop a prototype car that they wanted to race as well as produce for the street. Ferruccio allowed the development for marketing purposes, but not for the track. It was code-named the P400 and debuted alongside the 400GT 2+2 in Geneva. Bertone was placed in charge of styling the prototype, which was finished just days before its debut. The car was the highlight of the show, immediately boosting stylist Marcello Gandini's reputation. This led Lamborghini to slate the car for production by 1967 under the name Miura. The car’s mid-engine layout and styling would become the standard for mid-engine two-seat high-performance sports cars. When released, it was the fastest production road car made. It featured a transversely-mounted mid-engine layout, a departure from previous Lamborghini cars. The V12 was also unusual in that the transmission and differential were integral with the engine (mounted in the sump), due to a lack of space in the tightly-wrapped design. The car was a revelation. It was not without its own shortcomings, but Lamborghini had made it into the big leagues of exotic car production. The biggest question would become, could the company sustain its success?
Next week, we’ll continue with Part 2 of the Lamborghini story focusing on the next generations of the company – the Countach and Diablo and some of the lesser known models of the company. You can reach me at Dave@ItalianTribune.com. Thank you for all your comments!