For more than 50 years, Lamborghini has been designing and building exciting vehicles that trigger all of our senses. Outrageous looks, spectacular sound, and astonishing performance have come to define the raging bull from Sant'Agata. The company that invented the modern supercar, has one of the most recognisable names in the automotive industry, yet only a few people know its exciting and often chequered history.
Part 1: The Beginning of a Legend (1963-1980)
Ferruccio Lamborghini, born in 1916 in Renazzo, Italy, was the son of grape farmers. From an early age, he showed his interest in machinery, fixing his father’s tractor before later studying at a technical university near Bologna.
After serving as a mechanic in the Italian Air Force during World War II, Lamborghini founded a tractor company that proved to be very successful. Besides being an accomplished businessman, Ferruccio loved driving and he even raced his tuned Fiat Topolino. Later, as a wealthy man, his collection would include sports cars from Mercedes, Lancia, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari, reaching a point where he had a different car for each day of the week.
Lamborghini enjoyed driving several versions of the Ferrari 250 GT he owned, but he was dissatisfied by their weak clutches that kept breaking down. He also criticised them for being too firm and noisy for the road, and for lacking a premium feel in their cabins.
After travelling back and forth to Maranello in order to fix his cars, legend has it he voiced his complaints to Ferrari honcho Enzo Ferrari. In this historic meeting between Ferrari and Lamborghini, it is said that Enzo told Ferruccio that he may know how to drive a tractor but he would never be able to handle a Ferrari properly. Feeling insulted, and after successfully tuning his Ferrari to outperform stock factory models, Lamborghini decided to start his own car company with the goal of producing the greatest grand tourers.
Starting a sports car company in a very competitive market was a big risk for Lamborghini, but he was passionate and determined to succeed, seeing a great opportunity for growing his empire. According to his son Tonino, Ferruccio decided to invest in the new company by cutting the advertising budget for his tractors, as he knew that the sports cars would also work as a marketing tool for his other business.
In May 1963, and after only a few months of planning, 'Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini' was founded. The cutting edge production facilities of Lamborghini were built in Sant’Agata, right next to the company's headquarters, so Ferruccio could oversee and get involved with the process as much as possible. Lamborghini, fascinated with Spanish fighting bulls, chose the raging bull for the emblem of his car company as a symbol of power and fortitude, while Taurus (the bull) was also his zodiac sign.
In order to build his first grand tourer, Ferruccio hired a team of highly skilled designers and engineers. The chassis was built by Gian Paolo Dallara, previously employed by Ferrari and Maserati, while young engineering talent Paolo Stanzani and accomplished test driver Bob Wallace from New Zealand were responsible for the development of the car.
For the exterior design, Lamborghini chose Franco Scaglione, an Italian designer previously employed by Bertone. Finally, the design of the V12 engine was appointed to Giotto Bizzarrini, an experienced engineer and former sports car development chief at Ferrari, responsible for the development of the legendary 250 GTO.
After only four months of development, the 350 GTV prototype was unveiled at the 1963 Turin Motor Show in October. The 3.5-litre V12 engine produced an astonishing 270kW but it couldn’t fit under the beautifully styled bonnet of the show car, so Lamborghini filled the engine bay with bricks and made sure it stayed closed during the show.
Above: Lamborghini 350 GTV prototype
Bizzarrini had delivered a wonderful engine, however it was too powerful, aggressive and race-oriented for Ferruccio’s taste, who was determined to build a refined, luxurious and road-focused grand tourer.
The first production model of Lamborghini was the 350 GT launched at the 1964 Geneva Motor Show with a restyled aluminium body built by Carrozzeria Touring Milan, a detuned version of the 3.5-litre V12 engine producing 235kW, independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and optional limited-slip differential.
The car was well received by the public and Lamborghini built a total of 120 units between 1964 and 1966, with two additional Spyder prototypes called the 350 GTS.
Above: Lamborghini 350 GT
Following the success of the first model, the 400 GT launched in 1966 with a larger 4.0-litre version of the V12 engine that was also found on the latest 350 GT models. Shortly after, the 400 GT 2+2 launched at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show with a redesigned roofline, a more spacious 2+2 cabin and a gearbox developed in-house. By 1968, a total of 273 units had been produced, establishing Lamborghini among the established Italian sports car manufacturers.
While the grand tourers were selling well, making Ferruccio’s dream a reality, his young and inspired team of engineers started secretly working on another project that would eventually become the most interesting chapter in the early history of the company.
Dallara, Stanzani and Wallace wanted to build an exciting vehicle that could be driven on the race track while at the same time being street legal and drivable on the road. They all knew Ferruccio wasn’t keen on the idea, as he always preferred the concept of a more comfortable grand tourer, however, to their surprise, he approved the project for promotional reasons and without expecting to sell many cars.
At first, the plans were to have a longitudinally-mounted engine positioned between the axles and a three seat layout with the driver in the middle. However, Lamborghini’s enormous V12 was too long and wouldn't fit in an appropriately-sized wheelbase. Inspired by the Mini, the engineers solved this problem by transversely mounting the 3.9-litre V12 behind the cabin, together with the gearbox and differential that shared the same casing and oil with the engine.
Above: Lamborghini P400 chassis
The revolutionary rolling chassis made of bent, welded and drilled metal sheets, was presented at the 1965 Turin Motor Show with a mid-engined layout inspired by race cars. Nuccio Bertone was so impressed by the sight of it that he approached Ferruccio asking him to design the body, a proposal no one would refuse.
The resulting Lamborghini Miura, now acknowledged as the first modern supercar, launched a year later at the 1966 Turin Motor Show to broad acclaim. Its name came from the strongest and the most intelligent fighting bulls, bred by the Miura family in Spain.
The ultra-fast development of the project in under four months, required the engineers to work seven days a week, while the aggressive and yet elegant body designed by Marcello Gandini was ready just in time for the unveiling. However, in typical Lamborghini fashion, the engine wouldn’t fit inside the stylish body of the show car, so the cover needed to be kept closed.
The production version of the Miura, besides being an astonishingly beautiful exotic car with unconventional layout and proportions that created the supercar segment, was also the fastest car in the world at the time, with a top speed of 280km/h. The Miura has routinely been voted the most beautiful production car ever released in the decades since.
Above: Lamborghini Miura P400 SV
The 4.0-litre V12 engine produced 257kW, accelerating the 1125kg Miura from 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds. However, as happens with all masterpieces, the Miura had its own faults, including front end lift at high speeds and fuel leaks from the Weber carburettors directly onto the spark plugs and ignition wires causing engine fires. (Having spoken to numerous specialist mechanics and restorers, some of the fire issues are more related to poor maintenance than design flaws – Managing Ed.)
Finally, the unmistakable style and the unrivalled performance of the model prevailed over its weaknesses and in contrast with Ferruccio’s prediction, the Miura P400 sold 275 units in two years, making the Lamborghini name known all around the world.
During the late 1960s, Lamborghini launched several prototypes and production models expanding its range of products. A pertinent example is the Lamborghini Marzal concept car presented at the 1967 Geneva Motor Show, which was an exciting four-seater with gull-wing doors and a smaller 2.0-litre six cylinder engine generating 130kW.
The show car didn’t make it into production but had a significant impact on future models like the Lamborghini Espada, launched a year later in 1968. This luxurious, comfortable and spacious four-seater, with a powerful V12 engine positioned at the front combined with beautiful styling by Marcello Gandini, proved to be a best-seller for Lamborghini, with its various iterations selling a total of 1227 units between 1968 and 1978. Stanzani later described the Espada as the most difficult model to develop, as it had to combine comfort and performance in a balanced manner.
Above: Lamborghini Espada
Launched at the 1968 Geneva Motor Show, the Lamborghini Islero replaced the 400 GT with a 2+2 coupe body style, borrowing its name from a bull that gored and killed its matador. Although the car was destined to be a core model for Lamborghini, it had a modest production of 225 units because of its steep price and the internal competition it faced from the Miura.
Above: Lamborghini Islero
At the 1968 Turin Motor Show, Lamborghini launched the Miura P400 S, an updated version of its flagship supercar featuring a more powerful engine producing 272kW, improved handling and more amenities inside the cabin like electric windows, optional air conditioning, leather upholstery, passenger grab handle and a locking glovebox.
Between 1968 and 1971, Lamborghini sold 338 units (production numbers are robustly disputed globally) of the Miura P400 S, with Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis among its famous owners. Besides the more capable production version, a Miura Roadster concept car was presented at the 1968 Brussels Auto Show however it stayed a one-off as it didn’t gather enough orders at the time.
Above: Lamborghini Miura P400 S
Chief engineer Gian Paolo Dallara was not keen with Ferruccio’s views on keeping Lamborghini away from motorsport, and finally left the company in 1968, after greatly contributing to design and development of every single model. His deputy, Paolo Stanzani, who was also a member of the company from the beginning, replaced Dallara as the new head of the technical department.
Trying to revive the GT model of the range, the new Lamborghini Jarama replaced the Islero in 1970, utilising a shortened version of the Espada’s platform. The Jarama offered a combination of luxury, elegance and power, targeting the 'gentleman driver', however like its predecessor it failed to attract customers, even though it was one of Ferruccio’s favourite cars.
Above: Lamborghini Jarama
The unstable political situation in Italy combined with the labour unions taking control of the factory, placed a lot of pressure on Lamborghini’s shoulders, as his company was facing logistical and organisational problems. Under those circumstances, Lamborghini launched the Urraco P250 at the 1970 Turin Motor Show, aiming to rival cars like the Ferrari 308GT4 Dino, the Maserati Merak, and the Porsche 911, with a more affordable Lamborghini.
Above: Lamborghini Urraco
The most affordable Lamborghini at the time was a four-seater designed from scratch, with a wedge-shaped body, styled by Marcello Gandini, a transverse rear mid-engine layout, independent MacPherson suspension on all four wheels and a brand new 2.5-litre V8 engine (164kW) developed by Stanzani.
In order to build the new car, the Sant’Agata factory was expanded, however a delay in the development caused a two-year waiting period until the first cars were delivered to customers, with a lot of people cancelling orders.
Finally, 520 units of the Urraco P250 were sold with Stanzani describing the model as the most technically advanced Lamborghini yet. In the following years, new versions of the Urraco were launched with more refined interiors and different power outputs but neither proved successful.
The lesser P200 fitted with a 2.0-litre V8 engine (136kW), was exclusively built for the Italian market due to tax cuts and only managed to sell 66 units. The P300 was fitted with a larger 3.0-litre V8 engine (186kW) allowing a 0-100km/h acceleration of 5.6 seconds and a top speed of 250km/h, but despite the much needed power boost it only sold 200 units.
Inside the well organised and always clean factory at Sant’Agata, test driver Bob Wallace envisioned a racing Lamborghini that could eventually compete at Le Mans. For that reason, he utilised his free time on weekends to developed the Miura Jota, a lighter and more powerful test mule with significant upgrades including a redesigned dry-sump engine approaching the 330kW mark, new suspension, a close-ratio gearbox, a custom aerodynamic body, a stripped out interior and an aluminium alloy chassis compliant with FIA’s Appendix J rules.
Above: Lamborghini Miura Jota
After extensive testing that proved to be beneficial for future models, the unique car was sold to a customer who unfortunately completely destroyed it in a crash. Even though Wallace didn’t realise his dream of racing in a Miura, the Jota’s legacy lived on as a few customers approached Lamborghini asking for Jota-inspired conversions later known as the Miura SV/J.
After the Jota, the New Zealander didn’t lose his passion for tuning, as he converted a Jarama 'Bob' (1972) and a Urraco 'Bob' (1973) into one-off racing cars by improving the chassis rigidity, suspension set up, adding lightweight body panels and significantly modifying the engine to produce more power.
The final Miura P400 SV (for Sprinto Veloce) presented in 1971 is considered to be the ultimate production version of the model. The mechanical improvements inspired by the Jota prototype, included a revised suspension, wider tyres from Pirelli, a much needed separate lubrication system for the gearbox and an updated engine with larger carburettors that produced 287kW.
Those upgrades allowed a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 5.8 seconds while top speed was increased to 290km/h. The last iteration of the first mid-engined Lamborghini flagship could be distinguished by the redesigned headlight surrounds that lost the signature 'eyelashes', the new tail-lights and the wider rear fenders to accommodate the wider tyres. Just 150 examples of the SV were built between 1971 and 1973 (again, numbers are debated heatedly), with a handful of them fitted with the optional limited slip-differential, ending the era of the Miura.
In 1972, Ferruccio suffered great economic stress from his tractor company due to the cancellation of an order for 5000 tractors destined for Bolivia. In order to save himself from bankruptcy, he was forced to sell 51 per cent of Lamborghini Automobili to his close friend, Swiss businessman Georges-Henri Rossetti.
Two years later, in 1974, he sold the remaining 49 per cent to René Leimer who was a friend of Rossetti's, thus ending Ferruccio's connection with the supercar manufacturer bearing his name. Ferruccio retired from the automotive sector, and moved to his estate, La Fiorita, on the shores of Lake Trasimeno near Perugia, where he worked as a winemaker.
The oil crisis of 1973 due to the Arab-Israeli War that caused shortages to petrol supplies, significantly affected the sales of exotic cars, which were targeted by regulators with stricter laws for fuel consumption. At this point, the story may seem like it has an unfortunate ending, however the Italians had another ace up their sleeve.
At the 1971 Geneva Motor Show, alongside the Miura SV, Lamborghini had showcased a concept car that provided a glimpse into its future flagship. Developed in just one year by Stanzani, Wallace and Massimo Parenti, the LP500 prototype was a technical revolution with jaw-dropping aesthetics designed by Gandini.
Above: Lamborghini Countach LP400
The dramatic wedge shape was characterised by impressive width, very low height and cab forward proportions, with scissor doors that would become synonymous with the brand. Mechanically, the model featured a longitudinally, mid-mounted V12 5.0-litre engine with the gearbox positioned in front of it, improving weight distribution. This specific layout became very popular in supercars and is still used on Lamborghini flagships to this day.
The production version of the legendary Countach LP 400, debuted at the 1974 Geneva Motor Show with its aluminium body retaining the stunning design of the concept car. Legend has it that an employee strolled into the design studio and saw the near-finished Countach and uttered the word 'Countach'. It's a word often used in Piedmontese dialect to express admiration for a beautiful female.
Contrasting the Miura’s curves, the Countach’s sharp and angular details would become the core of Lamborghini’s visual identity for years to come. The smaller 4.0-litre V12 engine was chosen for the production model, because the prototype’s 5.0-litre unit blew up during one of the tests, and engineers couldn’t make it reliable enough for production.
The increased power output of 280kW, allowed an acceleration of 0-100 km/h in 5.4 seconds and an impressive top speed of 309km/h. The last car developed while Ferruccio was still behind the wheel of Automobili Lamborghini, signalled a new era for the company, guiding it through troubled waters over the next decade.
Surviving the oil crisis, Lamborghini needed a more mainstream model to return to viability. The Silhouette, launched at the 1976 Geneva Motor Show, was a targa two-seater with a V8 engine that served as the successor to the Urraco P300.
The new 'baby Lambo' was fitted with an updated version of the mid-mounted 3.0-litre V8 engine producing 194kW, which resulted in a 0-100km/h time of 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 260km/h.
Above: Lamborghini Silhouette
The aggressively styled steel body with flared wheel arches and angular details was designed by Bertone, featuring a detachable roof that could be stored behind the seats making it the first open top production model by Lamborghini.
Unfortunately, the company never managed to get permission to export the Silhouette to the USA which would have been the biggest market for the car. It seems that the world wasn’t quite ready for an affordable supercar with a V8 engine back in the 1970s, and the Silhouette only managed to sell 52 units in two years – three prototypes were also built for testing.
Above: Lamborghini Silhouette
In 1976 the production facilities of Lamborghini were often idle due to slow sales, and the company's owners were in discussions with BMW Motorsport in order to develop and produce a mid-engined sports car for the German brand which would eventually become the limited production BMW M1. Finally the plans were scrapped and BMW decided to produce its sports car independently, as Lamborghini couldn’t meet the requested deadlines.
In 1977, in an unexpected turn for a sports car manufacturer, Lamborghini became involved with the development of an off-road, military-spec performance vehicle – the Cheetah – for the US army contractor Mobility Technology International.
Above: Lamborghini Cheetah prototype
The development resulted in a few running prototypes but the project never reached completion due to a number of technical and legal problems, and Lamborghini wouldn’t capitalise on its off-road vehicle until the early '80s (more on that in a little bit).
Despite the cancellation of those projects, Lamborghini kept working on the Countach including a special order made by Canadian businessman Walter Wolf. The former Wolf F1 Racing owner, asked Dallara for a series of custom upgrades to his Countach LP400 in order to improve its performance and handling capabilities.
Changes included the fitment of a larger and more powerful 5.0-litre engine with 333kW (from the LP500 prototype), wider Pirelli P7 tires, redeveloped suspension and a new aero kit consisting of fender flare extensions, front spoiler and a rear wing.
Above: Lamborghini Countach LP400 S with optional rear wing
Wolf ordered three custom cars and proposed Lamborghini added those upgrades to the production model. As a result, the Countach LP400 S launched in 1978 with most of the aforementioned upgrades, minus the 5.0-litre engine.
For the first time, the new version was slightly slower and less aerodynamic than its predecessor, in order to become safer to drive, easier to handle and even more eye-catching. The 4.0-litre engine was rated at 261kW, the suspension was fully redesigned to accommodate the widest rear tyres in production – the Pirelli P7 345/35R15 – and the aggressive bodykit made of fibreglass completed the iconic look of the model.
Lamborghini continued offering the LP400, however most of its customers now opted for the LP400 S and numerous existing owners requested the visual upgrades, including the optional V-shaped rear wing which in reality was non-functional.
Ubaldo Sqarzi, who served as Lamborghini’s Sales Manager from 1964 until 1994, helped the company a lot during hard times, with his clever customer approach and unconventional sales methods. However neither he, nor increased sales of the Countach, were able to prevent Lamborghini’s bankruptcy. By 1979, the Espada, Urraco and Silhouette were axed leaving the Countach as the only model offered by Lamborghini.
At the dawn of the 1980s, the Raging Bull was hurt, falling into receivership, and under the control of the Italian courts. The only hope for Lamborghini was its established name, the small but passionate team of talented individuals who worked there, and the legendary status of the supercars from Sant’Agata that attracted investors in a quest to save the Italian company from liquidation.
The story of Lamborghini was not meant to end and its models would keep their place on bedroom wall posters all around the world.