This much is certain. The story of Lamborghini, super sports car maker sans compare, begins with an insult. The humiliating put down by Enzo Ferrari incensed the company’s founder so much that he decided he had to launch his own car brand. And what a brand at that.
Founder Feruccio Laborghini’s story, however, starts with much less certainty.
Not much is known, and what is known is not widely believed, about the childhood or early adulthood of Lamborghini who was born in 1916 to viticulturists in Renazzo di Cento, in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. All we can say for sure is that he loved machines and served in the Italian royal air force during World War II.
In the years after World War II, Lamborghini went into the tractor-building business and, by the mid-1950s, his company—Lamborghini Trattori SpA—became one of the largest agricultural equipment makers in Italy. The success of one enterprise led him to other businesses and brought him wealth that helped him indulge in his passion for cars.
In a 1991 interview with a British motoring magazine, Lamborghini recalled that his first car was a Fiat Topolino. Almost immediately he began tuning the car for better performance. Later, with his tractors selling well, he bought cars made by Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Maserati and, finally, Ferrari. Such was his love for Ferrari that soon after he bought his first in 1958, every other car he owned was relegated to his garage. Lamborghini loved his Ferrari. Except for one niggling problem: his car had a recurring problem with its clutch.
So one day Feruccio Lamborghini went to meet Enzo Ferrari and make his complaint known. Ferrari dismissed him with some disdain. The tractor tycoon quoted him as saying: “Lamborghini, you may be able to drive a tractor but you will never be able to handle a Ferrari properly.”
The outraged Lamborghini decided that if he wanted a great sports car, with a great clutch, he had to make one himself. And along the way if his cars ruffled Ferrari’s feathers, all the better. He started working on this project in late 1962 and, by May the next year, formed the namesake company—Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini—buying a large plot of land in Sant’Agata Bolognese, about 25km from Bologna. The company’s logo was the bull, inspired by the founder’s star sign. Lamborghini hired Giotto Bizzarrini, who had designed some of Ferrari’s most recent engines, and engineers Giampaolo Dallara and Giampaolo Stanzani.
The bull surges
The first car to come out of the Lamborghini stable was the prototype 350 GTV that was developed in record time and launched in the Turin Auto show in 1963. It got a warm response. Reviews were positive but Lamborghini kept tweaking the car till it was ready for sale in 1964. The car remained in production for two years and sold 120 pieces.
In 1965, the company made changes to the Bizzarrini V12 engine increasing engine capacity to four litres and power output to 320 hp (240 kW) at 6,500 rpm. This powertrain was then installed in the 400 GT model, which also featured the first gearbox designed in-house by Lamborghini. The 400 GT reached the respectable overall production figure of 273 units. The company’s first two models were both moderate successes. There was now no turning back.
By early 1965, the cars from this small marquee in Sant’Agata were starting to be noticed. In the five years to come, Lamborghini pivoted to sustained success and produced some of the most iconic cars of that, or indeed any, time, including the Touring, the Miura, the Marzal, the Espada and the Islero.
In and out of recovery
And just when it seemed like the brand had established itself, the success fizzled out. Lamborghini’s fortunes turned precipitously, and not for the last time. As economic crisis began to unfold in the late 1960s-early 1970s, Lamborghini’s firms ran into financial difficulties. The tractor company, which was hugely dependent on exports, was hit by a large cancellation of order in 1971. The growing labour unrest also did not help and, in 1972, Lamborghini sold the majority stake in the car maker to his friend and Swiss businessman Georges-Henri Rossetti.
He sold his remaining stake to René Leimer in the following years, severed all ties with the car maker, and retired in 1974 to produce wine at his country estate.
The company survived with normal production for the first few years with these new owners and developed iconic models such as the Countach and the Cheetah in those difficult times but, once again, went bust and was liquidated. In 1980, the Italian courts appointed the French-Swiss Mimran brothers—Jean-Claude and Patrick, the owners of a sugar empire in Senegal and sports car lovers—to administer the company. The Mimrans were bought out by Chrysler in 1987 for around $25 million.
The Chrysler era
Lamborghini fit well in Chrysler’s ambition of entering the “extra premium” sports car market, which Chrylser estimated at about 5,000 cars per year worldwide. After a few false starts that included developing the prototype of the Portofino, the American owners quickly settled in at Sant’Agata. It was Chrysler that decided to take Lamborghini to the Formula One circuit.
Towards the end of 1987, the French Formula One team Larrousse asked celebrated engine designer Mauro Forghieri to create a new engine for them. Forghieri turned to friends at Lamborghini and suggested they collaborate. After obtaining Chrysler’s approval, Forghieri designed his engine, a V12 with a 3.5-litre capacity. Ready within a matter of months, the new engine was officially demonstrated to the public in April 1988.
Success was slow in coming, but by 1990 Lamborghini’s engines were beginning to make their presence felt. At the end of that year’s British Grand Prix, cars with Lamborghini engines were placed fourth and sixth. The Hungarian Grand Prix was even more rewarding—they placed fifth, sixth and seventh.
Once again, just when a peak had been reached, disaster struck. Chrysler’s financial commitment to manufacturing a world class F1 engine faltered. Performance fell and, at the end of that season, the Modena F1 team withdrew from the sport. The last manufacturer to use Lamborghini engines was no more. The lovely one-seater made its final pit stop at the Sant’Agata museum and today represents one of the most important but missed opportunities in the history of Lamborghini.
Still bleeding money, Chrysler finally sold out to a group of unknown Indonesian investors in 1994. The brand was still no closer to stable ownership.
In German hands
Never leaving the red despite an increase in sales, the Italian car maker was again jolted by the Asian financial crisis in the last years of the 20th century. Audi AG, the subsidiary of German car maker Volkswagen AG, acquired Lamborghini in 1998 for around $110 million.
Just five years after splitting from Chrysler, Lamborghini went through another major restructuring.
Under the German leadership though, Lamborghini found some stability, something that it lacked for over a couple of decades. The first original Lamborghini in decades, Murciélago, was launched in at the turn of the millennium in 2001, representing the rebirth of the company. The car attained instant icon status. The name also was apt. According to industry legend, Murciélago was the bull that sired the Miura line of bulls which had originally inspired Ferruccio Lamborghini almost 40 years before. Two years later, Murciélago was followed by the smaller Gallardo.
During this decade, the Asia-Pacific market became more important to the company’s sales performance and 2008 proved to be the best year in the history of Lamborghini as it recorded sales of more than 2,400 vehicles. But tragedy struck again with metronomic regularity. Sales were cut to almost half the very next year in the aftermath of the world economic slowdown. It fell further to a mere 1,300 vehicles in 2010, but has been steady thereafter.
The company sold over 1,600 cars last year, almost up 25% from the previous year.
After numerous variants and tweaks the company finally phased out the Murciélago in 2011. Its replacement, the 350 kmph Aventador, debuted at the Geneva Motor Show last year. Chief executive Stephan Winkleman told Indulge, over email, that the company had enjoyed double digit growth in 2012, having already overtaken 2011 sales with a couple of months still left in the year. The Aventador, he said, had been a huge success.
Today, the company’s product range includes the V12-powered Aventador, in both a coupe and roadster variant, and variants of the smaller, V10-powered Gallardo. But is there another bull in the offing?
The 50th anniversary
2013 marks the 50th year of the house of the bull launching its first car. And Lamborghini has elaborate plans for the celebrations. The Grande Giro Lamborghini 50° Anniversario, which is Lamborghini’s 50th Anniversary Grand Tour, is expected to be the biggest Lamborghini rally in history, covering more than 1,200km of Italian roadways with hundreds of Lamborghinis.
The company also plans to celebrate the occasion in a number of countries throughout 2013. Many industry insiders also suspect that the occasion will be marked by a new launch. Details remain deliciously vague.
Auto enthusiasts will agree that the celebrations are entirely justified. The company’s refusal to give up is a tribute to the quality that comes with the badge, and to its turbulent origins.