Like Henry Ford, Ferruccio Lamborghini was an expert mechanic. Lamborghini MiuraAnd like Henry Ford, Lamborghini left a career of prominence to take a chance on an entirely new venture when he was well past 40 years old. In the end, like Henry Ford, Lamborghini was far more interested in producing cars for the street than for the race track.

However, at that point, the parallels between the two automotive legends begin to fold, because the cars Lamborghini brought to market under the sign of the bull were about as distinct from a Model T Ford as an F-16 is from a Piper Cub. Sure, they both fly but…

Well, there were undoubtedly no buts about what Lamborghini wanted in a car. As a born mechanic who loved to “wrench,” he had specific thoughts about what the vehicles that would carry his name would be. Born near Bologna in the middle of World War I, Lamborghini was the son of a farmer, but it soon became obvious that he was more interested in repairing machinery than raising chickens. When he was still a teenager, his father sent him to Bologna for official schooling and then helped him obtain an apprenticeship with a machine shop.

Ferucchio’s unprecedented victory

Lamborghini was in his early twenties when World War II brought Europe to an unexpected halt. He enlisted in the Italian air force, which soon put his mechanical talents to work operating a motor pool on the island of Rhodes. When Rhodes was liberated by the British in 1944, Lamborghini was technically taken detainee, but the Brits intelligently used his way with things mechanical until well after the war had ended. It wasn’t till 1946 that Lamborghini came back to Renazzo di Cento, the small village of his birth.

There, Lamborghini continued to use his mechanical aptitude to better his family and himself during the bleak post-war era. He borrowed enough parts from wrecked military equipment to put up his first farm tractor, and within three years he had done so well that he was able to build a tractor factory – Lamborghini Trattice.

His innovative designs proved brilliant for Italy’s small farmers, and the enterprise grew quickly. By 1960, he decided to branch out into  air conditioning and heating equipment. Well-connected with the Italian government, that business, too, flourished.

The farmer’s son had positively done well. Now a rich guy, he could have been excused if he had decided to live off his holdings, while letting others do the dirty job. But Lamborghini grew interested in starting yet another business – automobile manufacture.

Ultimate love of cars

Legend has it that the tractor maker became disgruntled with his Ferrari and took it down the road to Maranello to talk about its shortcomings with one Enzo Ferrari. There Il Commendatore either rebuffed Lamborghini or declined to see him at all. Because of this, the legend goes on, the tractor manufacturer decided to surpass the famous car builder at his own game. Within months, he had inaugurated Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini.

Appealing as this myth may be, the fact is it’s probably untrue. There is no doubt, of course, that Lamborghini owned a number of Ferraris along with a passell of other cars. Given his affection for things mechanical, that only stands to reason. And given the fact that he possessed a number of Ferraris, he almost certainly had mechanical problems with one or more of them. That only stands to reason, too.

But Lamborghini got into the car industry, not because he was upset with Ferrari, but because of his lifetime love of cars. In the late Forties, at the same time he was working overtime to establish his tractor manufacturing business, he also found a few spare moments to put together overhead valve heads for the diminutive Fiat 500 Topolino. In fact, he actually drove a car so equipped in the 1948 Mille Miglia, his only certified entry in racing.

With his other enterprises making him wealthy and netting him social standing (the president of Italy granted him the title Cavaliere del Lavoro), Lamborghini was all set to charge ahead into automobile manufacturing. But he had no desire to reach the mass market with his cars; his endeavor would truly be a labor of love.

Moving at his own time

A good manager who understood the wisdom of hiring good people and letting them do their jobs, Lamborghini recruited some excellent young talent to his promising firm. Among them were Giampaolo Dallara, a Ferrari and Maserati veteran yet not quite 25 years old when he joined the team as chief engineer; Paolo Stanzani, also from Maserati and also about 25 when he became production chief; and Bob Wallace, a New Zealand born racing junkie with stints at Maserati and  Ferrari  racing teams, who assumed the function of development chief.

2 parked yellow cars

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To balance his young team, Lamborghini tapped an established GT racing engineer to design the engine. Giotto Bizzarrini was new from spearheading the Ferrari 250 GTO project and would later produce a car or two under his own name, but, out on his own, he was willing to please when Lamborghini came calling. In short order, he designed a 3.5-liter dual overhead cam 24-valve engine that would eventually supply 385 horsepower in the Miura.   Initially, however, the engine was fitted under the front hood of a fairly dreary looking coupe dubbed the 350 GTV.

While the 350 GTV wasn’t precisely handsome, it was modern  in 1963 with not only the sophisticated engine but also five-speed transmission, front and rear independent suspension and disc brakes. Though evaluated well by the motoring press, it created little stir. In the succeeding few years, Lamborghini introduced the Islero,  400GT,  and Espada, again to mild acclaim.

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However, nothing  prepared the small Lamborghini team for the reception the Miura would receive when it was presented  in chassis-only form at the 1965 Turin auto show and then in show car trim at the succeeding year’s Geneva show.

Why was it such a win ?

Very simply, it modified everything about the way people thought about passenger cars. It took a leading-edge racing configuration and wrapped a street car around it, and that street car wore one of the most beautiful bodies you’ll ever see outside of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Very honestly,  it out-Ferraried Ferrari.

Under an absolutely sinuous, lovely body penned by Bertone’s Marcello Gandini, was a startlingly innovative chassis and equally striking engine. By the early Sixties, midships-mounted engines had become standard practice in Grand Prix racing, and they were starting to take hold at Indianapolis, but the audacious move of using that configuration for the street won Lamborghini quick honors. It was a remarkable piece of engineering, because it wasn’t just lovely; it worked.

Apparently, the main challenge was squeezing the big 3929 cubic centimeter V-12 into the middle of the car while still leaving enough room for the passengers. Dallarra, Wallace and Stanzani achieved this feat by turning the engine sideways and then engineered crankcase, transmission and final drive integrally to make the whole thing actually move.

Working in totally uncharted territory, Gandini, Dallarra, and company put together a design that has advantages over present mid-engine monsters: such things as decent footroom and real luggage space. Though the Miura (dubbed after a type of fighting bull) was just 41 inches high at its tallest point, it was relatively easy to get in and out of.  Though, once inside, one rarely wanted to get out, because its handling was a revelation compared to that of its contemporaries.

Straightline acceleration wasn’t  poor either. The zero to 60 mph dash took  just 5.5 seconds, and top speed was right around 170 miles per hour.  At that speed, of course, steering became a trifle baffling, since Gandini’s attractive front end with its lay-down headlamps developed some disconcerting lift.

In full production, the Lamborghini Miura was well ahead of its competition from Maserati and Ferrari, but its lead did come at a price. Early Miuras required the development and shakedown time that they should have received and, thus, were troublesome to their rich owners. And then, be-set by financial difficulties and  labor troubles, Ferruccio Lamborghini began to distance himself from the car company that carried his name. He sold controlling interest in Automobile Ferruccio Lamborghini in 1972 and canceled manufacturing of the Miura well before its time. It was a dreadful ending to a landmark automobile.

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