Fast Times at Lamborghini

Tim Marrs

By 1980, Lamborghini was considered finished." This is not the sort of statement you'd expect to read in a car company's official account of its history. But Lamborghini's own sixteen-page guide to its museum at the Sant'Agata Bolognese headquarters is refreshingly candid about the storied company's many missteps and the periodic behind-the-scenes chaos that defined Lamborghini prior to Audi's ownership. The brand survived long enough to reach prosperity because it managed to dream up charismatic cars, but for many years those iconic models - Miura, Countach, Diablo - were bred in an environment of utter corporate dysfunction

It's telling that founder Ferruccio Lamborghini himself left the company only nine years after its inception, when labor strife challenged his control of the factory. Since then, Lambor-ghini has passed through many hands, some more capable than others. Over the years, owners have included a Swiss financier, the Mimran brothers (owners of a sugar empire in Senegal), Chrysler, and a group of Indonesian investors. Longtime Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni, who joined the company in 1968, says that while some owners provided the proper resources for a period of time, the regular transfers of ownership thwarted product development. "The Mimrans invested a lot of energy and money developing the Countach," Balboni says. "The four-valve version was a development of the Mimrans. They were very proud and happy with the company. But around the first development of the Diablo, Chrysler became interested, so the Mimrans didn't want to invest more." Current owners turning off the financial spigot in anticipation of a sale is a running theme in the Lamborghini drama, and one that has both prolonged product cycles and killed development altogether.

The acquisition of Lamborghini by an actual car company in 1987 seemed promising, but then again, that company was the 1980s Chrysler Corporation. Balboni credits Chrysler with helping to modernize Lamborghini's production capability, saying that, "We started to use equipment and computer aids that were quite unfamiliar in those times, especially at Lamborghini. [Lee] Iacocca was a very good man in terms of helping Lamborghini. He was almost Italian." (In fact, Iacocca was, and is, Italian, at least by descent. His parents emigrated from Italy to the United States.) The official Lamborghini account of Chrysler's stewardship is slightly less positive, noting that "development time . . . ballooned due to the interference of too many aspiring designers" and "the Americans would never produce . . . the interesting 'baby Lamborghini' designed during this period." Chrysler also made an ill-fated foray into racing, and a Formula 1 car commissioned by a Mexican businessman fell through when said businessman "mysteriously disappeared" and was never heard from again.

While Lamborghini worked tortuously in Italy on a replacement for the aging Countach, its dealers in America created their own roadblocks for the company. Naveed Khalidi grew up in Florida and remembers his father's entre into Lamborghini ownership in the 1980s. "He wanted a Countach, but the dealer told him that he couldn't have one unless he bought an LM002 four-by-four at the same time," says Khalidi. "The cars would come back from the dealership with oily fingerprints all over the interior. And the dealership itself was straight out of Miami Vice - I was just a kid, so I took it for granted that people walked into dealerships carrying suitcases full of cash, and you didn't expect your car's air-conditioning to work."

The basic contradiction of the Lamborghini dealer experience was that people with enough money to afford such a car expect a certain level of service, but Lamborghini dealers seemed to treat their customers with disdain. "The dealer was selling this Lamborghini lifestyle," says Khalidi. "Like, on the Diablo, the only option was a Breguet clock for $12,000, and they just expected you to order it. And if you bought a car, they'd want to refer you to their sister dealerships that sold Cigarette boats and Learjets."

After buying a Diablo (without the Breguet option, incidentally), Khalidi's father swore off Lamborghinis. "I think there are three distinct periods of Lamborghini owners," Khalidi says. "There are people who owned the early cars, like the Miura, who were turned off by the Countach. There are people who've owned Lamborghinis only since Audi bought the company. And then there are people like my father, who bought cars during the '80s and '90s and were so alienated by the dealers that they never bought another one."

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