Lamborghini: Still Outlandish at 50

Wolfango Spaccarelli

At the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I saw Lamborghinis. Atop Rome's Janiculum Hill, I turned from the domes and towers to ogle Lambo scoops and louvers in yellow, lavender, cobalt, teal, and lurid pink. In Bologna's Piazza Maggiore, instead of exploring palaces and the Basilica of San Petronio, I beheld the array of Miuras, Isleros, Espadas, Urracos, Countachs, Diablos, Murciélagos, Gallardos, and Aventadors. Aside from a couple of LM002 bruiser-utilities, the only discordant element was at the nearby 447-year-old fountain, where Neptune clutches the trident that was copied by Mario Maserati when he designed the emblem for his brothers' first production car. On Tuesday, May 7, some 350 Lambor-ghinis gathered at the Piazza Castello, in Milan, for the Grande Giro to celebrate the marque's fiftieth birthday. After testing the 3.5-liter V-12 engine in May 1963, Ferruccio Lamborghini showed his first car, the 350GTV, that autumn at Turin. He began selling its successor, the 350GT, in 1964. The impetus for the car's creation came from Enzo Ferrari, who had spurned Ferruccio Lamborghini's complaints about his Ferrari 250GT's workmanship.

Lamborghini's notable early achievement was the Miura, the first mid-engine supercar. He nurtured idiosyncratic talents like designer Marcello Gandini and engineers Giampaolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzani, and Bob Wallace. Gandini's purposeful Miura (with input from Giorgetto Giugiaro) and outrageous Countach inspired a generation of young enthusiasts. New Zealander Paul Claxton, steering a 1974 Urraco through the Grande Giro as a way of celebrating his own upcoming fiftieth birthday, attributed his love for Lamborghinis to the Miura Zn75 roadster model he found thirty-seven years ago in a box of Weetabix.

The participants in this Grande Giro paid about $7000 per two-person team and traveled from places as far-flung as Northern Ireland and Java. Stephen Dowson brought his Aventador from Ogallala, Nebraska, where it doesn't see too many curves, and his son Dean came along from Denver. Tristan Lewis brought his 1999 Diablo GT from the Isle of Jersey, where the speed limit is 40 mph. Gary and Gail Purcell left their Murciélago and LM002 in Jacksonville, Florida, but took the wheel of an orange Aventador supplied by the host company for the test-drive of a lifetime. Hank and Innika Griffoen, of Woerden, Netherlands, left behind his trucking business and her schoolteaching for the adventure.

Wednesday morning before the Grande Giro's start, I walked a mile and a half from my hotel on Piazza della Repubblica to the cars at Piazza Castello, passing the famed opera house La Scala along the way and finding my car with five minutes to spare. The humdrum of daily life, with people in well-fitting clothes hurrying along through a city that could use a good scrubbing, found contrast in the starting line's electric atmosphere. I rode shotgun out of there with Mike Shaffer, of our sister magazine Motor Trend, but would later have the matte-yellow Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera's incomparable wheel to myself. Leaving Milan with excited spectators lining the streets, marshalls waving us this way and that, and the police escort stopping traffic at roundabouts, we already felt like heroes.

Soon clear of Milan, we found the autostrada. To say Lamborghini drivers love acceleration is to say moonmen love green cheese. The excellent route A1 to Piacenza allowed sprints that adumbrated the Superleggera's potential. We whooshed past a rare example of the 350GT that had established the Lamborghini marque, whiffing oil from its tailpipe and thinking it looked elegant but also delicate. Today's supercars coming off the twin assembly lines for Gallardo and Aventador at Sant'Agata Bolognese bear hardly any relation to that middle-aged grand-touring coupe.

Speaking of cheese, anyone who knows his pecorino from his brine-swathed taleggio likely knows the Ligurian Alps from the Dolomites, and it was into the former that we now turned, wending alongside the Trebbia River. The Superleggera, clad inside with carbon fiber and Alcantara, swept past innumerable photographic laymen positioned in curves. This track-day special showed no body roll whatsoever and exhibited dogged compliance, although the ride was as hard as the Triticum durum used for pasta. The V-10's raw rasps cracked around lush Val Trebbia as if to waken centuries-dead monks ("Diablos upon us!") and scatter the sheep.

In Great Britain, as one of the Grande Giro's participants later said, there would have been bitter and incessant complaints about noise. In the United States, I parried, Toyota Prius owners would block the roads and condemn our excessive consumption. (The one time I remembered to measure the Gallardo's fuel economy, it came out to 12.5 mpg.) But when we arrived in the ancient village of Bobbio for lunch, red-blooded Italian boys screamed madly, girls waved flags, men smiled knowingly, old women with steely gray curls thrust out their fists from their hips as a way of demanding higher revs. Yes, this was the quiet medieval abbey the itinerary had promised. Teenage signorinas shyly approached, taking pictures with the Superleggera before Shaffer generously invited one to sit in the passenger seat, and in the abbey's shadow her face took on a beatific glow. The American perspective doesn't admit the pride Italians have for their treasured brands: Lamborghini and Prada (no one even breathed the word Ferrari during the Grande Giro) are indistinguishable from the composite Italian identity; people feel that an Aventador, even with "Nebraska Cornhuskers Go Big Red!" inscribed on the license plate, speaks explicitly of, by, and for the gente. Quite possibly, we Americans will one day feel the same about Tesla.

After a lunch that included a delicious slice of ricotta tart along with pureed minted peas, I took the Superleggera's wheel for the first time. The driving position and visibility seemed ideal complements to the responsive throttle. The sport seat suited me perfectly, whereas on the morrow, assigned a regular Gallardo LP560-4 with seductive yellow-and-black leather upholstery on broader cushions, I wouldn't be so comfortable. From Bobbio, much of the descent to the Mediterranean seacoast was in second gear. We tailed a smoking Countach, so that even with a full stomach and not riding shotgun, I was queasy. What a relief when Red Smoker pulled off!

I've always enjoyed operating the Gallardo's six-speed automated manual transmission. With no "Park," you pull both paddles back to find neutral, then set the handbrake. For reverse, stab the "R" button on the dashboard's lower left. Upshifts in the Superleggera's recalibrated gearbox are nearly as short-lived as the Higgs boson particle. By the time we reached Rome the next evening, right at rush hour, the transmission's major foible would become evident: it automatically shifts into neutral after the car sits still for about thirty seconds. Ridden aggressively on these streets, scooters fill any vacuum in traffic, so in the moment it takes to manually re-engage forward drive it's possible to wreak Visigothic carnage as the Gallardo surges forward.

Thursday's Grande Giro Stage 2, which aimed us down the coast to the capital, was my favorite, as I had the aforementioned bumblebee-trimmed Gallardo to myself. The morning's drive took everybody to Pisa, as mentioned, and the embarrassing truth is that when a Dutchman's orange-and-black Murciélago stopped, I became very intent on taking its picture framed against the cathedral and baptistry. Of course the line of cars started to move. By the time I caught up, I realized that I hadn't even glimpsed the famous Leaning Tower. Oh, well, there's probably a replica in Tennessee.

Then we fired out onto the autostrada. Purely by coincidence, I got established ahead of a small pack of variously flavored Lambos. Prudence is required of leadership. Already on Stage 1, two Belgians had turned onto the wrong road, and after other motorists' alarmed calls to police about racing, the local chief impounded their cars. But on the Grande Giro's official route, the police were winking. I tried not to exceed 120 mph when flying past Fiat Pandas, Renault Scénics, and trucks laden with tanks of olive oil, blocks of Carrara marble, and, improbably enough, a batch of new Jeeps. Italian motorists' lane discipline is excellent; I felt secure in poking the Gallardo's nose by them with the center divider ever so near. On open stretches, Aventadors blew by like leaves ahead of a gale. Where there were tunnels, we barely slowed. When the road was open, we saw 140 mph; it was insane; and I didn't want to be the guy to take out a mercy mission of nuns in a Mégane. Yet my little flock of Lambos followed my every movement. The Gallardo was utterly composed, stable, wiggle-free. That evening, when we parked at the top of Janiculum Hill, named for the two-faced god Janus, I could relate to the Visigothic conquerors.

Friday's Stage 3, the longest yet at 273 miles, took us through beautiful Tuscany and thence to Bologna. I was directed to park in Piazza Luigi Galvani, named for the surgeon whose experiments with electrical impulses led to his adoption into English: galvanizing. His small plaza is a satellite to Piazza Maggiore, this main square being surrounded by palaces and confronting the massive Basilica of San Petronio. To see our cars there and spilling over into the small adjacent space by the Fountain of Neptune would have made even the Mona Lisa gape in wonder.

On Saturday, to wrap things up, Lamborghini had a modest little party twenty miles away, on the Sant'Agata factory grounds. Just for the hundreds of us, the single-seat Egoista concept car was revealed, looking intent on piercing the troposphere. Talk about members-only exclusives! We were at the very center of an international happening. Creeping through the throng under the guidance of test driver Mario Fasanetto, the Egoista could barely reach the stage. Things were said by Lamborghini's president and CEO, Stephan Winkelmann, and Volkswagen Group design chief Walter de'Silva, but no one remembers precisely what except, "Please, please, let the car through." When the Egoista finally left, we felt a god had departed. Then the fireworks started outside, a smashing display in confirmation.

In the moment before the rock band kicked in behind English singing stars Paul Young and Howard Jones, I collared Winkelmann. He'd already said Lamborghini would continue to offer performance, "extreme styling," and craftsmanship. It was, however, possible to take a cynical view and call the Grande Giro a glorified sales event.

Signor Winkelmann, what about the Grande Giro's brand-building effect? He didn't know, exactly. "But for me this is special," he said, "and I think all the people that are here tonight, they are feeling and experiencing it." Very true -- and in the rapturous faces of the kids along the way, asking to sit in the car, screaming to show what it would do, shrieking "Ciao, bello!" and "Bella macchina!" as well as the thrusting fists of old women, the earnest gas-pump jockey handing me his smartphone for his picture with the Gallardo, I saw and heard the veracity and felt the passion for Lamborghini beyond reason.

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