Bull in a Lambo Shop

I turn around and see something so upsetting that I almost drop a differential on the ground. Someone is affixing a black and gold Lamborghini badge to the hood of a completely naked Gallardo body within seconds of its arrival on the production line. Already?! It doesn’t even have an engine in it! No, No, No! This is Italy, the birthplace of opera, for crying out loud! The Lamborghini badge is supposed to be screwed on during a formal crowning ceremony in an incense-filled booth at the end of the assembly line. A teary-eyed Italian engineer should decree the vehicle worthy by signing the build sheet with an oxblood fountain pen while white-gloved courtiers carefully apply the badge to the hood. Onlookers should weep.

But no. The little badge is unceremoniously attached at the very first station on the production line. I blame the Germans.

It’s likely that the lack of such elaborate ceremonies is at least partially responsible for the fact that Lamborghini now produces more than ten times the number of cars it did a decade ago, before Audi took over. I didn’t know what to expect walking into the factory in Sant’Agata, but a few unpleasant experiences working on old Italian cars led me to believe that it would be mass pandemonium: a huge rat’s nest of straggly wires; parts pouring out of unlabeled bins; maybe even driveshafts hanging from ceiling rafters. Boy, was I wrong. Lamborghini’s production facility is, in fact, a perfectly organized, uncluttered, and well-thought-out pièce de anal retentiveness of truly Germanic proportions.

I’m here to help build the first production 2009 Gallardo – a car that I’ve never even seen. It’s scheduled to make its debut at the Geneva auto show, which hasn’t yet occurred. And unless I trip over a wire, inadvertently weld a wheel to a frame rail, or accidentally drill a two-inch hole through the roof, some lucky soul will one day dump his 401(k) for this very machine.

Lamborghini’s PR team seems to think that I won’t slow the production process, which makes them even more insane than the cars they hock. True, I spend more time on my garage floor than I do on my couch – but that’s only because I usually break more things than I fix when I’m under a car. Maybe they just invited me because I have something in common with the company that Ferruccio Lamborghini built: an Italian name and heritage combined with a decade’s worth of experience working for Germans. Before finding my way to Auto-mobile Magazine, I spent nearly ten years at a German company, tormenting my logical, rational colleagues with my New-York-Italian high-drama antics. A similar culture clash in a supercar factory should make for some pretty good comedy, methinks.

Incidentally, it also makes for some pretty incredible cars. You might accuse the Gallardo of being slightly less passionate than older, pre-Audi Lamborghinis. But the Italian-passion-meets-German-engineering paradigm means that a modern Lamborghini routinely starts when you turn the key, moves forward under its own power, and likely never engulfs itself in a large mushroom cloud of dense, oily smoke.

Anyway, back to the factory. We’re building our new Gallardo on the same production line with the old car. It’s a modern, twenty-station line split into two halves in the building where Lamborghini has built cars for decades. Our Gallardo’s hand-welded, 900-pound body arrives fully painted from an Audi plant in Neckarsulm, Germany. I push the body onto the assembly line as some workers remove the doors and apply plastic protectors so no one damages the pristine paintwork.

The line doesn’t move constantly; instead, it stays in each station for forty-five minutes, advancing forward after a siren sounds. Over the next two and a half days, we will bolt a thousand or so parts to the body – this is a final assembly station; no really dirty work is done here. Each station working on last year’s model appears to be done a few minutes early, but not ours. Obviously, the training that the workers received on the new Gallardo didn’t include a chapter explaining how to work around a slow, klutzy journalist trying his best to help.

One of the young, non-English-speaking factory workers shrugs his shoulders and hands me a plastic fuel tank. I believe this is Italian for “do something useful, would ya?” It doesn’t work – now I’m just standing there with a grin on my face while the six station workers jump around me like monkeys in a cage. I’m thrilled to be in the factory, but that’s not why I’m smiling: I’m simply stupefied by the tank’s cleanliness. See, every time I’ve held a fuel tank, it’s been after spending hours extracting it from the bottom of some unwilling old car. It’s invariably covered in decades of road grime and filled with the dirtiest common denominator of the 5000 gallons of carcinogens that have passed through it. To me, it’s a small miracle to be holding a clean, unsmelly fuel tank.

And good thing, because getting fuel-tank grime on these clothes would be a sin. All the factory workers, myself included, are wearing the same all-black, perfectly tailored factory outfit. The Italian-made, cotton-polyester-blend pants are soft and comfortable, with Lamborghini’s cursive logo embroidered on the left leg, and the tapered Polo shirt is slim-cut. Unfortunately, I’m not – so I’m wearing a snuggle-soft, fat-kid sweatshirt over it. There are no buttons or zippers with which I could scratch the paint of . . . Whack!

A light smack on the back of my head wakes me from my daydream. It comes from Paolo Di Netta, the forty-three-year-old production-line foreman, and I see his hair turning grayer by the minute. He speaks no English, and I under- stand almost no Italian (save for the few choice words my grandmother used to scream at me), but words are superfluous when you’re speaking Italian – Di Netta’s hand gestures say it all. Flapping about, twisting, turning, and pointing, they spell out: “Dear sir, the six gentlemen on this team have precisely forty-five minutes in which to complete all of the tasks outlined in the PDM.”

“PDM?” I ask.

“Produktdetail Montageinstruktion,” he and his hands go on to explain. “It’s a German term meaning Product Detail Mounting Instructions. Or, more clearly, a list of tasks that this team must accomplish at this station. If they are not complete, the whole assembly line will be halted. So, perhaps you could stop feeling up the fuel tank and mount it in the car?” Oh, right – I’m here to build a car!

Di Netta is the Godfather of the line, only without that Hollywood character’s breathy voice and homicidal temperament. He always remains calm – a significant accomplishment with me slowing things down – and it’s obvious that the workers have immense respect for him. They call on him frequently, especially while working on this new car. Each time someone asks a question, the hands start dancing. Di Netta speaks, too, but I’m convinced that the verbal part of his communication is just for effect.

The Gallardo guys have an energy and enthusiasm that you’d never expect to see in an automobile factory. Within the strict confines of the German rules, they’re enjoying themselves in that distinctly Italian hyperactive way, making fun of each other (and me, probably), singing, and laughing. Their upbeat attitude doesn’t come from the fact that they’re assembling an exotic supercar – let’s face it, a Chevy Cobalt is a bolted-together pile of parts just like a Gallardo is – it’s due to the factory’s much longer cycle times. Unlike in a high-volume plant, where each worker might repeat a few simple tasks every two minutes, these guys work in forty-five-minute cycles. That means each person is given a much more complex job – say, installing the complete front suspension on eight cars per day – rather than a simple one like threading the same couple of door-panel screws 250 times a day.

One manager who spoke English in addition to Handtalian told me that, before Audi took over, there was no documentation, no information, and no rules at Lamborghini. At that time, the factory produced only one car per day, and it takes only a quick peek across the building at the production line of the much lower-volume, much older Murciélago to see a vast difference. In place of the Gallardo’s structured, labeled booths is a little bit of that old Italian chaos . . . er, charm.

The Murciélago workers also appear to be older than the guys working on the Gallardo. Appar-ently, many of the original Lambor-ghini factory workers left because they didn’t like the structure, reporting, and audits that the Germans instituted. While it’s true that the Murciélago’s line is subject to the same quality controls as the Gallardo’s, the build process is less rigid, and many of the older employees prefer to stay there.

All of the factory workers refer to the new Gallardo as “the face-lift.” Mutter that F-word in front of a journalist, however, and a PR person, apparently equipped with bionic hearing, will hunt you down, correcting you as they sprint across the factory. “The new-a car is not-a just una face-lift,” they say, Italian shoes tapping feverishly across the floor tiles. “It’s-a very different!” Extraneous syllables fly around the Lamborghini factory like panties at a Tom Jones concert.

The very different face-lift even gets a new name: Gallardo LP560-4. The addition to its name stands for its engine’s position (Longitudi-nale Posteriore – longitudinally, mid-mounted), its horsepower rating (560), and four-wheel drive. Neither the engine’s layout nor the number of driven wheels has changed, but the engine itself is completely new. It’s a direct-injected, 5.2-liter V-10 that produces 40 hp more than last year’s 5.0-liter while dumping eighteen percent less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Our LP560-4, equipped with a revised E-gear automated manual transmission, will return just over 17 mpg on the Euro-pean combined-fuel-economy cycle – a significant jump from last year’s 14. Lamborghini says that it will accelerate to 62 mph in 3.7 seconds, 0.3 second quicker than the 2008 Gallardo.

The guys working around me are similarly speedy, and we encounter no problems building the very first production LP560-4 – an impressive feat. The new car is designed to be easier to build than the last one – and everyone seems to agree that it will be, in time. There are a few areas that are more difficult at first – the rear suspension has a few bolts that are quite difficult to get to, for one – but it’s nothing that can’t be sorted out later. After all, it used to take 350 hours, start to finish, to build a Gallardo; now it’s down to 115 hours.

Physically building a Gallardo isn’t difficult – in fact, it’s much less painful than it will be to work on the car later. We complete the majority of the production process using the same hand tools that I have in my garage – lots of ratchets, wrenches, and cordless screwdrivers. I wish I had the same big rig that we use to lower the pre-mated engine and transaxle assembly into the car – although the weight of the V-10 would probably collapse my house. Mounting the doors is no backbreaker, either – we use hydraulic lifts to support heavy items. And the cars are transported from station to station (lifted and lowered automatically, and even turned on their side) by carriers suspended from above. I expected to be sore, sweaty, and worn out when lunchtime came around, but that wasn’t the case.

What I didn’t expect at all, however, is to have a meal in the factory that would put Wolfgang Puck to shame. For about a buck a day, the company-subsidized cafeteria serves ultra-thin-crust pizza baked on-site in a wood-fired oven; pasta topped with light, incredibly aromatic sauces; and savory roasted meats. Fresh fruit is offered for dessert, and just about everyone hits the espresso bar on the way out. (Friendly advice: don’t order a cappuccino after 11:00 a.m. in Italy. According to Italians, only freaks, nutjobs, and Americans do that. Proudly being all three, however, I shamelessly enjoy every last supercaffeinated, frothy drop.)

As I follow the car through the factory, I get to frustrate each and every team as I slowly screw a few new parts together. I see that the rear suspension features an additional link per side, which is what makes it so difficult to install. The wiring harness is completely different from last year’s, too, and the exhaust is all-new. The gauges use a different font, and the row of switchgear on the center stack now looks like knurled aluminum.

We arrive at the last station right on time, and I decide I’ve done enough “work.” I stand back and watch as the guys remove all of the plastic protective panels, and I can finally see the car as a whole. The new rear end is much more aggressive, more modern, and more Ferrari-like, with quad chrome exhaust outlets. The LP560-4’s taillights, which feature Y-shaped “flux-capacitor” elements like its big brother Murciélago LP640, no longer wrap up and onto the horizontal plane of the rear. Up front, the headlights are shorter than before and now have Y-shaped LED daytime running lights. The front bumper is new and bears a family resemblance to the Murciélago and the Reventn. These updates make the LP560-4 even more stunning than the old Gallardo.

I have only a few minutes to stare at the finished product before nine gallons of gasoline are pumped in and it’s time to start the engine. Strangely, I’m the only one who seems nervous. Every time I’ve started a new engine in the past, it’s been in my garage, where you could measure my blood pressure with a fuel-pressure gauge; my friends and I stand around, sleep-deprived, covered in grease, and bleeding, poised to run for our lives should a flaming connecting rod come shooting through the block. Not this time – the engine was handbuilt and bench-tested right here in the factory; somewhere in a binder a few feet away lies a top-secret dyno plot verifying this en-gine’s output. Di Netta is standing calmly right next to the car, and although his hands ask us to step back a few feet (just in case, I guess), it’s time to turn the key.

The starter motor turns over the engine for less than a second before all ten cylinders catch and the big V-10 settles into a quiet, smooth idle. There is no thirty seconds of cranking filled with misfires, backfires, and stumbles as the fuel system pressurizes. There’s no smoke. No mushroom cloud, either. In fact, since the new exhaust system’s valve no longer completely bypasses the muffler, there isn’t even the ferocious bark that causes bystanders to flinch anytime an old Gallardo is started. That a vehicle as utterly spectacular as a Lamborghini could be brought to life for the first time without me messing something up is shocking. For that, I thank the Germans.

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