The 40th anniversary of Automobili Lamborghini put me in mind of how little I seem to think about the company's actual roots. Seeing so many deservedly smiling German execs from Ingolstadt walking the grounds and driving Murcilagos and Gallardos brought this on. I asked myself, "What would Ferruccio think?"
I went in search of his son Tonino, and that quickly brought me face to face with a motherload of deeper knowledge in a dusty little farm town in the middle of the Emiglia-Romagna lowlands ("La Bassa").
For a small company, the Lamborghini story is more complex than most. The plot takes off after WWll once the British let Ferruccio Lamborghini and his young bride Clelia Monti off the island of Rhodes in 1946 where he'd been a mechanic successively for the Italians, the Germans and the British.
Working with plentiful war leftovers back in his tiny agricultural hometown of Renazzo-north of Cento, jurisdiction Ferrara-he built, among other things, the first Lamborghini. It was an orange tractor with a Morris four-cylinder gas engine that started on normal fuel but then switched to run on diesel with the help of a vapor burn-off unit ("vaporizzatore"). This first tractor and all those built in the late '40s bore the name "Carioca," both a regional variation on the Italian for wheelbarrow ("carriola") and the title of a popular song.
From the founding of the Trattori Lamborghini (i.e., tractors) factory just southeast of Cento in Pieve di Cento in 1948, the empire grew to air conditioning and boiler units as well as oil burners. The formal start of business in 1963 of Automobili Lamborghini (i.e., fun cars) in today's Sant'Agata Bolognese site is where most enthusiasts pick up the story.
The original 350 GTV prototype presented that year at the Turin show, however, was assembled between the tractor factory in Pieve, the chassis specialists in Modena and the Sargiotto bodyworks in Turin using a design by Franco Scaglione. It was the 1964 350 GT with body by Touring that was the first model to use the Sant'Agata factory.
There was a concerted effort in 1965 to win a government contract to build helicopters, but the Miura in 1965-66 took precedence (thank goodness). The late '60s-particularly the "hot autumn" of 1968-was the watershed point for many Italian industries, as it was then that labor unions basically took over the country. Despite Lamborghini's growing success, the happier times of the '60s were over, and the union battles and interminable strikes took their toll on Ferruccio. Beginning in 1969 he played less and less of a roll in his businesses, while son Tonino took on more responsibility in the non-transport sectors. In 1972 dad sold 51% of Lamborghini Auto to Swiss businessman Georges Rossetti. The other 49% went in 1974 to industrialist Ren Leimer. He even sold the tractor company during the same period to a rival firm east of Milan called Same (SAH-meh).
And, apart from standing trademark and rights agreements, that's pretty much the end of the Lamborghini family involvement in four-wheeled supercar and farm products, 11 years with cars, 26 with tractors. Ferruccio retired south to Panicarola in Umbria to produce wine from his vineyards until his death in 1993, and Tonino stayed north to manage all of the remaining family interests, known today as Gruppo Tonino Lamborghini, headquartered in Funo just north of Bologna in a superb 15th-century villa.