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.
By now we're all fairly up on what's gone down since Audi got 100% ownership in July 1998 and saved the marque from extinction after a long series of awful owners. Audi's Automobili Lamborghini holdings include all of the auto business and its many services, the offshore boat racing engines and all merchandising rights not held by Tonino Lamborghini.
The best part of Tonino's job is the museum he built and opened in 1995 in honor of his dad, officially called the Centro Polifunzionale Ferruccio Lamborghini. I call it "Lamborghini's Vault." Whereas the "museum" at the Sant'Agata factory is more of a casual display with no sense of background info, Tonino's space on state highway 255 in Dosso northeast of Cento is a spectacular layout of vintage Lamborghini milestones with a great sense of chronology. Many of the pieces displayed were kept for years by Ferruccio himself at the estate in Panicarola. Unfortunately, all of his Ferraris, Jaguars, Mercedes and Morgans have long since been sold off.
Though no one knows exactly what happened to the very first Fiat-based two-seater that Ferruccio built for wife Clelia in 1946, the museum does have the first Lamborghini-branded two-seater based on a Fiat 500 Topolino and which Ferruccio and friend Gianluigi Baglioni modified (bronze headers!) and used for the the Mille Miglia in 1948. There's the only remaining 1965 L59 helicopter with Continental engine of the six that were produced. Ferruccio's personal Miura P400 SV is just to the left as you walk in. There's one of two existing Jarama Rally prototypes, a go-kart designed and built by Ferruccio in the early '50s for Tonino and the body-in-white of the canceled initial Espada design with large gullwing doors. To all of this and the tractors are added Tonino's Lamborghini golf carts, his Town Life ultramini city cars and an ample triptych of old photos that you could stare at all day.
Besides Clelia's original two-seater, the other missing piece that will most likely remain missing is the 1963 350 GTV prototype purchased some time back by a very wealthy Japanese collector. Tonino said, "He won't sell for any price, I'm convinced now. Believe me, I've tried." In the mid '90s Tonino finally found the original 1946 Carioca tractor not far away in horrible shape after it was left sitting in a field for 10 years.
I came away from the museum in Dosso with a far fuller picture of who Ferruccio Lamborghini was and the fascinating role his cars played in creating our modern-day definition of "supercar." As the current complex in Dosso is a bit out of the way, Tonino's plan is to move the whole deal southeast to be added to the grounds of his company villa in Funo some time before 2010.
Oh, and what would Ferruccio think of his car company nowadays? He was an enterprising and realistic businessman more than anything else. He'd probably love it.
European Car: So, is the story about your father starting to build cars because Ferrari made him mad the real story?
Tonino Lamborghini: Absolutely true, yes. More specifically, other than the loud drivetrains in general on Ferraris of that time, his 250 GT coupe kept eating clutches. He asked to see Enzo Ferrari in Maranello, but Ferrari refused, supposedly saying, 'Lamborghini is fit only to build tractors.'
EC: Are there still some family and/or professional tensions between the two brands?
TL: Well, a little. But just recently Piero Ferrari himself asked to see our lineup of microcars to possibly buy one for his grandchild. He ended up buying two, a coupe and a cabriolet.
EC: Many say that the 1963 350 GTV was abandoned because it was too ugly. We disagree that it was ugly, but is this why?
TL: That design by [Franco] Scaglione was ahead of its time and therefore deemed too odd for sale. Something not many know is that the prototype presented in Turin that year was originally a metallic blue like on later Lancia Deltas instead of the metallic green it's famous for. Scaglione must have changed the paint just before it was shown to the public. A bad rumor I want to put to rest is that the 350 GT "fix" shown soon after in Geneva was a model without an engine. That was a complete car, V12 and all.
EC: Why exactly did your father sell off all of his companies in the early 1970s?
TL: The late '60s and early '70s were the times of the labor strikes and mass unionization of industry throughout Italy. My father was a simple man who preferred the old ways of doing business, and the union struggles at the company in those years really saddened him. That and the fact that one of his best engineers left the company to work at Barilla. He said, 'An engineer from Lamborghini going to engineer pasta?! That's the end of it.' So he sold it all.