Still crazy after all these years

Many things have changed over the past 50 years at Lamborghini. Importantly, though, it hasn’t lost sight of why we all fell in love with it.

Two o’clock in the afternoon is not a busy time in the centre of Sant’Agata Bolognese. Most of the shops are shut, as is the Tabaccaio. Just off the main square a lone pizza restaurant remains open and, while it looks like many other pizzerias, there’s one striking difference: there are Lamborghini posters covering every inch of its dusty walls. It’s the same in the empty bar five doors down. Posters of a Diablo, a Murciélago and a Miura sit side by side above the barmaid, who’s watching the news on a small TV. Sant’Agata Bolognese might be quiet, but it’s clear that you’re in Lamborghini Land.

Five hundred metres down the road, on Via Modena, sits the factory that Ferruccio Lamborghini opened in 1963. He had bought 50,000sq ft of land the previous year after declaring that he wanted to build a sports car to rival those made down the road at Ferrari. Considering Ferrari had just launched the 250 GTO, one of the greatest cars of all time, it was a bold claim. You couldn’t fault his ambition.

It wasn’t blind ambition, though; by 1963 he had amassed a sizeable amount of money through various businesses, most notably in designing and building tractors. When it came to vehicle production he was no beginner and, once the Lamborghini factory was built, it took his team only a few months to produce the 350 GTV prototype and take it to the Turin Motorshow. Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini had arrived. The 350 GTV might have signalled the arrival of the car company, but it was the Bertone-designed Miura – launched in 1966 – that warned rivals of its intent and future success. Fewer than 1000 rolled off the production line over the next six years in Sant’Agata, but it rewrote the rules for performance road cars with its transversely mounted 12-cylinder engine in the back of the car.

Fifty years after the plant was opened, the site now covers some 200,000sq ft. The factory and its entrance are in the same place that they have always been, though today the Aventador and Gallardo fill the two production lines. Every day another 10 cars are finished – four Aventadors and six Gallardos, a high number for a niche supercar manufacturer, but not in comparison to the 2000 mass-market Golfs that roll off the Volkswagen line in the same timescale. Ferrari, meanwhile, has announced that it wants to build fewer cars in order to increase desirability; currently it builds 6400 a year.

It’s striking that while the cars are assembled on a production line, it is the word ‘hand-made’ that best describes their manufacture. Yes, there are automated systems in place, but there are men and women at every station. Soon after walking in we spot a man stretching leather hides and marking out any imperfections (none of which we could make out) with chalk. The hides are then placed under a laser cutter, which works out how big a piece it can create between the imperfections. The leather, incidentally, is sourced from bulls in Argentina and Germany because there are fewer insects there and cows get stretch marks… If you were wondering about wastage, don’t. The scraps of leather that have invisible blemishes are then used in Lamborghini’s merchandising range.

Next to the hides sit six women at tables with what look like 1960s sewing machines, sewing together the leather for the seats. The sight of someone cross-hatching a piece of leather by hand for a quarter-of-a-million-pound car is an indication that craftsmanship still counts.

The Aventador is based around a carbon-fibre tub – again, hand-made – that is tested by someone with a ‘harmonic hammer’. If it sounds right when they tap every inch of the carbon fibre, it is right. It is also then checked with a laser to ensure that it’s identical to every other tub. Aluminium frames are mounted to the front and back of these tubs, and from here the chassis is put on the production line ready to make its way through 11 different stations. Ninety minutes at each one means that it takes up to two weeks to finish a car – a number that goes some way to explaining why if you order a car today Lamborghini won’t be able to build it until mid-2014. Every car until that time has an owner’s name against it.

Once the car is complete, the front is wrapped in plastic to prevent any chips or dents and then it’s taken for a short road test to check all the systems work as they should. We did ask about Lamborghini’s relationship with the local police and were informed it was fine: “We gave them two Gallardos for free…”

At the end of the day we slid into the new Aventador and, after a short briefing, ventured out onto the roads and headed for the hills in the distance. We were greeted with smiles and cheers everywhere we went, and on passing a school about 30 miles away every five-year-old kid in the playground screamed“L’Aventador” . With passion like that, some of them might end up working in the factory in 20 years or so.

Although many of the factory workers come from the local region, Lamborghini is headed by German Stephen Winkelmann who was appointed president and CEO on January 1, 2005. Thirty-six years ago Ferruccio Lamborghini sold the company to Georges-Henri Rossetti and René Leimer, since when the company rumbled on through various owners, which included the Chrysler Corporation, technology company MegaTech and French multimedia artist Patrick Mimran. It had also faced bankruptcy and receivership, so when Audi AG bought the company in 1998 there was a collective sigh of relief from Lamborghini’s many fans. Some worried that the madness of Lamborghini (eg the Diablo’s rear visibility) would be lost, but over the past 15 years Audi has kept a flavour of the madness, but made it work in the real world (eg the Aventador’s rear visibility).

Once Audi had bought Lamborghini it set about refurbishing the facilities in Sant’Agata and increasing the number of cars it produced. The statistics are impressive: since 2000 the company has doubled its workforce to 900, tripled its worldwide dealer network and has increased the number of cars it sells by 500 per cent. Between 1963 and 2000 only 250 cars rolled off the production line every year. Since then the number has been more than 1800.

Partly responsible for this uplift in recent years is the director of the Centro Stile, Filippo Perini. He’s been in-house since 2004 and the Aventador was his first brand new design. It wasn’t as simple as it could have been, though: before he was even given the go-ahead, Lamborghini asked an independent design company to pitch for the contract as well. Perini won, convincingly.

By working at Lamborghini he did have an advantage, however. Housed within the factory building is a museum for various Lamborghini models, from the first 350GT to the last Gallardo, prototypes (you thought production models looked crazy?) and even some Formula 1 cars from when Lamborghini provided its V12 to Larrousse, Lotus, Ligier, Minardi and the Modena team between 1989 and 1993. It’s probably the best mood room in the world for a supercar designer.

The prototype 350 GTV that Ferruccio took to the Turin Motor Show is owned by a private Swiss collector, but the museum does have, among many other cars, the very first Countach and a full-scale 2006 Miura Concept. At the time Lamborghini said that it wouldn’t build a ‘new’ Miura because the company should look to the future with only an eye on the past. And you can’t fault its application of that mantra over the past 10 years. Lamborghinis are more popular than ever before and, when you learn that 25-30,000 cars have been built since 1963 and 14,000 of those were Gallardos between 2003 and 2012, you realise just what huge changes have been made.

Through all these momentous changes Lamborghini has not lost its soul. It’s well worth visiting Sant’Agata for yourself to take a tour of the factory and museum. The local pizzeria is pretty good too.

Ed Foster