The Lamborghini story begins with a worn out clutch disc. Specifically, an old clutch disc in a Ferrari. Ferruccio Lamborghini was a wealthy industrialist in postwar Italy, who had made his fortune producing farm equipment. He had purchased a Ferrari and discovered that the clutch disc was the same part used in a Lamborghini tractor. This led to angry words with Enzo Ferrari and then to a bitter Lamborghini promising to build a better sports car.
There are few motivators more effective than wounded pride, and Lamborghini shortly produced his first car, the beautiful 350GT in 1964. An example of this car, along with other significant Lamborghini models up to the present day, is on display at the Museo Delle Tecnologie at Automobili Lamborghini headquarters in the northern Italian town of Sant’Agata Bolognese. The town and factory are located about 30 minutes outside the city of Bologna.
From the beginning, Automobili Lamborghini was committed to advancing the state of the art in automobiles. This led to dramatic successes and a few technological innovations that didn’t catch on, but which have informed the direction of automotive development. We spent an afternoon at the Museo Delle Tecnologie to learn a little more.
The first production Lamborghini was a direct competitor to the Ferrari grand touring coupes of the day. Lamborghini set out to make a better car, and he enlisted the top Italian designers and engineers to assist him.
Notable technical features in the 350GT included Superleggera (Super-Lightweight) aluminum body panels, tube-based space frame, and an improved Bizzarini overhead cam V12 engine. Lamborghini’s design used a four-wheel entirely independent suspension with coil-over damper design, similar to popular sports cars today. The result is one of the most graceful and best-handling sports coupes of the mid-1960s. The 350GT instantly put Lamborghini on the map, and placed Ferrari on notice that there was a serious new competitor to contend with.
In 1966, just two years after the 350GT, Lamborghini made a bold move and created the first truly mid-engined supercar with the advent of the Miura. In this design, the engine was located just behind the driver and passenger seats, placing most of the car’s weight in the center of the vehicle. The V12 in the Miura was mounted transversely, with an integrated transaxle driving the rear wheels. In its day, the Miura was the fastest road-going production car in the world.
It’s hard to overstate the technical significance of this car, because virtually all high-performance supercars designed since the Miura have placed the engine between the axles. The design had been pioneered in prior years, notably by Indianapolis 500 racing cars like the 1961 Cooper Climax and the 1965 Lotus-Ford driven to victory by Jim Clark. But the Miura proved that this design could work in a production car. Ferrucio Lamborghini must have been pleased that it took Ferrari another whole year to produce the mid-engined Dino 206 GT.
As a follow-on to the successful Miura, Lamborghini engineers worked in secret to produce the car that would set the style for almost every Lamborghini that followed. After several prototypes, the production version of the Countach was unveiled in 1974 and ushered in the era of Longitudinale Posteriore for Lamborghini.
Longitudinale Posteriore simply means that the V12 engine in the Countach was oriented along the long fore-and-aft axis of the car, but still located behind the driver. This design had been used in racing cars, but Lamborghini again improved the weight balance by moving the clutch and transmission assembly to the front of the engine, placing the gearbox between the driver and passenger seats. The driveshaft then ran backwards, actually passing through the engine’s oil pan on the way to the rear axle.
Another innovation that debuted on the Countach was Lamborghini’s trademark scissor-door design, which made the Countach all the more impressive and futuristic to potential buyers. Yet for all the outrageous styling on the Countach, one of the most innovative developments was the Periscopio rear view mirror. The Countach has a tiny rear window, so an aerodynamic solution was required to accommodate the legally required rear view mirror. The solution was to use a series of mirrors, like the periscope of a submarine, to give the driver a rearward view from the top of the roof. Ultimately the Periscopio was replaced by a larger rear window and conventional mirror, but it was another instance of technical prowess by Italy’s leading innovator.
For most of automotive history, SUVs were rather dull. Land Rovers and Jeeps were known for off-road capability, but most SUVs were just high station wagons. Lamborghini changed all that with the release of the LM002 in 1986. This boxy SUV took the V12 engine from a Countach and put it in the front of the vehicle, paired to a manual transmission and 4X4 drivetrain with locking differentials.
LM stood for Lamborghini Militaria, and while the LM002 was never purchased by any nation’s military, and it never had the commercial success of Lamborghini’s street and racing machines, this completely over-the-top rig pointed the way to a new class of performance SUVs.
While the LM002 was wowing the truck world, Lamborghini’s engineers had to figure out how to outshine the venerable Countach. The Diablo was the answer, retaining the LP engine layout but improving performance starting in 1990. Then in 1993 the company released the Diablo VT, jumping into the all-wheel-drive technology that Bugatti had pioneered in the 1991 EB110. The Diablo VT allowed 25% of engine torque to drive the front wheels through a viscous coupling center differential that was always active.
Lamborghini’s AWD system would be refined through the era of the Murciélago, Gallardo, Huracán, and Aventador right up to the present. Ferrari (remember them?) didn’t get around to making a production car with AWD until the 2011 release of the FF shooting brake.
From the beginning of the Lamborghini story, making cars lightweight has been an obsession. Nowhere was that obsession on clearer display than in the development of the Sesto Elemento (literally “sixth element,” which happens to be Carbon) track and racing car released in 2010. In this design, the chassis, bodywork, driveshaft, and certain suspension components are all made from formed carbon fiber. The Sesto Elemento proves the concept that carbon fiber can be used in stressed applications to create an ultra-lightweight high-performance vehicle.
From the beginning, Automobili Lamborghini has sought not only to make beautiful cars, but also to advance the state of technology in car design. If you can make it to Sant’Agata Bolognese, the museum is well worth the €15 entry fee. If you can’t get there today, Lamborghini offers this handy online guide to its major models.
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