Today, we know Lamborghini as a global brand. The Italian automaker is a star in Volkswagen AG’s crowded stable of heavyweights, a builder of highlighter-colored supercars that also provides engines for high-end Audis, and has a successful clothing line that appeals to both owners and dreamers all over the world. With the backing of the world’s second-largest automaker, its cars are fantastically engineered, well-built, and shockingly easy to drive – for a supercar, that is.
But unlike its chief rival Ferrari, Lamborghini has always been the wild child of the supercar world, the one with the chip on its shoulder, the true rebel without a cause. It builds cars that no one else could, and even through the decades of cash shortages, mismanagement, and bankruptcies, it seemingly never rested on its laurels. Lamborghini began life as the outsider looking in, trying to shake up the natural order of things, and despite dominating the dreams of children and the ultra-rich alike for the better part of five decades, that attitude is still a major part of the company’s appeal.
And this world-beating outsider status was first came to fruition with the Lamborghini Miura, a car so revolutionary that when it debuted as nothing more than a chassis and engine at the 1965 Turin Motor Show, it caused a sensation. At a time when a mid-engined layout was largely reserved for racing, the Miura’s stunning proportions and incredible power instantly put more established makers of exotics on notice. Despite several models that came before it, for some enthusiasts, it was the first Lamborghini worthy of wearing the bull on its hood. For others, it’s nothing less than the ur-supercar, the true ancestor to every screaming mid-engined supercar that has come since.
Automakers from Ford to Porsche have made tractors at some point, but no other company embraces its agricultural heritage as much as Lamborghini. After World War II, engineer Ferruccio Lamborghini began building tractors, which by the mid-’50s became one of the largest agricultural equipment companies in postwar Italy, making him a very wealthy man. With success came the means to indulge his passion for cars, at one point owning enough exotics to drive a different one work every day of the week. By the 1960s, the industrialist had developed a taste for Ferraris, and bought several of Maranello’s 250 models. But Lamborghini felt the cars were too coarse and ill-tempered to be proper road cars, and worse, his kept eating clutches.
After several trips to Maranello for repairs, Lamborghini confronted the famously difficult owner Enzo Ferrari about his cars shortcomings. After supposedly telling Lamborghini that he didn’t need engineering advice from a tractor manufacturer, he resolved to build a true GT car of his own, and beat Ferrari at its own game. Contrary to popular belief, he kept the tractor business going (Trattori Lamborghini is still in business today), and founded a separate company, Automobili Lamborghini SpA in 1963.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only Italian upstart trying to take on the Prancing Horse. Companies like ASA, De Tomaso, Bizzarini, OSCA, and Iso were all working to building cars that out-Ferraried Ferrari, and Lamborghini’s first car — the 350GT — didn’t do much to stand out from the pack. By 1965, frustrated Lamborghini engineers spent nights building a car that could beat Ferrari on both road and track.
Lamborghini himself okayed the project, but due to a bad crash as a driver in the ’40s, had no intention of taking his cars racing. Styling was handled at Bertone by a young Marcello Gandini, and the resulting car was unlike anything the world had seen before. It debuted as the P400 at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show, and caused an uproar. By the time the Miura debuted (named after a legendary fighting bull) later that year, the small company from Sant’Agata Bolognese had found its Ferrari-beater, and became world famous overnight.
By the end of the decade, the Miura had become one of the most famous performance cars in the world. It famously kicked off the action in 1969’s The Italian Job, and was owned by celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Through the late ’60s, high performance road cars were still largely front-engined, but the Miura’s low stance and sensuous curves made its nose-heavy competitors suddenly look ancient. Ferrari debuted its mid-engined V6 Dino in 1968, and V12-powered 512 BB in 1973. De Tomaso released its Mangusta in 1967, and Maserati its Merak in 1972.
Despite Lamborghini’s strict racing ban, engineers managed to eke out a track day special, known as the Jota. While the original was destroyed in a crash, it created enough of a stir for five Miura owners to send their cars back to be converted to Jota specifications. Today, those cars (known as SVRs) are among some of the most desirable Lambos ever built. But by the early ’70s, financial problems hit Lamborghini hard, and the Miura was on its way out. In its final SV form, the car had its 4.0 liter V12 tuned to produce 380 horsepower, and rocket the car from zero to 60 in 5.7 seconds, on its way to over 170 miles per hour. By the time production ended in 1973, fewer than 800 cars in various trims had been built, but Lamborghini had become known worldwide as a true Ferrari-killer.
The insane wedge-shaped Countach appeared in 1974 to prove that the Miura was no fluke. The Diablo followed in 1990, the Murciélago in 2001, and the Aventador in 2011, bringing us up to the company’s current lineup. After decades of teetering on life support, Lamborghini was bought by Volkswagen AG in 1998, becoming a subdivision of Audi. Since then, the company’s cars have been getting better and better, with great road manners and a high build quality that continues to shock old-timers who were around to remember cars built during the bad old days.
But while Lambo is now part of a stable with Bentley, Bugatti, and Porsche, it still cultivates that bad-boy image, the one of the up-and-comer who can embarrass a Ferrari with its wild looks, and even wilder performance at a stoplight. Without the Miura, Lamborghini probably wouldn’t be here today, but then again, the same can probably be said of Lambo’s mid-engined competitors too.
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