ON Review 1 | 2011
Successful companies and businessmen
by Franco Nugnes
Ferruccio Lamborghini was a farmers' son whose passion for mechanics led him to his becoming a major innovator in the sports car field: his factory in Sant'Agata Bolognese produced legendary cars such as the Miura, the Islero, the Espada, the Urraco, the Countach - a superb GT - and the Diablo. In 1998, the Lamborghini company was bought by the German manufacturer, Audi which, with the Murcielago and Gallardo models, has produced two magnificent new high calibre products, as well as the Reventón, a kind of road missile, in a limited edition of just 20 cars, at the price of €1 million each.
He was meant to be a farmer. Born on April 28, 1916, the son of a couple who ran a farm in Renazzo di Cento, a small hamlet between Ferrara and Bologna, Ferruccio Lamborghini was deeply attached to his home soil but also to motor engines. As an adolescent, as soon as he could, he left his country home to follow his passion by taking a job as a lowly mechanic in Bologna. His entrepreneurial spirit began to emerge during the war: working as a mechanic in the Italian military motor repair depot on the island of Rhodes, he made himself indispensable by learning the military vehicles' maintenance manuals by heart and then quietly making them disappear, he quickly became the most expert mechanic on the island… as well as the craftiest! This wartime experience also showed him the value of diesel engines and the robustness and strength of military vehicles.
In 1946, back in his home area, he began buying decommissioned military vehicles and converting them into tractors for his rural neighbours. His tractors were more powerful than those of competitors like Fiat and Fordson, but it was no simple matter explaining certain technical features to farmers who barely knew how to read. Boundlessly confident in his own products, he decided to take them to the local town fairs, where tractors were displayed for sale, and challenge other makes of tractor to tug-of-war duels. His tractors won easily every time.
Word spread and very soon these resounding successes turned into a major industrial company, Trattori Lamborghini, which rapidly became a leader in its field. Ferruccio, meanwhile, became a wealthy man, revelling in high living and beautiful women, yet remaining fired by his innovatory spirit: returning from a trip to the US he founded the Lamborghini Calor (heating) company and later the Lamborghini Oleodinamica (hydraulic equipment) company. The idea behind the Calor company was not so much the manufacture of central heating boilers but rather the offer of technical maintenance all year round. This venture too was extremely successful. But what was it that drove this wilful no-nonsense character to turn his attention to building a supercar that had no connection with his tractor business?
The legend goes that at the root of it all was a heated argument with Enzo Ferrari. As a wealthy industrial manufacturer, Ferruccio could permit himself the pleasure of buying luxury sports cars. He purchased a Ferrari 250 GT which soon began to drive him crazy with its recurrent gear problems. It's not clear how much these problems were due to mechanical defects and how much to over-exuberant driving, but the matter ended with Ferruccio complaining directly to the Ferrari founder, and 'Il Commendatore' typically shouting him down in no uncertain terms. Furious, Ferruccio instructed his own mechanics to repair the car and discovered that a gearbox from one of his tractors could be adapted to fit the 250 GT, at a fraction of the cost of an original Ferrari spare part.
He began to nurture the idea of constructing a GT of his own, convinced by the sector's high profit margins that he could make good profits and sure anyway that it would boost the image of all Lamborghini products.
Wasting no time, he bought some land in Sant'Agata Bolognese, a location that formed a geographical triangle with Bologna and Modena, in an area that abounded with skilled experts in the sports car sector. In 1963, a state-of-the-art factory was built: "It was the right place, but not strategic enough," he would later say, "because it should have been situated next to the new motorway: the view of the new cars lined up outside the factory would have made fantastic free advertising!" He signed up the very youthful Gianpaolo Dallara, along with Giampaolo Stanzani, an engineer who was to write important chapters in the Lamborghini story. Ferruccio wanted a 12 cylinder, front-mounted engine with rear-wheel drive: a classic sports car, but with innovations like four overhead camshafts, five-gears and four-wheel independent suspension. A 350 GTV prototype was created; the engine designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, the styling by Franco Scaglione.
The somewhat extravagantly-shaped car was first presented at the 1963 Turin Motor Show and was greeted with considerable scepticism. With modified Touring bodywork, it entered production in 1964 as a 250 GT; clients liked its looks, but not its defects, caused by its over-hasty development. Ferruccio was not discouraged, and moved quickly to reinforce his team: Ubaldo Sgarzi was appointed sales director, and would remain so for decades to come, and Valentino Balboni became the chief test driver, his first step on the road to becoming a legendary figure in company history.
Ferruccio, born on April 28, 1916, under the sign of Taurus, decided to grace his sports cars with the same crest of arms featuring a bull that already adorned his tractors. Bull-fighting was to be a recurrent theme in the naming of his models: Miura, one of the fiercest breeds of Spanish fighting bulls, was the name of the model that carried the Lamborghini name into sports car history.
Dallara and Stanzani both had experience in the world of motor racing and created a model inspired by the Ford GT40, with a rear-mounted transverse V12 engine… a heresy that was accompanied by a boxed chassis with folded, perforated and soldered metal elements. The two engineers created an integrated gearbox and differential set underneath the engine, and around this highly sophisticated mechanical structure Bertone designed a sublime body. The Miura, a spectacular success, was born. This was followed by the 2+2 Islero and the Espada, a four-seater hatchback. Ferruccio wanted to broaden his market and in 1968 designed the Urraco, a high performance 2+2 but with a V8 2.5 litre engine that cost considerably less than a V12. This was at a time of student and trade union protest throughout the Western world; it was a difficult time for the factory and for Ferruccio, whose first wife died giving birth to Tonino, the future fashion designer.
The supercars remained strongly in demand: in 1971 came the Countach, a superb GT with one continuous curve running from front to rear. This ravishing model, which suddenly made all the company's other cars look dated, could not be put into full production for several years however. To this problem was added the cancellation of a major order for tractors from South America; Ferruccio found himself in big trouble. In 1972, he reluctantly handed control to the Swiss, Georges-Henri Rossetti, and his friend, René Leimer.
While the Urraco was being built and the Countach was entering production, the petrol crisis hit. The new management tried to mitigate the collapse of sales with the Cheetah, an off-road model designed to win military orders, but to no avail. In 1978 the Lamborghini company was put into receivership. Just as it was about to close down in 1980, it was saved by Patrick Mimram, scion of a wealthy family with interests in both France and Senegal, who set up the Nuova Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini company. He invested heavily in the LM-002, a hulk of a model with a 455 HP V12 engine destined for military use, but it was the Countach that held its place in the market, in its new Evoluzione and Restyling models.
While Luigi Marmiroli was working on developing the Type 132 that would later become the Diablo, Mimram suddenly sold out to Chrysler: Lee Iacocca wanted a premium brand amid the galaxy of the automobile giant he had saved. This could have been the big breakthrough, but it turned out to be a difficult task to reconcile a mass production mentality with supercar specialists. The Diablo came onto the market in 1990, just as the sports car boom deflated.
At the same time Lamborghini Engineering was set up and developed a Formula One V12 engine that was used by the Lotus, Minardi, Larrouse and Ligier teams. In 1991, headed by Mauro Forghieri, the Modena Team was created to produce an entire racing car with a Lamborghini engine. A highly promising project, it unfortunately was destined to run aground because of a shortage of funds. Success, however, arrived from a different quarter: offshore powerboat racing, where the Sant'Agata Bolognese-produced V12 engine proved itself unbeatable.
The Chrysler epoch came to a gloomy end in 1994, when the brand was purchased by a group of Indonesian companies. There was a calamitous revolution in top staff, with skilled managers and engineers being replaced by friends of the new owners. But the Diablo Roadster was going down well in the US, and the racing version SVR Diablo also contributed to bolstering sales. Failure, however, was soon breathing down Lamborghini's neck, and no one seemed to know what to do.
The turning-point came in 1996, when Vittorio di Capua - an ex-FIAT manager with clear ideas - set the company on a steady course and restored enthusiasm throughout the workforce. For the brand's 35th anniversary, an in-house preview featured a new four-wheel drive system that attracted the attention of the German Audi group.
On July 27, 1998, Audi purchased Lamborghini, signalling the beginning of a phase of constant growth that has restored the Emilia Romagna-based brand to its rightful place among the super sports car elite.
Under the skilled management of Stefan Winkelmann, a top German manager completely at his ease in Italy, Lamborghini has found in its two new models, the Murcielago and the Gallardo, the cars to complete its recovery. But Lamborghini's flagship remains the Reventón, a kind of road-missile produced in a 20-car limited edition, at the modest price of €1 million. Extreme styling, monster performance: it was sold out on the strength of its design on paper before the prototype had been built, in a feat that simply highlights the reputation that 'Lamborghini by Audi' has justly acquired.
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