Rush Hour In Sant' Agata: A Visit To The Home Of Lamborghini

By Blake Z. Rong | September 11, 2012
I'm in the passenger seat of a Lamborghini Gallardo, barreling down a rain-drenched, single-lane road down the Italian countryside, as dead flat and arrow-straight as Kansas but with more greenery; the oncoming traffic is smaller but just as deadly. Our car is black on black, with equally sinister black wheels -- "the best combination," says Moreno Conti, the man behind the wheel. He's cool and collected in a uniquely Italian way, like a man who's done this hundreds of thousands of times before. And indeed, as one of Lamborghini's test drivers, he has. We come up impatiently behind a late-model Renault and a tractor-trailer. He pulls out for a pass; the Gallardo summons up its speed effortlessly, without drama, almost instantaneously. I glance over at the speedometer: 210, 220, 230...that's 140 miles per hour, I estimate roughly in my head, in virtually no time -- and then the road dips down a hill, allowing me to see that in front of the truck are nine more cars.
And in the opposite lane, coming towards us at a frightening rate of speed, is another row of traffic...and another sinister-looking truck. "Stupid traffic," Conti swears under his breath, in English so I get the full effect of what he's about to do. He grins, faintly. I hold onto my seat. If it weren't for Lamborghini, the quiet town of Sant'Agata Bolognese would have just been some other podunk Italian town of 6,000 or so, an hour northwest of Bologna, maybe best known as a place to stock up on strawberry Fanta on your way to more exotic destinations. But the presence of a world-class supercar manufacturer does wonders for bringing a town out of obscurity; just ask the residents of Bowling Green, Kentucky, for example, home of the Chevrolet Corvette. I had attempted to make my way to Sant'Agatha on a previous trip to Italy, but to no avail: after taking a train to nearby San Giovanni in Persiceto and wandering the charming, almost deserted city for a taxi, a bus, a person who spoke English, and a cigar, I threw in the towel and hitched a ride with a cranky elderly gentleman in a diesel E-Class who referred to a long, lonely career of driving "your people." What, tourists? The Chinese? I eventually found myself at Bologna Centrale station and, with a few hours left before it closed, decided to high-tail it to cross-town rival Ferrari in nearby Maranello for a peek at its museum. Their factory, naturally, was off-limits to all but the Pope himself. Lamborghini was a bust, but I still had my fill of classic high-priced Italian exotica. But just as Ford owners would rather push a Mustang than drive a Chevy Camaro, Lamborghini to me was the real prize. Thankfully, it's far easier to get there these days. It was a brief ride on a bus full of surprisingly well-behaved and amorous teenagers, and after a stop outside a cafe populated by belly-baring old men in loafers and designer sunglasses, and I was at Lamborghini, a row of long, austere glass buildings marked by a long, austere black monolith in the front gates, as if 2001 itself was signaling the factory -- its home base since the company's founding in 1963. Every Lamborghini ever built has passed through these hallowed walls, even the ones that have caught on fire. Don't be fooled by the angular, glass-filled, modernist architecture of the new two-story complex: the original assembly line is just behind, cranking out more poster-wall fodder, and thoroughly modernized now that the fastidious Germans are overseeing it. The public relations staff at Lamborghini was gracious, professional, attractive, and more than willing to accommodate -- which were, with the exception of looking good, conventions that fly in the face of Italian stereotypes. They told me, with a tone of distressed empathy, that the factory was currently closed for renovations. Luckily, the museum was open, and that's where I started.

The Museum

Ferruccio Lamborghini, despite the excesses of his company, was a very conservative man. Barely one year after Ferruccio had famously vowed to beat Enzo at his own game, he had in his possession a high-revving, racing-derived V-12 engine prototype from Giotto Bizzarrini; a chassis from Gian Paolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzani, and New Zealander Bob Wallace; a production-ready version of the V-12 as modified by Dallara; and stunning ocean-blue semi-fastback bodywork constructed by Carrozzeria Sargiotto, which took them only four months. After reviewing Franco Scaglione's achingly beautiful 350GTV prototype, Ferruccio decided it was too futuristic, that it "looked too much like the Batmobile." As if that could be a bad thing. It would be akin, to paraphrase Jeremy Clarkson, to looking too much like Brad Pitt. But before the prototype could make its debut at the 1963 Turin Motor Show, Ferruccio was still arguing with Bizzarini over the engine specs: it did produce more than 350 horsepower, yes, as Ferruccio requested, but it did so at a staggering 9800 rpm. Clearly not Gran Touring material. Ferruccio wanted a sexy and refined car that could seat four equally sexy and refined adults, not some high-strung and fragile race motor better suited for the track and a team of technicians. Racing was Ferrari's game, he believed -- a game for fools who deluded themselves into thinking that excessive road noise and heavy clutches were the pinnacle of motoring, and Lamborghini would have none of it. So Bizzarini left in a huff, and the fate of the Lamborghini V-12 was entrusted to engineers Dallara and Stanzani. There still wasn't an engine ready for Turin. So Ferruccio did what any logical man would have done in such a situation: He faked it. Underneath the delicately sculpted hood he put bricks to weigh down the front, enough to trick auto journalists into thinking that an engine was present. That was the 350GTV. And the museum's first floor covers almost Lamborghini's entire production, including a Urraco -- Lamborghini's response to the 1970s oil crisis, with its first V-6 mounted behind the rear seats -- a blue Jarama S banished to a faraway corner, a bright yellow, targa-topped Jalpa, and the prize: a lime-green Countach LP400, in which I attempted to sit. I'm a pretty short guy. In high school, I could fit myself into a locker without first having to hand over my lunch money. I won 20 bucks at a roller derby limbo contest once. I fit into my own Miata's trunk. Sometimes I crawl into Lotus Elises for sport and exercise. But even the most barren of Exiges didn't prepare me for just how audaciously cramped the Countach was, and how comical the experience of climbing into one is. Here's how to properly enter a Countach: after opening the dead-sexy scissor doors, crawl over the yawning expanse of doorsill that is a foot and a half wide and wrapped in soft, pillowy leather the color of fresh pumpkins. Crawl across on your hands and knees like a five-year-old at a McDonald's Playplace, because attacking it feet-first like in any other vehicle results in cramps in muscles you didn't even know you had. Scrunch your knees up to your chest in the fetal position, position them underneath the drab black carnival-ride steering wheel, shoot your legs out blindly, twist your hips to the right to clear the inexplicably-placed expanse of carpeting, and plant your butt on the thinly padded bucket of a seat. Rumor has it that Cirque du Soleil bought a fleet of Countachs to train their performers. You can achieve the same effect by cutting a hole in the floor of your deck, placing a Barcalounger inside, and climbing in from the septic tank. Once inside, what you're greeted with seems on par more with a knockoff Fiero-based kit car. For starters, the interior smelled like a church basement -- that musty combination of dust, aged leather, and cheap vinyl that inevitably brings one back to memories of their first communion. For a museum piece, the car was surprisingly dirty and unloved. Reminding you that you're in a glorious Italian exotic, and not some re-skinned GM runabout, is a Lamborghini badge in the corner thrown on with double-sided Scotch tape. Next to it was a weathered Clarion radio in front of the passenger seat. Imagine winding such an example up to its 180 mph top speed and stretching an arm out to pop in a Rita Pavone tape -- after the ensuing accident they wouldn't call for an ambulance, they'd just get a hose. Perhaps James May was right when he said "never meet your heroes." After all, those bedroom posters were never of a Countach's insides. But then again, they were from the outside -- and the worst part about driving a Countach is not being able to look at its bodywork. Obviously I couldn't drive the museum piece, at least not today, so I had to leave the motoring experience aside and console myself with a life experience I could tell my 12-year-old self: I sat in a Countach!
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