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

By Blake Z. Rong | September 11, 2012
The exhibits at the Lamborghini museum are always rotating, and the first thing visitors see when they go upstairs is, rather appropriately, Lamborghini's latest creation, in this case, the $1 million Reventon, which is a lot smaller in person than press photos indicate. A little longer than a Camry, and cut up like a losing knife fighter, this is the million-dollar evolution of the Murcielago, the car that hints at Lamborghini's future plans. It's a welcome introduction to the dumping ground of Lamborghini's myriad prototypes and racecars, the ones dating back to the mid-90s that haven't been dug out of barns, holed up at Pininfarina, or exist only in cyberspace. Chrysler bought Lamborghini in 1987, during its bid to merge Italian build quality with K-car style, and Lee "If You Can Find a Better Car, Buy It!" Iacocca couldn't resist the allure of racing. So Lamborghini Engineering was founded, supplying V-12 engines and chassis to such diverse teams as Larrousse & Calmel, Team Lotus, Ligier, and Minardi. Larrousse placed third in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, which was as competitive as it got. Lamborghini-powered cars spewed so much oil from their exhaust systems that cars them would be coated brown by the end of the race. Chrysler ran out of money with typical aplomb, Lamborghini was sold to an Indonesian conglomerate with a name from an 80s action thriller, and the Formula 1 program was cancelled. There was the Murcielago R-GT, Satan's own race car, and next to it was the Gallardo police car. There was the P140 concept, designed by Marcello Gandini as a replacement for the aging, forgotten Jalpa, with a compact V-10 that took engineers only 7 months to complete. There were Projects 132 and 147, representing both what could have been the Diablo itself and what could have replaced it, respectively. Project 147, the Kanto, was designed by Zagato: the double hump theme is carried throughout, from the signature roof to the bizarre, twin-tubed headlights, rear vents and shoulder-mounted air intakes big enough to launch watermelons. Project 132 next to it is only slightly more normal, resembling a lumpy Diablo with an overbite. Its only requirement? To reach 315km/hr; that's 195 mph to you and me. Gandini had drawn up Project 132, only to see Lamborghini's Detroit overlords soften the shape and alter it to their heart's content. Not a wise decision to mess with the man who gave the world the Espada, the Miura and the Countach. Gandini went on to realize his original vision in the Cizeta Moroder, bringing the circle of Lamborghini concepts full-circle. And through the lacquered hardwood floors, another phase of Lamborghini history: as evident in the execution of its concept cars, perhaps Audi have been the most faithful stewards of the Lamborghini lore. Both the Gallardo Concept S and Miura Concept are here, prominently positioned by the window facing the road (which, right now, was being assaulted by ricocheting hail the size of nickels). The Miura Concept, gorgeous as it is, was famously shelved for being too "retro," as CEO Stefan Winkelmann explained: "The Miura was a celebration of our history, but Lamborghini is about the future." It's as beautiful as the car it's styling is based on. If there ever was a car more deserving than the Beetle, Mini Cooper or (and I'm bound to get some pitchforks at my doorstep for this) even the GT40 to be resurrected, by looks alone, it would be a short list with the Miura on top. The Concept S is on the opposite end of this spectrum -- it is a car designed to evoke a Brave New World, a radical interpretation of the future in two distinct, separated pods. Once that moon base finally gets built, we'll load up the Concept S and spend the weekend at our aunt's place! But the Concept S manages to be just grounded enough to the present to hint at future production and a powertrain warranty. Could Lamborghini build it in all of its flamboyant glory and sell it to the spoiled masses? For a parent company to understand Lamborghini's past, present, and future like Audi has is a truly rare feat, something Chrysler or Megatech could never match.

The Test Drive

"That shirt is bad luck!" exclaimed Moreno Conti, Lamborghini test driver extraordinaire, as we climbed into the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 waiting outside the museum. I hadn't realized that the bright red shirt I was wearing was an omen: the irony hadn't sunk in yet, how bulls are notoriously fickle about the color. And as if the gods saw fit to punish me for wearing it, the skies opened up with an apocalyptic showering of hail, their staccato plinks echoing through the building -- just before my ride. It's Conti's job to shake down Lamborghinis for all manners of testing, from prototype test mules to finished products, long after their glitzy auto show debuts -- and when he's done beating up Lamborghinis, he frightens bratty, self-indulgent journalists like yours truly at alarming speeds. This particular example we were in was an LP560-4, Lamborghini's newest stablemate at the time -- its 5.2-liter, direct-injected V-10 engine produces 560 horsepower, exactly as it says on its label. It also has four-wheel drive as standard, which helps the Gallardo pull off reality-twisting launches in any weather conditions, especially behind the hands of a professional. The rain stopped briefly, but the clouds looked like they would burst into rain again at any second. A slick sheen reflected off the pavement. The seatbelt clicked, Conti flicked the paddle shifter into gear, and off we went in a dull roar. This part of Italy, at the foothills of the Apennine Mountains and miles from the Mediterranean coast, is known for its mild, short springs -- with arguably distinct seasons and yes, plenty of rainfall. Emilia-Romagna is known worldwide for its Lambrusco grapes, dry and fruity in the wine that once kept Romans Virgil, Pliny, and Cato the Elder properly sloshed. We drove past the city square, passing the convenience store where I had first arrived by far less exotic transportation, past crumbling brick walls, rolling green fields, 90-degree blind corners. Traffic was light and Conti was taking it relatively easy with the car, driving quickly but never recklessly. The remnants of civilization disappear as we drive out of city limits; we're slowly surrounded by steep green hills in the distance, looking a little like rural Pennsylvania. The road is a sturdily-paved highway that ends past an overpass, into a roundabout. Conti notices that there aren't any cars around. "Ready for this?" he says. He downshifts with the paddle shifters, then rolls on the throttle. The rear end lights up before the front, and we're spinning far too fast for a straight line -- he gently turns the wheel to the left, and with the sort of explosive force reserved for human cannonballs and Colonel John Stapp, the tail swings wide as the car arcs around the roundabout in a flawless, spine-compressing four-wheel drift. "We're having fun now, right?" says Conti with a grin, as he gets back on the throttle. We're back on the main road back to Lamborghini headquarters now, a direct shot back to Sant' Agata. Room to breathe. I had to ask: "Does anyone ever get angry at Lamborghini for driving around like this?" "No, they just give us our distance -- they know who we are, and we don't try to drive too crazy," he says. We're doing 120 miles per hour as he says this. More lavish than any Lamborghini before it, even the Murcielago, the Gallardo is quiet enough in sixth gear to hold an interview, so that's what I do. Conti tells me that his garage at home comprises a Fiat Panda and a seven-seater Mitsubishi Outlander for his family -- modest vehicles for someone paid to drive some of the world's most desirable cars. But he didn't want to bring his work home, he explained. Makes sense. And what he drove for work was certainly a step above the PT Cruiser Convertible sitting in the employee parking lot. It was this point where we come up to midafternoon traffic, and those odious trucks; I count 11 cars in total. Conti doesn't waste any time. He pulls into the left lane and floors the Gallardo, which responds with a banshee wail. I reach for a grab handle. The Gallardo picks up more and more speed, and the cars go whooshing past us in punctuated gasps. And then, one loud blaaattt!, and the truck was vanquished. Conti closes the gap and merges back into the right lane with plenty of room to spare. Maybe oncoming traffic slowed down for us -- not just because somebody was foolhardy enough to pull out for a pass, but because they were foolhardy in a Lamborghini. It's no surprise that despite sharing the same country as these exotic carmakers, Italians still respond to them in the manner of alien spaceships. Nothing could be more hopelessly, painfully Italian and at the same time carry the fantasy and the obnoxiousness, the allure and the stereotypes of passionate machinery and the outrageous attitudes of everyone involved with it. By all accounts Ferrucio himself was an unpleasant man, but also a visionary -- and sometimes, if you wanted to be the latter you also had to be the former. That's just how it goes. Later, Lamborghini gives me a modest gift bag -- a pen, an oversized coffee table book detailing the Gallardo's development, and an umbrella that's a necessity for a day like this but festooned with enough tacky logos to make me reconsider using it in public. So, Lamborghini is, despite its badge, no bull. And instead of a mere poster over the bed of my inner child, I'll be more satisfied earning my paycheck in Moreno Conti's shoes.
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