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! 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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