Automobili Lamborghini celebrates 50 years

Grand tour 2013 suggests luxury car brand is resurgent

In May this year, 50 years to the week after Lamborghini laid its first foundation stone in Sant’Agata Bolognese, the Raging Bull of Italy comes home. Owners and dealers, drivers and aficionados from around the world will sweep across 1,200 miles of Italian highway, turning the country, for a moment, into a roaring Pamplona of carbon fiber and horsepower steel.

The event’s organizers anticipate that this will be the largest assembly of Lamborghinis ever convened. The Anniversary Grand Tour, as it has been named, will flow from Milan to the Tyrrhenian coast, passing through Rome and concluding with a final procession to the original factory in Sant’Agata. Along the way, guests will be treated to an ongoing exposition of the brand’s evolution through time, from the classic GTs to the sports cars of tomorrow, and who knows, maybe Lamborghini’s most daring innovations like the Urus luxury SUV will roll.

The Tour is a celebration of history, but in a way it is also a triumph march — a reminder that, only a decade and a half after the struggling super-car maker was brought under the wing of Volkswagen Group (VW), Lamborghini has charged back stronger than ever.

The purchase of Lamborghini by VW subsidiary Audi marks the first period of relative stability for the company since the market crash of 1973 threatened to run it off the road. In its first decade of operations, under the leadership of founder Ferruccio Lamborghini, the company saw robust growth, turning out classic models like the 350 GTV, 400 GT and eventually the Miura. But the economic downturn following the 1970s oil crisis saw the company slip from its pedestal into more than two decades of unprofitability, its ownership passing from Chrysler to investment firm Mycom Setdco, and finally into the haven of VW’s wide wings.

Tying the knot with V.W.

It is easy now to see, with the advantage of hindsight, that the marriage of Italian charisma with German clout was a shrewd move for both Lamborghini and VW. Freed from the exhausting pursuit of short-term profits and bolstered by Audi’s unparalleled research and development capabilities, Lamborghini turned inward in the first years following the acquisition; with a relentless focus on performance, it began to test its own limits. It was in this period that Lamborghini began to make serious use of carbon fiber, and achieved advancements in power and pull that would later be featured in the Sesto Elemento ultra car. Some of the prototypes born from that period of introspection — particularly developments to the engine and gearbox — set new milestones within the industry.

VW, for its part, has seen ample return on its investment. The immensely popular Gallardo, debuted in 2001, has sold close to 20,000 units to date; thanks in part to its success, Lamborghini was listed as one of the most profitable luxury car makers in the world in 2008. To its credit, VW has taken a hands-off approach to the management of its subsidiary, offering support but allowing Lamborghini to go its own way.

There have been twists and turns along that route, but in the end, the company has remained committed to Ferruccio’s original vision of a top-of-the-line grand touring car.

May’s fete will provide an excellent opportunity to survey that journey. Car enthusiasts attending the Anniversary Tour would do well to bear a few points in mind: first, the brand is preparing to do some amazing things. The first Elementos will roll out next year, and with them a new precedent for ultra-light, ultra-fast vehicles. With a power-to-weight ratio of 1.75 kilograms per horsepower, the Sesto Elemento is a super car among super cars.
Amazingly, the Elemento’s speed and power are achieved not with turbo or supercharging, but simply through the painstaking work of amping up engine performance and shaving off ounces. Just as a master watchmaker returns again and again to the roots of his craft, refining his skills even as the world abandons gears and springs in favor of the digital clock, so Lamborghini adheres to its own tested discipline. The purpose of the brand is not to invent a new class of cars, but to refine the ideal laid out by Ferruccio half a century ago.

This speaks to the second point of consideration. More than perhaps any other brand in the world — with the possible exception of Ferrari, its main competitor — Lamborghini has remained steadfastly loyal to core super car principles. At first glance, the new 2013 Gallardo may not look all that much like a classic GT, but closer inspection reveals the same commitment to form, the same seat positioning and the same sleek refinement that came to define the company’s more sophisticated brand of sportsmanship. And when the engine roars, it still thunders with that quintessential Lamborghini sound.
That roar will sound loudly on the causeways of Italy this spring. The 50-year celebration will not be marketed widely, but will nevertheless be heavily attended. Gala dinners, resorts and entertainment will all feature in the four-day program; ultimately, though, this event is about the cars and the company behind them.

The next fifty years

While Lamborghini is certainly exploring new territory with the Urus, and more recently the revitalization of the LM series luxury off-road vehicle, as it joins a growing rank of luxury brands experimenting with hybridization, the citing of the Anniversary Tour demonstrates that the company is still very much in touch with its roots.

Like Lamborghini, Italy has had its ups and downs. The country has yet to free itself from the shadow of a Greek collapse and the prospect of falling dominos that threatens to topple the region. In May 2012, severe earthquakes rocked the north of the country, destroying many historical landmarks concentrated in the Emilia-Romagna region. Restoration is ongoing.

Through its Anniversary Tour, Lamborghini has found a way to give something back, allocating 10 percent of all sponsorship proceeds to earthquake relief efforts. No less important, the company’s resurgence is a point of pride for Italy, and a reminder that perseverance often wins out over economic uncertainty.
Heading into the latter half of its first century, Lamborghini has enough momentum to carry it far into the future. The brand has been tested, and proven itself enduring. Here’s to a great 50 years, and another 50 to come.