Lamborghini: first blood


Long before his obsession with mid-engined supercars, Ferruccio Lamborghini made GTs designed to take on and shame Ferrari. Martin Buckley drives 350 and 400 2+2 to decide where Sant’Agata’s supercruisers now fit in its lexicon of greats.

Lamborghini’s rabid four-decade pursuit of mid-engined street theatre has rather left its earlier front-engined products side-lined in history. Yet, in a quieter way, the 350 and 400GTs of 1964-’67 are equally important. Numbering fewer than 400 examples (reputedly sold at a £400 loss each), with these cars Ferruccio Lamborghini realigned buyers’ expectations at the highest level of the GT market. 

As a wealthy industrialist, Ferruccio was in the fortunate position of owning most of the world’s most exotic cars and seeing their compromises and rough edges first hand. Ferrari in particular doggedly persevered, on his road cars at least, with an ordinary selection of chassis components: leaf springs, solid rear axles, hefty tubes and bits of angle iron fashioned into a chassis that looked ruggedly semi-commercial. It all worked quite well, but changed little from year-to-year, model-to-model.

His V12 engines were fabulous, as was the bodywork that was fashioned around them, but Ferrari was yet to be convinced of the need for five-speed gearboxes or four camshafts. He maintained a high-handed disregard for customer comfort and reliability and thought even less of their views, even if they happened to be an equally wealthy local industrialist. However, even if Enzo had not famously snubbed Ferruccio by refusing to give an audience at Maranello, this craggy-faced self-made tractor tycoon, with no need to rely on the banks or government for his funding, was probably destined to build his own super sports car. 

A kinder and more lighthearted figure than Enzo Ferrari, Lamborghini was no less determined. Although clear that he didn’t want to challenge Ferrari in competition, he did not do things by halves and understood that to build the ultimate car you first had to build the ultimate factory. Sant’Agata Bolognese, 20 miles from Modena, would be a clean-lined eat-off-the-floor monument to the modern art of supercar manufacture with the latest machine tooling and production techniques. To keep control of quality, Ferruccio would bring as much component manufacture in-house as possible.Not only were the traditional solid billet crankshafts machined down from 204 to 53lb (in an operation that took 30 hours) but, eventually, even gearboxes and differentials would be built on-site.

Meanwhile a prototype was being prepared by a team of frustrated racing car designers – mostly in their 20s – in Lamborghini’s tractor factory 10 miles away at Cento. As it turned out, the 1963 350GTV prototype was a clumsy opening shot, hard to take seriously at the time because of its styling. Ex-Bertone head stylist Franco Scag-lione was so hamstrung by Ferruccio’s brief that he found it impossible to come up with anything original looking and cohesive. There were elements of Corvette Stingray and Aston Martin DB4 (both cars owned and loved by Mr Lamborghini) but the end result looked like something Captain Scarlet should be driving.  Lamborghini acknowledged the critics and asked  Touring of Milan to do a tidied-up production version in aluminium to the firm’s Superleggera principles – a superstructure of small steel tubes – and supplied at the rate of 10-15 per month.

If the stylist was constrained, the designers were given free rein, rather too much in the case of Giotto Bizzarrini whose quad-cam, dry-sump V12 produced 360bhp at a very uncivilised 8000rpm. This wild power was not what Ferruccio wanted for his GT car and when 24-year-old Giampoalo Dallara was put in charge of the project, his first job was to detune this otherwise fantastic engine. Dumping the dry sump  compromised the low bonnet line but the simple answer was found in changing the vertical intake Weber 40s for horizontal ones, which were much cheaper (Lamborghini did not want to make his car more expensive than a Ferrari but, if possible, cheaper) and available in larger numbers.

Even with 270bhp the Lamborghini V12 had more power than the contemporary Ferrari and, peaking at 6500rpm, it was more usable. Restyled by Touring, and its chassis beefed-up by Dallara  to take wider door frames and better bodywork mountings, this was the sleek, bug-eyed 1050kg two-seater Ferruccio launched in May 1964. The basic shape lasted through to 1967 and the demise of Touring. In fact it went on beyond Touring when former employees, working for the designer Mario Marazzi, continued to make the bodies on Lamborghini-owned tooling. 

In the intervening three years there would be several developments. The most significant was the introduction of a 4-litre, 320bhp 2+2 with a longer wheelbase and lowered floor to take the small rear seats. It looked the same but almost every panel was subtly different and, because it was anticipated it would sell in larger numbers, those panels were formed in steel rather than ally. When the 400GT 2+2 was launched in March 1966 it came with Lamborghini’s own five-speed ’box and differential, replacing the ZF units. Confusingly Lamborghini continued to list a 350GT to protect resale values and built a few two-seaters with the 4-litre engine. 

Thanks to the Lamborghini factory museum, we were able to sample both 350GT and 400 GT 2+2 on local roads. Apart from the obvious headlamp arrangement differences (single lozenge-shaped Cibiés on the 350, four circular Hellas on the 400) there are myriad detail changes that are only obvious when these early cars are side-by-side. The 350GT has dual fuel fillers (it has two tanks to the 400’s space-liberating single tank) and a single windscreen wiper (the 400 has two) that was developed in conjunction with Ferruccio’s stillborn helicopter project. The spinners on the Borrani wire wheels are non-eared, its roofline is slightly higher and the rear window cuts much more deeply into the roof. At a glance it is hard to detect the different screen rakes of the two cars or the revised boot opening of the 400. Unlike the 400, the front bumper of this 350 has the optional over-riders. 

Inside, the general architecture is the same apart from the small rear seats but you notice that the 400 has a ribbed headlining compared to the 350’s conventionally hung liner. Big doors on both cars make getting in and out effortless (Lamborghini was keen on this) and, once inside, the generous use of leather and neat trim work put the 350 and 400 a notch or two higher than later front-engined cars that had cheesy, poor-quality interiors. There is no pretence of ergonomics, just big honest dials for speed and revs – their numerals painted on the outside of the glass – behind a man-sized wood-rimmed steering wheel that sits nearly vertically and is offset slightly to the centre of the car. Apart from the confusing row of unmarked toggle switches in the centre, there are few of the other problems – such as a poor driving position – that blighted later front-engined cars such as the Jarama. In fact it was a surprise to find a multi-function column stalk (horn, indicators and high/low beam) and embracing seats that could have come out of a car 10 years younger.

For me the 350 and 400 Lamborghinis are not beautiful cars. Arresting and dramatic with
fragile details that give them an exquisite quality, but hardly vintage Touring. They hint strongly at other exotics but without coming to any satisfying conclusions. 

You cannot entirely blame Touring. To preserve egos, its stylists weren’t permitted to  change the original Scaglione design too radically and one cannot underestimate the underlying need to create something decisively separate from the more high-profile Italian coachbuilt fashions of the time. In that they were successful. The profile is a mix of hard edges and soft curves topped by an elegant greenhouse that afford occupants excellent views out across the bug-eyed bonnet, but makes the car an unforgiving sauna. The squared-off rear arches are unsubtle, the whole feel rather fussy and cod-futuristic. I prefer the austerity of the Islero, possibly the coolest Lamborghini of all. 

But if the looks of the early Lamborghinis had not reached maturity, they do feel remarkably complete cars to drive. The engines fire in that curious V12 way: twist the key and the starter motor seems to be doing a lot of work without much reaction – you can’t detect any firing impulses – until, just as you are about to give up, four-six-eight and then all 12 pistons catch in succession and suddenly the thing is idling. It is very level, smooth and docile sounding; not so visceral as a Ferrari, not so rich as a V8 Maserati, but a complex, silky sophisticated sound.

On the move they are muscular and musical of course but it is not the performance that grabs your attention first but the ride. Stepping out over narrow roads with sometimes odd cambers and not especially well-maintained surfaces, it soon dawns that both cars ride amazingly well. They are flat and level, more composed than the modern Mercedes taxi that picked me up from the airport. Even at low speeds they are firm but comfortable on their unequal-length wishbones and supple coil spring-damper units, smoothing out beautifully above 40mph. Likewise, they are not quiet cars yet both the 350 and the 400 can be whisked along with surprisingly little exhaust noise. Dallara did a lot of work on the design of the system to achieve this. 

Lamborghini made its own five-speed ’box (with synchro on reverse!) for the 400s, so it is interesting that the ZF ’box in the 350 is more coarse, but both lighter and more slick (though far from flick-switch) than the factory ’box which has a wider neutral band and less well-defined actions. The earlier car’s clutch is heavier but has a more distinct bite point.

Despite their hugely generous flexibility, it is difficult to be smooth at low speeds with either 350 or 400GT. The overall gearing is high and you need plenty of revs to pull away smoothly without bogging down, but you never need first for anything other than pulling away from rest. 

The steering lacks much castor return on both cars and, bereft of assistance, is fairly hefty in action at low speeds but it strikes probably as good a compromise as was available in the early ’60s between reasonable weight and responsive gearing on something this hefty. There are so many joints in the steering it’s amazing it’s as good as it is. Dallara was somewhat compromised by space and the exhaust manifolds: if the engine was to maintain optimum torque and refinement, the design of the pipes could not be altered to run around the steering column so it runs over the top to a worm-and-screw steering box on the suspension cradle via a universally jointed rod and then via a vertical shaft down to the steering linkage. 

Yet the cars only feel ponderous should you wish to perform something as mundane as a three-point turn that brings the massive turning circles and restricted lock – particularly of the 350 – sharply into focus. This is largely a function of the Borrani rims, which had to be 15in because there were no smaller tyres available with a 160mph speed rating. 

It is at speed that the cars come together, the feeling of heft dropping away to leave a car that is relaxing, the effort required to operate brakes, steering and throttle harmonising. The fabulous visibility makes you feel relaxed at the wheel, as does the natural stability of the cars on any kind of road. They are neutral at speed and the steering feels a lot lighter and wieldier because you don’t have to use much lock to steer around any given corner. Neither does the steering fight or kick back much, adding to the impression of well-sorted refinement and ease of control. They are delightfully free of body roll and the roadholding is not lacking in bite. 

Of the two the Lamborghini 350GT feels the more free-revving, sweeter engine, but because the later car seemed to be a more recent restoration its engine may well have been more taut. On straight roads their strides are long and powerful with engines that wind and wind as you open the throttles against a smooth but robust return spring. The pick-up is brawny yet measured, seamless push in every gear that never quits. You can take them to a smoothly strident 7000rpm but at 4500rpm you are getting along pretty urgently, the engines hum deep and expensive,  but some way short of intrusive. Indeed, the extra weight of the 2+2 should easily be accounted for by its extra power and you could climb to nearly 80mph in second gear alone with something like 110mph on tap in third.

Never one to suffer for a lack of ambition, Ferruccio Lamborghini was looking to build, at his first attempt, something dramatically more complete, refined and truly modern than any of the Gran Turismo exotica available to the well-heeled connoisseur in the early 1960s. That he succeeded so completely, forcing Ferrari to dramatically up its game as a road car builder in the process, is a matter of simple historical fact. Less appreciated is the possibility that this pair of Touring-bodied GTs might well have been the best all-rounders of his career as the boss of Automobili Lamborghini.

This article was originally published in the September 2006 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Martin Buckley; pictures: Tony Baker


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