Lamborghini cars have always made a point of standing out, whether that’s been through outrageous styling, dramatic paintwork, or their ever more extreme performance.
They have also been striking in their stubborn refusal to bow to any of the prevailing engineering trends of the 21st century that lessen the driving experience, even slightly, in the name of reducing a car’s environmental impact.
Downsizing, turbocharging and hybrid powertrains, they have resisted them all… Until now.
In 2022, Sant’Agata gave its long-running V12 engine a farewell crescendo in the Aventador Ultimae, making way for a new car that will make use of a completely overhauled hybrid V12.
Progress marches on, but we couldn’t help taking the opportunity to compare an early version of the unit, in a 4-litre Espada, and the final 769bhp Ultimae, on a drive from Venice to Lamborghini’s headquarters near Bologna.
Conflict is often the mother of invention.
And while that usually describes technology spawned by war, corporate fallout can have much the same effect.
Lamborghini, as a car maker, famously owes its existence to a much-mythologised disagreement between tractor magnate Ferruccio Lamborghini and Enzo Ferrari over the quality of the latter’s clutches.
Ferruccio also had no small stroke of luck when Enzo lost many of his most gifted engineers in the 1961 ‘great walkout’, making the services of the legendary Giotto Bizzarrini available just as Lamborghini looked to make his own car.
Tasked with building a larger version of a 1.5-litre Formula One V12 that he’d already designed but never built, Bizzarrini developed the engine in just four months.
Initially 3464cc, and achieving Lamborghini’s stipulation of outperforming the Ferrari V12, the engine operated inverted-bucket-type tappets via two cams for each bank of cylinders, driven by duplex roller chains and making use of hemispherical combustion chambers.
This was high-tech stuff for 1963, when the engine was revealed at the Turin Salon.
In this initial form, Bizzarrini claimed an output of 360bhp.
Accounts differ as to whether Bizzarrini, known for his abrasive nature, fell out with Ferruccio over a refusal to build anything other than a fire-breathing race engine, or he was just tempted by Renzo Rivolta’s offer to work at competitor Iso.
Either way, his stint was brief, and Giampaolo Dallara was left to modify the design to be more suited to the 350GT, in which it would make its 1964 debut.
He removed the dry-sump oil system, swapped six downdraught Webers for six sidedraughts, and generally detuned the engine for a more relaxed delivery of its 275bhp at 6500rpm.
Output varied, mainly via use of different camshaft profiles, but as much as 385bhp was claimed in the Paolo Stanzani-developed Miura SV.
The Espada has long lurked in the shadow of that illustrious two-seater sibling, overlooked and underpriced (and often subsequently neglected), but is now finally being appreciated as an exciting GT that represents the best of this individualistic marque.
And, while it sports four seats, there is no doubt that the Espada has the heart of a supercar.
That’s evident from the moment you first catch sight of its dramatic, Marcello Gandini-styled lines, first witnessed in the wild Bertone Marzal concept car and little diluted for the production model.
That impression is only reinforced when you slip into the reclined leather bucket seats of this 1973 S3, sited so low that you almost get the feeling you’re scraping your backside along the Italian asfalto.
Ahead, there’s a vast acreage of bonnet, its dimensions and bold NACA ducts giving a clue to what lies beneath: 4 litres, 12 cylinders, two camshafts per bank, a pair of alternators and six twin-choke Webers, resulting in 365bhp at 7500rpm and 300lb ft of torque at a heady 5500rpm.
Move off and the Espada’s intimidating width is compounded by the knowledge that this car was the fastest four-seater in the world when it was launched, capable of 0-60mph in 6.5 secs and 158mph flat-out.
Just a little burst of the throttle is enough for you to believe, as the quad tailpipes release a glorious chord of symphonic sound.
Not an orchestrated performance like a Ferrari V12, but something far more feral, deep-chested and untamed.
Yet with familiarity comes confidence.
The slightly over-light power steering helps, making it easy to place this big car, and you quickly appreciate the ability of its double-wishbone-suspended chassis, with that fantastically low centre of gravity and near-ideal weight distribution (52:48 – presumably made even better with a couple of rear-seat passengers).
It has an agility that defies appearances and expectations, with barely any roll despite a supple ride, the nose bobbing gently as you unwind the lock out of tighter corners and feed in the power for another glorious charge of sound and fury.
Just over 1200 of these wonderfully illogical supercoupés were produced across a 10-year run beginning in 1968, with most of the flaws of the earliest Sant’Agata products ironed out but none of the charisma diluted.
It would be the last Lamborghini to mount a V12 in front of the driver, bar the bizarre LM002 off-roader.
For the Countach, the V12 was rotated 90° from the Miura, creating the model initials LP (Longitudinale Posteriore), and the prototype displayed at Geneva in 1971, the LP500, promised a 5-litre version of the engine.
It didn’t materialise, however, with cost constraints forcing Lamborghini to stick to the 4-litre for the following decade, before the 4754cc LP500 finally appeared in 1982.
The biggest update to the engine since its creation came in 1985 with the 5000 quattrovalvole and its four-valve heads giving a boost to 5167cc and 455bhp.
For the 1990 debut of the Diablo, the engine adopted the fuel injection of Federalised late editions of the Countach across the range, adding all-wheel drive in the Diablo VT then expanding to 6 litres for 1998’s GT.
Following Audi’s purchase of Lamborghini in 1998, and the new funds that came to Sant’Agata as a result, the 6192cc Murciélago arrived just a few years later.
Bizzarrini’s wish to see the engine fitted with dry-sump lubrication was finally met, just as his V12 entered its fifth decade in service.
For 2006, in the 6.5-litre LP640-4, the V12 would be fitted with an innovation Bizzarrini could only have dreamed of in the early 1960s: variable valve timing.
Confusingly, for the Murciélago Lamborghini’s nomenclature switched from the ‘LP’ number describing (often vaguely) engine capacity to PS power output, and thus the final Murciélago, the LP670-4 SuperVeloce, featured the same 6.5-litre capacity, but now producing 661bhp (670PS) – a thoroughly impressive figure for an engine that, at heart, was some 55 years old.
The true Bizzarrini V12 came to an end in 2011 as the Murciélago was discontinued, with Lamborghini deciding it wanted to change so much that it was better starting again.
However, while the L539 unit that made its debut in the Aventador was publicised as all-new, with a different firing order and much more complex plumbing, it followed many of Bizzarrini’s principles and borrowed from its ancestor to such an extent that, today, Lamborghini insiders describe it as a ‘strict derivative’.
Beyond the technical links, however, the most striking constant was that the marque would continue with a large-capacity, naturally aspirated 60° V12 for the following 12 years while its competitors, Ferrari included, were downsizing, adding turbochargers and, later, even hybrid systems.
The L539 felt delightfully anachronistic almost as soon as it arrived.
The similarity between these two engines, and these two very different cars, is to be found in the way they pull – and scream – from 4000 to 7500rpm.
That’s not to say they don’t have any low-down power, they both do, but they are unashamed in their desire to be revved, and to spend prolonged time at the kind of engine speeds with which most cars aren’t comfortable.
It’s a gloriously mechanical sound, even in the Aventador, in which the whirr of valvegear and belts can be heard even above the lairy exhaust.
Where the Aventador’s V12 shows its extra decades of development is at the peak of its rev range.
Just when the Espada demands a gearchange, the Ultimae unlocks another level, discharging its preposterous 769bhp.
At the point where your brain is yelling at you to upshift, the engine steps up to a new howl, unlike pretty much anything else on the road, and another savage burst of acceleration.
It’s a pulse-racing experience, special and abnormal even to those who spend plenty of time in performance machinery.
There can be few places where modern engine technology is deployed in such a pure, unadulterated form.
On the dry roads on which we find ourselves, however, it’s never scary.
The four-wheel drive and driver assists no doubt help, but even in the less restrictive drive modes it’s not a snappy or unforgiving car, with a feeling of remarkable neutrality – a continuity with the well-balanced Espada.
The strong brakes help, too, which – as is the theme with much of the Aventador – buck the modern trend for hair-trigger pedals, requiring a more deliberate and longer depression to fully deploy the anchors.
That’s one of the pleasantly old-school aspects of the Aventador, but it is a model right at the end of its life so there are inevitably a few details that feel just a bit old-hat.
The gearbox, for example, has always been the car’s Achilles’ heel.
Not in any lack of durability, but the single-clutch automated manual is a jerky, tricky thing to use as we manoeuvre the car in the tight streets of one of the Venetian Lagoon’s paved islands.
Plenty of its rivals were already using more advanced, smoother transmissions a decade ago.
The interior, too, though very dramatic with its angular styling and fighter-jet-style flip-up starter button cover, doesn’t seem of the 2020s, with a small central screen and some very ordinary black plastics.
These are ills easily forgotten out on the open road.
Charging along the narrow lanes that cut through the marshy farmland of the mainland opposite Venice, the Ultimae proves to be a thrilling, capable and surprisingly friendly experience.
The steering is perfectly weighted and communicative, aided by a firm but not crashy ride.
Free from the need for light throttle inputs and locked into manual mode, the transmission finally plays ball, too.
It’s playful in its performance at first, but once confidence is gathered to explore the fierce upper reaches of the engine’s rev range it becomes simply ridiculous, with 60mph rushing past from rest in a 2.8-second blur.
Reflecting Lamborghini’s growing success in the 21st century, the company built nearly 10 times as many Aventadors than Espadas in a similar length of time.
The model’s Ultimae swansong, however, is limited to just 600 cars, and will surely become the most collectible version.
From that initial run, 15 never reached their first owners after they were destroyed in the wreck of the Felicity Ace in March 2022.
Once it became clear they were unrecoverable, Lamborghini made the decision to briefly restart production and replace them.
Where a Ferrari V12 sings a purposeful howl, these Lamborghinis have a violence that adds extra theatre to the experience – critics might say childishly so.
Both cars encapsulate the Sant’Agata ethos of unashamed exuberance, with no pretensions of anything so earnest as motorsport pedigree.
This is engineering for the sake of emotion and drama, and we can only hope that Lamborghini’s hybrid V12 gets close to capturing the same spirit.
Images: Automobili Lamborghini
Lamborghini Espada S3
- Sold/number built 1968-’78/1227
- Construction steel monocoque, with steel and aluminium panels
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 3929cc V12, with six twin-choke Webers
- Max power 365bhp @ 7500rpm
- Max torque 300lb ft @ 5500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted ZF worm and sector
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 15ft 6¼in (4730mm)
- Width 6ft 1½in (1867mm)
- Height 3ft 11in (1195mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 8½in (2650mm)
- Weight 3875lb (1761kg)
- 0-60mph 6.5 secs
- Top speed 158mph
- Mpg 14
- Price new £12,113 (1974)
- Price now £60-180,000*
Lamborghini Aventador Ultimae
- Sold/number built 2022/600
- Construction carbonfibre tub and bodywork, aluminium subframes
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 6498cc V12, multi-point fuel injection
- Max power 769bhp @ 8500rpm
- Max torque 531lb ft @ 6750rpm
- Transmission seven-speed automated manual, 4WD
- Suspension double wishbones, pushrod-actuated horizontal coil spring/damper units f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes carbon-ceramic discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 15ft 2in (4868mm)
- Width 6ft 11in (2098mm)
- Height 3ft 9in (1136mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 10in (2700mm)
- Weight 3417Ib (1550kg)
- 0-60mph 2.8 secs
- Top speed 221mph
- Mpg 13
- Price new £344,900 (2022)
- Price now £450,000+*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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