Lamborghini's 60th anniversary: 60 years of hits… and misses | Top Gear
BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear
Subscribe to Top Gear magazine
Sign up to our Top Gear Magazine
Wednesday 4th October

Lamborghini's 60th anniversary: 60 years of hits… and misses

Raging bulls or bulls in a china shop? We sort the studs from the steers

  • 350 GT: hit

    350 GT: hit

    Launching an entirely new car company is a bit of a big deal. See Fisker, Faraday Foibles or any of the supercar companies that lasted as long as a house of cards in a hurricane if you need any more details. 

    But to launch a car company with the goal of building a car that can outdo Ferrari? That’s the kind of bombast you’d expect on a press release from a car company you never hear from again. But, with bodywork by Carrozzeria Touring, chassis by Giampaolo Dallara and engine by ex-Ferrari engineer Giotto Bizzarrini (who designed the basic V12 that’d run from the 350 GT through to the Murcielago SV), Lamborghini came out swinging. 

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • 400 GT: hit

    400 GT: hit

    And kept swinging, if we’re honest. Yes, the 400 GT is essentially the same car as the 350 GT, but it’s also one with a better, more powerful drivetrain, more space and body panels from steel, rather than aluminium. 

    While the last bit gives us cause to pause – steel being generally heavier and more prone to rust than aluminium and its alloys – the 400 GT wasn’t actually much heavier than the 350 GT it replaced. Add in the fact that the 400 offered more space, pace and grace (might have nicked an old ad tagline there for a competing car maker, but we should be OK), you can see why we’d think the 400 deserves a nod of approval of its own. 

  • Miura: hit. Obviously

    Miura: hit. Obviously

    If we’re lining up hits, then the Miura is the hit. It’s a haymaker thrown from the hips, hitting hard enough to end the fight for good. 

    Think ‘supercar’ these days, and you’ve already put the engine behind the driver and ahead of the rear wheels. Yes, De Tomaso got there two years earlier with the Vallelunga, of course, and the Porsche 550 was already there in the Fifties. But we as a species have codified the chronology very simply: Before Miura, and Anno Supercar. And you don’t create that sort of legacy with anything other than what might be one of the biggest hits in automotive history. 

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • Espada: well, we love it

    Espada: well, we love it

    Well, clearly the Espada is a rare fish, right? Nope. In fact, Lambo’s big grand tourer was actually its best-selling car – until the Countach overtook it during its lengthy, 16-year model run. 

    But that might actually be something of a theme, here – with only minor updates over the years, the Espada stayed on sale for a decade. Little wonder that Lamborghini sold more than 1,200 of them. 

    Does that make it a hit? Well, big sales are a pretty time-honoured metric for hits, so there’s at least one argument in its favour. But then there’s also the fact that this is a proper, four-seater grand tourer with Lambo’s famed V12 up front and outstanding, instantly recognisable design outside. 

    And yes, that design is not for everyone. But then it’s not supposed to be, either.

  • Islero: miss

    Islero: miss

    If you can believe it, the conservatively styled Islero went on sale alongside the Espada and after the Miura. Almost like Ferruccio hadn’t got the message about what Lamborghini customers were after. 

    Sure, the 350 and 400 GT were lovely grand tourers, but changing the game entirely and then playing by the old rules makes about as much sense as a David Lynch film. It hardly helps that Carrozzeria Touring had gone belly-up and a fledgling company founded by ex-Touring employees built the 225 Isleros instead – with some... er, teething issues in terms of the quality control. 

    Apparently, Ferruccio himself drove an Islero, favouring its understated presence over Lambo’s more overt models. Let’s take a moment to thank Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration for the likes of Dallara, Wallace and Stanzani...

  • Jarama: miss

    Jarama: miss

    So, you know how we said how we loved the Espada, and how its outlandish design (and subjectively outstanding) design was a better route to take than the reserved Islero? Well, that’s put us in something of a bind here. 

    See, there’s a saying old enough to have first been said in Latin – in matters of taste, there can be no dispute. In effect, one person’s gorgeous is another’s gopping. So we can say the Espada is lovely and that’s just, like... our opinion, man. But then we see the Jarama and are forced to conclude that we’re looking at the result of someone drawing a Jag XJS with their eyes shut.

    But it’s also the one Ferruccio loved most of all, apparently. Interviewed in 1991, he described the Jarama as a perfect blend of Miura and Espada. In matters of taste, we guess. But at least we can agree on its powerplant: the same basic V12 that made everything from the Miura to the Murcielago the supercar of the moment.

  • Urraco: miss, but we love it all the same

    Urraco: miss, but we love it all the same

    By now, you might have noticed that there’s a bit of a tacit rule when it comes to supercars: add rear seats, lose out everywhere else. Including sales, come to think of it. 

    Of course, that’s not an absolute rule – people still bought Mondials and Urracos, after all.  But in the years hence, those ‘2+2’ supercars depreciated like toilet paper and consistently found themselves rated as little more than poor relations to proper supercars*. 

    Is it because, like the Urraco, they were designed to be a cheaper, easier way into the upper echelons of the automotive world? Possibly. Is it because any sop to practicality is the kiss of death for something designed to bypass the frontal lobe and go straight for the amygdala? Well, we’ve thought along those lines ourselves. Is it because, when one is in need/want of a 2+2 sports car, it’s really a case of the 911 and everything that’s nearly as good? Ah. That might be it. Still didn’t stop us turning into a fawning child when we were invited to sit behind the wheel of one...

    * We speak historically, of course, before the current bubble of madness that’s swept up anything even remotely related to desirability

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • Countach: hit

    Countach: hit

    When a car is called the ‘wow’ in its local dialect (other, less euphemistic translations are available) and doesn’t immediately become the rolling embodiment of irony, you know that they’ve created something special. 

    While the Miura was genuinely game-changing in the supercar world, establishing Lamborghini as the real deal in the process, it was the Countach that really made Lamborghini a household name – and a Countach poster a fixture in every household. 

    This was what established the legend of Lamborghini – instantly recognisable, utterly unsubtle, outrageously fast and constantly outrageous. Of course, they were as practical as having a panther as a house pet and as difficult to live with day to day. But they were also so deliriously desirable that you’d daydream about owning one all the same. 

  • BMW M1: perhaps the biggest miss in Lambo’s history

    BMW M1: perhaps the biggest miss in Lambo’s history

    Don’t mistake us for a second – the M1 is a truly tremendous car, something we’d be deliriously happy to own, drive, look after or remember where we put our Matchbox model of. It was a miss for Lamborghini, though. 

    With a commission in hand from BMW to build its low-volume Group 5 homologation special – and a huge cash injection from the Italian government to build it – Lamborghini instead decided to funnel that money* into building prototype off-road military-type vehicles, chasing lucrative contracts from various... let’s say bullish governments and leave it at that. And, with that cash misappropriated and subsequently squandered, BMW cancelled the project, Lamborghini went bankrupt and BMW had to physically retrieve its first foray into the supercar world from the Lambo factory floor. Hardly what we’d call a success for anyone involved.  

    * Not all of it, by the way. In the space of just six months from signing the contract, Lamborghini had completed all of the engineering work on the Giugiaro-penned slice of gorgeousness. Imagine what could have happened if Lamborghini had made a name for itself as a ‘Need a race car, sports car or supercar? We’ll sort it’ consultancy firm, as well as a supercar manufacturer. Hang on... did we just describe Dallara?

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • Silhouette: miss

    Silhouette: miss

    So, you read Top Gear. You like cars. And Lamborghini is one of those big automotive names that extends to those who only kind of like cars. 

    With that in mind, who’d like to put their hand up and admit to not knowing about the Silhouette? 

    Of course, we wouldn’t blame you – a rebodied Urraco with a targa top, sold for all of three years and in numbers that even Bugatti would scoff at... not exactly going to make it onto the greatest hits album. 

    The car itself was actually pretty decent, as it goes – barring the driving position fit only for Gumby (or perhaps Popeye, in a pinch) and V8 engine with an appetite for spark plugs. But it was also a pricey Lamborghini in a world wracked by recession and rapt with its bigger brother, the Countach.

  • Jalpa: hit, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise

    Jalpa: hit, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise

    But as much as the Silhouette may have missed the mark (unless 50-odd sales over three years is something to aspire to in the car-building business), Lamborghini wasn’t done with the idea of a V8-powered, Urraco-based junior supercar just yet. Or maybe it was, but just had no money to put towards a new idea. 

    In any case, the Jalpa was an evolution of the Silhouette, which was itself an evolution of the Urraco. And it was conceived, created and trotted out as an all-new model for the Eighties at a time when Lamborghini could barely find a few lira to rub together. Hardly a strong start, then. 

    But the Jalpa turned out to be the saviour of the company, even if it only took about 400 sales to save the big bull’s bacon. Clearly, among the bulges, bumpers and bigger engines, they’d managed to engineer in a decent profit margin. 

  • LM002: miss

    LM002: miss

    A failed pitch for a military vehicle that was the final financial straw for a failing Lamborghini, resurrected by the new owners as a V12-powered, three-tonne testament to excess. It doesn’t exactly scream hit, does it? 

    Because we’re now in the midst of a period of critical reappraisal (or historical revisionism, in some cases), the LM002 is now lauded for developing Lambo’s four-wheel-drive prowess and helping create the new niche of luxury performance SUV. Now, remind us: which one of those things was good? Most of the best Lamborghinis are rear-wheel drive (LP670-4 SV excepted, obviously) and all the best luxury performance SUVs are broadly indistinguishable from the worst. 

    So thanks, Lamborghini, Jeep and Land Rover. Thanks for ruining cars for everyone. 

  • Diablo: hit

    Diablo: hit

    In what was something of a theme for Lamborghini for... oh, probably about half of its 60-year history, Lamborghini was in trouble. After bankruptcy, receivership and the eventual purchase for about a song and a half, the muckety mucks at Lamborghini realised its only decent sources of income in the mid-Eighties were a bloated, overly adorned version of the Countach and a hastily and cheaply refreshed targa-top version of the Urraco in the Jalpa. Both dated back to the early Seventies, and neither was exactly causing it to rain money in Sant’Agata. 

    To make the Diablo a reality required not just the usual Lambo mainstays – Bizzarrini-designed V12, Gandini-designed bodywork and a big ol’ brave pill – but also the sale of the entire company to Chrysler, a huge redesign by Tom Gale (that Gandini was very much not a fan of) and the establishment of an entire dealer network across the United States. 

    After all that effort and tumult, you’d really want the Diablo to be a pretty special piece of kit. And, helpfully enough, it was – this was the car that put Lamborghini on the map for an entirely new generation*, bringing the joyful madness we’d come to expect from Lamborghini (scissor doors and all) and being a perfect, V12-powered foil to Ferrari. Exactly as it should be, then. 

    * Two generations, actually – we’re not going to forget Gen Xers like everyone else seems to

  • F1: miss

    F1: miss

    The Lamborghini V12 – brilliant. V12-powered F1 cars? Also brilliant. The combination of a Lamborghini V12 and an F1 car? Er, about that. 

    After a consistent lack of success with teams like Larrousse, Minardi and Ligier, Lambo’s bona fide V12 race engine – the LE3512, as it was dubbed – finally found its way into prototype McLaren F1 cars. And this was in the Ayrton Senna days, too. Quite the coup, right? 

    Well, it would have been, if not for the fact that – to quote a McLaren F1 mechanic directly – “The problem with the engine was that by the time it was warm, it normally had hand-grenaded itself.” A far cry from the appreciably reliable road-going V12, you’ll agree. Almost like Ferrucio had a good idea when he ordered Bizzarrini’s race-spec design beefed up and tuned down before going into his road cars...

  • Murcielago: hit

    Murcielago: hit

    The swan song of the engine that made Lamborghini... well, Lamborghini. The same basic V12 that made a virtue of detuning like no other engine before or since* had now become a 570-horsepower maniac... then a 630bhp maniac... then a 670bhp one. Also, if you can listen to the wraith-like howl of the Murcielago and not be immediately besieged by goosebumps, you’re made of sterner stuff than we are. 

    Today, the Murcielago feels like the perfect crossover point between the Lamborghini we all fell in love with and the Audi-ness that prevented that love from being completely unrequited. And, when the last of the original Lamborghini V12s was combined with a proper three-pedal manual gearbox (also the last time you’d be able to achieve such a pairing in a top-tier Lambo), you’ve arrived at the Lamborghini we’d try to buy before any other: the LP640 with a six-speed gated manual. 

    * Seriously, look up Bizzarrini’s original spec for the V12; it’s basically a race engine

  • Gallardo: hit

    Gallardo: hit

    It’s the cheap... er, less expensive Lamborghini that never seemed to suffer for it. While its attainability did mean the baby Lambo found its way into the hands of B-listers and beyond, it also meant that Gallardo sold in astonishing numbers. First, it became the best-selling Lamborghini ever. Then it became the Lamborghini that had sold more than every other model combined. 

    If we had to speculate, we’d say the Gallardo’s success was down to one thing in particular. Besides its lovely, unmistakably Lamborghini-ish looks, the build quality you could call solid without immediately falling over laughing, and the fact it was the only place to find a proper three-pedal manual, of course. 

    Yes, it was that V10 engine. With a V8, you could see how people used to seeing them power police cars and taxis could find them a bit common for something as exotic as an Italian supercar. But no one, not even in Brunei or the UAE, was running a V10-powered taxi. Although we’ll admit that a few lucky members of the fuzz managed to nab a V10 police car... 

    In any case, the addition of a V10 brought its own unique timbre and tone to Lamborghini. And, even though it found its way into tens of thousands of Audis, that always seemed to be a testament to Lamborghini’s engineering – and Audi’s faith in it. 

  • Aventador: hit... in the back every time you change gears, but otherwise good

    Aventador: hit... in the back every time you change gears, but otherwise good

    Ah, the gearbox revolution of the new millennium. 

    No longer was it even remotely OK to have something as slow and vestigial as a clutch pedal. After all, you couldn’t take top trumps in nought to 60 times or make specious (or at least meretricious) allusions to open wheel or endurance racing. Don’t worry about the Apollo-rivalling processing power needed to achieve what a left foot could already handle, the whiplash-inducing gearchanges or the learner-driver-spec clutch wear you dish out just trying to parallel park – there was progress to be made for the sake of progress!

    We start with the bad because the rest of the Aventador was so good. Yes, the ISR gearbox was yet another manifestation of ‘so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should’, but let’s not forget the gigantic bull elephant chuffing away in the corner: an entirely new V12 engine. 

    The new L539 was up against 50 years of history and pedigree, yet managed to overcome it – and win over the hand-wringers in the process. The fact it was lighter, more powerful, could rev higher and still sounded like a Jericho trumpet through a Marshall stack probably had something to do with it. 

    Also, the Aventador might be the only time we’ve seen a car render someone unable to talk. Back when it was new, we took one out on city streets and had a man run up to us shouting, “It’s an Aven-tay-ta-door... Advent-uh-tadoor... new Lamborghini!”. 

  • Urus: hit. What? You’re going to argue?

    Urus: hit. What? You’re going to argue?

    Do we like the Urus? Not particularly. Between Lambo’s big SUV and a lobotomy, we’d probably pick the former, but we wouldn’t exactly climb over the rest of Sant’Agata’s oeuvre to get there. It says more than it ought to that, when searching for pictures to go along with this list, we thought we had all of them... but plumb forgot the Urus, like a V8-powered Kevin McCallister. 

    But you can’t argue the toss on the Urus being a hit. Since its introduction, Lamborghini’s sales have doubled. And it’s not like there’s any escaping the golden child responsible for what has to qualify as a runaway sales success, either – just a year after the Urus went on the market, 60 per cent of Lamborghini’s sales were of the angular and almost always mispronounced SUV. Hint: it’s Ooo-rrruss, not Yooo-russ. 

  • Huracan: hit

    Huracan: hit

    Speaking of most mispronounced Lambos...

    That’s right – it’s Ooo-rah-cahn, not Huh-ruh-can. But then you could run headlong into pronunciation (and indeed phonetic) difficulties with anything from the Guy-yarrdo to the Ha-ramah, so we can’t exactly mark the Huracan down for that. 

    And like the Urus, the Huracan is both a linguistic trap for the unaware and an absolute sales juggernaut for Lamborghini. So of course it qualifies as a hit. 

    But then so was Achy Breaky Heart, and that hardly made it anything worth experiencing. We had worried that the Huracan represented an increasing sensibility at Lamborghini – hardly what anyone seeks out Sant’Agata for. But then Lambo released a series of increasingly funny, silly or stupidly quick versions of the Huracan at what seemed to be random intervals, making the entire range almost indecipherable but still entirely desirable. And if that isn’t the apotheosis of Italian supercar building, we don’t know what is. Although we’d say the Huracan Sterrato would be a decent shout...

  • Sian: miss

    Sian: miss

    You can’t buy one, because they’re all sold out. And you can’t buy one anyway, because they cost about £2.5 million each and you’re not chummy with enough people in Moscow and Monaco to have that kind of scratch. Also, you can’t buy one, because you have a decent head on your shoulders and recognise that a tarted-up Aventador with a bit of hybrid gubbins is possibly not worth as much as a four-bedroom house in Notting Hill. 

More from Top Gear

See more on Lamborghini

Promoted Content

Subscribe to the Top Gear Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, you agree to receive news, promotions and offers by email from Top Gear and BBC Studios. Your information will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

BBC TopGear

Try BBC Top Gear Magazine

Get your first 5 issues for £5