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The Raging Bull

Lamborghini Charges in with New Models and Corporate Backing
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

238. It's not a number I'm used to seeing on my speedometer. Even in metric form, and certainly not on a narrow, two-lane blacktop weaving its way through the quiet farm villages outside of Modena, Italy. OK, a quick conversion and it's a nudge short of 150 mph. Still impossibly fast, especially when you consider I've just shifted into fifth and the big V-12 sitting behind me has a lot of breathing room and another gear left. "It's a race car, but it's street-legal," was the sage advice offered up by Lamborghini's global marketing chief, Bernd Hayden, as I prepared for my first turn behind the wheel in the new Murcielago. Ready for the street perhaps, but even in tolerant Italy, I'm not quite sure about the legal part.

The $273,000 Murcielago is the latest in a series of astounding performance machines to emerge from the medieval town of Modena, an ancient community that has been dubbed Speed Central by some and The Silicon Valley of Speed by others. Either term is justified, for within a 10-mile circle around Modena reside more high-performance automotive nameplates than anywhere else in the world, including Ferrari, Maserati and their smaller rival, Lamborghini. In the 40 years since Ferruccio Lamborghini set down plans for his first production car, the 350GT, the automaker has produced barely 2,000 vehicles. It's best known for the legendary Countach, an angular, spacecraft of a sports car that has adorned more posters than any Italian since Sophia Loren. It was replaced in 1990 by the Diablo, which has now given way to the Murcielago, the 10th "volume" car in Lamborghini's brief history.

The name translates as "bat" in Spanish, and it's pronounced "mercy-AY-lah-go." Unless you're Castillian, that is, where you add a lisp, and it becomes "mirthy-AY-lah-go." The new two-seater actually honors a bull of that name, which 122 years ago defied the best matador of Barcelona, surviving a score of sword strikes and living to a ripe old age making other brave bulls. Either interpretation is appropriate. A raging bull is the symbol of the Lamborghini brand, but the Murcielago moves like a bat out of hell.

 

Fast Cars, Slow Operation

It's a different pace entirely at the Lamborghini plant in the Modena suburb of Sant'Agata Bolognese. "Glacial" is the rate that more immediately comes to mind. This is not an assembly line, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. A typical Ford factory will produce more cars on a single, eight-hour shift than the 502 employees at Sant'Agata will build in an entire year.

While the factory has gone through some significant changes in recent years -- notably using computers in engine production -- things are mostly done the way they were when founder Ferruccio first set up shop. Virtually everything is done by hand. As you walk around the sprawling facility, you see a mass of Murcielagos in various stages of completion, lightweight carbon fiber sheets hanging from their stiff, steel tube skeletons. Workers wander the floor, spending a few minutes here, another 20 minutes there. But slowly, each vehicle begins to take shape. And on average, one or two will roll out the door each day.

It is this "genuine exclusivity," as much as the incredible brute power of a car like the Murcielago, that gives Lamborghini so much appeal, says Greg Brown, editor of Los Angeles-based European Import magazine. On any given day in the land of make-believe, you're likely to see plenty of Ferraris, Brown notes, but a Lamborghini sighting is a rare event and, as he found when he parked one recently at the pier in Venice Beach, it's likely to draw quite a crowd. "In jaded L.A.," he says, "it provoked more reaction than any other car I've ever driven."

Much of the appeal comes from the fact that Lamborghini has always pushed the limits of design. The legendary Countach sat impossibly low and looked as if it had just zipped in from another planet. At any moment, you expected it to lift off the ground, fold its wheels away and quickly hit Warp 9.

Compared with the cars that preceded it, Lambo's latest entry, the Murcielago, is almost subtle in appearance, far less angular than the Countach, and not nearly as ostentatious as the Diablo. Even so, it virtually shouts, "I'm different." Standing still, the Murc boasts incredible, raw visual power. When it crawls through traffic, heads turn as it goes by. At full speed, passersby aren't likely to see very much.


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