Sunday, 17 September 2017

Lamborghini Museum

Off to the Lamborghini Museum in Sant'Agata Bolognese, just north-west of Bologna. Some of Italy's most famous exotic car manufacturers are based in and around Bologna, and there's a cluster of museums in the local area - arch-rivals Ferrari have one in Maranello and another in Modena, and Ducati has a museum in the outskirts of Bologna itself. I visited the Lamborghini Museum because I grew up in the 1980s and some of the Transformers toys were based on the Lamborghini Countach, no other reason necessary.

The Ferrari Museum has an expensive factory tour, although apparently if you can prove you own a Ferrari they will give you the tour for free. I imagine the staff are sick of people turning up in clapped-out Ferrari Mondials bought entirely so that the owner can walk through the front door with his Ferrari key fob.

The LM002. It was the culmination of a series of ambitious attempts by Lamborghini in the 1970s and 1980s to make an off-roader for the military market, which isn't as ridiculous as it sounds given that Ferruccio Lamborghini was also the head of a tractor firm. It sold in tiny quantities mostly to oil sheikhs. It's still very impressive in the flesh, but given that every other car on the road nowadays is a gigantic SUV it's not as striking as it once was.

What was the Mondial? Ferrari has always fleshed out its range of supercars with slightly more practical designs that have little seats in the back for children or shopping bags. As Road and Track illustrates in this article from 2016 Ferrari's early 2+2s were glamorous, attractive cars that resembled Aston Martins with Ferrari noses. The Daytona-inspired 365 GTC/4 of 1971 was an acquired taste, but hasn't aged too badly. Unfortunately Ferrari then dropped the ball for two decades, and the Mondial remains one of the company's least desirable cars. It had a bland body and the performance of the launch model was on a par with a Volkswagen Golf GTi, but at a much greater cost.

After production ceased it met the same fate as other undesirable supercars when they hit the used market; death by a thousand missed service intervals. I have no idea how many remain in roadworthy condition. Probably not very many. In its defence the later cabriolets are attractive, although the 80s-style side air intakes oversell it.

The Museum is compact and spread across two floors. Periodically the layout changes. When I went, the windows of the lower floor were blocked off and the top floor had a large exhibit dedicated to Formula One legend Ayrton Senna. The exhibit apparently has every car he ever raced, except for the final one. The connection with Lamborghini is tenuous - he briefly test-drove a Lamborghini-engined McLaren, and his life ended in a hospital in nearby Bologna - but why not?

I contemplated driving to the Lamborghini Museum in my Lamborghini, but I don't own a Lamborghini, so instead I took the bus. Bologna's bus station is as grim as you might expect, as are the buses, but for €2.90 each way it's cheaper than hiring a car.

If you ask for a ritorno to Crevalcore in an English accent the ticket attendant will probably twig that you're going to the Lamborghini museum, in which case you can both nod and smile at each other and imagine that you have made some kind of connection, even though you're both essentially "ships that pass in the night, that speak in passing / only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness". And what darkness it is.

As I sat on the bus to Sant'Agata Bolognese I pondered the old saying that any man over the age of thirty who rides a bus is a failure. I am a man; I am over the age of thirty; but it was an Italian bus, in Italy, and technically it wasn't a bus, it was a coach. NB The Ferrari Museum at Modena is easy to get to because it's just outside Modena train station. The museum has a shuttle bus to Maranello. Visiting Maranello directly is more awkward and involves a train trip followed by a return bus trip followed by another train trip. It's feasible to cover all the museums in one day, but you'll be pooped.

The 350GT (top) was Lamborghini's first car. It's attractive but I imagine it felt like any other Italian grand tourer at the time. The mid-engined Miura was however a sensation. It was fast, the engine sounded fantastic, and Bertone's bodywork was striking. Unlike the later Countach it was pretty, with a smiling face and big eyes (with eyelashes). I don't know if Lamborghini exported any to Japan, but I can imagine it being popular on the vintage market over there because it's still cute.

The Ayrton Senna exhibit closes in October 2017. It takes up about a quarter of the museum's space, so the selection of cars when I went was limited. There was a single LP 400 Countach and, off the top of my head, no Diablo, although the bottom floor had the V10-powered P140 concept from the late 1980s.

The P140 was an attempt to make a mid-priced Lamborghini. It vaguely resembles the Cizeta-Moroder, which was designed by Gandini at roughly the same time. To my eye it looked a few years out of date. Supercar styling shifted in the late 1980s from angular wedge shapes to the more curvaceous likes of the Jaguar XJ220 and Ferrari F40, and at the cheaper end of the market the Nissan 300ZX and Mitsubishi 3000GT. The P140 looked like something from 1984, not 1987.

Back then people still pooh-poohed Japanese cars - they weren't "real cars" - but the P140 would have looked uncomfortably retro in the 1990s.

As a kid in the 1980s I was surprised to learn that the Countach was almost a decade old - the LP400 entered production in 1974, but the basic body shape had been designed in 1971. I'm more familiar with the pumped-up 1980s versions of the car, which had bigger bumpers, enlarged wheel wells, side strakes, and a big rear spoiler. The original LP400 is surprisingly curvaceous.
It's hard to imagine the impact it had. In the 1980s the flat-nosed Porsche 911s and Ferrari Testarossa - familiar from computer games and Miami Vice - were unexciting in comparison. In contrast the Countach seemed like a science fiction space fighter.

Is there anything else in Sant'Agata Bolognese? I have no idea. The road outside is lined with cafes that offer supercar trips, and of course food and drink. The museum itself doesn't have a cafe. There's a gift store next door if you fancy buying a Lamborghini t-shirt, although at least in the UK the brand has always had a slightly chavvy reputation. Lamborghini has always been a brash upstart, but at least initially the brand had a classy air. The Miura had a memorable guest appearance in the opening credits of The Italian Job, which oozed class:

But from the Countach onwards Lamborghini became stereotyped as a more-horsepower-than-taste manufacturer of garish supercars, a catalyst that forced the likes of Porsche and Ferrari to chav-up their own cars in the 1980s. Nowadays Lamborghinis are hired a lot for young person pop music videos with synthesisers:

So I gave the gift shop a miss. There's also another way of seeing a Lamborghini. Bologna Airport temporarily has a Lamborghini Huracán "follow me" car that directs airliners to their stands, and as I sat in the departure area I watched it direct a Wizz Air A320 to the stand. Think of the office politics involved in selecting who gets to drive the thing. Do they pull doughnuts at night, when the airport is less busy? There was something slightly absurd about the sight of a Lamborghini directing Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s; air travel isn't as special as it once was.

The Urraco was one of Lamborghini's "other cars", a 2+2 that was sold alongside the Countach. As with the less attractive Espada it just didn't have the same striking visual appeal. This one seemed to be leaking oil. It's interesting to imagine Lamborghini without the Countach; the company would probably have vanished in the late 1970s, never to return.

A bunch of kids on the plane pointed at the Lamborghini and said "there's the Lambo". Which highlighted one of the problems of owning a big supercar. You buy it expecting women to fall at your feet, but in reality the only people it attracts are 9-year-old boys. Thirty years ago you could get away with offering to let them sit on your lap in their underwear while you drove them around, if you were well-connected, but the likes of Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith have let that cat well and truly out of the bag. The experience did however make me want to buy a Lamborghini Huracán and drive it around an airport runway so it wasn't a complete waste of Lamborghini's money.

And that was the Lamborghini Museum.