Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
One of the least useful phrases, peddled far too often by lazy hacks looking to explain something that doesn’t really need explaining is that, ‘if it looks right, it usually is right.’ In fact my experience with cars is that the reverse is more likely to be true: like everyone else car manufacturers have budgets and these have to be divided between design and engineering teams. The more one is able to nab, the less is available to the other, and with fairly inevitable consequences.
There is, for instance, little doubt who got the lion’s share of the funds for the first Lamborghini, the 1964 350 GT. It had a brand new V12 engine designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, whose more recent work had included a useful little device called the Ferrari 250 GTO, and a chassis worked on by Gian Paula Dallara. But the body, well, at the time the fortunes of Touring of Milan were in terminal decline and it was not one of its finest hours. Unsurprisingly, the result drove a whole lot better than it looked.
Two years later, and 50 years ago this week, Lamborghini was back with its next offering and I hope those visiting the Geneva Motor Show back then were aware that the course of fast car history was changing dramatically and forever right in front of their eyes. The car, of course, was the Miura, and the mere word ‘beautiful’ didn’t really do it justice. When I look at its profile today, the word that springs to mind is ‘perfect’ or perhaps ‘unimprovable’. And in a very imperfect world in need of a great deal of improvement, such properties are rare.
Indeed the Miura was so beautiful that arguments over who designed it have raged ever since. The job was given to Bertone and the man put in charge of the project was 25-year-old Marcello Gandini. Which would be all well and good were it not for the fact that his predecessor was none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro who never tried very hard to dispel rumours that Gandini was heavily influenced by drawings he’d done before he’d left. To make matters more confusing still, Nuccio Bertone himself said the car had already been ‘set out’ before Gandini arrived than that he himself guided Gandini in its styling. My view has always been that it is Gandini’s car and he deserves to be called its father, but that he probably worked on raw material provided by others. But it is just a view and like everyone other than those directly involved, I don’t really know.
What I do know is that unlike the 350 GT, the Miura was nothing like as good to drive as it looked and therefore a car at its best when parked – not an accolade that should ever be ascribed to an Italian supercar. I only drove one and it was a while back, but it was a stunningly flawed product, even by the expected standards of half a century ago. The cockpit was hideously cramped, the driving position a joke, the seats not funny at all. The ergonomics were awful, the ventilation non-existent, the gearbox stiff, the steering heavy and the clutch heavier still. Those brave enough to hoof an early Miura around at high speed – which definitely excluded me – revealed a sub-optimal aero balance and highly challenging breakaway characteristics. It also gained a reputation for unreliability, even by the hardly stellar standards of 1960s Italian supercars.
Had it not looked the way it did, I suspect not even the searing sound of its V12 engine, its avant-garde installation (can you name another with a mid-mounted transverse twelve cylinder engine?) and the fact that it did genuinely provide pretty decent performance would have saved it. In the event those who could afford one simply chose to ignore its shortcomings. A decade earlier Marilyn Monroe had proven that you can be as unreliable as you like so long as you’ve got the look. The Miura had the look.
In time it acquired the manners too. Though I’ve not had the pleasure, those I know who have driven the last Miura, the SV, all say it’s a pretty wondrous machine. It’s worth remembering too that the Miura was so far ahead of its time that it had come, gone and had been two years in the grave before the first Ferrari-badged mid-engine car went on sale.
So happy birthday to the Lamborghini Miura, and as you stare at its shape ask yourself if it has since even been equalled, let alone bettered. And if no-one’s managed that in the last 50 years, I suspect they never will. To my eyes at least the Lamborghini Miura is not just the best-looking road car of its era, but that there has ever been. In that context, the fact it was mechanically a little flawed s perhaps not such a big deal after all.
Images courtesy of Lamborghini and Tom Shaxson