It’s hard to believe that just five years separate the launches of two of the most significant and – dare I trot out that overused epithet? – iconic sports cars ever built. Both epitomise the Swinging Sixties, that watershed decade of social revolution, sexual freedom, flamboyance and excess, though viewed in retrospect they now appear as if from entirely different eras.
A sensation when it was unveiled at the Geneva salon in early 1961, the Jaguar E-Type was not only ravishing – Enzo Ferrari is said to have dubbed it the most beautiful car ever made – but also technically advanced, employing a construction that was then more common to aircraft than automobiles. Yet a mere 60 months later, the introduction in the same venue of the Lamborghini Miura P400 showed just how far and how fast sports-car design had progressed in the interim.
Unlike the British car, whose phallic bonnet concealed a six-cylinder motor that dated back to the 1940s, the Lamborghini’s 3.9-litre V12 – a 1963 design by former Ferrari man Giotto Bizzarrini – was mounted amidships, behind the seats and ahead of the rear wheels. Till then such layouts had been almost exclusive to the racetrack, but so influential and groundbreaking was the Miura that its mid-engine configuration quickly became the norm for high-performance, two-seat road cars, as indeed it remains 50 years later.
Thus, for all its grace and desirability, the E-Type today looks like a period piece. Not so the Miura – whose coachwork by Marcello Gandini at the eminent carrozzeria Bertone (where initially, it’s rumoured, he received more than a little help from the great automobile stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro) is almost equally gorgeous – which appears utterly contemporary in conception, and as crisp and lovely to behold as it did all those years ago. I’ve come to Japan to pay homage to it.
In the 1960s the Lamborghini car marque was something of an upstart. It was founded after a spat between the famously combative Ferrari boss and tractor-company magnate Ferruccio Lamborghini, who vowed to outdo the former by building better grand touring cars. It’s doubtful, however, that even the ambitious Lamborghini could have foreseen the rapturous reception of the Miura (its name, as with most other Lambos, references the founder’s Taurean star sign and passion for bullfighting), or that it would come to be universally acknowledged as the first modern supercar.
Lamborghini himself bowed out from the business following the oil crunch of the early ’70s, yet the company he established halfway between Modena and Bologna – the heart of Italy’s “motor valley” – somehow survived several ownership changes and near-death crises until its acquisition by Audi in 1998. It now prospers healthily, with more than 3,200 cars produced in 2015 (compare that to the fewer than 800 Miuras built during a seven-year production run).
Little wonder then that with 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of its founder’s birth and half a century since the introduction of its most legendary creation, and with the appointment of a new CEO – ex-Ferrari Formula 1 team principal Stefano Domenicali – earlier this year, Automobili Lamborghini decided that now was time to break out the bubbly. Celebrations – including a gathering of Miuras at Quail Lodge in California, a drive across the Grand St Bernard Pass that recalls the opening sequence of the classic 1969 movie The Italian Job, and a two-day, 20-car tour in Italy – have been held around the world.
Senior management also headed to Tokyo in September for a Lamborghini Day held at the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, followed by a weekend of racing at the famous Fuji Speedway. And that’s how I find myself face-to-face with more Miuras – and for that matter more Lamborghinis of every variety and hue – than I’ve ever seen in one place, and quite possibly in my lifetime.
Japan being a nation of petrolheads, among whose numbers are collectors of exotica renowned for their passion, knowledge and deep pockets, 36 classic cars are lined up outside the gallery for judging in the Lamborghini Day Concours d’Élégance. Among their ranks are 10 Miuras, ranging in vintage from 1967 to one of the final examples built in 1973, as well as assorted Countachs, Diablos and Murciélagos, an Urraco, a Jarama, a Jalpa and even a single LM002 sports-utility truck, a massive and unlikely off-road vehicle that some dubbed the “Rambo Lambo”. As the company produced only a few thousand cars in its first 30 years, most of those on show are fabulously rare.
On a stage – from which Domenicali and other corporate bigwigs address the faithful – stands a new Centenario coupe, one of just 20 to be built, along with an Aventador 750-4 Superveloce and a Huracán 610-4 customised by Lamborghini’s Ad Person am operation. Tucked away in a separate enclosure is a stunning green-and-silver 1971 Miura P400SV, the first car to be restored by the company’s Polo Storico heritage division, which was launched last year. This particular machine has been completely rebuilt, authenticated and certified, a service that’s available for all historic Lambos and one that should greatly increase their resale or auction value.
The SV was the final iteration of the Miura and is today easily the most covetable, due its more powerful engine and the fact that a mere 150 were made. Echoing the show car’s two-tone colour scheme – and almost as eye-catching – is a red-and-gold Aventador Miura Homage, a tribute to the original that, fittingly, is available in a special edition of only 50 examples.
A half-hour rain shower gets everyone scuttling to the tents, but as soon as it’s over the owners of the concours cars get to work with buckets and cloths, busily wiping and polishing their prized possessions for the judges, who make their way between the vehicles, diligently assessing the condition and originality of interiors, engines, wheels and paintwork. Meanwhile, wives and girlfriends snap selfies and teeter about on vertiginous heels, while race queens – as the babes who drape themselves across bonnets at Japanese motor shows and racing circuits are known – who’d been posing with the cars onstage amuse themselves aboard junior-sized Lamborghinis in a children’s enclosure.
The festivities begin in earnest in the early evening, but not before 65 Lambos return from a parade drive around trendy Omotesando and Shibuya. Fireworks and champagne bottles pop, a glamorous DJ pumps it up and out, the concours winners are presented with their awards and everyone enjoys an evening of bonhomie and shared passion, while hobnobbing with the men who create the machines they so evidently adore. No one parties too hard, however, as all this priceless machinery needs to be driven home – plus there’s a 200km round-trip to Fuji Speedway in the morning.
Set in the foothills beneath Japan’s highest mountain, the speedway is one of the country’s leading racetracks, famed for its long, fast home straight and as the setting for the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship showdown between eventual winner James Hunt and Niki Lauda, who just weeks earlier had been read the last rites after his horrifying crash at the German Grand Prix. This weekend, however, the 4.5km circuit is hosting the penultimate pair of races in the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo Asia series.
Before the action, the owners who’d paraded their cars through Tokyo last night are let loose for a few laps of the track, while guests in the hospitality suite above the grandstand sit down to a vast spread of Italian cuisine, prepared by a chef on site. The noise outside is deafening, but not a patch on the racket made by 28 race-prepared Huracán LP620-2s when they’re finally unleashed for 29 laps of the speedway – a 132km distance that the winning pro-am pairing of Malaysian Afiq Yazid and local boy Toshiyuki Ochiai cover in less than 52 minutes, at an average speed of 154km/h.
It’s much the same outcome, though in very different conditions, the following morning as near-horizontal gusts of rain sweep the circuit – and for once the race-queens’ multicoloured brollies really do come in handy. Clouds of spray are flung high into the air as the Huracáns disappear into the murk from a rolling start behind the safety car, so it’s little surprise that Yazid and Ochiai manage just 26 laps in the allocated race time, at a much slower average of almost 139km/h.
I, however, am not around to watch them take the chequered flag. My flight leaves this afternoon and Tokyo’s Narita airport is three hours away – sadly not aboard a classic Lamborghini but in a lumbering motor coach. Well, I can dream, can’t I?