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Back in the Limelight - Lamborghini Monza

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It starred in a motor show before being bricked-up in a garage for 35 years - now Octane drives the unique Lamborghini 400GT Monza.

There are far too few good news stories in life these days. But five years ago, Octane broke the fantastic news that the Lamborghini 400GT Monza – a prototype first shown in 1966, then hidden from public view for 35 years – had emerged from a life secreted in the garage of its owner. Even better news is that the car, in the hands of enthusiast Martin Kent ever since, has now been recommissioned for a life back on the road. It’s not going to be hidden away. And it’s not going to live out its days confined to a quiet retirement as a museum exhibit. Maybe that’s the best news of all.

So we’re in deepest Essex to find out exactly what this unique escapee is like to drive. The Lamborghini 400GT Monza is a car that we featured in Octane issue 30 before it went on sale at Bonhams’ London auction in 2005 (see panel on page 112), following Simon Kidston’s excellent work in recovering it from its resting place in deepest Spain, where it had been discovered in 1996. Last time, we parted company with the Monza saying: ‘This Lamborghini is itching to share its secrets with a new owner – and we hope one day we may even get to drive it.’

That day has come. Martin smiles warmly as he meets us, and enjoys the fact that we’re so impressed by the 400GT Monza. It’s freshly washed, and the V12’s been warmed up in anticipation of our drive. Even at first glance it looks like a car that sits comfortably in the Lamborghini timeline, without the familiarity of other concepts that gained greater fame, such as the Marzal and Bravo. Those cars were obvious motor show fantasies with outlandish detail and dramatic proportions, whereas the 400GT Monza looks to all intents and purposes like a production-ready car.

This, the carrozzeria Neri and Bonacini’s 350GT-based special (with the engine of a 400GT 2+2), was built during 1966, allegedly for an American who wanted to take it racing. Problem was, he couldn’t get the car homologated. As a result, chassis 01030 was displayed at the 1967 Barcelona Motor Show, and was bought off the stand by a wealthy – and publicity shy – Spaniard, who wanted it for his personal collection, and couldn’t stomach the delay for a new Miura.
 
Between its brief period of fame under the glare of the motor show spotlight and being bricked-up in its owner’s garage in 1970, the 400GT Monza covered a mere 7136km – a reading that was still displayed on the odometer when Martin successfully bid on the car back in 2005. Now it reads over 10,000km. Excellent. Lamborghinis have always been built for driving, not showing off.

Martin’s approach to recommissioning was simple: ‘The fluids and plugs were changed, then the seized clutch and brake hydraulic systems were overhauled,’ he says. ‘It passed its MoT on the original tyres, and still has the original exhaust fitted.’

This work was completed in the months running up to Simon Kidston’s 40th anniversary tour for the Miura, and the Monza joined the eye-catching convoy as it travelled across the Alps from Gstaad to catch the Monaco Historic Grand Prix. It’s a testament to the solidity of the car, as well as Martin’s determination, that the Monza not only made it to the event but drove the punishing course and finished in one piece. It wasn’t completely without problems, though. The electrics proved troublesome – understandable in a car that lay unused for 35 years.

Yet Martin wasn’t content with taking the Monza to Monaco, and pushed east to Lamborghini’s birthplace in Sant’Agata. ‘The enthusiasm shown for the Monza in its homeland was touching. During an overnight stop at Rapallo, the locals declared their affections in the dusty paintwork with inscriptions such as bella.’
 
But the trip’s highlight was visiting the Lamborghini factory. ‘We spent the day at Sant’Agata, talking to Fabio Lamborghini and Valentino Balboni, who were delighted to see the car running again. Motoring nirvana had been achieved,’ smiles Martin.

Almost five years on, Martin’s still just as passionate about the 400GT Monza. We can totally understand why – and although some commentators have said the styling of this one-off is slightly awkward, we’d disagree. The proportions are classic grand tourer, with hints of Bizzarrini 5300GT and Ferrari 275GTB/4 thanks to its long nose and gracefully low-line Kamm tail. And there’s enough Miura in its appearance for even casual Lamborghini fans to recognise it as one of their own.
 
It’s especially interesting from the rear, with buttresses and a Perspex screen that combine to establish a family likeness with the Miura. It could easily have been styled to look like the perfect GT partner to the first definitive supercar.

Yet this car, a two-seater like the 350GT, should never be confused with the 400GT 2+2. Although the engine is the same and the cars look similar, the 400 was significantly different from the 350GT on which this car was based – it had a lowered floorpan and raised roof to accommodate its rear seat; a reshaped roof, rear window, and bootlid; and its transmission and differential were produced in-house.

These details matter, as identifying the 400GT Monza is an interesting task. Record-keeping at small manufacturers has always been haphazard – updates and changes can be dictated by engineering, or merely by the availability of a given part on a particular day. In addition, the unique build process for a one-off means that the paperwork is not always as thorough as it might be.

Martin Kent ‘s own research means the International Lamborghini Registry now accepts the car as a 400GT ‘interim’, of which 23 were built with standard bodywork. It has a 4.0-litre V12, Lamborghini gearbox and differential, but it sits on a modified 350GT chassis.

So the 400GT Monza is something of an enigma.  The dramatic styling smacks of supercar excess, despite the gran turismo template it’s been crafted out of. But the driving experience is biased towards trans-continental thrashes, which it was clearly designed for.

The bull bars that adorned the front and rear of the car have thankfully gone – and the ‘Jarama’ badge fitted by its first owner has been replaced by a beautiful replica of the original, intricate ‘Monza 400’ script.

Inside, the bespoke theme continues. The seating position is low – lower than in the Miura – and the dashboard is a businesslike affair, all black leather and sprinkled with toggle switches and unlabelled warning lights. The main instrument pack is a thing of beauty, coming straight from the 350GT; Lamborghini-badged and distinguished by that car’s stylised script and topped by a 300km/h speedometer.

Getting comfortable isn’t straightforward as there’s limited headroom, but there’s plenty of legroom – it was engineered for endurance racing at Le Mans, after all, or so the story goes – and Martin, who’s 6ft 2in tall, looks comfortable once installed behind the gorgeous wood-rimmed wheel.

Firing up the V12 is a familiar experience for Lamborghini fans. The starter whirrs and you’d swear that it’s not going to catch, but the engine gradually takes up falteringly, almost apologetically at first. It’s a lovely mix of the mechanical and the musical, and once the fuel’s flowing freely, and you’re able to blip the throttle cleanly, the vocal V12 responds full-bloodedly, barking as you tread harder. It doesn’t explode with revs quite like the Miura, nor does it shriek in the same way at high engine speeds, but it’s still something very special indeed.

It’s a 3929cc version of the V12 that had been introduced in the Miura in 1965, but running a softer state of tune. Power is 320bhp through the sidedraught Weber carburettors used in the 350GT (as opposed to 350bhp with downdraughts as used in the Miura) and, although this is an Italian SAE figure of the ’60s, it’s probably a good bet that there are still well over 280 horses under the bonnet, capable of taking this car to well over 150mph.

On the road it certainly feels that way. Acceleration is every bit as rapid as the standard 400GT, and it feels fully able to sprint from rest to 60mph in under 7.0sec, pulling with real commitment from less than 3000rpm. It’s a true supercar experience. But what impresses more than the deep-chested performance is the way the 400GT Monza feels on Essex’s undulating and subsiding B-roads.
 
You would expect the body and chassis to flap around like a loose collection of ill-fitting parts, but the reality is that the 400GT Monza feels of-a-piece. The ride is as good as you could reasonably expect it to be for a ’60s GT car – pliant over lumps, forgiving of undulations – and the damping is well-controlled. This leaves the driver feeling confident to push, safe in the knowledge that it won’t misbehave too much at speed on lumpy corners. Martin describes it as a ‘front-engined Miura’, and he’s certainly on to something.

 Whatever the story is behind the 400GT Monza (and you can read our original feature on www.octane-magazine.com), it still stacks up perfectly well as a supercar today. It has the dramatic looks and huge reserves of power to tick those boxes, and makes you feel special when you drive it. As Martin says: ‘I love jumping in for a drive whenever the mood and the weather combine and I’ve added those kilometres usually with the window down, enjoying the music.’

That’s exactly the good news that its creators would have wanted to hear, more than 40 years on.

Back in issue 30, December 2005, Octane was exclusively invited to see the Monza prototype started up for the first time following its 35-year slumber. Malcolm McKay was our man on the ground for this significant event and, as the car had been returned to Sant’Agata, he was joined by Fabio Lamborghini (Ferruccio’s nephew) and Giorgio Neri, one of the designers who originally worked on the car back in 1966. It was a big day.

And it became an even bigger day when Lamborghini’s test driver Valentino Balboni turned up: ‘I remember this car,’ he enthused.

‘It came back to the factory for a checkover a week before I joined and people were still talking about it. They said it had been Neri and Bonacini’s proposal for a production body to Ferruccio Lamborghini, competing with Touring and Zagato. I’m sure it’s on a 350 chassis, probably one of the first. The dipstick is between the carburettors, which is a 350 feature – otherwise the engine and chassis look identical to a 400’s. Don’t take any notice of the chassis number, that could have come off a crashed car or simply been allocated when they finally decided to send it to Barcelona.’

When it came down to it – and with Simon Kidston also on hand – the assembled throng got the car started, but it wouldn’t drive, thanks to a sticking clutch. As McKay recalled:

‘The Salviolis spring into action, priming the carburettors and pumping the throttle. The veteran V12 fires up, splutters, then gradually clears, settling to a smooth, quiet tickover. Luca Salvioli then adds to the mystery by stating that he’s convinced the car is on a 400 chassis and confirms that it’s fitted with the Lamborghini transmission, introduced late in the 350’s production run.’

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