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Lamborghini Miura - The whole story...

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Immense beauty and audacious engineering meant that the Miura remains the original - and best - supercar...

Here’s a great tale, related by Road & Track’s Henry Manney III in period, of Ferrari insiders ‘casually’ wandering past Lamborghini's stand at the 1966 Geneva motor show, trying not to be too obvious in their examination of the new Miura.

Can you imagine it! An all-new GT, low and swooping, mid-engined and powered by a 4.0-litre V12 (though that couldn’t be made to fit in time for the show!) and accompanied by a rather optimistic press releasing claiming a top speed of 198mph (using the highest final drive ratio available). Ferrari, kings of the front-engined GT, had just seen the future, and it didn’t appear to involve their cars.

Fully to understand the impact that the Miura made at Geneva, and the pros and cons of the design, it’s best to examine an unadulterated P400, so here we have Iain Tyrrell’s perfect 1968 example, build number 225, fresh out of restoration and following a starring role on the red carpet in the Goodwood Festival of Speed Drivers’ Club enclosure.

It’s beautiful. So beautiful that it actually made me feel a little sick with longing; the kind of longing that really should be reserved for beautiful, unobtainable women. If a Miura looks good in pictures, then it looks stunning in the metal, when the attention to detail and the subtlety of the design become so much more obvious. In Verde Miura it’s sublime.

This is the one car that has remained a constant amid the ebb and flow of my motoring bucket list. Since as long as I can remember I’ve always lusted after the Miura, always known that it wasn’t perfect and yet, for me, it’s as good as it gets. Even my ‘top ten’ favourite cars consisted of more than 20 entries, and yet the Miura was unquestionably number one.

Why? Because it has a V12 that crackles and rips and roars its way into your heart. Because when you sit in it and look over your shoulder, the view is of the carburettors and those 12 intake trumpets. Because the interior ticks every box: rows of toggle  switches, lots of dials, drilled alloy steering wheel, open gearchange gate, exotically reclined bucket seats. Because a GT40 Airfix kit built by my uncle was the first automotive love I can recall, and the Miura took that shape and improved upon it. So, most of all, yes, simply because it is so utterly beautiful.

Funny, then, that the Miura started life not as a sketch of flowing curves but as a bare chassis, a chassis full of intent but far from beautiful, having been constructed around a sheet steel central tub, with steel box-sections fore and aft to support suspension and engine. Its only beauty is in the functionality of the design and the holes that lighten the structure.

Much of it can be seen even on a fully clothed Miura, for the front and rear body sections each tilt as a whole, revealing the framework for all to see. When Iain unlatches his car’s clamshells, the clicking of the camera shutter comes to an abrupt halt as we crowd around, eager to admire the structure.

This chassis had been the out-of-hours brainchild of two engineers pivotal to Lamborghini’s success, Gian Paolo Dallara and his assistant Paolo Stanzani. Both joined Lamborghini in 1963, the former from Maserati (poached from Ferrari), the latter straight from college. Both had a love of motor sport; both greatly admired the mid-engined layout of the Ford GT40.

In early 1965 the pair began to cook up a plan for a mid-engined roadgoing supercar. Once confident that it could work, they presented their ideas to Ferruccio. This was radical stuff, for although De Tomaso had only recently revealed the mid-engined Vallelunga and Porsche’s 550 Spyder was also effectively rear/mid-engined, the two were mere four-cylinders without the cumbersome packaging problems of a 12-cylinder engine – for, of course, it was Lamborghini’s 4.0-litre V12, designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, that Dallaro and Stanzani had planned for the new model.

So, how to fit a V12 into a mid-engined road car? As installed in Lamborghini’s 350GT, the V12 measured over 3ft in length, and that was before adding the hefty gearbox into the equation. And so it was decided to fit the engine transversely, the gearbox mounted alongside and sharing its oil. A little bit like the Mini.

Seven months later the chassis was ready, built by specialists Marchesi (as were all subsequent production Miura chassis). At the Turin show many assumed it was destined for a Le Mans entry, despite Ferruccio’s no-competition policy.

Confusion aside, the displayed chassis caused a sensation, so clearly was it ahead of the competition – especially Ferrari. Meanwhile Ferruccio Lamborghini was kept busy fending off offers to clothe the chassis from most of the major car designers of the time, while wondering why designer Nuccio Bertone remained the only major absentee from the stand.

Nuccio, in fact, had been biding his time, waiting for a quiet moment to properly contemplate the opportunity that the chassis potentially represented. When, on the last day of the show, he finally visited the stand, he was quickly joined by Ferruccio himself, who immediately asked why Bertone had waited until the end of the show to view the chassis, and if that meant that he wasn’t interested in designing the body. When Bertone explained that he was, in fact, very interested, an appointment was made there and then for him to visit the Sant’Agata factory.

This was quite a coup for Bertone, who had been passed over for Lamborghini’s previous model, the 350GT (and the later 400GT). But Bertone had been responsible for a few show-stoppers, most notably the Alfa BAT cars, and the company’s chief stylist, Giorgetto Giugiaro, was clearly on an upward trajectory, having joined Bertone in 1960 in his early 20s.

And so Nuccio Bertone visited the Lamborghini factory and, according to legend, came away with detailed chassis drawings and a relatively open design brief.

Of course, Giugiaro was given the design job, but he later claimed that he had no idea which company he was designing for, and had wondered if it was a Bizzarrini, having merely been given the packaging of the engine and chassis. Could this be true? It seems strange that he didn’t put two and two together, after the furore caused by the chassis at the Turin show, but then he didn’t get past the drawings stage because by the end of 1965 he had, as predicted, been lured away to rival Ghia.

This could have been disastrous for Bertone had it not been for another young up-and-coming talent, one Marcello Gandini. By late 1965, aged just 27, he had taken over where Giugiaro had left off, and it’s been a matter of conjecture ever since just who was responsible for the basic shape.

Whoever penned the majority of the design, Ferruccio Lamborghini liked the results. Apparently he examined the drawings and said simply ‘Make it’. And so began the push to get the prototype Miura ready for the Geneva show. It was transported to Sant’Agata in March 1966 to be fitted with its engine, returned to Bertone for finishing and then driven – largely untested – by Nuccio himself to Geneva.

It’s a mark of both how good the basic design was and how quickly Lamborghini pushed the Miura into production that the Geneva show prototype wasn’t so different from Iain Tyrrell’s car here. And much of that was down to Bob Wallace, a New Zealander who, before being recruited by Lamborghini, had been race mechanic with the Camoradi team, working with Graham Hill. As single-minded as he was talented, Bob was responsible for ironing out the Miura’s early faults.

Certain details had changed during the design process of the Miura – radiator position and a few of Gandini’s touches that Bertone hadn’t appreciated – and Bob Wallace’s testing honed its road manners and improved upon the engineering detail. The Plexiglas engine cover sadly bit the dust, to be replaced by louvres for improved cooling. The glass screen between cockpit and engine bay was replaced with double thickness ‘VisRam’ Perspex after the original cracked, the roofline raised by 10mm, seats lowered by 20mm, and the design of the roof vents changed.

Most significantly, vibration and noise from the new transverse engine and transmission unit were eliminated by adding an idler gear between crankshaft and gearbox input shaft, in place of the original direct one-to-one gear drive. This meant reversing the rotation of the crankshaft – it was actually the fourth production Miura that received this modification.

This was how the improvements continued, literally on a car by car basis, so that Iain’s car – number 225 remember – benefits from many of the most important changes in the life of the Miura but still retains the purity of the original P400 design: until build number 125, the chassis was made in 0.9mm steel, which wasn’t quite up to the job; at 125 it was increased to 1mm; and at 200 the front crossmember was strengthened. Chassis gussets were used later, on the Mirua SV; Iain’s car has had these added at some point.   
 
But it’s when you look around Iain’s car at closer quarters that, in-between gasps of admiration for the overall shape, you begin to wonder what Lamborghini, or perhaps Bertone, were thinking of when they designed it... Check out the headlamp eyelashes: they’re made from separate pieces of cut steel, each one individually spot-welded to L-shaped brackets below; or the bonnet vents, separate pieces of steel again but bolted together via a long threaded bar, with each piece spaced apart by a short piece of tube. Hardly great items for easy manufacture, even at supercar levels of production.

But they’re nothing on those trademark engine louvres, each one made from three separate pieces of sheet metal or, most of all, those remarkable vents on the doors. They’re true works of art, each one built up from individual (and delicate) pieces of steel, brazed along their bottom edges to form a shape that exactly matches the curve of the door.

All this care, all this delicacy – but only if the component in question is visible. Under the skin, the Miura isn’t always so perfectly formed, as Iain discovered during his restoration. The headlamp lifting mechanisms are pure shoddy, the electrics under-spec’d, the fasteners not as good as they should be and the rustproofing virtually non-existent. As for the interior, as Iain says, ‘The vinyl beggars belief! Why wasn’t it leather?’
It’s a fair point, and the obvious answer to these contradictions is that neither Lamborghini nor Bertone expected to build

so many Miuras, hence the labour-intensive construction techniques and the slightly makeshift componentry. But the engineering of the running gear and the bodywork is exemplary, ahead of anything produced by Ferrari or Maserati at the time

Iain, who’s restored and maintained examples of all three marques, agrees. ‘It’s so clever from an engineering point of view; they [Lamborghini] could do things Ferrari just couldn’t. For example, the engine block, gearbox and differential are all one huge casting – that’s audacious engineering –  and many of the castings were Elektron Magnesium.

But there’s no denying that the handbuilt nature of the Miura makes it difficult to get right. As is always the case, fewer and fewer examples were maintained properly. Owners added bits, took bits away, mechanics failed to grasp the intricacies of the set-up and, by the late 1970s, many spares were no longer available. And so we get a car with a reputation for tricky handling and poor brakes, for setting itself alight (caused by leaking carburettor floats), for poor starting (the starter motor fills with oil!) and for fouling spark plugs and struggling to idle.

I slide down into the driver’s seat. By supercar standards it’s not a difficult entry – the narrow sills help – and here I am (not for the first time) in the cockpit of my dream car. I start the engine. Oh wow! It’s not a quiet unit, and there’s no need for that sneaky glance over the shoulder to know that, yes, the engine is approximately four inches from my head.

But does it idle? Yes it does, and continues to do so as we manoeuvre the car around the studio before heading back into daylight. Iain confirms that a reliable idle is perfectly achievable with intensive carburettor fettling (as long as the ultra-rare carbs aren’t worn), and with that comes a tractable yet powerful engine, only matched in period by Ferrari’s four-cam 275GTB.

Imagine 6ft 2in Bob Wallace working his craft in a Miura. I’m only just 6ft and my head is brushing the headlining, my legs bent comfortably, knees strangely exposed up ahead (it’s the low height and reclined angle of the seat and the way the fascia is cut away that gives that feeling), and yet the steering wheel and the gearlever are just a little too far away.

The clutch is heavy, as is the gearshift, a quirk of the linkage passing through the engine block to reach the ’box, and you can feel the weight of each and every throttle return spring on those four triple-choke Weber 40 IDL carbs when you press the accelerator (and don’t expect to be able to floor it in top from 1500rpm).

That’s the thing with the Miura; it ain’t an easy drive. The steering isn’t horrifically heavy, though it feels a little odd at first, self-centring geometry sacrificed to eliminate bump steer, and – most surprising to newcomers – the cabin feels airy, with excellent visibility in all except the rear view.

Iain bought this car for its originality: just 26,000km and three previous owners (in Kuwait, London and Monaco), none of the irreplaceable parts missing, and a few rarities still in place, such as the Ariston dampers and the steel exhaust.

Its condition was generally good, but it had been neglected, so Iain took on a full restoration, stripping it back to the bare chassis tub – you can see the pictures of the bare sections on his website. Miraculously, there was hardly any of the usual electrolytic corrosion between aluminium and steel sections, and the only panel replaced was a dented section of floor. 

The detail was the tough bit. Aligning the panels, making a new headlamp lift mechanism from scratch, re-engineering the original exhaust in mild steel rather than stainless (which never sounds as good – it’s all down to the molecular structure), sourcing what turned out to be the last remaining spare genuine Miura bonnet badge, and retrimming the interior in a Nappa  leather that looks just like the original vinyl.

The original 7Jx15 wheels were still in place but, being magnesium, they’re a little fragile, so Iain made the common swap to SV wheels, 7.5in at the front, 9in at the rear, aiding grip but taking away a little of the delicacy of the P400 design.

The extra grip also shows up any weakness in the suspension, which is why the SV moved to an entirely different rear suspension location set-up. Iain rebushed his car and paid extra-careful attention to the alignment and the result is wonderfully predictable handling, free of the bump steer that plagues worn-out Miuras. It’s the same with the brakes – the solid discs of the P400 are often slated but, even driven hard, Iain’s car stops well and shows no sign of fade or a lack of bite when cold. Modern pads may well be making all the difference.

There’s no denying, though, that a Miura can be hard work, hot and heavy to hustle round twisting roads. It’s noisy, the gobbling of the carbs and rasp of the exhaust chorused by thrashing timing chains and the whine of the differential’s straight-cut gears. And it’s desperately tiring in traffic.

Do I care? No. Would I have a P400, a P400 S or a P400 SV? The early car has the edge in looks, while the slightly more powerful S (some with vented discs) had the edge in performance, and the SV had better suspension and aerodynamics but at the cost of slightly heavier styling. Clearly, any would do – but being picky I’d sacrifice a bit of sophistication for the style of a P400. It would look great on my driveway.    

Thanks to Miura restorer Iain Tyrrell of Cheshire Classic Cars, www.cheshireclassiccars.co.uk.

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