Piet Pulford is one of those people who are just naturally lucky. A couple of hours ago we set off in his recently completed Lamborghini Jota replica. The car has done virtually no road miles since it was built and we’re about to drive it from Gstaad to Monaco on the Miura 40th Anniversary Tour. We’ll be lucky if the fuel consumption creeps into double figures, the car has no fuel gauge and Piet has no idea how much petrol is in the tank.
Shall we fill up just after the start? ‘Nah, we’ll be alright,’ says Piet confidently.
Amazingly, we get a couple of hours’ driving under our belt before the engine stutters and its V12 roar is replaced by the quiet clicking of a fuel pump running dry. But we’re drifting down a mountain pass, so the car keeps rolling. Twenty seconds later, we round a corner and there’s the Swiss-French border.
Complete with petrol station. And a pump selling 98-octane fuel. ‘You jammy bugger!’ seems the only suitable response. But Piet deserves some good luck, having spent 15 years and a medium-sized fortune in creating a perfect replica of the one-and-only Lamborghini Jota. Built in 1970 as a personal testbed by Lamborghini development engineer Bob Wallace, the Jota (pronounced ‘Yota’) was a kind of über-Miura, more race than road car. Its career was exceptionally short-lived; after being sold to Italian company Interauto in February 1972, it was heavily crashed and subsequently written off. Although a number of so-called Jota replicas were commissioned by insistent customers in the early 1970s, notably the German Lamborghini importer Hubert Hahne, these were mere pastiches of the original, civilised and tamed to make them more acceptable for road use.
No-one knows where the name Jota came from. In the 1982 book Miura (still available as a facsimile reprint from Mercian Manuals), co-authors Coltrin and Marchet suggest that it’s because the car was built to Appendix J of the FIA regulations. Others have claimed that it’s named after a Spanish dance; yet others say that it has something to do with atomic fission... One thing’s for sure – given that the Italian language has no letter ‘J’, the UK registration that Piet Pulford has secured (see picture above) could not be bettered.
Fortunately for Piet, who has been obsessed with the Miura since he saw one during a school trip to London in the late ’60s, Bob Wallace is still active. A taciturn New Zealander, who in 1960s press photos always looks as though he’d be happier working on a sheep station than mixing with flash Italians in suits and shades, Bob now lives in Arizona and fixes early Ferrari race engines in his spare time. ‘I thought Piet was stark, raving mad when he first came to me,’ says Bob in one of his rare bursts of emotion. ‘But he’s done an extremely nice job – and the workmanship is probably better than mine was on the original.’
Bob built the original Jota pretty much for his own amusement, working in tandem with chief engineer Paolo Stanzani. ‘It was almost a toy,’ he continues in his languid Kiwi drawl. ‘Italian cars were always overweight and I wanted something lighter to play around with. Because the Miura had become an overnight commercial success, it went into production way before any proper development could be done and it only got half-arse reasonable with the SV series. There were some major rigidity problems with the early cars, due to a lack of collaboration between ourselves and Bertone; the centre section could have been made ten times stronger.
These cars weren’t built by God but by mere kids like us!
‘The Jota allowed me to make some major chassis revisions and try out new ideas. We had an enormously good relationship with Pirelli’s R&D department and could use its private test track whenever we wanted, so the Jota was also useful for tyre development too. But my basic aim was to get weight out of the car. If you can save, say, two or three hundred kilos, you don’t need massive horsepower to propel it.’
Except that, of course, the Jota did have massive horsepower. Its engine was a dry-sumped, ported and polished version of the Miura’s 4-litre V12, and produced what Bob describes as ‘400 and change’ horsepower. ‘An output of 100bhp per litre was pretty good in the 1960s,’ he points out. ‘But we didn’t do anything particularly special to the engine; just cleaned it up internally. And we strengthened the transmission housing with a big steel plate – otherwise the engine had a tendency to walk away from the diff’ casing when you applied full power.’
For the replica Jota, Bob built an engine and transmission that duplicated the original car’s as closely as possible. Starting point for the project was a tired early Miura, found in the USA. The all-new bodywork and extensive chassis revisions were contracted out to Chris Lawrence of Wymondham Engineering in Norfolk – no relation to the Chris Lawrence of Deep Sanderson fame, featured in last month’s Octane – who did a fantastic job of creating the fragile alloy nose and tail sections, which are held on by locating pins and Dzus fasteners and simply lift off rather than being hinged as on a Miura. Tragically, Chris died from cancer just a few months ago.
Final assembly was handled by another Norfolk outfit, Roger Constable of The Car Works, Ashwellthorpe. Roger is full of praise for Chris’s craftsmanship but admits that getting the nose and tail to fit once the engine, dry-sump oil tank and plumbing had been installed was something of a trial. While the sections attach very neatly, feeding these large, cumbersome yet delicate structures over the radiator and fuel filler caps at the front, and the monster quad exhaust pipes at the back, is frustratingly fiddly.
Ah yes, the exhausts. They are the Jota’s defining feature, both visually and aurally. Piet has had a set of restrictors made up for the Bofors cannonsized tail pipes but on this debut run down to Monaco he can’t resist leaving them off. Every time one of us cranks the starter and the V12 explodes into life behind our heads I think of the opening scenes of Le Mans.
You sit low and casual in the Jota, legs spread as if slouched in your favourite TV-viewing easy chair. The screen sweeps around in panoramic Stratos fashion and the broad sills, each of which contains a 60-liter fuel tank, create useful elbow room on either side. There’s lots of black-painted sheet alloy, blue Dymo labels with evocative Italian descriptions, and a total absence of anything soft or forgiving. The foot pedals are reassuringly large and well spaced, their broad metal treads looking as if they’ve been lifted from one of Cavaliere Lamborghini’s tractors, but it’s impossible for the driver to release the handbrake without brushing an elbow against the rear bulkhead. That’s a mistake you make only once: after being cooked for a couple of hours by four liters of tuned V12, that sheet of alloy gets as hot as the baking tray under your Christmas turkey.
But the clutch is surprisingly light and you can trickle the Jota away on a whiff of throttle – just as well, for the sake of the hearing of anyone standing within 40 feet. The steering is light, too, despite the 9.5-inch section front tires (the rears measure an incredible 12.5 inches across). Rearward vision is non-existent, of course, but otherwise the Jota isn’t difficult to drive. It does make a fantastic sound. Forget all the usual niceties of induction hiss, valve train chatter and the other nuances that journalists like to use to pep up their copy: the Jota is simply raw, animal, noise. It’s loud at idle and it just gets louder as you pile on the revs. At low engine speeds it sounds as though someone is blowing a tuba straight into your ear; then at around 3000rpm the brassy blast becomes a little ragged, as though the two banks of cylinders have got out of synch; but get past that and it sweetens into the most glorious, red-blooded howl you can imagine.
Double-declutching down into third for the endless hairpins that punctuate the D900 south of Gap is one of motoring’s great experiences: at each whop! whop! of the throttle you are, just for a moment, a proper Racing Driver, hurling a blood red Italian supercar around an arid landscape that hasn’t changed much since Bob Wallace thrashed the very first Miura down to Monaco in 1966.
The steering wheel – perched on the end of a lengthy steel tube, itself anchored to the dash by a simple collar that looks more soapbox than supercar – is alive in your hands, constantly twitching and tugging as the road surface pulls it one way or the other; the ride, on the other hand, is surprisingly good, doubtless because the car is some 350kg lighter than a Miura (‘Still too heavy,’ grumbled Bob Wallace to Car magazine in 1971). While the Miura has coil-and-wishbone suspension at both ends, the Jota has a similar set-up at the front – but with fabricated rather than pressed-steel wishbones – and a unique arrangement at the rear: each upright is located at the top by a transverse and a forward-facing link, with a reversed wishbone at the bottom. This arrangement was faithfully replicated after a tip-off from Bob Wallace led Piet to uncover the original factory drawings in storage, water damaged but intact.
But is the Jota race-car fast? Sneak a look at the unretouched snap of a Miura speedometer on page 74 and you’ll see that a standard car is easily capable of a 150mph cruise. The Jota, with more power and considerably less weight, should be notably faster. Trouble is, the deafening roar of the exhaust and the low-slung driving position distort your perception of speed – you think you’re cracking along at a serious rate of knots but then you glance at the speedo and discover you’re only doing 100mph.
Then there are the aerodynamics. The Jota gained some ankle-slicing front spoilers as a result of what Bob Wallace describes as ‘some very crude aerodynamic testing, using fuel tank senders attached to the suspension to measure lift’ but the Miura was notoriously light-footed at speeds above 150mph and Bob reckons the Jota wasn’t much better. He suspects that front-end lift could have been the underlying cause of the 1972 crash.
Given the amount of rubber that the Jota can lay down on the road, dry-road grip (at sub-150mph speeds…) is not something you need to worry about, but it’s a different matter in the rain. Appropriately enough, when we’re deluged by a sudden summer storm, the Jota’s single windscreen wiper stops working – it’s an Italian car, after all – and it’s almost with a sense of relief that we find an excuse to shelter under a service station canopy until the downpour stops. But, considering this is the car’s
first proper outing since it was built, a mischievous wiper is hardly a major disaster.
It is, however, a reminder that this car is fresh out of the box and nothing’s been tightened up since we left Gstaad 36 hours ago, including the wheel nuts securing those specially cast Campagnolo alloys (based on a Bizzarrini’s, according to Bob).
I try to put such thoughts out of my mind as Piet hurls the Jota along the autoroute towards Monte Carlo, although a tiny part of me can’t help thinking rather morbidly that the phrase ‘he died in a high-speed crash in a Lamborghini just outside Monte Carlo’ would make a pretty stylish obituary.
Talking with Bob Wallace over the ’phone a couple of weeks later, Bob says he hopes Piet did a couple of hot laps around Casino Square, just like Bandini and Scarfiotti did with the first Miura back in ’66. I reassure him that there are no worries on that score. They’re probably still picking up bits of stucco outside the Hotel de Paris even now.