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The one and only - Lamborghini Muira Spider

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The only factory-made Miura Spider has been through two completely different incarnations – and now it’s back to its original form after 40 years.

It must have been an incredibly difficult decision. Should the one and only Lamborghini Miura Spider be restored to the way it’s existed for almost all its 40 years – or to its original, but utterly different, form? This car has had two quite separate personalities since it was built, and choosing which to save for posterity must have demanded Solomon-like levels of judicial skill.

Here is a summary of the facts of the case (m’lord). In the second half of 1967, Bertone constructed a roofless Miura for the 1968 show circuit. It was finished in a pale blue metalflake with an off-white leather interior and red carpets.

In late 1968, the Miura Spider was offered to the International Lead and Zinc Research Organization (ILZRO), which was looking for a glamorous car they could modify to publicize their eponymous metals. Bertone and ILZRO revamped the Miura Spider and renamed it the Zn75. It was painted a dark metallic green with brown interior, and then embarked on a second tour of motor shows and media appearances.

And that, in a nutshell, is why there might appear to have been two Miura Spiders when in fact there was only one – discounting the inevitable aftermarket conversions, like the ones done by a Californian company in the 1970s, and the 1981 show car presented by a Swiss Lamborghini dealer at Geneva.

There was only one ‘official’ Miura Spider, and the chap faced with choosing which version he preferred is New York property developer Adam Gordon. He says that the decision was actually very simple:
‘The Zinc Car was not true to the original concept and was produced for a purely economic motive – to promote a business. In a sense, the original Spider has been ‘hiding in the open’ as the Zinc Car and it was time that Bertone’s vision was revealed again.’

Adam’s business is in renovating historic properties, so he has a natural instinct to preserve rather than rebuild in his own image, so to speak. ‘I felt that I shouldn’t act as an interpretative agent during the restoration,’ he explains. ‘For example, some of the original paint was revealed when the car was stripped, and it’s quite a garish color, with large chunks of metalflake visible. It was suggested that this effect could be softened during the respray but the car was painted like that for a purpose; it wasn’t for me to say that it could be improved upon.’

Gordon first read about the Spider when another car he owned, a regular Miura P400, was being restored. ‘I bought a load of books from Amazon and became interested in finding out what had happened to the Spider since its time as the Zinc Car. I tracked it down to a dealer in the South of France, and was amazed to discover that this unique car was then only valued at 20-30% more than an SV. That seemed crazy to me, given the prices of Ferraris of equivalent rarity.’

It’s true that the Spider had rather disappeared into the shadows after enjoying a blaze of limelight in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In 1968, when it was first unveiled by Bertone, the Miura was still a novelty, and Bertone’s aim seems to have been to keep the ‘buzz’ going a little longer – the coachbuilder made bodyshells for the Miura. It’s said that Ferruccio Lamborghini himself didn’t see the car until the preview showing at the January ’68 Brussels Salon…

Marcello Gandini was the stylist assigned to the project, which involved more than a simple roof chop: the rake of the windscreen was altered, and the rear section of the car reworked to give a squarer, more horizontally aligned Kamm tail, with black vinyl-trimmed ‘shoulders’ framing both sides of the engine bay. Lairy red carpets competed for attention with the white leather-trimmed seats, and the whole in-yer-face ensemble was finished with a Marzal-type geometric steering wheel. Very Joe 90, very 1968.

Dubious colour palette aside, there was no question of the car being productionized, reputedly due to the stresses that body flex would put into its massive wraparound screen – more on this later. Its chassis number 3498 does not even appear on Lamborghini’s factory register. The Lamborghini Bertone Miura Roadster, as it was dubbed – by Bertone, at any rate – was a show car, pure and simple.

As such, it might have had a very short career indeed, shuttling from one continent to another for a few months before being consigned to the factory museum or, just as likely, the scrap heap. But then fate came knocking, in the unlikely shape of corporate America. ILZRO wanted to show off new lead and zinc-based production techniques, and they wanted a fancy car to do it. Having recruited a stylist called John Foster from Ford, the initial thought was to make-over a Mustang, which was then all the rage. Ford thought otherwise, however, and so they turned to Lamborghini, via Bertone.

It seems the ILZRO delegation weren’t actually thinking of using the Spider at this point. But Paolo Stanzani, general manager of Lamborghini, was canny. He didn’t want to sell them a new Miura to modify – but why didn’t the American gentlemen take this exciting, hardly used roadster version instead? Everyone was a winner. Lamborghini could offload a car for which they had no further use, Nuccio Bertone would benefit from a generously funded consultancy, and the ILZRO people would have a car that was genuinely unique – even before they started work on it.

By another strange quirk of fate, as this article was being prepared, UK automobilia dealer David Thomas unearthed a file of correspondence about the Zinc Car from the ILZRO president, Schrade F Radtke, to the journalist Rob de la Rive Box. Written in 1978, it contains a typewritten history of the Zinc Car by Radtke himself. It’s all the more significant because Radtke owned the car for several years, having bought it from ILZRO when its promotional work had finished. He even drove it home occasionally from work to his Connecticut estate.

In his typescript, Radtke claims that the Zinc Car project, officially called the Zn75 – Zn being the chemical symbol for zinc (although its atomic weight is 30, not 75). While most of the changes were decorative, with plenty of appliqué exterior brightwork made from wrought and cast alloy, there was one surprising and less obvious feature: the six Weber 40IDL carburettors were recast in zinc, which presumably makes them as unique as the car itself.

ILZRO produced a lavish brochure to publicize the reborn Spider, which itemized the various ways in which zinc and lead had been used to dress it up. The ILZRO boys certainly couldn’t be faulted for ingenuity. Parts that were remade in their favorite metals ranged from major castings such as the valve covers to minor details that included the gear lever knob – ‘made of forged zinc’ – and the steering column surround. Even the Miura’s Pirelli tires were replaced with Goodyear Polyglas rubber, specially made by Goodyear with zinc-oxide cores.

Not surprisingly, ILZRO had to be even more creative in deciding how to incorporate lead into what is, after all, a supercar. Sound-deadening sheets in the floorpan and doors were a logical proposition, and they managed to find less-obvious uses such as lead-alloy brake and fuel lines. Today’s generation would probably look askance at the promotion of ‘tetra ethyl lead gasoline’ as a good thing, however…

ILZRO had the car repainted in metallic green, with green suede interior (which was lost during a retrim in the 1980s). By August 1969 it was ready to begin its show duties, and embarked on a world tour the equal of any rock group’s. Starting in Detroit, Michigan, it travelled to Montreal in Canada, to the UK (where it’s reputed to have appeared on the BBC TV programme Tomorrow’s World – easy to imagine Raymond Baxter eulogising over it), to Japan, Australia and France. And that’s besides numerous other Stateside showings.

Even as late as 1978, Zn75 was being dusted off and shown to throngs of slack-jawed public. As ILZRO president Schrade F Radtke put it, with understandable bullishness: ‘This one single vehicle has probably been seen by more people than any other automobile that has ever been built.’

As an interesting aside, Radtke also mentions that the sills of the Bertone original were painted white, which contributed to a slightly stubby appearance; one that was resolved by skinning the sills with grooved alloy trim pieces, in which the grooves were filled with dark paint to give an illusion of length. However, Miura expert Gary Bobileff, whose company carried out the painstaking restoration of the Zn75 to its original appearance during 2007-’08, says that their research indicated the sills were originally a pale silver.

Who is right? (And does it really matter?) The problem is that many of the original press shots of the Spider were in monochrome – and shot under bright Italian sun – whereas the colour pics were usually taken under artificial light at motor shows and were subject to the limitations of 1960s colour printing technology. Under those circumstances, white and pale silver tend to look remarkably similar.

Photographs were all Bobileff had to go on when planning the restoration, however. ‘We sourced dozens of images from private collections and the internet,’ he explains, ‘from which renderings were drawn on a computer, using known fixed dimensions as a basis. We’ve done this before, but never to this extent, so it was a challenging yet rewarding task.

‘What’s surprising is that not one dimension on the car matches a standard Miura. Every panel is different – the fenders [wings], doors, bonnet, everything. Even the windscreen is shaped differently. At a glance the car looks basically like a Miura that’s been given a roof-chop, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

‘Fortunately the changes made by the Zinc people were totally cosmetic. They added over 200lb of weight, and removing it has made the car relatively nice to drive. We also found that Bertone had put in more than 120 reinforcing pieces to the chassis.’

Maybe the Spider was a more usable car than has been previously thought. But, of course, there’s a big difference between a one-off that will only be driven very occasionally, and a production car that will be subjected to every kind of outrage an owner can throw at it.

One of the pleasures of the restoration, says Bobileff, was finding several traces of the original blue metalflake paint during the stripdown, most notably under the stainless trim behind the cockpit. ‘We went back to the Metalflake company in Massachusetts, who said “Sure, no problem”, looked back through their records and mixed us some more. The finish of the original car was unbelievably rough and gritty, so that was one area that we felt obliged to improve a little. It just wouldn’t be acceptable today.’

And there’s one other small departure from originality – the zinc-cast Webers have been left in place for the time being. The carbs weren’t changed because Bobileff was under pressure to have the car ready for Pebble Beach last year; and the effort was rewarded with a second in class (to the first production 350GT), with the Spider driven onto the ramp by legendary Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni. ‘He literally had tears in his eyes,’ recalls owner Adam Gordon.

Gordon’s adoption of the Spider marked a change in its fortunes after decades of relative obscurity. ILZRO’s president Radtke donated it to the Museum of Transportation in Brookline, Massachusetts, apparently in lieu of a tax payment. It rested there for several years and was refurbished while in the Museum’s care – during which the green suede interior was replaced with brown leather – before being sold to a syndicate headed by David Joliffe of Portman Lamborghini in the UK. Then it went to Japan, before heading back again to France, which is where Gordon found it.

Now the car is up for sale through Geneva-based broker (and Miura enthusiast) Simon Kidston, who is marketing it exclusively on behalf of Gordon. Which begs the obvious if slightly rude question, why is Gordon selling it so soon after the restoration?

The affable Gordon is not in the least fazed. ‘I like to get involved with projects – whether cars or properties – but I don’t feel any need to hang on to them afterwards,’ he explains. ‘I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for 20 years, and that puts material possessions into perspective. I was just a temporary custodian of this car.’

As Kidston points out, the new custodian will be purchasing not just ‘a’ but ‘the Miura Spider’. And, of course, they could always build a replica of the Zn75 to keep it company: the parts removed during the restoration have been carefully preserved, and will be given to the Spider’s new owner…

Now the car is up for sale through Geneva-based broker (and Miura enthusiast) Simon Kidston, who is marketing it exclusively on behalf of Gordon. Which begs the obvious if slightly rude question, why is Gordon selling it so soon after the restoration?

The affable Gordon is not in the least fazed. ‘I like to get involved with projects – whether cars or properties – but I don’t feel any need to hang on to them afterwards,’ he explains. ‘I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for 20 years, and that puts material possessions into perspective. I was just a temporary custodian of this car.’

As Kidston points out, the new custodian will be purchasing not just ‘a’ but ‘the Miura Spider’. And, of course, they could always build a replica of the Zn75 to keep it company: the parts removed during the restoration have been carefully preserved, and will be given to the Spider’s new owner…

Specifications

Engine
3929cc all-alloy V12, six Weber 40IDL carburetors

Power
380bhp @ 7350rpm

Transmission
Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Suspension
Coil-and-wishbone, anti-roll bars front and rear, telescopic dampers

Brakes
Discs all round

Weight
N/A (1180kg standard car)

Performance
Top speed c170mph (standard car

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