AN ICON’S ANNIVERSARY: WHAT IT’S LIKE TO DRIVE A MIURA

Lucca is an ancient walled city in Tuscany that has all the charms of Florence, but it is smaller, even more navigable by foot, and isn’t as overrun by tourists. On this day in early summer, the Sun is sparkling on the cobblestones and the locals are sidestepping the gawping visitors.

And then comes the noise.

A racket of deep, burring V-12 engines causes the locals to pause mid-stride. They know something is about to happen. And then the great old wall is breached. First a yellow nose pokes out of the tunnel entrance leading to the inside of the city. A strange, beautiful car slides through. And then another and another; a parade of 20 machines painted in the bombastic colors of the late-1960s: shag-carpet oranges, neon greens, and tangerine yellows. Two Italian policemen on tall motorcycles sidle alongside the procession, stopping foot and car traffic alike. It is as if royalty is being ushered into the Italian citadel.

An American family stops and stares. The boy asks, “What are those cars, dad?” The father shakes his head, but snaps cell-phone photos like everyone else.

No surprise that few of the Americans would recognize the Lamborghini Miura. And little surprise that many of the Italians do. The Miura is the most beautiful Lamborghini ever made, and arguably one of the most elegant cars ever produced in Italy. When it comes to Italian exotics with great historical design significance, the Miura rests alongside classics like the Maserati Birdcage Tipo 61, the Ferrari Testa Rossa, and the Dino.

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This year marks the Miura’s 50th anniversary. The model was built from 1966 to 1973, with more than 750 produced. To celebrate, Lamborghini invited Miura owners worldwide to ship their cars and drive in a procession through Italy.

And I’m actually driving one of them. A yellow P400SV model, with black leather seats and a gated five-speed manual. The V-12 engine directly behind my head is a complex arrangement of 12 pistons, 24 valves, and four Weber carburetors, a gnashing symphony that is both violent and fragile. The powertrain isn’t suited to this slow stop-and-go crawl, and the steadily building heat from the transverse-mounted unit seeps through the firewall and into the cabin. Still, the windows are down and I’m grinning idiotically at all of the onlookers. People of Italy! Look at me! I’m in a Miura. This is absolutely and totally perfect.

Today, Lamborghini is famous for its outré mid-engine sports cars. But the company’s progenitor, Ferruccio Lamborghini, first created his car company to stand in contrast to Enzo Ferrari’s enterprise. Whereas Ferrari, who built his factory first in the same region of Italy, was only interested in racecars, Ferruccio was instead intent on fast but comfortable grand touring cars. The first car from Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini SpA was the 350GT, a coupe with a front engine that was suited for cross-country trips.

But the workers in the factory, including the engineer Gian Paolo Dallara and test driver Bob Wallace, had other ideas and they designed a mid-engine chassis in secret. The idea was eventually shown to Ferruccio, who changed his mind. A body was commissioned to the design company of Bertone in Turin, and the project was given to the famed car designer, Marcello Gandini.

The result is the Miura.

Walk around one in the flesh and you are struck by the perfect proportions. Pedestrian safety regulations would no longer permit the long and low sloping hood that terminates in a sharp brow. The rear of the roof sweeps down in a single sexy swoop. The haunches are copious, but not stupidly so. The hands that designed this car were restrained — not a hallmark of later Lamborghinis. Three iterations were produced: the initial P400, the P400S, and the P400SV. Small details on the interior and exterior were changed and power increased, but the spirit remained the same.

When it comes to the collectors’ market, Lamborghini lags far behind the juggernaut that is Ferrari. A Ferrari 250 GTO was sold several years ago for $38.1 million. Lambo has never approached anything like those numbers. So the 50th anniversary is a good opportunity for Lamborghini to help prop up its vintage models. Prices of the Miura have steadily climbed, and some now sell in the low millions.

Buyers of expensive vintage cars are very much a community, and to commemorate the Miura milestone, the company invited Miura owners to take a 500 kilometer rally around Italy. The event began in the factory at Sant’Agata Bolognese and moved through Bologna and Parma. I was invited to drive an early 1970s model — owned by Lamborghini itself and usually in a museum — from the seaside town Viareggio to Lucca and then onto Florence, where the rally officially ended.

As for actually driving the car, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And so the first time I sit in the cabin, one of the owners tells me, “You’ve got to drive with your legs splayed open, in the most immodest pose you can imagine.” He’s a British gent, and he’s owned his Miura for more than 20 years. I quickly see he’s correct. The seat is wide and canted back, and the leather-coated, three-spoke steering wheel basically sits in your lap. So there’s really one option: splay your legs wide and lounge out, looking like one of those “don’t be one of these guys” posters on the NYC subway, and you’ve got it exactly right.

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I’m also given a note of caution. Because of an original mechanical oddity — namely that the four carburetors are placed directly over the spark plugs and ignition wires — the Miura has a worrisome tendency to catch fire. This has been an issue since their inception, and you can find a burning Miura video on YouTube. In fact, there’s already been a fire incident on this trip. “Try not to turn the car off and then back on when it’s already hot,” counsels an owner. “That’s when the fires start.” I nod. I really and truly don’t want to catch the car on fire.

And a quick side note on the men and women who are gathered for the rally. Yes, they are wealthy, but put away snide Lamborghini comments. One stately couple, now in their later years, have owned their Miura since they bought it new in the 1960s. They can fix anything that goes wrong with it themselves. Another has lovingly restored his car and turned it into a facsimile of a rare racecar version. The overall ambience is genial, welcoming and very generous of spirit, courtesy of a largely self-made group who have gathered because of a common passion.

The steering is heavy. The clutch is stout. Initially I look down each time I shift, making sure I snick the gear into the right gated slot. And if you should stop on a hill, and it’s a tough trick to get a Miura rolling forward again without slipping back or stalling in the process.

This is indeed a 50-year-old car. It probably wasn’t considered all that user friendly back in the day. But only a few minutes out of Viareggio, our caravan is bombing down a curving road in wooded foothills, and the car feels totally alive. There is no doubt that it is a mechanical, breathing thing. I only have to look directly behind me to actually see the engine, and the V-12 tremors and belches every time my foot falls on the gas pedal. The car turns far better than I would have expected, and while the acceleration isn’t great by today’s standards, it somehow feels faster.

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And if there’s something magical about driving an Italian supercar in Italy, that sensation trebles when you’re in a car that was built by Italian craftsmen decades upon decades ago. It is a wonder to look ahead and behind and see the road sprinkled with the brightly hued Miuras. One was owned by Frank Sinatra. (It’s got a shag carpet interior.) Another by Rod Stewart. These cars are not only historical, they are history. Ferruccio himself died in 1993, and though a few of the men behind the Miura are still alive, many others are not. But their creations live on, and that is phenomenal.

So I want to make sure I don’t kill it with fire. The car drives fabulously for some 50 miles or so, but we’re passing through small villages swelled with Saturday traffic, and all the frequent stops are putting a strain on it. The column of cars slows suddenly and I brake hard — running into another owner would be a very expensive mistake for all involved — and the car stutters… and then stalls. And I quickly recall the advice: don’t restart the hot car if you can help it. That’s when the fires start.

I crank the engine, hold my breath, and the engine comes back to life. But from that point on, the car wants to stall each time I brake. So I use a technique called heel-to-toe in which you both use your right foot to both brake and goose the gas at the same time. It’s a lot of work and concentration, and by the time we reach our lunch stop (at a fabulous villa, naturally), I’ve sweated through my shirt.

Lamborghini has brought along mechanics, and they twiddle with the cars during the lunch. A few other owners ask for the engineers to take a look at their cars, and I notice that a good number have sweated through their clothes as well. And it makes me think: these are the kinds of owners that the Miura and its legacy actually deserves. Ones who actually go out into the countryside and drive the damn things. Men and women who don’t just put it into a private garage and let it molder away, possessed but unloved.

The Miura is one of the most beautiful cars ever made. It deserves to be heard and seen and enjoyed by others. Like a masterful painting in the dark, a great aria unsung and a gorgeously designed building unused, a car like the Miura is wasted if it’s not driven.

May we be so lucky to do it again another 50 years from now.

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Report by Jason H. Harper for The Verge

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