Sant ‘Agata Bolognese oversteps the mark.
Heritage is a highly lucrative business model amid the upper echelons of the OEM motor industry. For carmakers with a history to plunder and a reputation to uphold, there are seemingly unlimited numbers of what are politely termed high net worth individuals with bank accounts fit to burst, seeking super-priced, super-exclusive, supercar nirvana. For those at the sharp end, cost, it does appear really is not an object, but execution is, heritage is, provenance certainly is and authenticity, not to mention bragging rights very definitely are.
Given the strictures, regulations and privations currently visited upon carmakers, finding new and profitable revenue streams has become the very stuff of life itself. Currently there appear to be two main prongs to this end of the market: The limited run series, (or one-off), which largely tend to be based upon contemporary designs, utilising crash structures, chassis and running gear of series production models, or on the other side of the equation, the slavish, to the last nut and bolt reproduction. Some, like Aston Martin for instance, have attempted both.
For some time now, Automobili Lamborghini have been doing good business catering to the high-end collector market by producing small runs of ultra-Lambos. Emboldened perhaps by the success of their Ad Personam Studio, and no doubt casting an envious eye towards their Maranello arch-rival (who appear to be quite literally printing money with its ongoing series of bespoke offerings), Sant’ Agata Bolognese has embarked upon a new course – retreading past glories.
Maybe not so new. Lamborghini was here or hereabouts before, having created a latterday interpretation of the seminal Miura in 2006, designed to commemorate the model’s 40th anniversary. Addressing press speculation that the carmaker would put the Miura recreation into production, Lamborghini CEO, Stephan Winkelmann at the time stated: “The Miura was a celebration of our history, but Lamborghini is about the future. Retro design is not what we are here for.” So far, so equivocal.
Fast forward ten years and something of a change of heart at Sant’ Agata, or at least a partial one. The Aventador Miura Hommage was introduced as a limited run of 50 examples by Lamborghini, and to be fair, it was patently an Aventador with a light dusting of Miura appliqué, for those who like that kind of thing. Equivocating somewhat from its decade-old position, the carmaker claimed that “the Aventador Miura Homage proves that Automobili Lamborghini looks to the future without forgetting its roots“. Deftly swerved.
Therefore, given its central position in the Lamborghini iconography, it was unthinkable for the Bolognese hypercar maker to neglect marking the Countach’s 50th anniversary in appropriate fashion.
By happy coincidence, the Polo Storico or Lamborghini Classic division had received a commission in 2017 (by an extremely wealthy collector) to recreate the very first Countach; the 1971 LP500 Geneva show prototype, which caused such a sensation at its debut, but was destroyed in crash testing during certification for production in 1974.
Taking over 25,000 hours of painstaking labour, and only completed recently, it made its public debut at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este in Italy earlier this month. As homages go, an exacting cost-no-object one-off recreation of a hitherto lost prototype would probably be as respectful as one might hope for. Lamborghini’s great and good certainly made all the right noises at its showing; design director, Mitja Borkert gushing, “The LP500 is of paramount importance to Lamborghini because it gave rise to the design DNA of all subsequent models.” CEO Stephan Winkelmann simply describing it as “something extraordinary.”
Extraordinary is an adjective one could employ to describe Lamborghini’s own homage to the Countach, but in this case, it is for reasons that neither reflect well upon either Sant ‘Agata management nor its stylistic leader. Shown in August of this year at Pebble Beach in California at an event marking the Countach’s anniversary, Lamborgini previewed a Sián-based vehicle, dubbed LPI 800-4, designed not only to evoke the Countach of yore, but assume its mantle.
While the 2016 Aventador Miura Hommage by contrast seemed a bit of harmless milking of the super-rich, the LPI 800-4 comes across as a far more cynical product. With a price tag of $2.5 million a pop, and a limited run of 114 cars, we’re talking revenues in the region of $285m, minus development costs of course, so one can see the business logic. Unsurprisingly, all have been pre-sold – money as always proving no arbiter of taste.
In a statement which tells you where the current management sit in relation to their heritage, the carmaker claims that the LPI 800-4 Countach is “an even more visionary and futuristic design destined to once again change the rules of the game…” Taking post-truth to hitherto uncharted depths, they go on to claim “the new Countach LPI 800-4 reinterprets the distinctive silhouette of the classic model with an even cleaner and essential line, making it immediately recognizable“.
Now is probably a good time to remind you of Mr. Winkelmann’s 2006 pronouncement; “Lamborghini is about the future. Retro design is not what we are here for“. Oh dear.
Here is where matters become somewhat more intriguing. As PR reversals go, last Friday’s press release from Marcello Gandini was almost as much of a sensation as the legendary car designer’s output during his Stile Bertone heyday. For not only does the man responsible for establishing the modern Lamborghini visual identity dismiss the LPI 800-4 in creative terms, he intimates that Lamborghini mislead him as to their intent.
In June this year, at Sant ‘Agata’s request, an in-person interview was filmed between Lamborghini design chief, Mitja Borkert and Gandini, to discuss the original Countach in the context of its anniversary. During the presentation, Borkert describes how much he had wanted to reinterpret the Countach for the modern era, showing Gandini sketches and a scale model of the LPI 800-4, which he then presents to his quite evidently bemused guest.
In his written communique, Gandini asserts that he believed this car would simply be displayed as a one-off for the Pebble Beach event, the statement saying, “Neither earlier, nor during the interview was it stated that the car was scheduled for limited series production“.
This video clip was subsequently used by Lamborghini to promote the introduction of the LPI 800-4, lending a tacit impression that it was fully endorsed and approved by maestro Gandini himself. This, the Italian designer was at pains to refute, stating, “Marcello Gandini would like to reaffirm that he had no role in this operation, and as the author and creator of the original design from 1971, would like to clarify that the makeover does not reflect his spirit and his vision.”
Gandini is then quoted as saying, “I have built my identity as a designer, especially when working on supercars for Lamborghini, on a unique concept: each new model I would work on would be an innovation, a breaker, something completely different from the previous one“, before going to state, “as far as I am concerned, to repeat a model of the past, represents in my opinion the negation of the founding principles of my DNA….” The statement ends with Gandini lending the diametric opposite of a benediction.
This ought to be a matter of huge embarrassment to Sant’Agata, considering the significance Marcello Gandini represents to Lamborghini in design provenance terms – a matter of no small importance when one is selling high net worth individuals witheringly expensive automotive trinkets. If your design lodestone and the creator of the original Countach shape disavows your car, where does that leave you? Perhaps the 114 LPI 800-4 owners won’t care, but one suspects that a subset of them will. But the question now must be, whether Lamborghini does?
The so-called mood music suggests otherwise. Perusing the design section of Lamborghini’s website, one is struck by how the carmaker makes abundant use of Gandini’s vision in reference to car designs like the Miura, the Marzal concept and Countach, yet without a solitary reference to their stylistic author. Meanwhile, Centro Stile Lamborghini and its lead designer are cited liberally. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that Lamborghini want their customers to believe they designed all of their cars in-house.
As Marcello Gandini noted in his missive, “it is clear that markets and marketing itself has changed a lot…“, and there is no doubt, they have. Furthermore, it is without question that Mr Winkelmann is under immense pressure to maximise revenue at a time when the VW mothership is facing unprecedented pressures. However, this frankly unconvincing reanimation displays a mystifying lack of respect for its own heritage.
Lamborghini have denied that they mislead Signore Gandini, but seem to be hoping to ride the wave of negative PR, on the basis that it will most likely be quickly forgotten amid the fast-paced news agenda. Never explain. Admit nothing. Change the subject.
Whatever one’s view of Marcello Gandini as a creative, wheeling out one of the 20th Century’s truly great car designers, to whom Lamborghini owe a great deal in reputational terms and yes, provenance; patronising him with warm words and flattery, as though he was simply a marionette to be carelessly plonked back in his box when no longer required is not the act of a respectful nor particularly smart curator of heritage.
So is it any wonder that the veteran designer felt it necessary to draw a line?