It was eleven in the morning on a typical Thursday when my phone rang. "How'd you like to drive the Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Valentino Balboni in Beverly Hills at 3:00 pm... with Valentino Balboni?" Aside from screaming "YES!!!" at the top of my lungs, all sorts of thoughts started to crowd my brain. What should I wear? Should I shave? Do I address him as Valentino? Mr. Balboni? Your majesty? And most of all, am I worthy? Normally at car events, you wind up talking to a bunch of MBA-types and, no offense, but really, who cares? You drink too much, brag too much, dress how you like – it simply doesn't matter. But this was Valentino Balboni. Respect is demanded. Then I got a text message from Drew Phillips, our resident ace photographer. "No flip flops." Right.
In case you're not sure what all the drama is about, Valentino Balboni spent four decades as a test driver for Lamborghini. In fact, for several of those years he was the test driver. Not only has Balboni been at the helm of every prototype Lamborghini since 1973, but most of their production cars got a quick lap around the streets of Sant'Agata with Valentino at the helm, just to make sure they were up to Lamborghini snuff. Still not clear as to why the man's such a big deal? It's believed that Valentino Balboni has driven 80% of all Lamborghinis ever made.
Balboni was instrumental in the development of the Gallardo, Lamborghini's most successful model of all time with over 9,000 sold. Lamborghini has just released a very special and very limited edition of the Gallardo, dubbed the LP550-2 Valentino Balboni, after their own living legend. Just 250 will be produced and all are rear-wheel drive – a first for Lamborghini in nearly a decade. But how did this car come to be? I was lucky enough to spend ninety minutes in a Lamborghini Valentino Balboni with Valentino Balboni asking him exactly that. Plus a whole lot more – click on the jump to read all about it.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
As soon as we set off, Balboni apologized that the LP550-2 VB we were in – he was driving, I was riding shotgun – was paddle-shifted instead of equipped with the excellent gated six-speed manual. He assured me that if he'd had his way, all 250 LP550-2s would ship with sticks. However as 95% of the U.S. market drives autos, and the U.S. is Lamborghini's biggest market, the very decent eGear is (sadly) an option.
I should also mention that Mr. Balboni (and for the record I only addressed him as "Mr. Balboni") appears to be genuinely amazed and flattered – still – that Lamborghini decided to build and name a car after him. In fact, he was still beaming. He explains that while working for Lamborghini he was too close to the job, the day-to-day grind, to really appreciate how special his position was. But now that he's retired, the specialness, –the unbelievable luckiness of his previous position is becoming clear.
About ten months ago, Lamborghini engineers began, "Coming to me with strange questions. How did the Miura drive? What was the Countach like? They were very casual. They just wanted my opinion. But they wouldn't say why." Then they began asking him what he truly valued in a Lamborghini, what he really wanted to see. Rear-wheel drive, of course. But there was something more. "They wanted to give the customers a taste of the old school Lamborghini flavor." And that sort of knowledge could only be provided by the "Ambassador of Lamborghini."
"There is a link," he begins. "An emotional link" between the raging bulls of yore and the brand-new LP550-2. "The character and temperament of Ferruccio Lamborghini is kept on." As he's telling me this, a tiny spot in traffic opens up and for the first time he's able to punch the throttle. That noise. That wonderful, snarling noise. I wish there was someway with words alone to express to you how lovely, violent and symphonic the LP550-2 VB's 5.2-liter V10 sounds, but I'm afraid written language fails me.
I then ask him why, when compared to the LP560-4, the motor has been detuned from 552 horsepower to 545 or so. He begins explaining that unlike the older car, there's no AWD to cope with all that power, how his car is lighter, and then Balboni waves his hand as if to dismiss both me and the criticism: "You're losing seven, maybe eight horsepower. It's not important." What is important, according to Balboni, is the smoothness of the power delivery. Yes, the motor loses a little power in the upper stratosphere, but it makes more power down low, where it's more usable. More torque lower in the rev range, too.
"My major concern was to avoid electronic help as much as possible – to let the driving pleasure come from the suspension tuning and power delivery." This is one of the reasons why Balboni was so apologetic about the E-gear. Since the start, he's been personally, "Very much against E-gear," because it takes some amount of vehicle control away from the driver and hands it to a computer. As far as rear-wheel drive goes, he has been against all-wheel drive Lambos from the start. In fact, he told me, "the company was split in two over AWD."
As he's telling me all this we crest a large hill and begin heading down and even larger one. Balboni is stunned. "This is like San Francisco. We should come back here at 100 mph," he grins. "Sure," I say. "I trust you." We start talking about other aspects of the LP550-2, the European racing inspired stripe, the intoxicating sounds, the driving pleasure (a big theme of his), carbon vs. steel brakes, etc. And then it dawns on me – I'm in a car with Valentino Balboni!
"Let's stop talking about this car for a second – what did you think the first time you saw a Countach?" At this point Balboni's face really lights up as the memories came flooding back. "Impossible!" he shouts. "Nobody believed it was a car." He wants me to understand that Sant'Agata is a very rural community, populated mostly by farmers (which is why Lamborghini started out making tractors). In the early 1970s, he was brought in to look at the wooden mockups of Gandini's design. "To see a car like that driving around – nobody would believe it!" Still, it was his job to help develop it.
"You got in the habit of doing this when you hit the brakes," Balboni made the sign of the cross. "The brakes were bad, the clutch was bad, the engine – no, the engine was good – but by modern standards the Countach isn't very good. But it was a very special car, a wonderful car." It was at this point that he fell silent for a moment before continuing, "Cars like the Countach and the Miura, they don't make sense today. You can't care about the planet and have a Miura." He then relayed a story from the very early Seventies when he took a customer's car down Lombard street at very extra-legal speeds. Just really fantastic stuff that I'll be retelling for years.
"I'm happy to be your passenger," he tells me, insisting that I drive. Gurning like an idiot I leap from the passenger side right back into the devastatingly Italian, leather encrusted cockpit. Everything is in place, from the deeply sporting seats to the fatty, overstuffed leather-wrapped wheel. Sadly, for the purposes of this story and my future daydreams, we were mired in rush hour traffic, creeping along at maybe 20 mph. I was able to really launch the beast a total of twice. That stated, I'm sure the LP550-2 Valentino Balboni is every bit the supercar it set out to be. But if given the chance to pound the bearings off the Balboni for hours on a track, I wouldn't trade it for the 90 minutes I spent stuck in traffic with Valentino. I mean, of course, Mr. Balboni.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.