The boss moves on as the supercar maker rides high, untouched by the troubles of its owner, writes Ray Hutton.
The Dieselgate emissions scandal is giving Volkswagen a battering and has put paid to the Group's ambitions to lead the automotive world by 2018. It is a hard lesson that has seen Volkswagen, Seat, and Skoda lose market share in territories across the world.
The curious thing is that the Group's up-market brands are scarcely affected. Audi and Porsche continue their relentless progress – despite some models sharing the cheater engines – and both Bentley and Lamborghini maintain sales at record levels. No sins of the fathers here: for buyers of prestige cars, brand reputation evidently overrides company ownership.
With 3,245 deliveries last year, Automobili Lamborghini is riding high. New variants of its Aventador and Huracán are introduced as limited editions – more powerful and more expensive than the core models – and sell out within weeks. Its extreme 'celebration' models, produced in even smaller numbers, sold at much higher prices, and sometimes not even road-legal, always find eager wealthy buyers.
Last summer, before the NOx hit the fan, the Volkswagen high command gave the go-ahead for the Urus, Lamborghini's take on a sporty SUV which has been previewed by a concept car first shown in 2012. This third model will mean the first expansion of the plant and facilities at Sant'Agata Bolognese for some years: 150,000 sq m (from 80,000 today) and 500 extra people. From 2018, when the Urus comes to market, Lamborghini expects to make up to 6,000 cars a year.
Today's situation is quite a contrast with the scene when I visited Sant'Agata in July 2009. The production line was idle, as the factory was closed for seven weeks under cassa integrazione, the scheme where the Italian state pays 80 per cent of the wages of laid-off employees. In common with other supercar manufacturers – though not Ferrari, its closest rival – Lamborghini had seen a steep drop in demand after the Lehmann crisis. It had sold 2,430 cars the previous year but the number for 2009 was to fall below 1,600 and in 2010 was lower still.
Some saw this as the beginning of the end of the supercar but Lamborghini president Stephan Winkelmann was optimistic: "After the crisis, there will be joy again; I am sure that we will have a very good revival and future sales will increase". We reflected on the company's good fortune of being owned by solid and stable Volkswagen. In former times, when Lamborghini was in the hands of Italian, Swiss and Indonesian entrepreneurs – not to mention Chrysler, in the Iacocca era – the 2009 downturn would surely have been fatal.
Volkswagen acquired Lamborghini in 1998, through its Audi subsidiary – with which it is still integrated. It was the time when Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piëch was buying up brands. His idea was that Lamborghini would give VW a Ferrari competitor but, to outsiders, the benefit of having an Italian boutique sports car company wasn't clear.
Although it was allowed – even encouraged – to continue with its powerful large displacement V12 engines, Lamborghini's future would be determined by a new, smaller and less expensive model, sharing a V10 engine and chassis technology with Audi. That was the Gallardo, which appeared in 2003 – and was replaced by the Huracán 11 years later.
The V12 Diablo, developed in the Chrysler period, was followed by the Murciélago (2001) and then the Aventador (2011), both of which were brought up to Audi production standards. Then the markets turned. The US was, and remains, Lamborghini's main market, followed by the Middle East, Japan and the UK. Five years ago, the Chinese didn't buy two-seater sports cars in significant numbers but they do now and the Asia Pacific region has become Lamborghini's second largest market. Urus is sure to increase volume in all these areas.
Stephan Winkelmann was an inspired choice to lead the company in Volkswagen's ownership. He is a German who grew up in Italy, is fluent in four languages, and was previously Fiat sales chief in Germany and Austria. He has been the suave face of Lamborghini for 11 years but is now going back to Germany to head the Audi subsidiary quattro GmbH.
Winkelmann's commitment played a large part in maintaining a distinctive image for Lamborghini, which could easily have been lost when the Gallardo and Huracán share so much with the Audi R8. Gaining approval for the Urus from the Volkswagen board was tough. Lamborghini showed its prototype at the same time as the Bentley EXP9F and for a long time it was thought that Wolfsburg would sanction only one super-luxury SUV – what was to become the Bentley Bentayga.
Winkelmann was excited about the Urus when we met in London just before Christmas. Bentley had just announced that the Bentayga, with 600 bhp from its turbocharged W12 engine, will have a maximum speed of 187 mph and 0-60 mph acceleration in 4 seconds. Surely that has stolen Lamborghini's thunder? No, said Winkelmann: "Urus will be the supersports car of the SUV segment. It needs to be the world's fastest and most powerful SUV."
The underbody 'architecture' of the Urus will be similar to the Bentayga (and the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne: the VW Group's MLB modular 'toolkit') but the Lamborghini will use a highly-tuned 4 litre twin-turbo V8 petrol engine and its coupe-like body will be more aerodynamically efficient as well as significantly lighter than its cousins.
The key to weight reduction and the enhanced performance is carbon-fibre. Winkelmann said: "Urus will stand out from other SUVs in its use of carbon-fibre for many structural parts". Lamborghini is the Volkswagen Group's specialist in this material. It has developed a method that allows it to produce five Aventador carbon-fibre monocoque chassis per day in-house at Sant'Agata.
Even so, it will, literally, be a tall order to make a bulky, upright four-wheel drive SUV into a 200 mph car and, while doing so, achieve the required CO2 reduction across the Lamborghini range. It intends to continue with the naturally-aspirated 6.5 litre V12 of the Aventador and the Huracán's 5.2 litre V10. The turbo V8 will bring down the range average fuel consumption but the company is likely also to need the plug-in petrol-electric hybrid planned for the second version of the Urus.
Winkelmann described the Urus as a 'game changer' for Lamborghini. If 2015 saw sales exceed 3,000 for the first time, by 2019 the annual volume should be over 5,000. He doesn't foresee a further step change, as a statement he made six years ago still applies: "One of the key factors of the luxury business is to produce one less than demand, to keep the market in pull not push".
That thinking keeps prices high. The Urus will likely be around GBP180,000, about the same price as the Huracán LP610-4. Some of the most extreme special edition Lamborghinis, produced in very small numbers, have been among the world's most expensive cars. The next one of those will be presented at the Geneva Motor Show next month. It is to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Ferruccio Lamborghini, the company's founder, and all 20 cars are already sold, at well over £1 million apiece – to Lamborghini enthusiasts who were shown a styling sketch at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance last August.
Later this year there will be a second special edition, marking the 50th anniversary of the Miura, the model that first brought Lamborghini world acclaim and, arguably, created the supercar as we know it today.