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Red and orange Lamborghini Miura

The First Supercar: The Lamborghini Miura

Take a moment. Think back through the years that you’ve been a fan of supercars, be it as a kid with a Lamborghini Countach or Ferrari 40 poster on your wall, or an adolescent that was exposed to Top Gear UK and their often hilarious supercar reviews. Then take a moment to think: Where did the name supercar actually come from?

While it’s definitely been around since this website was built over 20 years ago, for the longest time there were heated, passionate discussions about which car, which classic, was the first to truly embody the word. Some say that the gorgeous Ferrari 250 GTO was the first supercar, as it embodied the exotic nature, the power, and the prestige one associates with the term. Others say that another gorgeous car, the Jaguar E-Type, was the start of the supercar, as it was a car that was only truly available to the wealthy and elite (another hallmark of supercars).

However, for 99% of enthusiasts, the Lamborghini Miura was the first—the true genesis of the term. Launched in 1966, the Miura took the established thoughts on performance and sports cars and tossed them off the edge of the nearest cliff. There had been nothing like it before, and because of three engineers passionate enough to use their off-work time to design it, the world was forever changed.

A Rolling Revolution in Automotive Design

To understand why the Miura, which was at the time called the P400 Prototipi, was such a game changer in the world of sports cars, we first need to look at the time period when it came out. In the 1950s and 1960s, the quintessential design for any sports car in Italy was the berlinetta. This involved a long hood with a V12 underneath, a short, but luxurious cabin, with a sweepback or fastback slope down to the tail end of the car.

We can see this design in such legendary sports cars as the Ferrari 250 GT series, as well as the first Lamborghini, the 350GT. It was simply established that if you wanted to be taken seriously, you built a berlinetta, end of story. Big engine up front, transmission in the middle, power to the rear wheels. If you wanted to build a smaller car that could still be considered sporty, such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA, you were building a sports coupe, not a sports car.

However, if there is one thing Italians are passionate about, it’s motorsports, and three engineers that worked for Ferruccio Lamborghini—namely, Gian Paolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzani, and Bob Wallace were all fans of racing. In fact, both Dallara and Wallace were involved in motorsports before joining Automobili Lamborghini.

The reason that this is so important to the design of the Miura is that starting in 1960, many cars in Formula One started to place their engines behind the drivers instead of in front of them, creating the mid-mount engine layout. Those three engineers saw this, and after doing their work for the 350 GT and the 400 GT cars for Lamborghini, they would get together after hours and work at figuring out how to bring that balance and dynamic to a road car.

The P400 Prototype

The three engineers had, in fact, asked Ferruccio Lamborghini if they could start their design during their work at the company, and he famously denied them, stating that he wanted to stick to what was known and what was in demand: the berlinetta GT style. It is fairly astounding then that the car was not only designed during evenings and weekends, but that so many technical issues were worked through out of the sheer engineering challenge of it all.

While F1 cars of the day used highly compact inline-fours and V8s, the signature Lamborghini engine was the 3.9L V12, which would throw the entire balance of the car off if it was mounted longitudinally. The solution was to turn it 90 degrees, so that it was mounted transverse and in front of the rear axle, but behind the cabin. This, in and of itself, presented a challenge in that the engine was as wide as the cabin was in this position, and it did not allow for a transmission to be attached to the end of it.

The 3.9L V12 engine out of a Miura P400
The rather ingenious solution for having a transverse V12, by mounting the transmission along the underside of the engine feeding a transaxle. Image Via: Wikimedia Commons

The solution was fairly ingenious, in that instead of trying to attach a transmission to the end of the engine and then route it back to a differential, a transaxle system was designed that would be mounted to the “back” of the engine, with the transmission running along its underside. This only added a few centimeters to the entire width of the engine, and also negated the need for a differential as the transaxle would handle that.

After the three had worked through most of the technical problems, they decided to once again propose the idea of a mid-engined sports car to Mr Lamborghini. This time, however, he acknowledged their vision of it, and authorized them to build a rolling chassis demonstrator. While Lamborghini thought that the car would never be accepted by the public, he realized that if anything, he could use the marketing buzz that the project would drum up to show that he was on par with Ferrari in that his cars were “motorsports capable.”

The original P400 Prototipi rolling chassis demonstrator
The original P400 Prototipi rolling chassis. Image via Wikimedia Commons

That rolling chassis was completed, with the transverse engine and the complex but ingenious transmission solution, in time for the 1965 Turin Auto Salon, a fairly prestigious show that brought in the big names in auto manufacturing, not to mention their wealthy clientele, from the French Riviera, Monaco, and Northern Italy. Named the P400 Prototype, for “Posteriore 4 Litri” (rear 4 liters), the low, long chassis alone (with the engine mounted behind the seats) convinced many that Lamborghini was onto something. It was such a successful concept that some clients even put down deposits and orders right there on the show floor.

Bertone & the Art of Design

While the technical side of the Miura was enough to garner a lot of attention and even some orders, before a body had even designed, Ferruccio Lamborghini knew that he had to get rid of his old biases, leave the idea of a berlinetta in the drawers of his desk, and focus in on the mid-engined car that his engineers had worked on in their spare time. Key among the things that were needed next was a shape worthy of the rich and famous clientele who had placed their deposits.

The moment he arrived back in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Lamborghini was on the phone to Carrozzeria Bertone. This was for two reasons. The first was that Bertone was well recognized already as a design house that could create amazing, organic, beautiful shapes since the 1920s. The second was that they were not Pininfarina, who were Ferrari’s choice in design house. Assigned to the project was a recently hired design director named Marcello Gandini.

Finalized drawings of Lamborghini Miura by Marcello Gandini
The finalized drawings by Marcello Gandini after multiple iterations. Image

Be it fate, good luck, the right place at the right time, or something else, Gandini knew the instant he saw the P400 chassis what he wanted to draw. He was so inspired that it only took him three months to finalize the lines and design of the P400, with a long, low front section, a raked back windscreen to the cabin roof, and a fastback design down to the tail, with muscular flares over the rear wheels and hints of flares over the front ones. In effect, it was the shape of a rounded wedge, piercing the air and giving the impression of speed even when it was standing still.

The Miura's engine in a P400 chassis, where it just fits into the body shell.
As you can see, the V12 engine fits in the body (just barely). Image via Wikimedia Commons

Lamborghini loved the design and ordered the body to be made to fit over the P400 Prototype. The body was shaped by hand out of 0.9 mm steel, and it took several months to make it fit perfectly, while the interior was also built up and went through several iterations before it matched up to the designs.

It was technically completed just days before the P400 was to be shown at the 1966 Geneva International Motor Show, but there were doubts that the body would fit over the engine. At the last moment, the engine and transmission were removed, with ballast put in its place and the body then attached to the chassis.

The Design that Shook The World

When the 1966 Geneva show opened, everyone, including other manufacturers, turned their eyes to the Lamborghini stand when the P400 was rolled out with its body. It was elegant but savage, organic but still with a manmade touch. It screamed speed, but somehow also felt subtle. It was, in effect, something that had never been seen before.

In an ironic twist, much like what had happened three years before with the initial showing of the 350 GT when it had no engine, the hood was closed and locked. This time, however, the motoring press had to be physically escorted out of the Lamborghini stand by sales manager Ubaldo Sgarzi as they kept trying to open the hood to see what was powering the car.

The fact that the hood was locked was of no concern to those of the international wealthy community however, and much like what had happened in Turin, many deposits and orders were placed right there on the show floor.

1967 Lamborghini Miura P400 at the Autostadt Museum
A 1967 Lamborghini Miura P400 at the Autostadt Museum adjacent to the VW Group headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. We can imagine what people in 1966 thought when they saw a car like this at the 1966 Swiss Auto Show! Image via Wikimedia Commons

Keep in mind that at the 1966 Geneva International Auto Show were the latest cars from Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, and more—a veritable who’s who of luxury and sports car brands. In an instant, the low-slung sports coupe design of the P400 made everything else look uninspired.

The car did not even have an official name yet, just “P400 Prototipo,” but in less than a year since the rolling chassis was first shown off, Lamborghini had multiple orders for a car that wasn’t even in production—selling it entirely on the fact it was a race car for the road and had a shape that would redefine what a sports coupe actually was.

The First Supercar

It would take another year, with four additional prototypes, before production began on the car that had recently been named Miura, in reference to the famous Miura line of fighting bulls that came from the heart of Spain. At the time that the first production car was delivered on April 20, 1967, the Miura P400 was the single fastest production car in existence. In a world where 120 and 130 miles per hour were considered as extremely fast, the Miura could reach a scarcely believable 176 MPH.

It was also extremely expensive, with the retail price of $20,000, which is about $164,000 in 2022. This was compounded by the fact that no consideration had been given (or at least that was the sense people had) towards utility. There were no major trunks, there was barely any storage space in the cabin, and the glove box literally couldn’t fit much more than a pair of gloves. In essence, the Miura P400 was a car that went extremely fast, was absolutely the most exotic thing in the world of motoring, and had no other purpose other than to be driven.

If you recall our recent article on what defines a supercar against a hypercar, the Miura is the first car that checked off all three boxes to be considered a supercar. While it was a very expensive “toy” for those that bought it, it quickly became the standard to which other supercars would be measured. It quite literally changed the face of high performance motoring, and that effect can still be felt to this day.

The Legacy Of The Miura & The Culture It Kick-Started

It is quite amazing to think of just how much the Miura affected the world when you consider just how few of them were made. 768 total left the Lamborghini factory between 1966 and 1973, 275 of them being the original P400, 338 being the P400S, and 150 being the P400SV. That is the entire breadth and depth of the Miura production line, if you discount the one-offs that some clients and even one of the original three engineers ordered.

1968 P400S, the second and best selling version of the Miura
A 1968 P400S, the second and best selling version of the Miura. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, because of the Miura, 95% of Lamborghini models since the last one rolled off the line in 1973 have been mid-engined. Almost every other supercar manufacturer has at least one mid-engined car, and some of those manufacturers only make mid-engined cars. It even forced Ferruccio’s rival, Enzo, to start making mid-engined cars for the road—something he realized he would have to do if he was going to compete with the tractor magnate he had so famously sneered at in 1962.

The Miura also made it necessary for supercars to be exotic. For example, if you took one of Porsche’s few supercars, the mid-1980s Porsche 959, and put it side by side with the Ferrari F40, and then asked someone off the street which was the exotic supercar, 9 out of 10 would point at the F40 without a second thought. Only someone who knew exactly what the 959 meant to the world of performance motoring would point at it, because despite its achievements, it was still shaped like a Porsche.

A 1971 P400SV, the third and final version of the Miura. Note the distinct lack of “eyelashes” on the headlights, and the slightly enlarged air intakes for the engine behind the passenger door. Image via Wikimedia Commons

While the legacy of the Miura is present in supercars to this day, the cultural impact of it can barely even begin to be measured. It was a watershed moment. Because of the Miura, one of the craziest supercars ever, the Lamborghini Countach was made, which was the original “I need a poster of that!” car that suddenly filled the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Even this very website is a result of the Miura. Without the car becoming the ultimate sports car of the 1960s, and needing to create a new word to define what it was, the term supercar may not have become common parlance. Yet, because of the shockwaves that it sent around the world with its unbelievably gorgeous styling, mixed with its incredible top speed, the term “supercar” was created, and came to be when the internet was still less than a decade old.

The best way to think of the effect the Miura had on the world is to borrow a term from a quaint little British science fiction show known as Doctor Who. The show deals with time travel and paradoxes, but when something so cosmically important happens that it can never be changed, no matter how much anyone tries to, it becomes known as “a fixed point in time.” To the human race, in all its motoring history, the Miura is just that: a fixed point in time. There was the time before the Miura, and the time after it, and nothing anyone does can change that.