Two of Ferruccio’s Finest
What did you do the last time you had a bad experience with a company? Did you fill out a comment card? Maybe you left a bad Yelp review? Maybe you went and started a rival company out of spite? Well, probably not that last one, unless your name happens to be Ferruccio Lamborghini. The Automobili Lamborghini origin story is pretty well known at this point, but less people seem to know much about that company’s first cars, the long under-appreciated 350GT and 400GT. Very few car companies are able to produce a truly fantastic car right out of the gate, but that’s exactly what Lamborghini did with its early front-engined GT cars. Now, more than 50 years after the introduction of the 350GT, these early cars are finally moving out from under the shadow of Il Commendatore’s rival prancing horses.
The 350GT represented a significantly different approach to car design than that of contemporary Ferraris. Where Enzo Ferrari built road cars strictly to support his racing ventures, Ferruccio Lamborghini had no such racing ambitions and set out to build the finest grand touring car that money could buy. Ferraris of the period were saddled with single overhead cam engines and live rear axles— even the legendary (and rightfully so) 250 GTO lacked independent rear suspension. Lamborghini, however, started with a blank canvas. This allowed them to build in all of the most modern features of the period without being constrained to prior chassis or engine architecture, hence the 350GT and the later 400GT being equipped with a dual-overhead cam V12 designed by Bizzarrini, fully independent suspension, a five-speed gearbox, four-wheel disc brakes with vacuum assist, etc. The later 400GT took things a step further and received a fully synchro-meshed transmission in addition to its extra half liter of displacement. Famed Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni was hired on at the factory in 1968, the final year of 400GT production. “Lamborghini always used the most sophisticated technology and materials,” says Balboni. “They were a trendsetter. Using, for example, aluminum engines when others used iron.”
The 350GT and 400GT styling is not as universally loved as that of the mid-sixties Ferraris but the Carrozzeria Touring-designed body remains as striking in person today as it was in-period. The long and low body embraced the best aspects of jet-age design with small touches of art deco. The overall design holds up well today. The 350GT was bodied in aluminum, with the majority of 400GTs being bodied in steel. The three aluminum-bodied 400GTs fetch a significant premium in today’s market. Notable exterior features of the 350GT and 400GT include the prominent (and occasionally controversial) headlight housings, the squared off rear wheel arches, and the large greenhouse area. Less obvious touches include the deco-inspired exterior door handles, chrome sheeting on the door jambs, and the deeply curved side windows.
These cars also have a reputation for being mechanically robust if well-maintained. The Bizzarrini V12 is an under-stressed marvel, providing effortless power and torque along with a sonorous exhaust note that stirs the soul of any enthusiast. The ZF-sourced five-speed transmission keeps revs low when cruising at high speed, contributing to the reliability of this power plant. With proper care and attention, and regular maintenance performed by qualified technicians, the Lamborghini GTs should provide little trouble, particularly when compared with the more highly strung and compromised version found in the Miura. Quality control at the factory was also at an all-time high during this period, with the early 350GTs in particular receiving incredible amounts of testing to ensure quality and reliability. In short, these cars are meant to be driven. They re-ward the driver with excellent handling and an incredible soundtrack.
When asked about his ownership experience, longtime Lamborghini Club of America member and owner of the highest mileage Lamborghini in the world (a 400GT with approximately 270,000 miles) Jack Riddell says, “I used the car every day for 25 or 30 years, and it’s been pretty reliable. I’ve rebuilt the motor a few times, and wrote the book on that, but there haven’t been many times where it left me stranded.” Riddell, like many vintage Lamborghini enthusiasts, performs the lion’s share of his own vehicle maintenance.
Historically, the Ferrari models of the 1960s have always significantly outpaced the much rarer Lamborghini GTs, but that gap has been closing over the last few years with the current classic-car market boom. Prices for the 350GT and the rarer 400GT have climbed rapidly — prices for the alloy-bodied 400GT coupes have nearly quadrupled since 2010. Even at prices over $800,000 these cars represent a tremendous value proposition over the Ferrari 275 GTB, which are currently trading for over three times as much, more if you want the alloy-bodied version. The market for the early Lamborghinis doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down either with auction prices remaining strong. The Gooding & Co Pebble Beach auction in 2014 saw a 1967 350GT sell for over $600k and a 1966 400GT sell for well over $800k. The rarity of these cars, along with their robust mechanicals and their important place in the history of one of the world’s great marques, should see their values climbing well past the million dollar mark in the near future. “People have finally started to wake up to what wonderful cars these are,” says Lamborghini Club of America President Andrew Romanowski. “The Miura, by comparison, has always been valuable, but people are just starting to pay attention to these early front-engined GT cars.”
The prospect of owning a fifty-plus year-old exotic can be daunting even for the incredibly deep-of-pocket. Parts availability can be a problem, as can be finding someone qualified to work on them. These worries may soon be a thing of the past. Lamborghini recently announced their Polo Storico program which focuses on their heritage cars and provides owners with a means of securing original parts — or parts recreated from original blueprints — and even having the factory undertake restoration for them. Having such a program in place will only serve to further increase the value of these cars and, thanks to a certification program that is part of Polo Storico, will likely improve the quality of cars available.
Perhaps it’s strange that a company so well known and beloved for making wild, unapologetic cars started out by making arguably one of the finest and most subdued grand touring cars of its era. The common thread between the 350/400GT and cars like the Countach or the LM002 or even modern greats like the Aventador is the company’s unwillingness to compromise, or to follow the crowd. They’ve certainly lost more than they’ve won as a company, but the world is a brighter, louder, and more exciting place because of Lamborghini and cars like the 350GT and 400GT.
Photos courtesy of V3LLUM, Jessica Walker, and Matt D’Andria.