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Friday - 17 September 2021

Bull Run: Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 Tested

In 1879, a bull fight took place in the Spanish town of Cordoba. Now you might be thinking, “hang on, bullfights happen in Spain all the time?” well, not like this one. The ring was the famous Coso de los Califas and the matador was faced with the toughest and meanest fighting bull Cordoba had ever seen, a bull name Murcielago.

The story goes Murcielago fought the Matador, Molina Sanchez, and managed to survive 24 sword strokes. Now the tradition at the end of each fight, providing the Matador is still alive, is for the brutal slaying of the bull. However, so popular was Murcielago that the crowd chanted for Sanchez to the spare the bull’s life. Sanchez, having seen the heart and the fighting spirit of Murcielago, decided to let the bull live. After this fight, Murcielago was sold to famed Bull breeder Don Antonio Miura, and the offspring of Murcielago became the meanest and toughest fighting bulls in Spain.

Fast forward to 1998, Automobili Lamborghini was acquired by Audi, and plans were set in motion for a car to replace the flagship Diablo in Lamborghini’s Supercar stable. It was a tall order, as the Diablo would be a hard act to follow. With Audi money, fit and finish, and the help of a Belgian car designer, Luc Donckerwolke, the new car was unveiled in 2001, under the name of Murcielago.

As the first all new car built under Audi ownership, the Murcielago signalled a turning point in the fortunes of Lamborghini. Ferruccio Lamborghini sold the remainder of his company shares in 1974 after a tractor deal went belly up, Lamborghini limped through the seventies and eighties, passing through a number of owners, including Chrysler, and never once having the financial security which Audi now provided.

For the Murcielago, Audi’s brief was simple. It needed to be the ultimate V12 Lambo for the 21st Century, and to be better built and be way more user friendly than the Diablo. Luc Donckerwolke set to work on designing the new car. The Murcielago wasn’t his first Lambo rodeo so to speak, as he had already cut his teeth on the last of the Diablos, the 6.0L VT.

What resulted is a design much cleaner than the outgoing Diablo, though some were quick to critize the Belgian for penning the lines of a Lamborghini, which in their mind seemed to be too restrained by the standards of Sant Agata. The final design was pure and clean cut, devoid of outlandish spoilers and flares, much like the original Countach LP400.

While the wide stance, trademark scissor doors and angular headlights and scoops, the most innovate aspect of the Murcielago came in the form of dual engine cooling vents housed in the rear three quarter. If the engine or outside temperature got too hot, the vents would open and provide the necessary cooling needed. The vents themselves would also open at high speed, which was like broadcasting to the world that you were speeding.

The first cars featured a 6.2L version of Lamborghini’s iconic V12 which could trace its origins back to the original V12 used in the original Lamborghini 350 GT designed by Ferrari 250 GTO engineer Gioto Bizzarrini. Sending 427kW through a six speed manual or later single clutch paddle shift E-Gear transmission, you could reach the national New Zealand speed limit in 3.8 seconds and see the far side of 320km/h flat out.

The Murcielago was fitting tribute to the bull which spawned its name. However, by 2005, the Pagani Zonda and the Porsche Carrera GT were leaving it for dead. Plus, the recently released baby bull, the Gallardo, was too close to its bigger brother in terms of handling and top speed. As result, most punters found it hard to justify doubling the price of a Gallardo to have a car with only a marginal increase in performance.

Something had to be done, and Lamborghini knew it. So, they increased the size of the V12 to 6.5L, fitted carbon brakes, and gave its body an automotive nip and tuck. The result? The Murcielago LP640.

Unveiled at the Geneva Motorshow in 2006, the LP640 was just what the supercar doctor ordered. The LP stood for the Longitude Position of the uprated V12, and the 640 stood for the horsepower. That’s right, the uprated V12 was now producing a whopping 640hp, or 471kW, making it the most powerful Lamborghini up to that time. Top speed was lifted to close to 340km/h and to sprint from a standstill to 100km/h was reduced to 3.4 seconds.

The LP640 still retained Lambo’s four-wheel drive and the optional E-Gear six speed single clutch paddle shift box. You could also have your LP640 as a hard top or roadster, though if you went for the latter, you were limited to 160km/h with the roof in place, for some reason.

When the owner of this LP640 contacted me asking if I would be happy to experience one of the favourite pieces of his collection of cars, it took all of two seconds to say yes. When you see the Murcielago up close, it is much more compact than it appears in pictures. Sure, it still has the girth and stance of all flagship Lamborghinis, but its Donckerwolke penned design cues are some of the most delicious on any car.

Whether you take in the left mounted oil cooling aperture, the wide single middle mounted exhaust, or those iconic scissor doors, the LP640 is a visual delight. Blacked out 18-inch alloys on 245/35 Front and 335/30 Rear tyres, look just epic.

This LP640 was brought into this world with many option boxes ticked. Stuff like carbon brakes, E-Gear box, front spoiler lift kit, sports seats, and glass engine cover, the latter being the perfect party piece to show off that brute of a V12 to passers-by.

Getting in and out of any V12 Lamborghini requires a certain technique. They say the best way is to go bum in first before swivelling your legs into the footwell, however I just ended up sitting on the carbon fibre door sill and sort of falling in half the time. Very dignified indeed.

Once in, you find the cabin sort of shrinks itself around you. With a low seat and relatively high transmission tunnel, the Murcielago leaves you in a cocoon of leather and high-grade materials. The pedal box and steering wheel feel rather offset, leaving you positioned somewhat to the left when you stretch out and grab the wheel. That said, the sports seats themselves are some of the most buttock hugging I’ve ever experienced. Rear visibility, even by Lamborghini standards, isn’t bad either.

The air con controls are housed behind a Lamborghini embossed flap above the sat nav screen. However, it was such a beautiful evening, the best air con was found by having both windows down. Plus, the added advantage of having the windows down, was one could take full advantage of the torrent of V12 symphonic bliss.

As the E-Gear transmission is very much like a manual in principle, you have to pull both paddles at the same time to engage neutral. Once in neutral, a sharp turn of the key preceeds the awakening of that V12. Starter motor turns over, and we have noise. Lots of glorious noise.

On start-up, the LP640 engulfs your immediate surroundings with 12 cylinders firing in quick succession, resulting in a primeval growl at idle. Flex your big toe on the throttle, the response is instant, and the growl becomes a primeval bellow. Trust me, with the LP640, you hear it long before you see it. First gear now selected, ready to engage.

Moving off to cruise, the Murcielago is surprisingly comfortable. You would think by looking at the low stance and minimal suspension travel it would be as rough as guts on the tarmac, but no. In fact, its very supple without being too soft. The E-Gear transmission requires effort on one’s part to get the smoothest possible changes. Upshifts are met with a slight jerk between gears. However, quickly lifting off a split second before shifting up smoothens things out. Simply treat it like a manual gearbox without a lever and clutch pedal, and its very rewarding.

The LP640 is far from a light car at 1,841kg, but when you hit Sport mode, pull the left paddle down a couple of times and mash your right shoe into the firewall, you are off. Big time. Off the mark, you are slammed back in your seat, your head firmly against that Lamborghini embossed headrest as you hang on for dear life. A big Lambo will always give you that “kick in the guts” feeling when you plant boot, and with the LP640, its business as usual.

The beauty of having 12 cylinders means you are never out of the power and torque band. This thing just doesn’t stop accelerating. As that blood curdling engine note gets louder and louder, as the revs climb higher and higher, where you are heading quickly becomes where you have been. In Sport mode, it’s a full-on road going missile, and when you change down it blips the throttle, giving you a angry bark from the exhaust on the way down. When you are ready to slow things down, stand on the anchors and the carbon brakes bring you to a halt in quick succession.

While straight line grunt has always been a Lamborghini trademark, where the LP640 really surprises is in the twisty stuff. Despite its size and girth, it is more in keeping with a point and shoot sports car than a traditional supercar. Legendary Lamborghini Test Driver Valentino Balboni always felt the best part of the Murcielago for him was the way it handled, and after devouring my first switchback corner, one can say the feeling is mutual.

You get phenomenal grip from the four-wheel drive system and those meaty tyres, allowing you to turn into each bend faster than you would think possible. A quick left or right flick on the wheel, and you are round the bend like a housefly, with the howl of that mighty V12 engulfing the whole valley.

However, this is still a big Lambo that demands respect. Its full of power, and the harder you push it, the more you need to be aware. Is the road smooth? Is the road clear? Are the conditions good? These are questions you constantly need to ask yourself when putting the hammer down in tight corners. However, if get a yes to all these, you can have some serious fun.

So yes, you can wring its neck and leave your passenger reaching for the in-flight sick bag till your hearts content, but start to get overconfident, and it may bite back when you least expect it. Think of it as play fighting with Mike Tyson, if you try his patience, at some point he may knock you out without warning. Come to think of it, old Tyson was a big Lambo fan.

The Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 was not the ultimate version of the Murcielago, that honour went to the limited run Murcielago LP670/4 SV of 2008, with weight reduced by 250kg, lots of carbon wings and spoilers, and a power boost to 670hp.

The Lamborghini Murcielago was the last of the analogue V12 dream mahcines from Lamborghini. It also was the swansong for the original Bizzarini designed V12. The current Aventador which replaced the Murcielago uses an all new V12 and comes with more hi-tech gizmos, carrying the flagship Lamborghini hypercar into the future.

The Murcielago is not a car for the timid. Its appeal rests squarely with those want to be thrilled on every drive, whether to the shops, or on the track. Practicalities and fuel consumption are not part of their vocabulary.

The Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 doesn’t try and pretend to be something its not, its just a pant wetting combination of power, arrogance, and Latin passion, thus embodying the spirit and passion of that bull from Cordoba. One of the best Lamborghinis ever? Yes. A certified future classic? Undoubtedly.

Ben Selby
Ben has been scribbling about all things automotive in New Zealand since the age of 17. He loves cars, particularly classics and the history of motorsport. When not driving cars from the past or present, he is usually found with his family, going on walks, or binging some Star Trek or classic British comedy.

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