To quote the great Albus Dumbledore: “Where it once was before the naturally aspirated Lamborghini V12 engine, it will now be after.” Or at least that’s what we think he said – nobody was paying much attention to Harry Potter spin off-series Fantastic beasts, or do you? You could have gotten away with anything in that script.
Anyway: yes, Lamborghini has now built the last road car powered by a non-hybrid V12. A statement that would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago, such is the importance of twelve cylinders in the brand’s history.
The origins of the Lamborghini V12 engines
When Ferruccio Lamborghini first decided to spread his wings from tractors to stunning grand tourers and supercars to bedroom walls in the early 1960s, he commissioned a Giotto Bizzarrini to design an affordable road car engine that could compete with the back-tuned V12 ‘is of racing cars assembled by racing cars. Enzo Ferrari.
Rumor has it that Ferruccio even awarded a bonus for every horsepower that Bizzarrini could get more out of an engine than the comparable Ferrari engine provided. The result was a 3.5 liter high revving engine dry swamp V12 with down drag Weber carburetors – basically a racing engine. History tells us that Lamborghini was not happy.
Bizzarrini refused to change his design and Lamborghini refused to pay him (until ordered to do so by a judge). The engine was then detuned and simplified by another engineer (Gian Paolo Dallara) and, remarkably, it is the very V12 that has served in every major Lambo, from the 1964 350 GT to the last Murciélagos in 2010.
So for almost half a century. And yes, that means Lamborghini as a manufacturer has technically only built two different V12s for street use in its entire history; the second generation was developed from scratch for the Aventador. More on that later, because when Dallara modified Bizzarrini’s design, it was bored out to 4.0 liters for the later 350 GTs and subsequently the 400 GT.
The Lamborghini boat went to the boss
And then, in 1968, Ferruccio suddenly had something very special in store for the bike… He was quite successful, so the man from Perugia decided he deserved a gift. It became a Riva Aquarama, a glorious hand-built mahogany boat that was the absolute favorite of the jet set of the era. Lamborghini, because noblesse obligewanted a little more power than the stock V8s could produce.
And then two of its 4.0-liter V12s found their way into the hold of a boat. Each engine produced around 350 horsepower, making Ferruccio’s Aquarama the fastest ever built, with a top speed of 48 knots (89 km/h). How appropriate. Lamborghini kept its unique toy for twenty years; he used it to break records in water skiing and, above all, to look superhumanly cool in the way that only elderly Italians can.
The Lamborghini boat did not stay with Ferruccio
He eventually sold the boat to his good friend Angelo Merli. Whether they were still such good friends later is doubtful when Merli did the impossible: he decided the 350 GT engines were over-maintained and unreliable and, oh tragedy and sacrilege, abandoned the old V8 rebuilds.
Fortunately, there are also people who have less objections to unreliability. So when ‘hull 278’, after years of disappearing without a trace, resurfaced under a tarp in 2010, the new owner decided it needed to be restored to its former glory – that is, V12s and all.
And so here we are, on the shores of Lake Iseo, guiding the Riva Lamborghini until the water touches its forest for the first time in a long time. And what better way to celebrate the end of the unassisted Lambo V12 than to take the last of that lineage to meet its progenitor?
We are moving to the mainland
The engine in the Aventador LP 780-4 Ultimae is nothing short of a masterpiece. When the Aventador first appeared in 2011, it had an all-new V12 codenamed L539 on board. And while Bizzarrini’s previous V12 had also grown to 6.5 liters by the time of its replacement, the new one was more powerful, produced more torque and still weighed a whopping 18 kilos less. And still there was no turbo to be seen. Heavenly.
In Ultimae, it makes even more power than in the violently winged SVJ – 780, as the full name suggests – and for a little extra drama, Lamborghini prints the launch sequence over the seas on carbon fiber and gold paint. Not that the extra theater was necessarily necessary, of course.
Put the Aventador in Corsa mode, turn off ESC, put your foot on the brake and a small message will appear: ‘Thrust Mode Possible’. Build the revs, let off the brake pedal and 2.8 seconds later you’re hitting 100km/h wondering how far back you have to reverse to bump into your internal organs again.
Where second-generation Lambo V12s can get quite a neck, the old 350 GT engines in the boat are probably best described as brown bears. We’ve removed the sunroof that hides the engines, and the V12s—each with six twin Webers on top—provide a deep, mechanical growl up to 4,500rpm.
Back to the water for a moment
Since the amazingly restored Lamborghini boat is worth an incredible amount of money and the new owner keeps a close eye on everything around the tip of his cigar, I think it would be best if someone with a little more captain experience steers us out of busy territory around the Bella Nautica shipyard management.
Giuseppe Pievani puts the perfectly polished handle behind the steering wheel in D (or whatever passes for it on a boat) before moving the two hand-operated throttles, one for each V12, of course, to their most minimal position. Indeed, there is nothing like the Art Deco interior of a Riva.
The Ferruccio’s copy is now a ‘shoe off’ environment with reclining white leather seats with rattan backs and everything is so spicy and edgy you need sunglasses to read the many meters in the afternoon sun.
Further out on the lake, in a relatively safe place, Pievani gives me the helm and I can use a little more of the 700 horsepower available. I lose all sense of direction very quickly and notice in my poor navigational attempts that the boats don’t really have the steering feel that cars do. Not even compared to a 1,550 kilo Aventador that has tires on the banks of the Suez Canal.
Is the Ultimae the best Aventador?
In fact, the Ultimae might be one of the most interactive Aventadors of them all, thanks to its super-stiff carbon fiber cladding, communicative suspension and Lamborghini’s amazing Dynamic Control system. In Aquarama you can relax much better, enjoy the view while smelling The 60s inhale V12s.
Unfortunately – and perhaps predictably – our time on the water is cut short by reliability; a problem with a fuel pump means we have to go back to base. Once there, we’re told the entire setup was done last week by Lambo’s legendary test driver Valentino Balboni. Not that we blame him, of course.
And yet, even our brief experience of the full glory of this piece of Lamborghini history has left us feeling much more appreciative of the company’s venerable first-generation V12. And the 100-mile freeway-free drive back to Lambo’s headquarters in Sant’Agata Bolognese further confirms just how masterful the second generation is. Above all, let’s hope the hybrid future doesn’t dampen the spirit of the unforgettable V12.