Miura Roadtrippin’

I suspect that every car enthusiast has at least one car that is, for them, so much more than a car. Cars like these are transcendent: so special and personally impactful that merely seeing images of one is enough to set off a cascade of emotions. To see one in person (better still, in motion), then, is enough to render the enthusiast incapable of basic functions like coherent thinking and talking. And to drive one? Well, probably best to have a cardiologist standing by.

For me, the Miura is that car. Not only because it is achingly beautiful, technically fascinating, and historically significant, but most importantly, because it is part of a 45 year saga that predates my birth by more than a decade. My father bought this car in Italy in 1974 and after what I assume were five glorious years of motoring (which apparently included driving the car in the snow in Chicago), took it off the road after the third of its infamous carburetor fires. It sat in storage in various locations over the next quarter of a century and I first met the car when I was four years old in 1991. For the next fifteen years, I begged him to have it restored.

The restoration ended up being a saga in and of itself. We started it when I was a sophomore in college and finished it when I was 31. The post-restoration shakedown was protracted: two of my first three drives in the car ended with me waiting for a tow on the side of the road. After months of fettling, the car was ready, reportedly, to drive to what has to be one of the most epic car events on earth: Monterey Car Week. Thus, one of my most fervent childhood dreams was realized: to drive the Miura at car week. 

Any journey in the Miura is an occasion. But trying to use it in summer to travel the 125 miles from San Francisco to Monterey in order to sit in famously terrible traffic every day for a week (that is, to behave like an actual automobile) feels almost comically banal. That is the beauty of car week, and the traffic gave me the opportunity to observe that the Miura elicits a reaction from the motoring public I’ve not experienced before: gratefulness. On several occasions, strangers thanked me for driving me own car. It’s a car that does things to people.

When I wasn’t suffering from the exceptional heat and noise of the car, I wanted to thank me for driving it too. The experience of the Miura is, in short, an experience. It is wildly visceral, deeply engaging every sense except for taste. The first sense it engages is of course sight. Often described as one of the most beautiful cars of all time, the Miura has superb proportions, so much so that until you see one in person, you don’t realize how small it is. Compared to modern supercars, it is tiny. It is low, narrow, and short, just three inches longer than a longhood 911. The Miura’s shape is curvaceous, elegant, and organic, none of which are adjectives that we typically associate with Lamborghini today. Despite the Miura and Countach (and Diablo too) having been designed by the same man, Marcello Gandini, the design languages are dramatically different. Gandini described the unifying characteristic between the Miura and Countach as a desire to create something different from what came before it, something that both cars succeeded at better than almost any other sports cars ever made.

Although it receives less press than the striking exterior of the car, the Miura’s interior is also a design masterpiece. The hooded center console begins at the top of the dash and flows purposefully down between reclined one-piece seats, whose headrests are affixed to the rear firewall, resting directly against the rear window. The rear window is insulated and fireproof, and a quick glance over the occupants’ shoulders reveals that the carburetors are close, uncomfortably close, with perhaps 2 or 3 inches separating your head from the front bank of the quadruple triple throat Webers. Instrumentation is comprehensive, as to be expected from a high performance vintage car, and a redline is conspicuously absent from the 10,000 RPM tachometer, one of two primary instruments directly in front of the driver. The speedometer ends matter of factly at 320 kph (thoroughly optimistic in typically Italian fashion) while an overhead console houses six mystifyingly unmarked rocker switches. A drilled steering wheel and gated shifter complete with reverse lockout complete the 1960s sports car fantasy in a way that would be a cliche were it not for the fact that this is the original. At 5’10”, I am not exceptionally tall, but I don’t have a ton of headroom. The steering wheel is far away but I have long arms, so that’s fine, except for the way in which the steering wheel is angled upward means I cannot reach the top of it, so it’s always necessary to shuffle steer when cornering. The pedals are hilariously close and my legs feel as bent as they would be if I were sitting at a dining room chair, despite the fact that my feet are only a few inches lower than my backside. After an hour in the car, this ergonomic characteristic becomes an inexhaustible source of expletives.

Switch the ignition and fuel pump on, prime the carburetors and then turn the ignition on the center console, and the expletives are of an entirely different nature. The engine starts easily with a more ragged and throatier bark as compared to a contemporary Ferrari. Noise fills the cabin: mechanical noises, induction noises, exhaust noises. There is a texture to the noise that feels almost alive, something that modern cars simply don’t have, no matter how many valves are at work in the exhaust during cold start. The clutch is lighter than expected and easy to modulate, while the gear linkage is well–not very good. The transversely mounted engine and transaxle that keep the Miura so compact means the gear linkage must make an unnatural 90-degree turn on its path between the shifter and the gearbox, and the result is a gearchange that requires the driver to be very deliberate. The 2-3 and 4-5 shifts must exist as three separate motions: one forward, another lateral, and another forward. Try to cheat it into one single diagonal motion like you would in a modern BMW or Honda and the car will call you out instantly. 

The view out of the car is, simply put, spectacular. The fenders are so prominent and curvaceous as to be distracting, making it impossible to forget what car you are driving. Not that the cacophony of other sensory inputs would ever let you forget. The noise is one of the most overwhelming and distinctive parts of the experience. Beyond the expensive mechanical and exhaust noises from the engine are two overpowering sounds: the first is the gear whine, ever present and unlike anything in any other postwar street car I’ve ever experienced. Initially, it is intriguing and distinctive; after an hour on the highway, it’s tiresome. The other is the magical induction sound of the Webers. It is an intoxicating roar, even with the airboxes in place, finally overcome in the upper rev range by the sound of sheer mechanical spectacle from both the engine itself as well as the exhaust. Every run anywhere near the redline (if it had one) is a spectacular, overwhelming experience that feels like being in the movie Le Mans, an unmatched set of sensations that simply does not exist outside of a carbureted 12-cylinder Ferrari or Lamborghini.  

Generally speaking, the Miura is fairly easy to drive–if you know what you are doing and you pay attention. The engine is tractable and the clutch progressive, and the steering is light, no more weighty than an E-Type, and much lighter than a Countach on 15-inch wheels. The car feels agile and easy to place on the road, it corners relatively flat, and has good grip. It feels coherent and confidence-inspiring in a way that vintage Italian cars often don’t, likely a reflection of the car’s careful setup during the restoration. The overwhelming impression of driving the Miura is that it is hugely stimulating. Visually, physically, aurally, and even in terms of smell, it is an assault on the senses. The car demands your undivided attention, I dared not try to drive it any other way. It rewards driving technique and mechanical sympathy developed over the course of years driving vintage cars. It does not flatter the driver, but rewards him, only if he deserves it of course. 

The result is a car that makes every journey special. After each drive, I feel amped up, my senses simultaneously battered and heightened. I feel physically tired and dehydrated, I feel grateful to still be alive. The fact that Bob Wallace drove a Miura prototype from Bologna to Monte Carlo, undoubtedly at spectacular speeds, baffles me. What a badass. I feel honored to experience a car that–for all its foibles and oft-discussed dynamic idiosyncrasies–is so pure, so exotic, so important. 

I am also in awe of what Lamborghini was able to achieve. The company was founded in October of 1963, the first customer 350GT was delivered 31 July 1964, and the first Miura chassis was displayed without a body (because none existed yet) at Turin in October 1965. The stunned public reaction to the chassis, with its mid-mounted transversely-oriented quad-cam V12, secured Bertone as the designer and the first prototype (with body) was displayed at Geneva less than six months later in March of 1966. Meanwhile at Ferrari, the 2-cam 275 had been introduced in October of 1964, and its major advancements included the transition to independent rear suspension and a 5-speed gearbox. The Miura instantly made it look old-fashioned and was a true paradigm shift achieved by a two year old company in a matter of months. It appeared as though it had come from space, or at least the race track.

In this sense then, the Miura itself is an escape on wheels. At the time, it was an escape from convention, an escape from the trajectory along which cars were developing, and then as much as now, an escape from reality. In the late 1960s, its performance and aesthetic were so spectacularly divergent from any other production car that its competence seemed almost impossible. Today, with the benefit of hindsight when the true impact of the Miura on every subsequent supercar is clear, the opportunity to experience one in the real world, especially after waiting for decades, feels equally implausible.

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