Lamborghini: The bull is bullish

Sean O'Grady meets the man driving a healthy Lamborghini forward
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"Now we feel safe". Words that will warm the heart of any car fan, especially when uttered by Stephan Winkelmann, president and chief executive of Automobili Lamborghini. Ford may be selling Aston Martin, and Ferrari is a perennial subject of speculation when its parent Fiat Group is discussed, yet Lamborghini is clutched close to the bosom of what Winkelmann calls its "beautiful mother", Audi.

You could forgive him for not being Italian, then. Yet the first thing that strikes you on meeting Winkelmann is how much he acts the part of an Italian car boss. Although he's a German and a product of the VW Audi group's corporate culture, he looks Italian: hair over the collar, stylish clothes, dark Italianate features. Oddly, Winkelmann's counterpart at VW Audi Group's British subsidiary, Bentley, Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, looks like a bluff English gentleman. I wonder if there's a department at VW that cosmetically remodels its senior execs on their way to taking up such nationally sensitive positions as these. If so, it works.

Lamborghini is booming. I met Winkelmann at the Paris show and, though there were no new products to wow petrolheads, the mood was, appropriately, given the firm's famous logo, bullish. It's making more cars than ever. Winkelmann tells me profits so far this year of €4.4m (£3m) exceed those for the whole of 2005. Production is up to a rate of 2,000 cars per annum, up from 1,600 last year.

The strategy since VW bought the firm in 1998 is a classic VW approach: quality and product-led. Inside modern Lamborghinis you'll find all sorts of Audi bits and prices - minor controls, satnav, fuses, that sort of thing. When it comes to components such as carbon ceramic brakes, there again Audi is there to provide know-how and durable parts. Thus Lamborghini's warranty costs are plummeting, and that has greatly helped to make it modestly profitable. "We are very focused on quality," says Winkelmann.

Then there are the cars. The Murcielago supercar has been given a facelift and mechanical makeover, badged "LP640". The roadster will follow suit before too long. The Gallardo and the Gallardo Spyder are cleverly pitched into the (relatively) "accessible" and underpopulated £100,000 to £150,000 segment of the premium car market. They've been the real drivers of growth.

The emphasis now, says Winkelmann, is on making the most of what they've got: more variants, more options. Hence their personalisation programme, "ad personam". It seems to be all the rage at the luxury car marques, but at Lamborghini there are limits. "No big spoilers" or other addenda, says the boss, so special requests will be restricted to trim, materials (eg carbon fibre) and colour, tastefully executed.

There's a couple of special editions, the Gallardo Nero (with contrasting matt and shiny black paint), and a Murcielago Versace on the stand to make the point. They hope to do more work with Versace in the future.

Isn't Versace a little loud, even for Lamborghini? Winkelmann replies, diplomatically, that Versace is "changing" and that the two brands are "matching perfectly". Fewer than 20 Murcielago LP640s, for the moment, will be co-branded with Versace.

So who's going to be buying all these cars with their enhanced profit margins?

For now, buyers are in Lamborghini's usual markets. America (40 per cent of sales) showed a two-thirds increase last year. Europe and the Middle East are healthy.

But the company has its eyes on the new moguls and oligarchs in the emerging economies, young millionaires who are "car nuts". Some Russian clients aren't old enough to hold driving licences. The House of the Raging Bull has opened new showrooms in India and Russia, (after China in 2004). The global dealer network increased during the first half of 2006 from 65 to 88. A problem for Lamborghini, Winkelmann points out, is the poor quality of roads in some new markets - which must inhibit sales. There's "no plan" to make an SUV, but one isn't ruled out. Nor is there any plan for a four-door sports saloon to take on future Ferraris and Porsches. He is unfazed by Audi's dramatic new R8 (see our Paris show report, page 8).

Winkelmann is reminded that Lamborghini made sporty saloons in the 1970s: "Lamborghini is 43 years old. There have been lots of past experiments. It could match with the Lamborghini DNA. There is nothing planned. We will stick to the models we have. There's a waiting list of 12 months. But never say never."

Is that a German or an Italian saying?

Supercars and roadsters - snapshots of an elite brand

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Gallardo Nera special edicion at the Paris show featured matt and traditional glossy paint finishes

Rapid sales growth led by Gallardo, a mini-supercar that will sprint from zero to 60mph in 3.5 seconds.

Murcielago recently tweaked. Customers can specify ever more extravagant customisations

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