Even the extra strengthening int he engine bay is striking. Quite useful, too
Roaster's cabin is quite cosy when night falls. And much drier when it stops raining
Not really a car for introverts, especially in a small mountain town. People stared. A lot
Stick-shift manual is best transmission by far; it's exemplary
Umbrella is about as stable and rainproof as the roof at speeds of over 99mph
Icy twists make keeping the Lambo away from traffic a real challenge
5000ft into the mountains, and it's time to remove the roof. Which is not easy
Perseverance is the quality that binds together all car buffs. From clubman Autocross racer to MG-fancier, Max Power Nova-yoof to Lotus Elise owner, they all share such a strong need to express their particular brand of car enthusiasm that they will suffer unspeakable inconvenience to do so.
After 20 minutes behind the wheel of the new Lamborghini Murciélago Roadster, I am already drawing on the majority of my personal reserves of the stuff. I haven’t seen rain like this since, well, a year ago when we drove a convoy of Gallardos back to the UK.
At anything above 30mph the wipers need to be running full-flap and even then rental Lancias on dipped beam appear out of the greyness just yards in front of the Buck Rogers dashboard. Mental note: avoid Italy’s supercar valley after October. It appears to have pre-Christmas precipitation issues.
The effects such weather has on the first roofless Lambo since the 1994 Diablo are disparate in the extreme. Mechanically it seems entirely unfazed by a drenching: the V12 doesn’t hiccup and despite tyres so wide they would aquaplane on the contents of a bottle of San Pellegrino, the four-wheel-drive transmission does a fantastic job of channelling horsepower to the road. No other supercar, save perhaps the Murciélago’s kid brother, would feel as calm under the circumstances. However, things are slightly less composed in the cabin.
Answer me this: why is it that whatever type of water ingress you may suffer in a canvas-topped car, and regardless of where it may enter, a good portion of it will always find its way onto the groin area of your trousers? It’s worse at low speed, and as we splish-splash a route south of Bologna it’s difficult to make a case for the Roadster to anyone save some remote tribe living in the Kalahari. This car is all about making a statement, and £189,950 is an expensive way of saying ‘I never really got the hang of potty training.’
Matters improve considerably on the autostrada. Arrowing into the rain whips it over the leaky rubbers before it can creep inwards, but we’re still chastened by a plaque on the inside of the windscreen which states: ‘Maximum speed with roof 160km/h’ (99mph). Even with 65kg of extra weight over the coupé (added in the name of structural strength), the Roadster will reach that figure from standstill in less than 10sec.
Ignore the factory advice and you shouldn’t need to stop and remove the lid on the way to attempting the claimed 202mph maximum: it will probably just be jettisoned somewhere around 140mph and attach itself to the windscreen of a Fiat Ritmo travelling in the opposite direction.
We’re still cheery though. It’s impossible not to retain a grin in something so garishly OTT. You’d expect these things to be a common sight around Bologna, but judging by the number of near-shunts and flailing arms serenading our progress, that isn’t the case. We’re heading for the Passo della Futa on the advice of Sergio Fontana, Lamborghini’s head of PR. The roads are too narrow to really let rip in a car this big, but they do have altitude. And at altitude rain becomes snow. Which makes for good photographs.
Patchy surfaces and numerous 180-degree hairpins aren’t the kindest testing medium for a large vehicle missing a rather important structural panel. But even without a roof the Murciélago is a very useful cross-country tool. There are no official figures for the loss in stiffness, but it’s certainly not a night ’n’ day driving experience compared to the coupé. The spring and damper rates are a little softer so it copes with sharp edges a smidge better and places less responsibility on the bodyshell’s rigidity. Hit a deep rut and you can feel the massive structure shiver on impact, and the steering column shuffle a few millimetres in sympathy.
Up at 5000ft it’s time to remove the roof. The idea behind this most complex of complex fabric and metal constructions is that it will concertina down into a bundle small enough to fold into the front boot of the car, thereby saving expensive haircuts should it rain along the way. All well and good, but after your first wrestling match with the thing, you start to wonder what actually detracts from the desired image projection more: looking like a drowned rat because there wasn’t a roof at all, or being seen wrestling at the side of the road with what looks like a particularly large tropical fruit bat.
Basically, there’s a large lattice of aluminium tubes that clip together and are then tensioned through the sides of the hood to keep it in place below 100mph. Looking at the aperture they needed to cover, I don’t envy the engineers’ task at all. It’s very easy to look at the hood and call it shonky, but trying to think of a different method to achieve the same result is near impossible. As it is I’m certain of two things: One, that over time you’d become surprisingly adept at popping it up and down; two, that Lamborghini made the right decision to sacrifice some roof-up practicality to allow folk the luxury of not gambling on the weather.
The Passo della Futa has a fascinating history. Just a few kilometres from the Ferrari-owned Mugello race circuit it winds a route through the high ground between Bologna and Florence. It is best known by motor racing fans as a section of the Mille Miglia road race, but to motoring journalists it holds a deeper significance. This is the spot where, in 1990, our then-European editor Peter Robinson suffered a slight hiccup in a brand new Diablo. I quite fancied trying to find the corner where Robbo nudged a Fiat Panda in what was then the world’s fastest car.
But is that wise in a Roadster, on slushy roads? Given the number of HGVs creeping about and generally getting in the way, on balance, no. I don’t know if the situation changes in the summer, but if it doesn’t then this is a road to be avoided at all costs.
Twice the terrifying spectre of a Scania badge looms into view and I literally stop in the road, praying that it doesn’t skim the lower air intakes clean off the side of the car. At this rate we’ll be taking a taxi back to Sant’Agata and leaving them a bin-liner full of parts. We stop to take photos in front of a bar and an old couple shimmy out onto the street to look at the car. The woman notes to hubby that we appear to have wet ourselves, but clearly our shivering has a greater effect than any potential soiling, so she invites us in for an espresso.
Inside the café is a wall plastered full of wonderful monochrome racing-car images, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia. The only words we can all understand are Ferrari and Lamborghini, so we say them repeatedly with some intense hand gestures and beaming smiles before climbing back into the Lambo and sliding off to the next village.
If the past 18 months have taught me anything, it’s that despite trying better, more efficient and more powerful supercar drivetrains than this V12 and its Ceema six-speed gearbox, none is quite as endearing. The noise is spectacular – the Roadster’s exhaust box is slightly different to the coupé’s. If a wet crotch isn’t an incentive to drive it with the roof off, then the extra noise certainly is. It’s not a dramatic shift: more like a good tape recording switched from muffling Dolby to normal clarity.
Torque is immense from idle to limiter, and the gearshift is just exemplary. Lamborghini will sell you an e-Gear paddle-shift ’box as an option, but don’t bother, as you’ll miss out on one of motoring’s better experiences: nailing a 6192cc V12 to the naughty end of 7000rpm in second and then, despite thinking that nothing could possibly be audible above such a gnashing of chain gear, clearly hearing the lever chink as it fires from second to third. Yummy.
Daylight fades at about 5.00pm, by which time we’re freezing cold from standing about and the Roadster’s cabin suddenly appears much cosier than before. Cool green dash lighting and a legs-stretched driving position make you forget the odd puddle of liquid and besides, the heater is a blinder.
We won’t get the chance to try any roof-down cruising on the way back, so the best report on buffeting I can give you is from about 80mph, when the cabin was nearly still. But being on the teeny side, you’d best ask someone a bit bigger for an honest appraisal. At 200mph you’ll be concentrating on the road hard enough not to worry about the odd misplaced follicle.
Lamborghini knows very well that this is probably the most compromised convertible on sale today. It leaks, it can’t be driven above 100mph with the hood in place and, when erected, the car bears a striking resemblance to a Murciélago coupé with a manta ray stapled to its roof. Naturally none of this will matter to prospective owners. The forthcoming Ferrari 575M Superamerica will doubtless have the Lambo licked for practicality, but anyone in the market to look good this summer knows there’s only one car to be seen in. Just hope John Ketley gives accurate forecasts in 2005.