After becoming a wealthy industrialist in the 1950s, mainly through the success of his tractor company, Ferruccio Lamborghini was indulging his lifelong love of automobiles and buying Italy's best: Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and, of course, Ferrari.
There are two versions of what happened next. One, according to an interview published in 1991 in a British magazine, Thoroughbred and Classic Cars, is that Lamborghini was insulted by Enzo Ferrari after complaining of a weak clutch in a car he'd bought: "Lamborghini, you may be able to drive a tractor, but you will never be able to handle a Ferrari properly."
A great story, but there's a better chance this successful entrepreneur saw the high markup on parts that both he and Ferrari were using and decided there were lira to be made in the exotic car business. At least that's the story veterans at the Lamborghini factory often tell journalists.
Either way, the reputation of the tractor maker has come a long way since. His Miura sports cars of the 1960s have become prized classics -- breaking the million-dollar mark at auction -- and the company will be feted on its 50th anniversary at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance this August near Monterey, Calif.
By the time his car company was founded in 1963, Lamborghini had wisely dipped into the pool of talented Italians who could quickly create an exotic automobile from the ground up. Giotto Bizzarrini, late of Ferrari's title-winning racing team, was commissioned to design a 3.5-liter twin-cam V-12. He was followed by Gian Paolo Dallara, whose company builds today's IndyCar chassis, and Paolo Stanzani, who would later engineer the Bugatti EB110. Bob Wallace, a New Zealander, came on staff as test driver. Work began on a factory in Sant'Agata Bolognese, halfway between Bologna and Modena.
Lamborghini commissioned a former designer for the Bertone coachbuilding studio, Franco Scaglione, to design the first car, the 350 GTV, a shapely coupe. Making its debut at the 1963 Turin Motor Show, the GTV was without Bizzarrini's V-12, which was on display and said to have 360 horsepower. Workers could not fit the engine under the hood; according to a subsequent owner, the GTV's front compartment was loaded with bricks to get the correct ride height.
At the time, Lamborghini told Road & Track magazine about plans for touring and competition versions of the 350 GTV, which seems odd now, since the start-up automaker never showed a passion for racing his cars. That made it difficult to compete against Ferrari's reputation for performance, and while there was a somewhat successful Formula One engine program from 1989 to 1993 (and limited participation in current sports car championships), racing has not been a Lamborghini priority.
The 350 GTV never made it past the prototype stage. The body was reshaped by Touring, a Milan coach builder, to create Lamborghini's first production car, the 1964 350 GT, which had a more realistic 280 horsepower. This was followed in 1966 by the 400 GT, a 2+2 design with a 320-horsepower 3.9-liter V-12. In top condition, both GT models can today bring upward of $300,000 at auction.
But for most devoted fans, Lamborghini history really begins with the 1966 Miura.
Started as an off-hours project by Dallara, Stanzani and Wallace, the Miura -- one of several Lamborghinis named for fighting bulls -- was a major departure because its V-12 was mounted transversely at the rear. Credit for the ground-scraping exterior styling went to Marcello Gandini at Bertone; the Miura's coming-out party was the Geneva Motor Show in early 1966.
While the flowing beauty and technical credits of the Miura made it a hit with sports car aficionados, what burned the Lamborghini name into the brains of the public was its successor, the 1974 Countach, another Gandini design.
Commenting on the visual changes to racecars that happened in the late '60s, Mr. Gandini said that while the racecars had become more functional, they were "no longer beautiful for the sake of beauty." He continued: "They needed lovely lines less, aerodynamics more."
Mr. Gandini's goal in designing the Countach was straightforward: he wanted people "to be astonished when they saw the car." He certainly succeeded.
An angular wedge with upward-opening scissor doors, showing little restraint in the scoops, ducts and wings that were added over the years, the midengine Countach was powered by a big V-12. The engine layout was unusual, with the rear, or output end, pointing forward and the transmission sticking into the cockpit. There was nothing subtle about the Countach, and it was not an easy automobile to drive.
Though Lamborghini is perhaps best known for its most exotic creations, there were also less outrageous models starting in the late '60s. Among them are the front-engine Islero, Espada and Jarama; the midengine Urraco, which conformed to the founder's original goal of creating supercars he considered more civilized, came along soon after. Design studies included the Marzal and the Bravo, both created by Carrozzeria Bertone, which was to Lamborghini what Pininfarina was to Ferrari.
Ferruccio Lamborghini, who died in 1993, may have entered the car business with all the passion of Enzo Ferrari, but he could not match Ferrari's staying power. His tractor business in trouble, Lamborghini sold 51 percent of the automaker to a friend in 1972.
Worse yet, new safety and exhaust emission laws, along with a global oil crisis, hit the makers of exotic cars hard. The rows of big-throat Weber carburetors so crucial to Italian V-12 engines -- visually as well as for their performance -- were incompatible with pollution controls and good fuel economy. Even Ferrari struggled.
Lamborghini went into receivership in 1977 and a pair of Swiss brothers, Jean-Claude and Patrick Mimran, became the administrators. They worked hard to resuscitate the automaker but eventually had to find a savior -- which turned out to be Chrysler. The deal was done in early 1987 at a price said to be $25 million.
Recessionary times from 1989 to 1991 made life in the exotic car business difficult, and in 1994 Chrysler sold Lamborghini. Enter Megatech, an Indonesian company with Hutomo Suharto, known as Tommy, a son of the president of Indonesia, as part owner. That arrangement continued until 1998, when the rupiah crisis put Indonesia in financial trouble and President Suharto out of office. In 1998, Audi stepped in and paid a reported $110 million for Lamborghini, finally bringing stability to the automaker.
During all this financial uncertainty, new Lamborghinis were being developed. The midengine V-8 Silhouette of 1976 evolved into the Jalpa, but the model perhaps most remembered from that time was the brawny LM002 off-roader of 1986.
When Chrysler took over, it inherited Project 132, the successor to the decade-old Countach. Unimpressed with Mr. Gandini's design for what would become the Diablo, Chrysler had the exterior and interior finished in Detroit. Introduced in 1990, the Diablo was Lamborghini's basic product through the 1990s.
Audi's ownership brought Lamborghini the strength it had needed since the late 1960s. The Diablo was replaced by the Murciélago -- also with a V-12 -- and then supplemented with a V-10 model, the Gallardo. In contrast to the rounded shapes of Ferraris, modern Lamborghinis are notable for harder lines and squared-off shapes. Their general demeanor, ride and handling reflect the same values, Lambos being a bit stiffer and more hard-edge than Ferraris -- neither better nor worse, just different.
Lamborghini has carried this theme through the limited-production Reventón to the Murciélago's replacement, the Aventador, and another low-volume machine, the Sesto Elemento. It is considering a four-door model, the Estoque, and last month in Geneva unveiled the Veneno, a flamboyantly styled $4 million supercar.
To collectors, part of the brand's appeal is its accessibility. Aside from the early GTs, the Miura and a few special editions of the Countach, few models creep above $100,000 in valuation guides, with a number of attractive cars going for half that. Experts point out, though, that a Lamborghini can cost as much to maintain as a Ferrari, which typically holds greater investment potential.
Since Audi took over, Lamborghini has gone through a transformation beyond the improved quality of its vehicles. Where some collectors once looked down on the brand, it's not unusual now to find both Lamborghinis and Ferraris in some of the better collections. It's easy to imagine that Ferruccio Lamborghini would take pleasure in knowing the car he created shares such esteemed garage space.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.