|Countach LP 400||152|
|Countach LP 400S||235|
|Countach LP 5000S||323|
Wallace was a mechanic for Lucky Casner’s Camoracli U.S.A. on the two occasions that flamboyant American’s team won the 1000-kilometer sports-car race at Nurburgring, West Germany. The winning car both times was a “Birdcage” Maserati . Bob’s interest in racing, undying and almost all-consuming, was never satisfied by an official Lamborghini entry into the sport, but he was able to give it some vent in special hot rods he built. Most famous was his ultra-light Miura Jota.
The Jota was never raced, but it was built to. The radically-modified Jota carried some 800 pounds less weight than a standard Miura and its engine roared out some 35 more horsepower. The ultra-wide tires, spedal race car suspension, megaphone exhaust system and modified body. A few years later, Wallace similarly stripped and souped a front-engined Jarama GT.
The third of Wallace’s trio of hot rodded Lamborghinis was a Urraco. It eventually had a deep nose spoiler, a stalk-mounted rear wing and a 4-cam engine driving a 6-speed gearbox. “Urraco Bob,” as the factory mechanics called it, was fast enough to win the only race it ever entered. But not even that induced Ferruccio to go racing.
Bob Wallace maintains to this day that Lamborghini’s series of 2+2 GTs, necessarily compromised by heavy and complex creature comforts, were the wrong kind of vehicle for such a small firm to try to build. He felt the concentration should be on flat-out performance machines. What he was getting at was shown in admittedly exaggerated form by his racy “Urraco Bob”
“You’d stop at Dallara’s house and get the key...” to the Varano test track. His three
years spent developing the Countach over thousands of high-speed miles on both highway and raceway were the culmination of Wallace’s career with Lamborghini. Ironically, and a little sadly, he regards the productionized model of today as no longer in keeping with the smaller, lighter, less draggy prototype. Of course, today’s is a different world. Much different.
“The Miura, a milestone car in what a GT car should be.” Crusty Bob Wallace does not exactly exude sentimentality, but a listener can easily come to the conclusion the Miura has a special place in his heart. He had a great deal to do with its conception and development, and says now, “The Miura was a car that got other people thinking, that forced Ferrari to do something new.” Not a bad way to remember a big part of a life’s work.
There is no sign. Bob Wallace Cars in Phoenix, Arizona, presents a completely anonymous exterior — just a plain, single-story building among dozens on a quiet, tree-shaded street in a modern industrial park just south of Sky Harbor Airport. Even once you’ve found the place, nothing confirms your success but the back door, and only if it’s open, and then only if there happens to be coming from it the inimitable muffled growl of a thoroughbred Italian V-12. Ah-hah.
You walk in to find a clean, well-lit, orderly establishment, not cluttered at all, but filled with delicious things: gleaming machine tools, brightly colored cranes and containers, sleek gran turismo bodies —and seeming mountains of gorgeous all-aluminum overhead-cam engines. There he is, familiar from so many years of magazine photos, bending over the open hood, hair blowing in the draft from the engine fan. Still wearing an intent frown, he straightens up to meet your intrusion and you see his name on the blue mechanic’s shirt.
In his 50th year, Bob Wallace is
still a lean, lanky individual with a marked tendency to constant activity. He
has faded sandy hair, pale-blue eyes set amidst knobbly features, and a deepish,
gravelly voice with an unrepentant New Zealand twang. He speaks in a slow drawl,
but there’s an obvious impatience—even a crustiness — to his
manner. Sensibly approached, however, he’ll
take time to talk about the old days. And as the memories begin to flow, he’ll
break into a wry shy smile, maybe even an engaging, open grin — sometimes the
unmistakable racer’s grin, sly and savage. Oh, yeah, he’ll tell you, his eyes
alive with it, “I had the best job in the world!
As Lamborghini’s test and development driver for a dozen years, Wallace is the man who, more than any other, stamped his personality on Lamborghini cars. An Aucklander by birth, he grew up fascinated by cars and racing. At 21 he journeyed all the way to Italy to be among the most passionately enthusiastic racers on earth, working as a racing mechanic for Ferrari, Maserati, Count Volpe’s Scuderia Serenissima and Lucky Casner’s Camoradi U.S.A.
He was with Casner when the flamboyant American’s “Birdcage” Maserati won the 1000-kilometer race at the Nurburgring in 1960 and again in ‘61.
At the end of the 1963 racing season Wallace was weighing options. He’d been asked back to Ferrari, but he’d just heard about that new auto factory opening up at Sant’Agata and it sounded more interesting. “I thought there was much more opportunity to learn something there, and I took it.”
Wallace joined Lamborghini just as the buildings had been completed and the first of the ultramodern manufacturing equipment was being installed. Ferruccio had already shown his prototype GTV and was now working hard to turn it into the series-built 350 CT. Wallace was hired as a mechanic and, as he says, “a troubleshooter.” He helped ready the Lamborghini V-12 for production and assemble the first production cars.
That Wallace became the factory’s test-driver seems to have just happened — interesting, seeing as how he had little serious experience as a race driver. “I used to fool around with race cars as a kid. I’ve practiced on pretty much all of the world's circuits. I worked for Volpe for a while with a lot of the young Italian drivers—[Lorenzo] Bandini, [Lodovico] Scarfiotti and people like that. You'd get the job to take the car out before the race or the hillclimb and make sure everything is right, and if you do it for one, you’ve gotta do it for the next guy, and it just sort of snowballs.
“Some idiot gave me a helmet in
night practice at Sebring one year. He said, "Go and see what's wrong with the
thing." It just started from there. I never really intended to pursue it, but
then I got pushed into it full-time at Lamborghini. I inherited the job; I
didn't really want it initially. My first years were quite
Bob “got pushed into it” because there wasn’t anyone else, but he soon showed a flair for high-speed vehicle evaluation. Before he knew it, he was the de facto factory test pilot and eventually had four men working under him.
And it was in that role that he quite literally molded the character of every new Lamborghini introduced up to the mid-Seventies. “We’d take a prototype car out and first of all evaluate what its actual possibilities were, and come back to the design office with an initial list of suggested changes or whatever we felt was necessary
“Not that I was in charge of the personality of the car, but it usually just ended up that way. Yeah, I was the development driver and, good or bad, you get some credit. But some of the mistakes were mine, too. You’ve got to remember, we were a bunch of very very enthusiastic young kids.”
He recalls that a typical day of test-driving began at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning and lasted until about 3:00 in the afternoon. During those hours he’d range the entire length and breadth of northern and central Italy. One day he might flash down to Rome or Naples on the autostrada at 130, 150, 170 mph. On another he might turn up into a twisting mountain road a lane-and-a-half wide, laying rubber around myriad bends that had once served the storied Mille Miglia. Some days he’d drive to a closed race course like Misano or Variano and spend hours sliding around in studied abandon. Occasionally he’d encounter one of his counterparts from Ferrari or Maserati and there would ensue a little gentlemanly contest—followed, no doubt, by an hour at a cheery roadside ristorante.
“When you’d get back in the
afternoon, you’d spend the rest of the time in the office or hashing over the
problems with the design office, mainly. The rest of the time playing around. It
was a unique opportunity, and probably a very, very unique job. The big problem
was too much to do and normally never enough time to do
So he worked more than a typical eight-hour day? “Oh, yeah. Yeah.” And he was probably in there on weekends, too? “Yeah. Oh, yeah.” So he didn’t have any spare time for hobbies or anything else? “No. Spare time I used to play around with odds and ends of cars. Like the Italians said, I married the automobile. ~Aye sposato l’automobile.’
“Initially, when everything was first laid down, everything was the most modern equipment, the best equipment you could buy. It was a very very clean, very very well laid-out plant. At that time in '63, '64 Ferrari were struggling on with some of the stuff dating back to before the war, old machine tools. They basically had the same money problems that anybody else had.
“Whereas we didn't lack anything, and playing around with any of the oddball special cars that I built up in the evenings and on the weekends, I had virtually the full use of the equipment that the factory had. Very very pleasing, very satisfying job.”
Satisfying as few of us can even imagine. For in a manner not unlike that of the Renaissance masters and their wealthy patrons, Bob Wallace was being paid by one of Europe’s top industrialists to create automotive works of art to please, essentially, himself. When he set out with a new car, Wallace didn’t have to think about its eventual buyer. “No, we never, ever developed a car or did any testing with a customer point of view in mind. Basically, it was what I thought the car should be. Oh, yeah. That’s the only way any car can have any personality”
Such a job would have been remarkable enough in one's native land, but this Kiwi was working half-a-world away from his in what to him was a very foreign culture. “I didn't speak a word of Italian when I first got to Italy. It took me about two years, two and a half years, to learn. It took at least the same time to be accepted there. They do not accept strangers very easily, especially someone like myself. When you boss someone around, you’ve got to be accepted and usually liked by them. But once they had seen that I worked just as hard as they did, and there was no BS and no problems and no sort of pulling rank anywhere, I got on very very well with them.”
He also “got on” very well with the boss, whom most respectfully addressed as Cavaliere. “I just called him Ferruccio,” Bob says.
“Being a foreigner had its
advantages in the fact that mainly I didn't have to follow the usual Italian
bureaucratic way of doing things. If I had to, I’d bypass anyone and everyone.
[That sometimes] created some hard feelings amongst the engineers, but normally
it didn't create any problems at all. People would look at something I did and
shrug, because I was a foreigner. You know, I could pretty much get away with
Myth has become so intertwined with truth during Lamborghini’s first 25 years that they're often hard to separate. Wallace is the right man to resolve some of the puzzles. As he freely admits, “I've never been noted for diplomacy!'
For instance, what about Ferruccio Lamborghini's alleged love of the Spanish corrida? Naw, that's a bunch of bull. That was probably something a PR man came up with. I don't remember who started those series of names—Miura, Espada and all this sort of thing. I think it was probably somebody in the PR department at Bertone or something like that.”
What sort of driver was he? Didn't he have a long string of exotic cars? “Oh, yeah. Anyone in his position as an industrialist would have. [But] a mediocre driver. A little rough and heavy-handed. Not a quick driver, and very, very sort of mediocre.”
Was that in any way reflected in the cars? “No, no. He did not interfere in any way at all. He wanted to know the whys and wherefores of everything, but he never, ever interfered with the actual work in the factory”
Wallace takes fast driving seriously— after all, he did it for hundreds of miles every day—and is thus not easily given to ladling out praise. He strongly feels that there aren't many especially many journalists qualified to pass judgment on a very fast car's handling at its outer limits. To the glowing test reports on some of the heavier front-engine 2 +2s, which he still considers poor examples of the Lamborghini marque, he snorts, “Maybe they should have taken it to a racetrack and pushed it hard. A lot of motoring journalists could be much more critical than they are.”
Perhaps he was more diplomatic then than he realizes now, because he knew many magazine writers and all seemed to have liked and respected him. At most car companies, those in a position like his don’t normally have much contact with either the public or press. But journalists found Lamborghini a very open-door place in those days, and most had a great deal of contact with the chief development driver. They went for very fast rides with Wallace, and all worked his name into their stories, usually in glowing terms.
Well, maybe not all. One French journalist felt a trifle less than glowing about a certain test Wallace set up in a Miura— a rather special Miura, as it turned out.
Lamborghini was hardly the first automaker to cherish “good press,” considering it important that motor-noters be impressed with its cars’ performance. No surprise, then, that the firm occasionally proffered “special” press cars. Wallace admits as much : “Some of the road tests you can read way, way back, you can see they did not have a standard engine in half of the journalists’ cars. That’s off the record, but...”
José Rosinski, a talented writer as well as an experienced racer (Wallace ranks him with Paul Freré as one of the few journalists who could really drive well), came down to Italy to test a Miura for SportAuto, the French enthusiast magazine. He climbed in and set off down the local superhighway for some top-speed runs.
“We clocked him at 288 k’s an hour,” recounts Bob, a glint of humor beginning to twinkle in the corner of each eye. That’s 179 mph, Miura fans, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy the factory man. He told Rosinski to come back in the morning and try harder.
José did. “He came out from an underpass on the freeway, and it caught a three-quarter gust of wind, and the whole car—the whole nose—lifted. The thing took off. All he could see was the sky.” How high did he go? “I don’t know. I never asked the guy. He’s never spoken to me since.”
Why? Did he think you were to blame? “Oh, yeah.” The Wallace face begins to twist in one of those fierce racer’s grins. “He’d run the car before at 288, and we’d stuffed another engine in it with, I think it was about another 30,40 horsepower more, and we didn’t have time to try it. We just said, ‘Here, take it out again today.’ And he logically wasn't aware of this. He thought he was just driving a straight-off-the-shelf production Miura.
‘And it did fly. When he came back to the factory he was still white. I don’t know how he got the car down, or how the car settled down onto the ground still tracking decently” Sounds like a close call. “Very very close.” The 288 was done with a standard engine? “No.” Ah, so you had a trick engine and a super-trick engine? ‘Aw, we had whatever you wanted.”
A short laugh escapes him. “The name of the game with everyone there was to pick out the most attractive-colored car to photograph and back it up onto the assembly line and just tell the journalist and his photographer, ‘Well, you pick out whichever one you want to drive.’ And they’d all pick that one.” Interviewer is now guff awing with interviewee. “The same thing went on at Ferrari. The same thing went on everywhere, so we were nothing different.”
A story that used to make the rounds in those days of open-road testing was that certain kilometer-stones along the autostrada were spaced a trifle less than a full 1000 meters apart, and would therefore indicate an artificially high speed if used for timing. “No. That’s not true. No, we had a big enough variety of engines lying around that you didn’t need to do that.”
Fun and games was all very well, but there was a serious side to Wallace’s job, for accidents and high-speed mechanical failures were not uncommon. The compact mid-V-8 Urraco emerged from one the more troubled development programs: “On road testing I broke the first five engines, all within 5000 miles of each other. Oh, yeah, you’d get a crank that hopped out the side and rear subframes breaking and so forth and so on. Well, I’d complained the car was enormously overweight, and someone in the design office went stark raving mad and built up these real light subframes, and you had the radius rods pulling out and front uprights shearing off.
“In fact, I had a couple of journalists in a car once when we sheared a front upright up in the mountains, and it was scary.” But the record must show he’s smiling again.
“Fifty yards of skid marks going toward the edge of the mountain and a thousand feet down the side of it, and...well, it was part of your job. It was what you were paid to do.”
Were there other experiences like that? “Oh, yeah. A few bad crashes, but that was all part of it.” Were the crashes largely due to mechanical breakage? “Hmmm. I’d say 50 percent of them, yeah. Testing a Chrysler automatic and shifting it at seven-thousand-f ive, and it grabs the drive band and locks itself in the secondary band and you skid down the freeway ‘til the case breaks itself open...Oh, it was a lot of fun.”
He’s really warmed to his subject and that wry smile is constant. “Or you have one of the prototype four-cam Urracos, and it drops the head off a valve flat-out down the freeway and bounces it back out into the next carburetor, goes down inside, puts a rod through the side and the oil catches fire, and you head for the tollgate. And the attendant, instead of dashing out with his fire extinguisher, leaves his booth, jumps over the fence and runs down farmer’s fields.
“Or, the end-of-the-world prototype Countach large engine, which explodes and reduces itself to scrap metal when you’re running flat out down the freeway. All you can do is slow the car enough to undo your harness and get out of the thing and let it burn. Oh, an enormous number of mechanical breakages and problems. But that was your job.”
What’s this about an “end-of-the-world” engine? ‘Aw, they’d been doing an enormous amount of dyno-testing on this engine. It was putting out a substantial amount of power, and everything was fine according to the design office and the dyno shop. And you take the damn thing out and destroy it after half an hour.” He snorts a laugh. “It didn’t make people very happy, but there was no intentional destruction on my part. That was just what I was paid to do and what I felt the car should hold up as.”
If the thought of flaming Lamborghinis streaking down public thoroughfares at insane velocities offends your sense of social responsibility, rest assured, gentle reader, that such antics weren’t that public. “With that first Countach, speed limits actually had started going in Europe, and we did most of the flat-out testing up on Fiat’s private freeway, where you had all the equipment you needed.”
Private freeway? “Well, Fiat’s a fairly influential company and [when] they built the Milan-Turin freeway..they built 30 miles beside it for their own use. There’s a guardrail separating you from the Fiat 500s and that’s it.” The old-boy network, Italian style.
But wait ‘til you hear about the Varano de Melagari circuit. It comes up while looking at a snapshot of a younger Wallace and the original Countach prototype in front of a house on a village street. Where was that picture taken, Bob? Were you on a trip somewhere? “No, just Dallara’s hometown, where he had a little racetrack and we used to use it.” Dallara had a little racetrack? “Oh, his father was the mayor, and the town council decided the city needed a racetrack. A little country village way up in the mountains. That’s family influence. It was a real little dinky club-racing track. We used it because it didn’t cost a dime and it was always available. You’d stop at Dallara’s house and get the key”
Fun days at a fun job. But, as usual, the fun didn’t last. “At first, everyone was motivated, everyone had a lot of enthusiasm. [Ferruccio Lamborghini would] get stuck in and work too. It was very very enjoyable. The whole thing was really enjoyable up to, I’d say, ‘71, ‘72. That’s when it started to go bad.”
One supposes that the high point came with the Miura program, when Ferruccio Lamborghini, Ciampaolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzani and Bob Wallace were still together, working on the car that would secure their company’s reputation for all time. Dallara would be the first to depart, in 1968, but Lamborghini himself had started withdrawing by then, too. That was the reason Stanzani was elevated from second engineer to factory manager — and one of the reasons Dallara quit.
“See, Stanzani ended up having to do that job because someone had to do it, when Lamborghini himself said, ‘No, I don’t even want to hear about running this place anymore. One of you has to do it.’ Stanzani stepped in and started doing it. Dallara wanted to go racing, and it wasn’t very nice to be working underneath your sort of junior engineer. No hard feelings, and there never have been, but he just decided to go out on his own, and that was the end of that.” And the beginning of the end for the “fun” times.
Ferruccio’s withdrawal was complete in another five years. “The factory was making money when he sold it. When the Miura started production, the factory became a money-making concern, and was right on through until basically he lost interest and the eight-cylinder program started. But his son didn’t demonstrate any interest in the company, didn’t demonstrate the sort of following-on in the father’s image that the old man really hoped for.
“Plus, he was like a lot of other Italian postwar industrialists. They could govern their business empire up to a certain level, but they weren’t an Agnelli [Cianni, head of Fiat] or a Ferrari or someone like that.
They had their limitations. And things started getting out of control, and he just lost interest. In his other companies, too, to a certain extent.
“The whole problem with the company actually, when Lamborghini himself abandoned it, was lack of money for research and development. Complete and utter lack of money, and also with the foreign owners, basically a lack of direction...”
Wallace is scathing about the first post-Lamborghini owners, though he stayed on and worked for them: “Basically I think a lot of their programs were way out of whack—trying to develop the small eight-cylinder cars, trying to go into a bigger market. The Swiss owners then didn’t really take any great interest in the company or get very involved with it. Some very, very serious commercial, long-term planning and that sort of thing with the smaller cars virtually broke their wallet and actually finished the place off. Tooling up with enormous costs of tooling to build thousands of cars a year when the market just wasn’t even there.
“The little Urraco —that car had tooling and body dies and stuff especially to build thousands. All the dealers said, ‘Oh yes, we can sell 500, 1000 in the U.S. alone.’ And it just wasn’t true. No, it was the wrong type of car for them to build. Different clientele, a different price range, and the car was basically, I think, what finally broke the company”
The man who left his mark on every Lamborghini built through ‘75 has firm opinions on the entire range, and his criticisms begin well before the change of owners. “Well, a 2+2 was a mistake. I think the first car, the 350, made a lot more sense than any of the other 2+ 2s or the mediocre cars that followed.
“Later on, the Isleros and Jaramas— someone’s crazy marketing ideas. I don’t think Lamborghini had—or still don’t think they have—any commercial direction as to what the hell the market wants or what people really want. You’re pushing these 2 +2s off onto people with badly built bodywork. The quality of the creature comforts and the body construction and so forth was abominable. Just innumerable little things weren’t right, and it takes a lot of money to put them right.”
As for the Espada, Wallace judges it “a very, very good concept of car. I think if they’d refined it further, they could have continued on with it as sort of their big flagship four-seater. Let’s face it, the car was a lot lighter than a big 400 Ferrari, it handled better, and it was a lot quicker.
“But you’re faced with the same thing there, with that type of car, where customers came to expect a lot more: a lot better air conditioning, a lot better defrosting, and a lot better creature comforts than what the factory was really—I won’t say ‘qualified’—but what they had the money to do. That type of car is the wrong type of car for a factory like that, really” And what is the right type? ‘A performance-type automobile and that’s it. Mercedes and BMW can deal with the creature comforts a hundred times better than a place like that.”
So Bob Wallace unabashedly favors the true high-performance Lamborghinis. He’s got plenty of company, of course, but does he have any particular favorites among the cars he helped develop?
“Not really. The Countach, because I had a lot to do with the initial concept, and I really believed in the car when we first started building it. Yeah, basically it was conceived to go like, ah—performance was everything and that was it, no other considerations in the car.
Over the years, seeing the way the car has changed from a performance image to a macho, ego-trip sort of image, it doesn’t make sense anymore. The car’s heavier than hell, and aerodynamically it’s like pushing a barn door down the road. Personally, I don’t have much enthusiasm for the car any more.”
Not so the Miura, especially in its later forms, “mainly because it was, shall we say, a milestone car in what a GT car should be. The Miura was a car that got other people thinking, that forced Ferrari to do something new.” As for the Urraco, Wallace calls it “overweight and underpowered, but probably the most nimble-handling car that we’d built in a long time. Nimble, because even though it was utilizing four-wheel MacPherson-strut suspension, it was quite well balanced. We put a lot of time and a lot of work into making the suspension work properly, and it did. It worked quite well.”
Bob Wallace finally left Lamborghini when he saw he no longer had a future there. But it took a while, and a lot of miles, to find a new challenge. “I went home to New Zealand for about three months and died of boredom. When I first left Europe, I thought it would be nice to go back there, but unfortunately I ended up being disappointed.”
With his wife, he again went halfway round the world, this time to settle in Phoenix. He worked there for a little while at an exoticar repair/restoration shop, then set up one of his own, to be his own boss again. Today, Bob Wallace Cars caters to both Lamborghini and Ferrari owners from all over the country
Why Phoenix? “Get out of the cold! And, plus, it's a very rich area and you can do anything you want here in Phoenix because you’ve got a lot of small and medium places that work for the aircraft and airspace industry—high-tech shops and stuff like that. You can do pretty much anything you want here. Plus our labor costs here are pretty much about 25, 30 percent less than Southern California.”
One of the things you can't do in Arizona— or anywhere else in the U.S. of A. —is enjoy running a big Italian GT flat-out. Does Bob miss the kind of driving he used to do? “Not the driving. I miss the work. I'm 50 years old now, and I miss the type of work I used to do. The mental stimulation of doing something, rather than servicing someone's car.”
Happily, he again has his hands in that kind of “work.” With one of his good customers, who's the driver, he co-owns and works on a Ferrari 308 very tastily modified for SCCA GT2 competition and apparently the class of its class in southwestern club-racing circles. “I'’s on the minimum weight, and there’s nothing that can come close to it handling-wise. Plus the engine: If you build them properly, they’ll run forever. I just wish there was a little better competition around in GT2, really”
So Bob Wallace, still “married to the automobile,” is back together with his first love, racing. We wish him every success. And like the song says, we hope he finds this love even lovelier the second time around.