Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

Super cars need drop-dead gorgeous looks. Conventional wisdom insists putting a long monster-of-an-engine up front is how to accomplish this. Then how come the mid-engined Miura is the prettiest thing ever?

Reader bzr had this to say about my virulent dislike of the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione:

I still believe the 8C is the most beautiful car ever built, period. Not most beautiful NEW car, but the most beautiful in all 120 years of motoring. You can show me a picture of a Miura and try to make me eat my words, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Here's one that'll make you ready your cutlery as I tell you how I popped my Miura cherry.

Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

I was deathly afraid as I approached the car on a muggy April day in Italy. I had been a car nerd for years. I had just seen Ralph Lauren’s Mercedes-Benz “Count Trossi” SSK the previous day. And a Ferrari 121 LM Scaglietti Spyder race car parked casually in front of a general store, the very car Eugenio Castellotti had raced in 1955 in Le Mans. Yet the Miura remained my Eldorado, the lynchpin of my geeky heart, and I bet Captain Ahab was in no hurry to meet Moby Dick either. Obsessions are best left for the mind.

What if I see it and it proves to be just another old sports car? I already knew about its deep flaws. Hot, noisy and uncomfortable, with the fuel tank sitting above the front axle so steering precision went out the door as you used up the gas. The racing Weber carburetors mounted on the V12 had a tendency to catch fire. And so on.

I inch my way toward a wall with the Miura’s butt sticking out from the other side and my friend Larry says: “There’s your Miura.”

Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

You all know how this car came to be. How a spited tractormaker set up shop near Enzo Ferrari’s factory. How he hired the engineers Ferrari had fired and how Giotto Bizzarrini, one of those engineers, designed the Lamborghini V12 still in use today. Ferruccio Lamborghini paid him by the horsepower, gently scolding him when his first engine prototype produced all of those HP at a dentist’s drill of 11,000 RPM. He was not out to make a racing car.

What made the Miura revolutionary was, of course, its mid-engined layout, which was finally becoming standard on racing cars. But apart from Alejandro de Tomaso’s cute fiberglass Vallelunga, no one had attempted to use the design on a road car.

The advantages of the layout on a racetrack result from classical mechanics. Watch what happens when you sling a front-engined car into a corner too fast!

Why is the bunny in peril? The speed and ease with which a car can change direction while moving in a curve is related to its moment of inertia. Having weighty components on the extremities, like a heavy engine up front, will increase that value.

What this means is that a car built like that will try to exit the curve along a tangent, as that Ferrari 250 GTO did in the video. Let’s freeze a frame to see its intended versus its actual motion:

Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

If you want track bunnies to survive, you want to place the engine as close as possible to the axis of the car around which it turns. This will lessen its moment of inertia. A field of happy bunnies will greet your design:

Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

In the hands of a skilled driver, a front-engined car will also stay on the road, but its cornering speed will be lower than that of a mid-engined car with similar power and similar weight. This is why all major races from Formula 1 through the Indianapolis 500 to Le Mans have been won by mid-engined cars since the mid-60s.

Why does all this apply to the Miura, a road car? On the road, a mid-engined design offers no distinct advantages. For one, you don’t really come into close contact with your car’s moment of inertia in city traffic. Having the engine behind the driver’s compartment also comes with a number of issues: it kills passenger and trunk space, introduces cooling problems, and makes engine access a major pain.

Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

But the most baffling aspect is that mid-engined cars are not very pretty. Your classic front-engined coupé is the body type most pleasing to the human eye when it comes to interpreting automobile shapes. The Pagani Zonda is certainly a gorgeous fighter jet with magnesium wheels, but understanding its beauty requires careful study and a lot of effort. The pulchritude of a Ferrari 250 GTO, on the other hand, is well within the congitive range of the Jerusalem artichoke, a species of sunflower not known for its mental acumen.

Even though Lamborghini had set out to create a road car which was faster through curves than other cars, he must have been fully aware that he was in the supercar business. And in the supercar business, you sell sex appeal. Your customers will like knowing about your advanced design but they will never use it to its full potential. What they will use is the looks.

I mull over all this with trepidation as I finally round the wall and come face to face with the Lamborghini Miura for the first time. And boy, does it have the looks! Expecting disappointment and a major dose of post-rapture alienation, I fall instead in love for real. It is very pretty in a wholly automotive way.

Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

But how can it be mid-engined and pretty at the same time?

The Miura is a big car, much bigger than you’d expect from photos, and that hood which houses nothing but a spare tire goes on for miles. It sits impossibly low and very wide. When you peek inside, you get the same sense of exhilirating discomfort as you get with the 33 Stradale. Only this time, there are 12 instead of 8 velocity stacks to chomp on loose hair and babies. And then the car ends in a swift swoop.

Parked in front of the Miura is a Ferrari 599 GTB. It is the bigger car and it sits higher too, an exceptionally well-proportioned grand tourer. And as I look at the Ferrari and look back at the Miura, it dawns on me: these two are the same car.

Deception in Sant’Agata: How the Lamborghini Miura Made Mid-Engined Layouts Look GoodS

The Miura deceives you to think it’s front-engined!

It shares with the 599 the same profile, the same curves, the same sense of harmony. The Miura is beautiful because it is disguised as a front-engined berlinetta. The incredibly long nose, the transversely mounted V12? They are there to tug you gently into the future of supercar design. Remember, this is 1965. Humans have yet to see the dark side of the Moon.

The Miura has to work very hard for its beauty. It needs to deceive the eye from every angle. One wrong curve and the suspension of disbelief is gone. But no matter where you look, it never is.

Beauty, indeed, in the eye of the deceived beholder.

Photo Credit for Ferrari 250 GTO: exfordy