Celebrating Valentino Balboni’s 50th anniversary

Legendary Lamborghini test driver, and godfather of such iconic models as Diablo and Gallardo, is humbled as enthusiasts pay homage at a one-off Italian event

Valentino Balboni had the best job in the world: Lamborghini test driver. All over the world, Lamborghini owners proudly wear T-shirts sporting this motto in celebration of the man who spent his life developing, fixing, restoring and, of course, driving the cars with the bull on the badge.

Balboni joined Lamborghini on April 21, 1968, his first job after technical school. He entered as a workshop apprentice – and not for a single second did he imagine that five decades later, 70 cars from 17 countries across four continents would come together for three days to celebrate his 50th anniversary.

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‘I’m overwhelmed, and I don’t know what to think,’ are his first words when asked how he feels about the Valentino Balboni Special Anniversary event, which took place on May 4-6, 2018. ‘Most likely, to have an answer, you’ll have to come back some days from now, when I’ll be more capable of realising what happened.’

Balboni was officially appointed as a Lamborghini test driver on September 5, 1973, and had risen to the position of chief test driver by the time he retired in 2008. ‘I spent 35 years driving Lamborghinis on daily basis,’ he recalls. ‘I think I had the opportunity to sit behind the steering wheels of about 80 percent of the cars built in Sant’Agata Bolognese during that time.’

He started out with production cars, under the watchful eye of the first Lamborghini test driver, the legendary Bob Wallace. Says Balboni: ‘I owe so much to him – not only as a professional, but as a human being. He shaped me, and thought of me so much, in and out of work, that I can’t stop thanking him.’

It was during the final years of the Countach that Balboni moved from testing production cars to the development of new models. The Diablo and Gallardo were mainly developed by him, well before the days of computer simulations and virtual reality.

‘Back then there was more driving, to confirm (or not) the technicians’ ideas. I spent years working with engineer Paolo Stanzani, the technical father of many Lamborghinis, and a great man, too. Every single modification needed to be tested “for real”, and I simply spent my days driving around, at a good pace, and de-briefing with the engineers. It was a wonderful job, but not as magic as sometimes we love to remember today.’

Balboni continues: ‘It was hard work and, sometimes, during the difficult days of the Lamborghini crisis with many changes of ownership, it brought a lot of worries for our future. When Audi took over in 1998, it gave us a wonderful stability, access to technology and the possibility of long-term development projects that were previously impossible.’

The Gallardo, the marque’s first V10, arrived in 2003 and would stay in production for ten years – a very long time for a supercar. A great sales success, the model became a tribute to Balboni.

‘I’m an old-school man,’ he says. ‘To me, cars have to be simple, light and rear-wheel drive. I do understand – and I’m very aware of – the benefit of 4WD and electronic aids, but a good power drift can put a big smile on your face even after the hardest day.’

Because of these ideas, in July 2009 Lamborghini launched a special version of the Gallardo, the LP550-2 ‘Valentino Balboni’. Built following the great man’s wish for a fun car, it was rear-wheel drive, lighter, with a recalibrated limited-slip differential (at 45 percent) and could be ordered with manual transmission, too. It also boasted a revised interior and a longitudinal stripe, in contrasting colours.

Further celebration of Balboni’s life and achievements came in the form of the Valentino Balboni Special Anniversary gathering. Yet even he had initial misgivings: ‘When organisers asked for my approval of their idea, I told them it would be very difficult for the event to succeed. Who would’ve cared? I was so wrong…’

Espadas (this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, too), 400 GTs, Miuras, Countachs, Diablos and every kind of modern Lamborghini all came together, some shipped from far parts of the world, many driven to the event.

‘We’ve come from Norway,’ Fredrik Skiøldt tells AutoClassics. ‘We are ten cars – some classics and some modern. The drive south, the tour and the return home will add about 5000km to our odometers, and we are enjoying every single one of them.’

The tour included a visit to the Lamborghini museum in Sant’Agata Bolognese, a visit to Pagani – ‘to say hello to dear friend Horacio, a gentleman and a Lamborghini colleague in the late 1980s, now manufacturing amazing supercars’ – and a raid to Montecatini Terme. Here, Ferruccio held a concours d’elegance for his cars back in the late 1960s. The route took in the Futa and Raticosa passes in the Appennini mountains, while the event was topped off by a day at the Varano de’ Melegari racetrack.

In between, amidst beautiful scenery and V12 soundtracks, particpants experienced the most amazing traffic jam ever, when 70 Lamborghinis entered at once a fuel forecourt. It was a day that, 50 years from now, will still be celebrated by the gas station attendant…

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