Where better than Geneva to start an epic Miura drive in search of The Italian Job locations? Our mission is to relive the opening of the comedy heist movie with a pair of Sant’ Agata’s finest, both ultra-desirable SVs. To mark the 43rd anniversary of director Peter Collinson’s classic, the plan is a high-speed chase through France, Italy and back across Switzerland via the breathtaking Grand-St-Bernard pass where the terrific title sequence was shot.
As we step out of the arrivals hall, barely a stone’s throw from the exhibition building where the Miura stunned the automotive world at its fully formed debut in March 1966, we instantly spot a gold SV among the nondescript moderns. Sleek, sexy and sinuous, its supermodel presence makes everything around it look grey and ugly. Seeing one of the 762 built today is just as captivating as when it was new, but the ultimate SV has an elevated allure – only 148 were made. Ordered by French industrialist Jacques Dembiermont, this Oro Metallizzato masterpiece was regularly driven from his Haumont foundries to a villa in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Riviera. Fresh out of a ground-up rebuild in Italy, ‘4878’ has just returned from a memorable ‘running-in’ trip from Geneva to Mont Ventoux and back. Its generous owner believes his cars are for driving, and sportingly offers it for our pilgrimage. “She pops and bangs in traffic, the suspension knocks and the rear tyres need replacing, but enjoy,” he explains when passing me the keys. With a full-sized spare tucked away horizontally up front, the Miura is way more practical than most modern supercars – it’s surprising how much gear packs into the narrow, deep boot.
The contrast from the scrabble for seats on an Easy Jet flight to a dream blast in a gold Miura is surreal. Guiding the Lamborghini out of the narrow car park exit, conscious of the SV’s voluptuous beauty, is a nerve-racking task. From the low seat, with knees bent around the high-set, well-angled, three-spoke wheel, the 1971 sensation feels much wider than its five feet 11 inches.
As we blast south through France to the Mont Blanc tunnel, I note the stretch to the steering wheel top and the stiff clutch, while my left toe keeps catching the dash. The glassy cockpit, recently retrimmed in fashionable ‘70s Bruno leather, is surprisingly roomy as we slouch in the short bucket seats. Its ergonomics are flawed, with reflections making gauges tricky to read in the dazzling midday sun, but the layout – with aircraft-style switches in a roof cluster and the prominent grab handle – matches the sleek exterior. It’s not comfortable, yet you happily suffer back pain for the heady experience. Forward vision over those wings is like Raquel Welch’s waking view of her fabulous legs. Meld that curvaceous outlook to the score of that demonic, deep-throated transverse V12, under-scored by the straight-cut whine of the transfer gears, and you forgive all of the Miura’s niggles.
En route, we hook up with Miura guru Simon Kidston’s mean black SV, and the pace quickens as this glorious pair surges on to northern Italy to find the tunnel where Mafia turncoat Roger Beckerman comes to a shocking end. Motoring movie icons made a habit of smashing into bulldozers in the early ‘70s, with Kowalski’s Dodge Challenger meeting a similarly violent end in Vanishing Point. Peter Weir’s JG Ballard-esque black comedy The Cars That Ate Paris also Parodies The Italian Job’s opener. But Collinson’s choice of the ultimate supercar for Beckerman’s explosive demise was utterly inspired, building up to the impact with a dreamy Matt Monro tune (on Days Like These) and heavenly Alpine roads.
The identity of the early P400 featured in the film has been a mystery for years. Replays in slow motion confirm that the chassis bulldozed over the ravine at the exit of the La Thuile tunnel was an engine-less shell returned to the factory after its Arab prince owner’s fatal crash. All of the good bits were stripped before it plunged into the mountain river torrent. Like the Mini Coopers, the exotic wreck was never retrieved and no doubt there are still remnants trapped in the bed of the River Baltee down at Aosta. “We looked everywhere but never found it.” Remembers special-effects crew member Ken Morris.
Story has it that he orange P400 used in the action scenes, registered BO 296 (Prova plates from the Bologna region), was a pre-delivery car provided by the factory and driven to the Alps by a sales director. “During my book research, we discovered fuel receipts for the three days’ filming submitted to get the tax back,” says kidston. “The first owner had no idea that his new Miura had been thrashed around the mountains.”
The tunnel has been extended at both ends since 1968, so isn’t instantly recognisable. Looking back down the valley, though – with the spectacular backdrop of the snow-capped Grand Rochere – it still matches that low-angle final shot as Beckerman guns the Miura up the pass to his grizzly fate. Predictably, we replay the scene, dropping into second and howling through the tunnel. The reception at the exit is the absolute extreme to the film, with the town preparing for a Tour de France visit. And what should rumble down the high street as workers repaired the road for the hero pedallers but a Caterpillar bulldozer? Collinson’s movie was hardly promoted in Italy, which isn’t surprising considering its clichéd depiction of Latin life, so none of the villagers seem to appreciate our visit.
From La Thuile, we double-back down the valley to Morgex for a fuel stop and a welcome espresso fix. The garage attendant knows his Miuras and acknowledges the rare Spinto Veloce spec, but his film fantasy is another 43-year-old cult classic. Around his office are Harle photos including an Easy Rider poster. Refuelled, we take the E25 East before branching up the valle Gran San Bernardo to the legendary pass where The Italian Job’s famous mountain scenes were filmed. The two-lane autostrada weaves down the valley through six tunnel to Aosta and Kidston ushers me into the passengers seat of his mean black SV. As he buckles up his race harness, I prepare for a high-speed demonstration.
After 14 years’ ownership and some 20,000km, Kidston has probably driven his car more than any other owner in recent years. “Using it at least gives me space in the garage at home because it’s always with the mechanic,” he jokes as we blast off. Thankfully the E25 is light on traffic as the ex-Gianfranco Innocenti car flashes east. Its tuned V12 sounding magnificent roaring through the tunnels. Plunging into the blackness, hauling in any distant lights ahead the brutal yowl evokes the Monaco tunnel on race day.
Kidston is impressively smooth and relaxed at the wheel, his right hand lifting from the wheel only to remove his super-cool Persol shades as another black hole appears. Lights flash to warn big trucks and regularly air horns sound to acknowledge the Miura’s lightning pass. The 385bhp SV feels sure and flat at speed, with no trace of the early P400’s often criticized nose lift. Kidston is quiet and focused as he extends the revs for one searing, final charge while I soak up the symphonic magnificence of that hard-working V12 and admire the view ahead as the tunnel’s neon reflections flash over those luscious front wings. Yet still that Matt Monro song in my head interrupts the joy of the blood-curdling, cacophonous chorus playing out behind.
All too soon the Aosta signs flash up and we peel off up the E27, which follows the River Artanvaz to the much-awaited Col. From Aosta, the Rome of the Alps, to the spectacular bridge near St Oyen, the climb is fast , with a wide road, a good surface and plenty of passing places. Now that I’m back driving the gold SV, we relish another rapid convoy. Again the Miura’s weight distribution, race-style set-up and low centre of gravity combine for impressive handling. Out of fast corners, the SV feels superbly balanced with no hint of its fat Pirellis letting go. Grip is tenacious, but best of all the power band is strong and seamless, its progressive punch perfect for a sustained charge. At low speeds the suspension protests over potholes, but the ride soon smooths out and is surprisingly supple and refined.
At St Oyen we divert on to the old pass, and after a few corners we pull over to discover the original opening sequence. Looking south, the viaduct is clearly visible, so Kidston turns around and rockets back to recreate the scene. The V12 sounds like a Le Mans prototype as it blats between hairpins and soon appears over the high bridge. Out comes the laptop and in goes the DVD just to check that the location matches. The bridge barriers are higher and a pylon has gone, but there’s no question it’s the right place.
The first section of the famous Roman pass – built under the order of Emperor Claudius as a key access route to Britannia after concerns about the unruly northern natives – is a heavenly Alpine landscape. Fast-flowing mountain river, lush meadows and shady woods perfectly match Quincy Jones’ hypnotic score as the silent orange car sweeps across the screen. With windows down, our pace drops as the two Lamborghinis sweep up the narrow route. We park to enjoy the spectacular vista at the first 180-degree turn across an ancient river bridge. After our higher-octane blast to this mountain paradise, it’s great to step out, breath in the pure air and run the opening sequence of the film again on kidston’s laptop.
The dreamy sequence of Beckerman and Miura speeding up the pass was shot by celebrated British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose impressive CV before his eyesight failed ranged from Ealing comedies to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Slocombe had a talent for capturing romantic machines on celluloid, be they steam trains in The Titfield Thunderbolt, a WW1 dogfight drama in The Blue Max or a Miura in the Alps. Study the Italian job opener carefully and it’s clear that actor Rossano Brazzi, wearing classic Renauld sunglasses and smoking a cigarette as he works the steering, is driving cautiously. Parts of the sequence are clearly speeded up and Brazzi rarely changes gear. The baulky five-speed would have spoilt his cool, but swift second and third changes are essential to keep pace on the upper reaches of the route.
The road rises rapidly through pines from our stop in the valley floor. Here the surface is broken and repair works interrupt the ascent. But once under the new road for the tunnel, the historic pass opens on to resurfaced tarmac that snakes up to the craggy peaks and Lac des Toules. As the sun sets, the roads are virtually empty, so we can’t resist repeat climbs, the two Miuras chasing up, slingshotting out of tight hairpins in second. The sound of the V24 road-train singing across the mountain valley is mesmeric, the engines revving sweeter than ever in the cool air. Clearly Quincy Jones never rode in a Miura. Had the famous music producer been strapped in for a blast around Bologna with irrepressible Kiwi factory test driver Bob Wallace, the opening score might have been more stirring.
Eventually the Italian border police take a disapproving interest in our noisy runs and we decide to stop for the day. Where better to stay than Hotel Albergo Italia, right by the part-frozen lake at the peak of the pass? Owner Luca Brunod was 10 when the film crew arrived and vividly recalls loaning his air rifle to Raf Vallone, who plays the sinister Mafia Chief. “He was a useless shot and, for such a famous actor, I was very disappointed,” says Brunod. “I remember the stunt team building special ramps for the Minis to be launched over the side. All of the wrecks were left in the valley, and in recent years there were complaints about contamination.”
That night our enthusiastic party takes over a local restaurant, the red wine and fine food fuelling Miura and film memories. “I first saw The Italian Job at our school film night in “78,” says Kidston. “The Countach was king then and I wasn’t sure. What the mystery orange car was. Swift research in his The Observer’s Book of Automobiles revealed the answer and it became his dream machine: “When I started at Coys, a dog-eared P400 arrived from the US. I longed to drive it and was gutted when the car cleaner was asked to deliver it to storage. When my father died in ’96, I stretched the money he left to buy a Miura. My first trip was a disaster. I took my wife out to a favourite restaurant, but she spotted smoke coming from under the dash when we arrived. She ended up dining on her own while I tried to sort the problem in the dark with an AA main.”
In 1998 he upgrade to an SV with special history: “It believed to be the last Miura built and was ordered new by Luigi Innocenti for his son Gianfranco’s 21st birthday”. Special requirements included chrome grilles and bumpers, Jota-style fuel filler and tuned engine. Finished in Nero Metallizzato with Bianco Latte leather, Innocenti junior’s dream gift was driven extensively, including holiday trips to St Tropez, beofer it was exchanged for a Countach in ’74. “It wasn’t as fast as the Miura,” recalls Innocent. As a student, Kidston often drove over the pass in his Alfa Spider with on Days Like These cranked up on the stereo as he thrashed the twin-cam from hairpin to hairpin: “It’s been my dream to bring the Miura on the ultimate drive. After 14 years, today was a magical moment to finally get here.”
Kidston has become completely enraptured by Miuras. As well as brokering deals on the rarest models – including the unique Roadster prototype – and launching the Miura Register website, he is close to finishing the definitive history on the original ‘60s supercar icon. During dinner he teases us with nuggets from his research, including debunking the myth of the famous name, “Ferruccio thought the name of the famous bulls from Seville was cool but he never asked breeder Don Eduardo Fernadez and he never gave him a car as is often reported.” Famous Miura owners have included Rod Stewart, Elton John, rocker Johnny Hallyday and Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi. But not Frank Sinatra, claims Kidston, “We’ve been through the factory record and the only listing is a Dr Sinatra, which probably started the myth. All the stories about wild boar upholstery are fantasy.”
The high altitude isn’t conducive to sleep, but there are few better views to enjoy at dawn than a pair of Miuras parked below your room, their sublime curves matte with dust and exhaust stains. Later, as we wash Marcello Gandini’s styling masterpiece, the border guards and carabinieri return to have photos taken with the cars.
The cap our heady tour, we plan to visit the ultimate Miura, the ex-Shah of Iran SVJ, which is handily based near Gstaad. The route north to the glamorous ski resort is just as stunning as the previous day, but the surface is better on the Swiss side of the St-Bernard pass. Only bikes give chase as we blast down the E27 to Martigny. There’s only one thing better than driving a Miura in the mountains, and that’s following another.
Not once do I tire of the rear three-quarter view of the SV, its muscular wings stretching out over the wider, centre-lock Campagnolos. Rarely does styling improve with a breed, though the SV is the exception. It may lack the witty eyelash light details but its tauter, meaner stance is spectacularly alluring. And, as Gioragetto Giugiaro always maintains, a body design looks more complete with wheel filling the arches. For me the original P400 has too much overhang, particularly at the rear.
Chasing down into Switzerland, the steering comes to life. The strange lack o self-centering is most evident in tight turns as you wind the lock off before powering away, but the feel and weighting of the low-geared, unassisted rack come alive the faster you go. Like the ponderous gearchange, it’s most evident in the mountains, yet it’s near-ideal as the smooth corners open out lower in the valley. Here, too, the chassis sits neutral and square as it surges on. The Miura lacks the competition pedigree that its engineering team fervently wanted to prove, though it brilliantly rebuffs labels of understeer and oversteer – on the road at least. “I’ve only had a moment once and that was on a wet corner,” says Kidston after 20,000km at his press-on-pace.
Only the brakes fail to inspire. The pedal feels dead, with little bite even when you press hard. The big Girling discs work well enough – with no hint of fade, even after repeated downward hairpins – yet they never convey confidence.
The SVJ chassis 678 is a legend in Miura lore. “The Shah wanted something special and was willing to pay for it,” recalls Wallace, who took a standard SV off the line in ’71 and modified it in the style of his mean Jota. Brake vents front and rear, plus fixed headlights with Perspex covers, race-style fuel filler, front oil cooler, chin spoiler and a single pantograph wiper all enhanced its attitude. A straight-through exhaust limits luggage space and turns the engine note into a savage snarl. Its present Swiss home is apt because the Shah had the Rosso Granada Metallizzato Miura delivered new to his St Moritz vila, with a special set of Pirelli studded snow tyes. Wallace says that the Iranian secret service checked the car over before delivery, but the Shah only drove it once in the Alps before it went to Tehran. Garaged at the Niavaran Palace, the SVJ would be taken out for dawn forays on deserted expressways, chased by a phalanx of armoured Mercedes 6.9s. Rumour has it that the car was flown to Italy by the Iranian Air Force for maintenance. After the 1979 revolution, the Miura was seized by the Mustazzafin, along with the shah’s 3,000 other cars. Its owners since have included movie star Nicolas Cage.
Recently sold to an Italian collector by Kidston SA, it’s now stored with erich Pichler in Feutersoey, close to the Col du Pillon. Who better to demonstrate the SVJ’s stunning speed than farmer Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni? Kidstone has invited him to Switzerland to film a special DVD to go with his forthcoming book.
Although the Countach was his era, it was the Miura that moved an 18-year-old Balboni to enquire about employment during a Sant’Agata visit with the village priest. The likeable, bearded character climbs into the dazzling white cabin and, inevitably, checks his hair before anything else while I note just 6,000km on the odometer. Balboni relishes the role of demonstrator and, utterly relaxed at the wheel of the most valuable of the breed, guns the Lamborghini to the top of the Col, carrying speed effortlessly through the faster sweepers. Even if the SVJ is little more powerful than an SV, its strident blare from the four pipes sounds devastatingly faster.
We swap places for the return run and chase the two SVs back to Gstaad. Consciosu of my expert passenger, I can’t resist holding the gears to get the full effect of that addictive roar and relentless urge. The gearchange, steering and brakes all feel sharper and factory-fresh. Chasing two Miuras into the twilight on a mountain road is a motoring high, but the best bit comes at the entry to the tunnel in the town. All three drivers slow and slot into second. Balboni and I glance at each other, smile and simultaneously hit the electric window switches. The magnified roar is unbelievable, climaxing with exhausts shooting flames as we back off for the exit. That nagging Matt Monro ear worm was exorcised for good by that operatic V36 crescendo.
Source: Autocar July 2012.