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By Ben Selby
When it comes to Kiwis on the global motoring stage, there are no shortage of names. However, one name in particular, unless you are in the know, often gets overlooked.
He was directly responsible for helping to get one of the most coveted brands in the automotive world off and running, and helped shaped the supercar business as we know it. His name was Bob Wallace, and the brand, was Lamborghini.
Bob Wallace was born in Auckland in 1938 and from an early age was utterly captivated with cars and motorsport. He began fettling cars as a teenager and was a regular attendee at local New Zealand Motorsport events. He was hooked on racing pretty quick and spent much of his youth making Hot Rods.
Bob and friend John Ohlson travelled to the UK, working a brief stint at Lotus before being spotted by Guerino Bertocchi. He offered Bob the chance to come to Italy and work for Maserati. Bob and John made their way to Italy, despite neither being able to string together a sentence in Italian.
Upon arrival in Italy, Wallace found soon after there were no jobs going at Maserati, but the privateer team Camoradi USA enlisted Bob as a mechanic.
Bob fettled their Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage and Corvette, before travelling with the team to Le Mans in 1960. Privateer Ferrari team Scuderia Serenissima poached Bob from Camoradi and Bob’s expertise were tested on the iconic Ferrari 250 GTO.
This appointment also led to him becoming noticed by Ferrari himself. Bob went to work for Ferrari as Phil Hill’s chief mechanic for his victorious 1961 Formula season. However, before they could entice Bob back to work for the Scuderia, one of Enzo’s neighbours managed to get him first.
A tractor mogul by the name of Ferruccio Lamborghini was fresh off having a spat with “Il Commendatore” about certain clutch problems on Lamborghini’s Ferrari.
Enzo told him to basically “get stuffed and stop complaining about my cars.” The result? A fiery Italian rivalry, with Ferruccio vowing to make a better sports car than Ferrari.
After completion of Lamborghini’s factory in neighbouring Sant Agata Bolognese in 1963, Ferruccio signed up Bob and gave him free reign over mechanical development of Lamborghini’s first production car, the V12 350 GT.
Bob was a mechanic first and foremost, having had no racing experience whatsoever. However, his experience with engineering and fettling cars for Le Mans and the Nurburgring 1000km convinced Ferruccio Lamborghini that Bob would be an ideal candidate for the company’s Chief Test Driver.
Before he knew it, Bob was testing Lamborghinis. With a team of four men under him, it was Bob’s job to ensure every prototype Lamborghini wasn’t going to either fall to bits or become unsafe at high speed.
Bob’s chosen testing time was either at night or early in the morning to avoid being snapped by a suspecting photographer. Mind you, Bob spent most of his time travelling on the Autostradas at speeds of up to 170mph, so its unlikely any camera jockey would get a look in.
While out testing, Bob would frequently lock swords with his opposites from Ferrari and Maserati, and by locking swords, I mean racing. Informal speed runs would be staged at various points along the test drive routes, such as the tollbooths between Milan and the north of Modena.
There were no prizes for whoever grabbed the toll ticket with the quickest time, just bragging rights for the winner back at their respective factory.
In 1965, Bob teamed up with chassis designers Gianpaolo Dallara and Paolo Stanzani to develop would be the car to really launch Lamborghini onto the world stage.
Bob spent countless hours with Dallara and Stanzani fine tuning every aspect of a truly trend-setting supercar, which by the time the bare chassis was unveiled at the 1965 Turin Motorshow. Codenamed “P400” it featured a transversely mounted 4.0L V12 engine which sat snugly within the wheelbase.
It was unveiled in production form at the Geneva Motorshow in March 1966, and clothed by Marcello Gandini in some of the most jaw dropping curves ever seen on any car. Called the Miura, it was Bob’s biggest engineering success yet.
Bob would also go on to develop every aspect of the Lamborghini family, including the four-seater Espada grand tourer, the front engined V12 Islero and Jarama, and the small mid engined V8 Urraco.
Despite all his involvement with Lamborghini, Bob still had an itching desire to build race cars. However, his boss wasn’t keen to get into a fist fight with Ferrari on the racetracks of the world so Bob had to continue doing what he knew would get him paid. Although, that didn’t stop him from having creating some unofficial racing Lambos in his spare time.
The first of these was a competition version of the Miura. The one-off Miura “Jota” was built by Bob to show the potential of taking the Miura to events like Le Mans, Daytona, Sebring and the Targa Florio.
The original Miura Jota was sadly written off in an accident. Fortunately, a faithful reproduction exists today, with Bob himself being involved in the build process. Bob would also build racing versions of the Jarama and Urraco. These were affectionately known by Lamborghini staff as the “Bob” cars.
By this time, work had already begun on the successor to the Miura. Project LP112, which would eventually become that bedroom wall poster icon, the Countach, was fettled extensively by Bob. He would spend weeks on end making sure it was spot on.
The original prototype unveiled in 1971 was powered by a 5.0L version of the Bizzarinni designed V12. However, Bob’s test drive came to an abrupt halt after the engine exploded at high speed.
Bob would later recall, “After I stopped, I just had to sit there and let it burn.” The production car would feature the 4.0L instead.
Ferruccio Lamborghini’s enterprise seemed to being from strength to strength. As long as his tractors were selling, he could finance his supercar business. However, a cancelled tractor order from the Bolivian government in 1974 resulted in Lamborghini entering serious financial trouble. Ferruccio sold his shares in the company to new owners and promptly retired.
Bob left Lamborghini in 1975. His reason for leaving was due to new owners did not have the capitol for development of new cars. Plus, Lamborghinis desire to steer away from the track had led to the departure of Stanzani and Dallara.
Bob’s apprentice took over the position of Chief Test Driver. He was Valentino Balboni, and he would become Lambo’s most celebrated test driver for the next forty years.
Bob and his wife Anna returned to New Zealand in 1975, but then three months later decided to relocate to Phoenix Arizona. There Bob started “Bob Wallace Cars” a repair shop for all things Lamborghini and Ferrari. He remained there until his death in 2013.
Bob Wallace may be relatively unknown to many in New Zealand. However, this softly spoken incredibly talented Kiwi’s contribution to the incredible story of how Lamborghini came to be will never be forgotten.