It’s only rarely that I remember meeting someone for the first time. In Valentino Balboni’s case, the truth is very different. It was 31 October 2006, the mist hanging over the industrial buildings of Sant’Agata Bolognese – and Balboni was driving a red 1964 Lamborghini 350 GT with a gentle smile playing across his grey stubble, his eyes narrowed to slits. “Valentino does his job with the casual attitude of a postman on his rounds – the only difference being that we overtook a truck at 230km/h. On the wrong side of the road. In a bend.” So I wrote in my notebook later, after the tingling in my fingers had somewhat subsided. And I added, “Why has nobody discovered this man as the ideal star of a Spaghetti Western?”
That Balboni did not land a job with Sergio Leone, but in Ferruccio Lamborghini’s company instead, is ultimately thanks to the heavenly inspiration of don Alfredo Pizzi who, in 1968, lived in Balboni’s home village, but came originally from Sant’Agata. Pizzi wasn’t averse to the automotive pleasures of life, so he took some teens, including 18-year-old Valentino, to visit Lamborghini. Valentino applied for a job, got it, and started at the very bottom. He didn’t even have a driving licence, but that didn’t prevent him ‘testing’ customers’ repaired cars – mainly 400 GT, Espada or Islero – within Lamborghini’s own premises. His role model at the time was Lamborghini’s legendary chief test driver, Bob Wallace.
By 1971 he’d become a mechanic, and was increasingly driving test laps in customers’ cars. The reaction from the boardroom was initially irritation, but eventually they came to see him as an asset… and Balboni was allowed to start testing current Lamborghinis alongside Bob Wallace. Two years later, he achieved his goal: technical director Paolo Stanzani arranged for him to have a licence that enabled him to test-drive the cars alone, on public roads.
A licence at last
New licence in hand, Balboni headed that same evening to the customer service department and selected a Miura SV in which to drive, alone in a car for the first time, along the route he would follow for the next 35 years, testing almost all the company’s prototypes and 80 per cent of all Lamborghinis built. The route goes from the factory premises at Via Modena, towards Nonantola and then past Bomporto to Finale Emilia. “I just went for a drive with no destination in mind and none of the usual time pressure,” recalls Balboni. "What has remained is the incredible feeling of travelling alone by car.”
The Miura remained his great love – but there was little time for pleasure rides: Balboni’s task was to coordinate the testing of each freshly assembled sports car. Often the mechanics would hear him from a distance, as Balboni’s evening test drives made sure everything was in order: first gear, second, third, fourth, fifth, a short time at full revs – and then they knew that everything was all right, that they could pack up and go home. But things didn’t always go smoothly: in May 1978, testing a customer’s Countach, he had just reached 180km/h when a truck appeared from nowhere. Balboni rolled several times, and was only able to exit through the side window by using a fire extinguisher. But the test driver was lucky: the accident left him with only a few scratches.
The face of Lamborghini
In the 1980s, Balboni was the only test driver who was simultaneously employed in prototype development, production and customer service at Lamborghini. He became the face of the brand and an ambassador for Lamborghini. In the 1990s, Sant’Agata began production of the Diablo – and prominent customers in the USA, Japan and the Arab states often insisted on meeting Balboni in person, to hear about their new car directly from the chief test driver.
Today, Balboni leads the life of an ‘elder statesman’ – and, despite retiring, he is still proud to be known worldwide as ‘Mister Lamborghini’, a witness to both the founding era of Ferruccio Lamborghini and to the age of carbonfibre. Anyone who has ever sat beside him in the passenger seat, their palms sweaty and their heart pounding, will never forget the experience.
Photos: Balboni Archive, Umberto Guizzardi, Günther Archive, Armin Johl, Automobili Lamborghini Archive, Rainer Schlegelmilch