A new lab to feed Lamborghini's need for speed

Ask my 11-year-old son to list his favorite cars and pretty quickly, he’ll reel off Lamborghini’s Murcielago Roadster. The zippy two-seater, which runs nearly $400,000, goes from zero to 62 miles per hour (or 100 kilometers per hour) in 3.4 seconds. When I told my boy I was going to chat with Lambo president and CEO Stephan Winkelmann, he asked if I could get the man’s autograph.

Lamborghini has a way of doing that with boys, and with grown men who haven’t shed that piece of them that’s still stuck at age 11. The Murcielago, the Gallardo Spyder and the new, super-exclusive Reventón Roadster look more like rockets than cars. And they move just about as fast.

Now Winkelmann is turning to the composites experts at the University of Washington in Seattle to help him get a few more miles per hour into his cars. He came to campus on Oct. 6 to open the new Automobili Lamborghini Advanced Composite Structures Lab, a facility funded largely by a company donation. That’s because Lamborghini believes that improving speed in its cars will come from making them lighter. “For Lamborghini, in the future, it will be less about increasing the power and more about reducing the weight,” Winkelmann says.

The University of Washington is one of the top composites research schools in the world, in part because of the work it’s done with aerospace giant Boeing. And Lamborghini was also drawn to the school by assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Paolo Feraboli, who worked for the car maker in 2001 and 2002. Feraboli runs the new lab.

Like most car makers, particularly luxury brands, Lamborghini’s sales have plummeted during the recession. In the first half of 2009, the company’s sales fell 37%. “It will not be a record year,” Winkelmann deadpans. But he believes the investment in the lab will pay off by reducing costs in car development. The goal is to create composites that won’t cost more than the metals currently used in Lamborghinis.

It’s hard to imagine cost being much of an issue for a company that makes cars that approach a half million dollars. But the harsh reality of the economy has forced even Lamborghini, one of the luxury brands along with Bentley and Bugatti in the Volkswagen stable, to get a bit more frugal.

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