The Real Knightsbridge

The Lamborghini Jota was an engineering masterpiece, a one-off race car built in 1970 that was crashed irreparably shortly after completion. Years later, a small team of specialist engineers rebuilt the Jota working from little more than photographs. Seth Rowden speaks to Roger Constable, the engineer who put the Jota back together

Roger Constable should probably have worked for Lamborghini. He has all of the tenacity and grit to fit Ferruccio’s mould. It was no accident then that he was involved in a project with a former Lamborghini engineer to rebuild the infamous one-off Lamborghini Jota.

Most people have never heard of the Lamborghini Jota. “Some people just walk past it and don’t really notice it. But for people who like cars and know cars, it’s one of those . . .” Roger tails off and nothing more needs to be said. We both understand what he means.

The Lamborghini Jota is a car so bound up in myth that it is first necessary to understand its origins. At a time when the Jaguar E-Type was considered fast for doing 150 mph, Lamborghini launched the Miura, a car capable of a top speed of nearly 180 mph. Roger, who owns The Car Works in Norfolk, is something of an expert on the Lamborghini Miura and when I ask him why he was chosen to work on the replica Jota project he replies, “I have worked on probably about eight Miuras for other people. So I know Miuras pretty much inside out.”

“They were ground-breaking cars. A transverse engine was pretty much unheard of. A transverse mid-engine was unheard of altogether, and this was a high-performance car with a transverse mid-engine, and a twelve cylinder as well. I don’t think anybody had ever done it before.”

Bob Wallace, who was chief test driver and one of the top engineers at Lamborghini, had worked on the Miura prototype along with two other engineers. The three of them had persuaded Ferruccio that the Miura, a road car capable of racing, was a viable option for development. After the Miura was launched, it was Bob Wallace who again approached Ferruccio with the idea to build a one-off race car version of the Miura.

“It was Bob’s idea. He got permission from Ferruccio to build what they called ‘The Hot Rod’, to build a racing version of the Miura to go and race against Enzo. The rivalry between Ferruccio and Enzo was quite strong I think. Bob Wallace and a few friends built this car in their spare time, in the evenings and at weekends.” It would eventually become known as the Jota, after the ‘J’ in the FIA appendix code for race cars.

The Jota was an engineering masterpiece. It was capable of accelerating to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds and would go on to a top speed of 190 mph. Roger says, “You can imagine a V-12 howling down the road. They used to stand outside the factory in the evenings when Bob Wallace was driving it, and listen to him go round the circuit. Not a racing circuit, but a circuit on the road. They used to know where he was, going from the nearby towns of Sant’Agata probably up to Modena!”

Lamborghini Jota

Although the Jota was complete, Ferruccio was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with it. Deciding against racing it, the Jota became, in Roger’s words, “A bit of a quirk.” It ended up being so radically different from the Miura that the only thing they ended up sharing was the same windscreen. Roger says, “Although it looks the same, the chassis is different, the suspension, the brakes, steering, fuel tanks. The engine is the same, but modified. It’s 100 bhp more. It’s got a dry sump system on it. The oil for the gearbox and the oil for the engine are two different oils, where it was only the last of the Miura SVs that were like that. And it’s a limited-slip differential, which none of the cars had. The very clever thing is that it was also 400 kg lighter than the Miura.”

Lamborghini ran into financial difficulties shortly after the Jota was built. The Jota was sold to a private buyer and left the Lamborghini factory forever. This was the beginning of the end for the Jota. Roger says, “The story I heard was that the guy who bought it used to construct motorways in Italy. The mechanic he employed to look after his cars was test driving it on a piece of motorway that wasn’t finished and he hit a strip across the road which was a step down where the motorway had stopped being resurfaced, about two inches high. He hit that and the car flipped over backwards. This is the story I have heard. The engine ended up about fifty metres away from the rest of it. It just broke into pieces, and the engine, being so heavy, just bowled off down the road on its own. I got that story from Bob Wallace, so I think it is fairly reliable.”

I ask Roger how long it existed for, before it was crashed. “I don’t know precisely. I could hazard a guess at less than a year, maybe ten months.” The car, which had burst into flames upon impact, was a complete write-off. Even the chassis was warped beyond repair. The only thing that was salvageable was the engine.

Years later, car enthusiast Piet Pulford approached Chris Lawrence to commission a hand-picked team to begin work on a replica of the Jota, with the intention of completing the project in time for Lamborghini’s 40th Anniversary in June 2003. Roger says, “We had a very short deadline of only seven weeks to get the car together and running. By the time it arrived here, most of the pieces were finished and ready, like the bodywork. It came as a rolling chassis to us, but the engine wasn’t in and it didn’t have any brakes, fuel system or oil system. It was like you would buy a kit car.”

Although all of the parts were made from scratch, the engine was salvaged from the original car. Roger says, “I believe it is the engine from the original car. It has got the right number on it anyway.”

The engine was rebuilt to its original specification in Arizona. Remarkably, it was Bob Wallace himself who rebuilt it. Roger explains, “He was the only one who knew the spec for the engine so he had to do it.” Back in the UK, the team was ready to begin work constructing it. “There were about eight of us working on it. I did the engine, the hydraulics, the engine oil system and the engine fuel system.”

After handing the engine over, Bob Wallace — a candid New Zealander — gave Roger some kind words of advice before leaving him and the rest of the team with the huge task of building the car. Bob said to Roger, “Don’t bloody make it like I made it mate, it was bloody rubbish.” Roger laughs as he remembers this, telling me that Bob was a real character as well as a great driver in his day. Ironically, making it like Bob made it was exactly what the team had to do.

Making matters even more complicated, there were no drawings for the original Jota. “They didn’t do it like that originally, building a one-off. They just made it. The owner provided us with many photographs of what was fitted and where it was fitted.”

Lamborghini Jota

Chris Lawrence was the main constructor of the body and chassis work. This stage was challenging, with the team having to work together to effectively build the car from scratch. Roger says, “Everything was new. It’s not like an ordinary Miura. The actual metalwork for the chassis is thinner; everything is thinner. The bodywork was also different in that it lifts off in sections rather than hinging up, because there is no inner frame to the bodywork. It fits on like a racecar. It’s a very soft thin alloy, to make it as light as possible.”

The level of detail was obsessive. If they were going to build a car worthy of Lamborghini’s approval, it would have to be a perfect replica. “We even counted the right number of rivets,” Roger explains. “Along the roof, it has twenty-seven rivets. So we needed to put in twenty-seven rivets. Work out spacing and go from there. Everything was done like that.”

Although the wheels that were used on the original Jota were no longer available, Piet Pulford eventually managed to contact the foundry where they were made. The foreman at the foundry was reportedly told to destroy the patterns, but had instead taken them home with him. Remarkably, they were able to use these patterns to make a new set of wheels.

The tyres also had a similar story behind them. Roger says, “The tyres for the car were not available anymore. So it’s got Avon slick tyres and the Dunlop pattern is cut into them.”

With such a tight deadline, there was no margin for error. “The only slight problem we had was with the rear brake calipers. Getting the offset right on the brake caliper and making the handbrake cables go inside the wheels rather than rub on the wheels. When you are building a prototype, that sort of thing is going to happen. The fact that it was all connected first time with no oil leaks or water leaks was almost unbelievable.”

The project was finally finished in June 2003, ready to be taken over to Italy for the 40th Anniversary. Piet Pulford had not yet seen the finished car, and he was already at the Lamborghini factory waiting for the new Jota to arrive. Roger says, “They unloaded it from the back of this truck. He [Piet] was just stunned. It was like he had been cattle-prodded. He had a little weep.”

As well as being an emotional experience for the owner, it was also a significant moment for Lamborghini. They were finally presented with a real — down to the last rivet — replica of the lost Lamborghini Jota, with the engine remade by their original engineer, Bob Wallace. “The factory accepted it as the remanufacture of the vehicle that they would have done if they had the money to do it. So it’s been accepted by Lamborghini as the replacement.”

Considering the tireless hours of work and the skill that made this car possible, I wanted to know if Roger had any idea how much the project cost. “The owner said he gave up counting at quarter of a million. It had to be finished. Carry on.”

Roger was the first person to drive the replica Jota. “Have you ever driven a Ferrari Daytona?” He asks. “It’s not like a Daytona. They are hard work; the clutch is heavy, the gear change is heavy. This is not like that at all. It’s very easy to drive, and handles superbly.”

Then there is the noise. Roger says, “It’s a very Italian noise. If you drove it past someone and asked them what country it came from, they would say Italy.” It could only be Italy.

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