The cars we loved.
The Countach set high standards forty years for supercars, so much so that it became everyone’s ideal of an exotic well after its lifecycle. Lamborghini’s relentless struggle with Ferrari would see them one up each other, but at some point it became clear that the Countach, a car based on 1970’s engineering could not keep up with the new breed of supercar like Ferrari’s striking 390 hp Testerossa.
A new Countach LP500S did its best to match Ferrari’s four valve per cylinder technology, but it became clear that the Countach could go only so far. Work had started on a Contauch replacement before the American based Chrysler Corporation got a controlling stake in Lamborghini. It was assumed that its influence would produce improved reliability if nothing else.
It was a bull market for the supercar, with each new one costing more and buyers seemed to be lining up to get them. In this crazy atmosphere, Lamborghini was seen as a way to boost Chrysler’s bottom line while being a source of prestige that would at some point rub off on cars from the Viper to the Neon.
But Chrysler would also be interested in design, so much so that an early design from Marcello Gandini, (the designer of the Countach) would be rejected in favor of a more Yankee influence. The resulting change of direction saw Tom Gale’s Detroit based design team working with Lamborghini’s team in Italy.
The first product of this design collaboration came with the Portofino show car unveiled at the 1988 Frankfort Auto show. There are conflicting reports suggesting that the design was a proposal for a new Lamborghini sports sedan, but was rejected. Either way, it became the design influence for Chrysler’s LH sedans.
While not completely rejected, Lamborghini used elements of the Portfiono’s design for its Countach replacement, the Diablo. The Diablo became one of the first Lamborghinis to benefit from computer aided development. The new processes sped up the development of the Diablo considerably compaired to previous Lamborghini projects. Before, all Lamborghini’s were hand built, although some processes are still done by human hands, they are augmented by efficient robots and computers.
The final product stayed faithful to the spirit of Gandini’s initial design by remaining low and wide with a striking cab forward appearance. The mid-engined car looked every bit the part of a supercar. A 5.7-liter V12 sat behind the driver, obscured by rear facing vents. Initial cars had 483 hp that was sent to the rear wheels via a 5-speed gearbox. Later, Lamborghini would roll out a VT (viscous traction) model that featured on demand four wheel drive. Through the 90’s a string of models would be introduced with some producing as much as 495 hp (SE30 Jolta). By the end of the 1990’s there were more than 5 variations of Diablo, including a roadster.
Special effort was made in making the Diablo more comfortable and user friendly inside. A somewhat simplified dashboard was highlighted by a double tiered instrument pod. The few buttons and switches were placed within easy reach of the driver. Like many exotics, the seat separation was exaggerated by the high tunnel for the transmission. A minimal glove compartment inside complimented the small storage space in the front of the car . Diablos obviously were not designed for long trips and the luggage that usually comes along for the ride.
One of the Diablo’s more distinct features was its alloy wheels that used a five hole design that assisted in break cooling. At 17 inches, they were wider in back to aid rear wheel traction. Other versions of the Diablo would use rim styles that stayed true to the 5- hole motif.
Like its namesake, the Diablo could be a ferocious bull to drive. 0 to 60 in 4 seconds and a quarter mile was swallowed up in 12 seconds (at 127mph). The Diablo’s 3,575 pounds of exotic metals were designed with speed in mind, a true race car for the street if you will. Unlike Ferrari, Lamborghini is always for the street as they are not officially raced by the factory.
While not for the timid, speed is there those brave enough to take it. Test track speeds of 201 mph have been reached, but in real world practice, its was much more difficult to tame a typical rear wheel drive Diablo at such high velocities. The VT model was a notable exception. Lamborghini went to some lengths to make the Diablo more comfortable inside than the Countach. The Italians were aiming for a broader market, one that might consider using the Diablo for more than just auto show events. Chrysler could take Lamborghini only so far and after being in trouble itself , would scale down its investment in the company.
During the evolution of the Diablo, Lamborghini’s ownership passed from Chrysler to (eventually) Audi in 1999. Audi’s changes to the Diablo were substantial in that reliability was increased. As looks go, the changes were more subtle, most noticeable a switch from pop up to fixed headlights. An overall refreshing gave the Diablo a more modern appearance, as it competed with a growing field of exotics. It would continue until 2001 when it was replaced by the Murciélago, a car that put Lamborghini on solid footing to compete with Ferrari and better meet customers reliability expectations.