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Lamborghini’s Off Road Dreams: Part One From Cheetah to Wild Bull

 

A few Sunday mornings ago, I made my way south to Huntington Beach for the Cars and Copters Show. On display was the usual Southern-California mix of supercars. Christian Koenigsegg and David Lee posed for photos and graciously signed autographs as they were mobbed by car aficionados of their respective tribes. 

Despite finding it hard to ignore the “five-year-old” who spent 15 minutes driving around the parking lot “revving his Aventador”, I was almost magnetically pulled away from the bustle towards a fleck of white at the other end of the lot. I had spotted it from afar, memories from when I was eleven years old flickering away happily in my brain. Even from one hundred yards the silhouette was unmistakable. As I approached, it seemed there was nothing immediately behind it but then there appeared a brand new Urus, wilting in the shadow of Lamborghini’s most outrageous car ever. 

Despite what most of the public believe, the Urus is not the company’s first SUV. It has been hailed as a game-changer for Lamborghini. Sales are predicted to reach 3-4000 units[1]per year worldwide many of which Lamborghini expects to be sold in Southern California. But things were not always that way in Sant’Agata. 

In the 1970’s the Italian supercar world was in crisis. Ferrari had been the first to seek investment from a larger automotive group and after a long courtship with Ford had fallen into the arms of FIAT. Maserati had been acquired by the already ailing Citroen in 1968[2], and so Lamborghini was the last man standing, but just barely. Ferruccio Lamborghini had sold 51 % of his shares in Lamborghini SpA to Georges – Henri Rosetti, a Swiss industrialist in 1971[3]. The oil crisis of 1973’s darkened the horizon still further and the founder got out all together selling his remaining interests to another Swiss businessman, Rene Leimer.[4]

Lamborghinis’ new owners fought tooth and nail to keep the company afloat but despite the Countach LP400 selling well, cash flow remained a problem, limiting the firm’s ability to buy raw materials for production that resulted in a waiting list of up to two years. In many cases cars would spend months on the European show-car circuit before being delivered to customers. 

In 1976 a ray of light came through the clouds when BMW asked the company to build the M1 for the DRM series (Deutsche Transport Meisterschaft) which was dominated by Ford and Porsche at the time. The Germans lacked production capacity for the job while that of the Italians was underutilized. It seemed like a match made in heaven. Thanks to the intersession of Gianpaolo Dallara, Jochen Neerpasch of BMW’s newly founded M-GMBH and Franco Baraldini of Lamborghini reached an agreement to build the 400 street-cars required to homologate the racing version for Group IV racing. The lucrative contract finally convinced the Italian government to provide financial aid to the company. [5]

While BMW provided some breathing room, sales of Lamborghini models continued to dwindle causing suppliers to demand cash payments in advance which further strangled production. As the bleakness returned, Rene Leimer embarked on a project unlike anything the company had ever done. 

In 1975 Franco Baraldini had come across a remarkable design concept in the USA that reminded him of a Countach. It looked something like an overgrown Meyers Manx dune buggy. It was a development project by FMC (Food Machine Corporation) in accordance with US government specs for a Jeep replacement. Unfortunately the military could not agree on an order and designers Bard Johnson and Rodney Barnes Pharis had left FMC and were actively looking for someone to build their prototype. Through his contacts at Chrysler, Baraldini made contact and in early 1976 he had signed a contract with the two Americans to make their design a reality.[6]

The designers set up a Californian company named Mobility Technology International and a year later the “Cheetah” was close to completion.  At 15 feet long, 6.2 feet wide and less than 5.4 ft. high, with a rear - mounted Chrysler V8 engine, all supported by a tubular space-frame chassis and clad in aluminum, the new off – roader looked like nothing else on the market. Features like permanent 4WD with three differentials as well as independent suspension and disk brakes all around made it stand out from the rather antiquated competition consisting of the solid axle Toyota Land Cruiser, Land Rover, Range Rover, soon to be joined by the equally cart-like MB Geländewagen.[7] Below: Cheetah in its Natural Habitat (All Photos my own of pages from Automobile Revue or Pfannmüller, Matthias: Best Job In The World: Lamborghini Test driver Valentino Balboni Hardcover)

 

The shock and amazement at the 1977 Geneva car show was palpable. The public and press alike were left speechless but most remained in the dark as to the details since brochures were in Arabic. Leimer had good contacts in the Middle East and saw them as the primary customer base for the car. There was much interest from Syria and Saudi Arabia with potential customers wanting to see the vehicle’s all terrain capabilities. Lots of orders would follow, they promised.[8]

Testing started immediately after the Geneva show. The torsion bars mounted lengthwise between the axles tended to rip out of their housings and it became clear that there was still a long way to go before the car would be ready for prime time. In fact the whole project was doomed from the beginning. By the time testing started Baraldini had already left the company after discovering that Leimer had not the financial resources to fulfill both the BMW M1 contract and complete the Cheetah project. Baraldini had put his name to both contracts and now his reputation was in jeopardy. All he could do was leave. MTI in California had also become aware of Lamborghini’s problems but there was very little they could do without incurring sever penalties.  Nevertheless Leimer and Rosetti were determined to push ahead with both projects.[9]

By June 1977 the first BMW M1 prototypes were ready. Valentino Balboni, Lamborghini’s legendary test driver drove them from Sant’Agata to Munich in broad daylight without any exterior badging. The Germans seemed satisfied and Lamborghini began to build two cars a week. If all went well, the contract would be complete by autumn 1978.[10]

But in the middle of 1977 the relationship with MTI was close to dead. Meanwhile, Johnson and Pharis had had enough and demanded their prototype back. Balboni drove the barely roadworthy open off - roader to Frankfurt airport in the freezing rain and on passing a lorry in the opposite direction there was a suction sound and all four doors went flying. As Balboni picked up his doors from the road a man in an S Class Mercedes came to a screeching halt nearby and completely unbothered by the pouring rain stared at the Cheetah and demanded what kind of car it was. In his biography Balboni says “…Its incredible, that trip is still as clear to me as if it was yesterday – its like a movie I cant turn off.”[11]With or without doors, the car made an impression. 

Meanwhile unwilling to give up on his 4WD dreams Rene Leimer diverted the money from the BMW M1 contract to in - house development of the Cheetah and asked the Italian government for help. The government refused, unwilling to finance another hair-brained project by the long-moribund company. Undeterred, Leimer persevered and as disco fever crossed the Atlantic to Europe he made one last trip in the other direction to meet Pharis and Johnson in California. Her wanted to buy the rights to the Cheetah along with the prototype but had nothing to give in return but promises and projections. Pharis and Johnson refused but they too were out of options. While they had been dancing with Sant’Agata the Pentagon had finally decided on a successor to the Jeep.[12]Ironically the HMMWV or Humvee as it would become known looked very similar to the Cheetah but had been designed and would be built by AM General the military contracts arm of AMC who by then owned the Jeep brand. 

To make matters worse, BMW finally lost their patience and were now working with former Lamborghini engineers at ItalEngineering to produce the M1. Chassis frames from Marchesi were joined with fiberglass bodies by T.I.R. and the whole was shipped to Karroseriefabrik Bauer in Stuttgart to be mated to the BMW drivetrain.[13]Bauer had been making convertible tops for BMW since the 1930’s and BMW by then surely wanted to keep a close eye on the already much delayed project.

In the summer of 1978 Lamborghini’s fortunes reached an ultimate low and Swiss investors Leimer and Rosetti threw in the towel, declaring bankruptcy. Insolvency administrator Alessandro Artese, a local from Bologna, was designated company Director and given six months to determine if Lamborghini was salvageable or not. Meanwhile Leimer and Rosetti put feelers out to see who could be convinced to take their problem child off their hands.  Autocar Magazine in Great Britain reported that Aston Martin were interested and Leimer travelled to Newport Pagnell to finesse the deal while Rosetti hinted there were other interested parties standing by with cash in hand. But Alan Curtis, new owner of the storied British firm refused to bite.[14]

In late 1978 as smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel, announcing the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II, it dawned on bankruptcy judge Artese that he could not handle the management of Lamborghini on his own. By a confluence of luck and farsightedness, he appointed legendary Maserati man, Giulio Alfieri as managing director in early 1979. [15]

The sire of legends such as the 250 F, Cooper-Maserati F1 car and the Type 60/61 “Birdcage” infused new hope into the dwindling work force and set to work on earning some much needed short - term cash. Ever the pragmatist he was willing to axe all models but the Countach and abase the company to such tasks as the license manufacture of the Brazilian version of the lowly Fiat 127 called the 147 ‘Rustica”.[16]

While Lamborghini’s dire situation was becoming common knowledge the customer base showed more loyalty than ever. In March 1979 the ILOC (International Lamborghini Owners Club) was established with the Lamborghini Club de France as well as the Lamborghini Owners Club and Lamborghini Club America following soon afterwards. To a large extent it was this show of loyalty from the customer base that kept Lamborghini going from 1978 – 1980.[17]

As Rosetti sank into depression wanting nothing to do with his wounded bull, Leimer kept the Swiss import company Lamborghini Suisse SA going. In August 1979 Alessandro Artese agreed to a tenure agreement with two German investors, Dr. Raymund Neumann and a former Lamborghini dealer Hubert Hahne. They along with five other investors had promised Artese they would save the company but soon Hanhne, Neumann and another investor Zoltan Reti were at each other’s throats and once again Lamborghini hung by a thread.[18]

The human brain is kept firing on all synapses by a constant supply of sugar.  Similarly, in 1980 when Lamborghini was once again on the ropes and even Artese was ready to give up, salvation came from the sugar kings of Africa; Patrick and Jean-Claude Mimran.[19]

Their father, Jacques Mimran, a Sephardic Jew from Morocco had already made a fortune before World War 2 . After it was confiscated during the war by the Vichy French, Jacques persevered as head of various flour mills in Morocco and finally in 1946 he set up his first mill in Dakar in the Senegal. It would take another ten years before his dream of providing flour to the urban centers of sub-Saharan Africa would come to fruition. The company would expand first to the Ivory Coast with the founding of the Grand Moulin’s D’Abidjan and then begin to diversify into the sugar industry in the early seventies. Very soon Jacques had created a 10,000 hectare sugar cane plantation at Richard Atoll in the desert of Northern Senegal and Compagnie Sucrière Sénégalaise was founded.[20]

Jacques passed away in 1975 and would sadly never see his sons Jean-Claude and Patrick putting their sucrose energy to work saving the automotive soul of Sant’Agata Bolognese.  According to Valentino Balboni who by virtue of his steadfastness and loyalty has become something akin to the living spirit of Lamborghini; “At the beginning we did wonder if it would work . The Mimrans were young, they turned up in jeans and t-shirts and long hair, up until that point we’d only ever had to deal with suits.”[21]But it worked. 

By order of Judge Mirone, the Mimrans had a three year lease agreement for the company during which time he would assess their progress in turning things around. Then at the end of three years they would be given the opportunity to buy the company via a public sale. The first step was to create a completely new organization and Artese kicked things off by firing the whole workforce, rehiring them the next day under the auspices of Nuova Lamborghini SpA. While this was mainly a financial maneuver, it served as a psychological shock to the system which according to Balboni, galvanized the factory into action. 

The Mimran’s French confidant Emile Novaro became president and together with the legendary Alfieri the company was stabilized within weeks. According to Balboni; “We had seen everything, but Patrick Mimran and Emile Novaro didn’t talk very much – they just got on with the job. That was new and won people over very quickly.”[22]

Alfieri was putting the finishing touches to a new car to be launched at the 1981 Geneva Motor Show. The Jalpa P350 was an evolution of the Urraco and Silhouette with Bert one responsible for the redesign.  It would go head to head with the Lotus Esprit and Porsche 911 and the trade press reacted well to the new entry level Lambo.[23]Even “Rocky Balboa” took a liking to it as a Jalpa starred as his personal car in the movie Rocky IV.[24]Lamborghini’s association with Sylvester Stallone would soon carry over to a long dormant project re-launched simultaneously with the Jalpa.

On the same Lamborghini stand in Geneva in 1981 stood an almost cartoonish - looking off roader with a family resemblance to the failed Cheetah. Christened LM001 (Lamborghini Militare 001), the project had been resurrected as the result of a request by the Saudi border police in 1979 for a prototype off roader. The car was designed in the image of the Cheetah and the Saudi’s wanted to see it in desert testing as soon as possible. Balboni who was tasked with chaperoning the prototype to Arabia was very impressed with the initial test drive in Sant’ Agata although the car began to overheat terribly. The problem was remedied by cutting extra air vents in the body-work and it was off to Jeddah. On the flat sand the vehicle performed admirably but the first dune sent it into a multiple backwards rollover. Balboni escaped unscathed but it was clear that the rear - engined layout was not working. On returning to Italy the team began work on a modified front-engined car with “the horse before the cart” as Enzo Ferrari had once famously insisted. But time was ticking and the Kuwaitis now wanted to see a functional prototype and were promising an order of 3000 units which sounded like manna from heaven to the long suffering company.[25]

In autumn 1981 the front engine version of the LM001 was ready for testing. It was christened the LMA for the benefit of the security staff at the factory gate who needed to keep track of all cars that left and entered the premises. They had seen the Cheetah and the rear engine LM001 and with the addition of this next strange - looking beast were having a hard time telling them all apart.[26]

 

(Below: Valentino Balboni teaching the LMA to drift. With small shots of its somersault - prone progenitor the rear engined LM001)

 

 

 

The 5511.5 lb. LMA would grace the 1982 Geneva stand along with a revamped Countach now called the LP 500 S. In April 1982 the Jalpa was launched at the Turin show and at the Monaco Grand Prix that year Patrick Mimran made sure a Jalpa was seen driven by Formula One Champion Stirling Moss. But with his innate feel for publicity Mimran also brought an LMA to Monaco and soon it was draped in lingerie-clad Penthouse and Playboy centerfolds and had been christened the “Rambo-Lambo”. [27] Below left: Patrick Mimran wearing a Texas Tuxedo looking overjoyed to receive a pair of Lamborghini - branded tighty-whities. Blow right: Valentino Balboni and the LMA, being asked for credentials by the police. He never got a ticket. On the upper right a fully loaded LMA making a splash at Monaco.) 

 

 

Apart from being a PR sensation the LMA was an immense improvement over its predecessors and Balboni felt confident enough to take it back to Saudi Arabia for more testing.  Apart from malfunctioning carburetors and a slipping clutch the tests went off without a major hitch and according to Balboni “The LMA was no comparison to the LM001 – it was much better. What we managed to achieve with the car defied belief – we could cross any kind of terrain, it took steep inclines in its stride and deep mud was no problem – there were no limits to what it could do….”[28]

Everything had come together right on time and it was finally possible to produce a functional demonstrator vehicle for potential clients like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to see. They were delighted and the LMA outperformed everything the competition at Toyota, Land Rover and even mighty Daimler-Benz had to offer. Both Saudi and Kuwait were poised to sign on the dotted line. But then the Iran vs. Iraq war began to escalate and in 1982 as a second oil- crisis raged, Saudi Arabia attempted to broker negotiations between the two bellicose states. As if in the blink of an eye Saudi and Kuwait had much bigger fish to fry and the desire for an exotic Italian off roader waned. Once again like so many times in the preceding decade Lamborghini was left hanging in the wind.[29]

In order to fulfill the anticipated orders from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait quickly, they had already ordered components for 300 vehicles and had taken on the extra labor required to assemble the vehicles.  Having seen the impression the vehicle had made on the Jet-Set in Monaco, Alfieri and Novaro switched gears and converted what was to be a military vehicle into a luxury off-roader.[30]

In order to make it work Alfieri had to modify the Countach’s V12’s engine bloc and tune it for more torque. According to a request by Patrick Mimran, the mounting points between the chassis and the body were raised by 1.2 inches which significantly improved interior headroom with thicker external sill - covers the only give - away.[31]

By the summer of 1983 Balboni and the LMA “Lusso” (Never an official suffix. But one used by Ferrari on its more civilized models) could be seen not cresting sand dunes in Saudi Arabia but steered by Balboni on the Nardó high speed test track honing its on road manners. There were rumors that Italian diesel specialist VM would supply a version with a 150 hp six cylinder diesel engine but in the end it never happened as the engine lacked the torque necessary to budge a vehicle of that size.[32]

It was all for the best. As Madonna’s “Holiday” came over the airwaves in the fall of 1983 Sant’Agata was building the greatest SUV of all time, the LM 004/7000. By then Alfieri and Mimran had decided to use the marine version of the company’s V12 engine, enlarged to a total displacement of 7 liters. With its 442 lb ft of torque at 3500 rpm and 420 hp at a relatively low 5400 rpm it enabled the 5952.5 lb beast to reach 60 mph in 11.5 seconds, power up 100 percent inclines and ford streams up to three feet in depth. The 365/60 size tires seemed more at home on a steamroller and the fact that they were bulletproof and had been specially designed for the vehicle by Pirelli just added to the list of utter superlatives.[33] (Below: specs for the LM 004 / 7000 from the author's copy of the 1985 Automobile Revue Geneva Car Show Catalogue.)

 

 

In the spring of 1984 when Thomas L Bryant tested it for Road and Track he described the experience thus; “At high speeds – 100mph or so- the Lamborghini feels so smooth you find you want to keep checking the speedometer to make sure you’re really going this fast. This is terrific fun.”[34]

In the Spring of 1984 the Jalpa was up for a facelift which was well received but Balboni was still not satisfied with the LM 004. The torque output was still too low and came on too high in the rev range, which exacerbated the already exorbitant fuel consumption of the vehicle. The 290 liter gas tank made only little difference. The cylinder capacity was reduced and in March 1986 the serial production car was finally launched with a carbureted V12 making 455 hp with AC and power steering standard. The extraordinary vehicle was only ever built to order and among the first customers was King Hassan of Morocco. A few others were delivered to Saudi Arabia, Oman and Zaire. The Sultan of Brunei, one of the world’s biggest car collectors had his modified as a station - wagon. To the public at large it was called the LM002.[35]

LM’s stopped traffic wherever they appeared. For a time they were all the rage in Paris but despite all the hype, blood sweat and tears that had been poured into the project, the LM’s yearly sales figures never surpassed double digits. In 1987 sales peaked at around 80. According to Patrick Mimran, “Perhaps the LM was before its time and we should have waited.” Clauspeter Becker of Auto Motor und Sport was less flattering still. “If you haven’t experienced torque, then here is an opportunity to feel torque, feel it in your arms, your upper body, indeed your whole body, cranking that tiny Nardi steering wheel is physical hard labor – a 52 foot turning circle means that there are corners everywhere and that keeps you busy.”[36]

In any case the car remains unique today as it was then. I can still remember seeing the first pictures of the LM 004 in the 1985 edition of Auto Revue’s Geneva Car Show Catalog. Even for a consummate ten - year - old car nut such as myself, who had perused almost every car magazine extant and had been lucky enough to experience big block V8’s in America at an early age, the LM004/7000 even in black and white looked extraordinary.[37] (Below: Black and white image from Automobile Revue Catalogue.)

 

That day in Huntington Beach, as I stood snapping upwards of one hundred photos of the white “Rambo Lambo”, a man in a black Lamborghini polo shirt stood commandingly in the pickup bed from where he had been taking snapshots of his own. As I waited for him to step off what I was trying to capture so artistically, we started chatting and I made the acquaintance of Pietro Frigerio - Dealer Principal of Lamborghini and McLaren of Newport Beach https://www.lambonb.com. He was ever so patient despite me being the hundredth punter to stand open mouthed before his baby. In the end he invited me to come and drive the beast. “She’s a handful,” he said. “You’re going to have to take the bull by the horns.” (Below: Pietro Frigerio contemplating lesser supercars from above.)

 

 

I made it down to Newport to fulfill a boyhood dream the next week and my experience was the positive of that of Clauspeter Becker. The LM002 is the raging toroI expected but contrary to Becker’s moaning about torque – induced body aches, to me it was an exquisite pleasure to drive an exotic the requires some skill, finesse and manhandling. (Below: The fine result of Italian/American Cooperation.)

 

 

Below: "Those pesky grandkids; always sticking their nose where it doesnt belong."

 

 

The video of my adventure as well as Pietro’s narrative interspersed with my grinning exclamations will follow in the next installme