Diablo – Lamborghini's 500bhp V12 legend in waiting

| 3 Feb 2014

How do you reinvent a legend? That was the near-impossible question asked of Sant’Agata staff as Countach production entered its second decade in 1984. The shockwave Ferruccio’s second supercar had sent through the automotive world was still resonating, despite the fact that Lamborghini’s compatriots over at Maranello had already created machines to trump it in the form of the Testarossa and the epic 288GTO.

By 1990 the answer was ready, and the gloriously un-PC Diablo roared out in a blaze of bhp and 200mph bluster. This was to be the last full-fat Lamborghini, unfettered by practicality considerations or nannying electronics. Yet two decades on it hangs in a strange period of stasis, hiding behind the twin shadows of the Countach and the mighty Murciélago, the first fruit of Audi’s takeover of Lamborghini in 1998.

Let’s get back to the design brief for tipo 132. Task one, give it a silly name that sounds exotic, dramatic and a bit naughty – check: diablo (Spanish for the Prince of Darkness and, in Lambo tradition, purloined from a fighting bull) conjures just the right combination of power and insanity. Task two, comply with emissions and safety legislation to make the Diablo a ‘world car’ – a Lambo first. A composite-reinforced square-tube steel chassis (weighing just 66lb) and a design that paid attention to the latest Federal regs took care of safety, while the V12’s reputation as a rolling smog-factory was reduced by the addition of a three-way catalytic converter and a new Weber-Marelli injection system replacing the Countach’s sextet of gurgling carbs. The engine was an evolution of the out-going car’s proven quattrovalvole (four valves per cylinder) unit, packing a capacity boost from 5.2 to 5.7 litres to raise power from 455 to 492bhp. That was plenty to whip daddy’s performance figures, despite a 361lb weight disadvantage.

Task three, that of making the new car look truly spectacular, should have been the easiest of all. After all, Lamborghini still had a number for Marcello Gandini, author of the Countach and its Miura predecessor, in its Rolodex. It wasn’t quite so simple, however, because Gandini not only had to retain some Countach flavour (without creating a carbon-copy), but also do something about the older car’s woeful aerodynamics if Sant’Agata was to get anywhere near the 200mph headline made so important by cars such as the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959. And this was a full production model, not a limited-run special. His response was modern, handsome and sufficiently wild – so effective, in fact, that he reproduced it for ex-Lambo man Claudio Zampolli’s Cizeta-Moroder V16T. 

With the Cizeta hitting the market place two years ahead of the Diablo, Lamborghini had to rework its own car to avoid the two being too similar. An additional spanner was lobbed into the works in April 1987 when US automotive giant Chrysler added Lamborghini to its marque stable and demanded a further redesign. That was enough to delay production until 1990 – just in time for an economic downturn.

For all of the tweaks and reworkings on the drawing board, the result is still breathtaking. There really is nothing quite like seeing a Diablo nestling in a pub car park between a battered Mondeo and a Suzuki Wagon-R. It certainly doesn’t lack drama, in spite of the shape getting a whole lot more slippery as the drag coefficient was dropped from the Countach’s 0.42 to 0.31 with the aid of Chrysler’s wind-tunnel boffins. It retains the sense of theatre that marked out later examples of its forerunner, yet it’s more cohesive, less thrown together. Ducts let into the front wing-tops, the sills and the haunches aft of the rear windows are deeply sculpted, the high wing is more ‘styled’ than past ironing-board efforts, even the rear bumper is designed with channels to offer aerodynamic assistance. 

The tail has the most extreme effect, and those huge tyres inevitably dominate proceedings. Up front it’s almost dainty, with Gandini’s angular concept smoothed off to a snub nose that leads back past those long doors, the car growing muscles all the while as the alloy and composite panels wrap around the car’s V12 heart. Only the side view is a touch odd, the cab-forward passenger compartment, the drooping windows and the extra 6in added to the wheelbase making it look uncomfortably stretched, with Gandini’s signature rear wheelarch slash apologetically softened. Despite reports, the great man can’t have been too unhappy because the flank proudly sports a ‘designed by Marcello Gandini’ badge.

That touch of self-promotion from the usually shy pen-wielder is somehow appropriate, because the Diablo doesn’t lack bravado. The special-order Chrysler Banzai Blue suits it perfectly, but can’t mask the car’s vast dimensions – think Range Rover, but lower and wider – and if its extreme styling didn’t grab your attention, then the vaudeville performance of arrival certainly will. Those scissor doors rise skyward to reveal a cream leather-lined cockpit, yet somehow black cloth wouldn’t quite fit the image. The pale hide gives a pleasant ambience to a cabin that seems palatial after the Countach. Anyone over 5ft 9in will appreciate the wheelbase stretch, which allowed Lamborghini to accommodate engine, ’box and full-sized human beings in some comfort between the axles. 

Visibility is vastly improved, too – the door glasses dive down to make the mirrors usable – though you still have to pop up the headlights to get some idea of where the nose ends. Although criticised by the press when new, the interior has aged well: the seats are brilliant – thinly padded yet super-supportive – and with a bit of fiddling the reach- and rake-adjustable wheel can be positioned in such a way that all the instruments are visible. The VDO dials are dull to look at, despite the heady figures they display, and sit in a huge binnacle plonked on top of a sloping slab of stitched leather. No complaints about the finish – evidence of the ramping up of Sant’Agata quality control under new boss Chrysler.

Start up – we’ll come to the fireworks later – and that quality feel continues. The sequential fuel injection and rubber mountings for the double-wishbone suspension add new-found refinement and the car feels less truculent at low revs than a Countach. But don’t for one minute think that this Lamborghini has been sanitised. Around the time that this example was built in ’93, Lamborghini launched the four-wheel-drive Diablo VT (Viscous Traction), with a viscous coupling sending up to 25% of drive to the front when the going got slippy. This car, however, has no such trickery. Neither does it have traction control, ABS, active damping, nor any other safety net to keep you out of the scenery. 

Which means that, over the first few miles, you have to reach an agreement with the car: “Remember that I’m always in charge and I won’t bite back,” it seems to say. This is no  B-road blaster – at more than 2m wide it’s just too big – but bear that in mind and it’s better than you might imagine. For a start, the unassisted steering – power wasn’t standard until ’94 – is not the shoulder-straining chore you expect, or at least not once you get past 30mph. It does load up rapidly in corners, but the pay-off for a bit of heft at low speeds is enormous stability at the high numbers this car is capable of. Also, this kind of feel and feedback are hard to achieve when a rack is encumbered by hydraulic pumps and pulleys. The ride is reasonably supple considering how little body roll there is, and there’s a generous dose of understeer to keep you in check should you get ambitious. Only the brakes are lacklustre, and you find yourself jumping on the middle pedal earlier and pressing it harder than you’d really like in a car with such pace. You can always feel the weight shifting around behind you, too, and every time you put the power down you’re grateful for the simply enormous grip provided by those 335/35 rear Pirellis. In the wet, it’s a different story. “I either drive very slowly, or leave the car at home – it’s terrifying,” confirms owner Williams.

But so far we’ve been tiptoeing around the main event. It’s easy to compliment or criticise aspects of the Diablo experience, but everything pales into insignificance alongside that almost unbelievably charismatic V12. Forget the Ferrari comparisons, this motor doesn’t sing – stick it in a concert hall and it’ll jump off the stage and start devouring the audience. It’s a feral, intoxicating brew that blends snarls and grumbles, shouts and screams. No wonder the only music that Williams reckons is appropriate in the Diablo is Metallica’s Master of Puppets

With 428lb ft of peak torque thundering in at 5200rpm, the engine does need revs to give its best and a fast standing start is a clutch-burning, leg-aching chore. But roll it off the line, let the needle pass 3000rpm and within seconds the horizon is behind you. Use all 7000rpm and second will take you to 98mph, third to 136. And it seems appropriate to make a point of those pauses. While most transmissions provide subtle punctuation to the prose of acceleration, dipping the heavy clutch and manhandling the Diablo’s obstinate five-speeder adds a full stop and a paragraph break between each outrageous surge. But the story it tells in between is so compelling, so utterly absorbing that you can’t help but read on as numbers that ought to terrify tumble beneath the needle’s inexorable climb. Well into three figures, the car feels barely stressed and Lamborghini’s 202mph claims start to look realistic. Hell, they are: Autocar’s David Vivian and performance driving instructor John Lyon managed a genuine 201.4mph in a stock rear-drive Diablo just like this – albeit without the drag-inducing rear wing – on the unrestricted A31 autobahn near Essen in 1993.

Unfortunately, by then the Jaguar XJ220, McLaren F1 and Bugatti EB110 were lining up to take pot-shots at the Lambo’s ‘mere’ 200mph. Sant’Agata threw more power at the Diablo and put it on a diet, which was enough to keep the Devil in production for over a decade until its Audi-influenced Murciélago replacement was ready. The projected Diablo output of up to 2000 cars a year became a hollow joke, however, and it took the arrival of the entry-level Gallardo to push the factory to those kinds of heights.

Nonetheless, the Diablo deserves a place among the marque’s pantheon of greats. Better than a Countach? Yes. Better than a Murciélago? Objectively no, but boy does it have personality and, as sage Pulp Fiction gangster Jules confirmed, “personality goes a long way”.


Lamborghini Diablo

Sold/number built 1990-2001/c3000 Construction carbonfibre-reinforced square-tube steel spaceframe chassis with alloy and glass/carbonfibre composite body panels Engine mid-mounted, all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 5729cc V12, with four valves per cylinder and LIE sequential electronic fuel injection Max power 492bhp @ 7000rpm Max torque 428lb ft @ 5200rpm Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheels Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers (twin at the rear) and a/r bar Steering rack and pinion Brakes ventilated 13in front, 111/4in rear discs Wheels and tyres split-rim 81/2in (f), 13in (r) alloys, with 245/40 ZR17 (f) and 335/35 ZR17 (r) tyres Length 14ft 71/2in (4460mm) Width 6ft 81/4in (2040mm)  Height 3ft 71/2in (1105mm) Wheelbase 8ft 81/4in (2650mm) Track f/r 5ft 1/2in (1540mm)/5ft 41/2in (1640mm) Weight 3630lb (1651kg) 0-60mph 4.5 secs  Top speed 202mph Mpg 13 Price new £156,000  

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see our terms and conditions. 

Words: Alastair Clements; pictures: Malcolm Griffiths