Some said it was a dinosaur from the start. The size of it, the lack of visibility, the outrageous straight-line speed and the, er, challenging handling. Lamborghini was in trouble when it started on the Diablo, the successor to the long-in-the-tooth Countach, and in too many ways it showed.
But the Diablo also had plenty going for it. The V12 was the centrepiece of its appeal, a 500bhp monster developed from the magnificent engine that had powered the great Lamborghinis; the Miura and the Countach among them. The phenomenal noise it made was as politically incorrect as the car itself, and that’s always what the Diablo was about: an old-school devil of a car that was as intoxicating as it was infuriating.
Lamborghini, at the time financed by the Swiss-based Mimram brothers, had commissioned Marcello Gandini, creator of the Miura and the Countach, to design the new model. But in 1987 Chrysler, headed by Italo-American Lee Iacocca, bought Lamborghini, providing enough money to complete the development of the Diablo. Chrysler bosses weren’t impressed with Gandini’s designs and eventually Chrysler’s own design studio in the USA made extensive changes, smoothing the sharp edges and corners of Gandini’s version. Gandini was famously unimpressed.
The car that emerged certainly looked very different from the Countach. Its cab-forward design was reminiscent of the Group C race cars of the era, but under the skin the design was Countach, even though the spaceframe chassis was now produced in square tubing rather than round (this allowed fixings to be more easily attached). A body built mostly from composites and aluminium alloy gave great structural strength, but the restrictions of using such an old basic structure, plus more modern-day marketing requirements for air conditioning and electric windows that wound right down, meant that the Diablo weighed more than the Countach and its rivals. Remarkably, it was also two inches wider than even the girthsome Ferrari Testarossa.
Did any of this matter? When the Diablo was launched, it wasn’t the size or the weight that attracted the headlines, it was the power and the 202mph top speed. What a machine! It was the fastest genuine production car in the world.
So how did Diablo owners get on? Well, they mostly found the interior a little cramped, particularly in the narrow offset footwells, and access under the scissor doors and over the sills was hardly easy. The air conditioning wasn’t much use, the switchgear was fairly randomly placed, the dashboard horrifically ugly and the rearward visibility hopeless.
Despite the width of the rear tires, fast getaways in the early rear-wheel-drive Diablos were often marred either by the highly tuned engine bogging down or by the tires smoking themselves into oblivion, to the point that it was usually impossible to give the Diablo full throttle until it was into third gear, by which time it was already hitting well over 70mph. The gearshift wasn’t one to be rushed, either.
But of course that was (and is) the appeal of the Diablo. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted: it was a beast to be tamed by a real man. It was at least well behaved in many other ways, that fabulous engine given a new efficiency and civility with multi-point fuel injection and engine management rather than the old carburettors or Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection.
And so over the following years the reputation of the Diablo grew and, even under the shadow of newer, lighter, faster supercars, the Lamborghini remained the supercar with the mad glint in its devilish headlights.
The four-wheel-drive version, the VT, that had been planned from the outset, tamed the traction and the handling issues, but in the background there remained the same old problem: finance. Chrysler’s involvement had never seemed logical, and unsurprisingly the ungainly American behemoth lost interest in the feisty, time-consuming Latins.
A new owner emerged, the Indonesian investment group Megatech, with Lotus stalwart Mike Kimberley at the helm. It wasn’t a long-lived relationship – but then who should come along but the most level-headed Germans of all the car world, the extremely sensible Audi boys. Sure, they’d created the barmy quattro; but Audi and Lamborghini? It seemed a curious marriage back in 1998.
Nowadays we’re more familiar with the pairing, and we’re at ease with the politely barking Murcialago and Gallardo. But first Audi pushed through a redevelopment of the Diablo, the 550bhp 6.0 VT. This was a whole new Diablo, in many ways as different from the old Diablo as the Diablo had been from the Countach. Audi gave it a facelift, the front and rear ends receiving the most attention, and far more extensive use was made of carbon fibre, to the point that only the door and roof were metal (alloy and steel respectively). Magnesium was used for the new 18in-diameter wheels, for the cylinder heads and for the inlet manifolds, and the engine was bored out to 6.0 litres, with titanium con-rods (as used in the previous limited-edition Diablo GT) and a lighter crankshaft, as well as individual coil-on-plug ignition.
Equipment levels were higher, and climate control air-con came as standard. The pedals were repositioned, the seats improved and the interior was trimmed with carbon fibre. Most importantly though, the build quality was better than it had ever been.
So Audi civilised the Diablo? Errr, hardly... They simply made it the car it should always have been. Open the scissor doors (you’ll draw a crowd just doing that), drop yourself over the sill into the thinly padded seat, note the lack of legroom, wonder how you’ll ever manoeuvre this daunting machine around British roads, and laugh at the very notion of a ‘civilised’ Diablo.
It idles at 1100rpm. Noisily. Admittedly the owner of this car, Phil James, has removed silencers from the exhaust system, but no Diablo is willing to sit quietly. The clutch is heavy, the gearchange vicious when cold and the steering well assisted but lacking in feel. And when you accelerate, it feels (and sounds) like the world is ending. Praise be to the devil!
Sure, it all calms down again, and even Phil’s unleashed machine will cruise comfortably, despite an intrusive thrum at around 80mph. By 100mph you’ve left the noise behind and the Diablo is feeling as safe and stable as you could wish it to.
There’s always the feeling of weight to the Diablo, especially to the four-wheel-drive cars, which is reassuring; but the sharpness that you’d feel in an equivalent Ferrari or even the harder-edged Diablo GT is dulled by that heftiness. That’s despite wider track front and rear, the former giving greater roll stability (and also lending a more balanced look to the car). It’s hard to know what’s going on, though, and actually what is going on is highly dependent on the state of the tires and the settings of the adaptive dampers. On new tires its natural mode is understeer, which is perhaps no bad thing, but worn rear tires allow the Diablo to be steered on the throttle some more. Beware, though, for worn Diablo tires and wet roads can spell lethal aquaplaning.
Early Diablo brakes were never highly rated but the 6.0 VT’s are much-improved, fantastic until worked hard on a track, when they’re liable to fade quickly. But on the road they’re more than up to the sub-five second 0-60mph acceleration and the now-205mph top speed.
Really, what a car this is! It’s easy to think of the Diablo as the embarrassing side of the supercar genre, and it sure isn’t for the shy and retiring, but the 6.0 VT at least backs up the machismo with high-class fittings and usability. The showiness of it takes some getting used to, but, as an example of just how off-the-wall a vehicle can be, it’s up there with the maddest supercars of all. And you have to love it for that.