Back in the late ’80s something was afoot in Sant’Agata Bolognese, northern Italy. Behind closed doors and around boardroom tables, Lamborghini was planning a replacement for its Countach: a decade-old sports car that had morphed into an unashamedly vulgar status symbol for Wall Street’s nouveau riche. Overshadowed by Ferrari and Porsche, the Raging Bull needed to hit back with something revolutionary. A dream machine that would, like the Miura did in the ’60s, catapult the brand to the top of the world supercar charts. And so in 1990, the Diablo was spawned.
Named after a fighting bull that belonged to the Duke of Veragua in the 19th century, it shook the establishment like Slash turning his guitar amp up to 11. Because there was not one shred of conventional sanity in this hand-built exotic. The product of a controversial design mash-up between Marcello Gandini (responsible for the Miura and Countach) and the Chrysler Corporation (who owned Lamborghini from 1987 to 1994), the brain-melting architecture of the Diablo made it the seminal poster car for a generation of enthusiasts. Endowed with an outrageously low silhouette, scissor doors, pop-up headlights and massive side air-scoops, this Lamborghini triggered more lust and desire than Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. But this was only one side of the coin.
The most important part of the original design brief was that the Diablo had to pip the Ferrari F40 as the fastest production car in the world. This meant running up to 325km/h. A feat it just about managed thanks to a ridiculously large V12 engine. Of course this amount of horsepower shoehorned into what was still, once you peeled away that aluminium skin, a comparatively low-tech piece of machinery, gave the Diablo something of a mean reputation. Skittish, even unpredictable on the limit, the first models had no qualms about savaging the hands of their impudent yuppie owners.
Now because humans are attracted to danger, drawn towards things that have the potential to harm, it goes without saying that I’ve long wanted to meet this automotive Beelzebub face-to-face. But with only around 2884 of them having ever been built, you’ve got more chance of being struck by lightning. Fortunately I know a man named Michael Salomon: a purveyor of rare exotics who not only owns a mint 1994 VT model but has also agreed to let me take it for a spin.
“When I was six I watched The Cannonball Run starring Burt Reynolds,” Salomon explains as we walk towards his gunmetal grey Diablo. “And I was immediately sold on the Countach that was driven by a pair of cat-suited babes. Unfortunately when I started looking, Countach prices had gone a bit mad. This made the Diablo seem like a relative bargain. It’s also turned out to be far more practical than a Countach in that it is easier to live with and drive — as you’ll soon experience for yourself.” And with that I am handed the key.
After negotiating the quirky scissor-door, I drop into a bucket seat and survey my surroundings. For an extrovert piece of machinery the Diablo has a surprisingly simple cabin that’s free from any flimflam. Apart from the push-button climate control, an enormous gear knob and a small instrument binnacle stippled with many analogue dials, there isn’t much to pry your attention from the road. Which is how I like it. I also love the ceremony of willing that mid-mounted V12 into life. Unlike in your new Toyota Yaris, you can’t just turn a key and drive off. Starting a Diablo requires the priming of the fuel system. Only once this has been completed and the warning lights have extinguished are you good to go.
Twisting the ignition then awakens the demon inside: a wraith that screams through the exhaust system like it’s summoning the hounds of hell. Salomon warns that this scares the neighbours (especially on Sunday mornings) and instructs me to drive away as quickly as possible. Oh, and to avoid riding the clutch because a new one costs R70000. So after taking a deep breath and silently crossing myself, I let out the left pedal and gurgle towards the highway. And after just a few hundred metres I’m astounded at how easy this car is to pilot. The steering is light, operating the clutch doesn’t require Charles Atlas calves, and, contrary to popular belief, I can see exactly where I’m going and where I’ve been. It fact the only thing that takes any getting used to is just how low this machine rides to the asphalt. A cat’s eye reflector has you grimacing in fear of ripping off the bumper.
Now even though the Diablo feels very civilised, I start picking up a few eccentricities. Like the heater that only blows hot air and the fuel gauge that, no matter how much petrol you pour into the tank, is permanently stuck on empty. There’s more. After turning onto the M1, my window jams open and the button controlling it pops out the dash. “It’s Italian,” jokes Salomon, “I don’t expect all the electrics to work all of the time.”
But then again you don’t purchase a Diablo for its air conditioning. You buy it because it puts one of the finest V12 engines ever built mere centimetres from your spinal column. When you stoke its fire, and row carefully through that slightly clunky manual gearbox, it throws you down the road at one almighty pace. A lot has happened in the last 23 years but this machine is still impressively quick. You get the feeling that — on a long enough stretch of forgotten freeway — it would have no problem keeping up with today’s batch of hi-tech supercars. It’ll earn you a lot more approval too. Right now a man is leaning out the window of a Hilux with his iPhone in hand. “It’s an outrageous car,” Salomon admits. “One that gets responses from everyone. Although I suspect some people, especially women, probably think I am a bit of a chop. My wife has been in it once and doesn’t ever want to go in it again because of the attention it gets.”
This proves that Sant’Agata Bolognese got their recipe right — a supercar should offend and elate in equal measure. The automotive antichrist to some; others, myself included, will always regard it as the last great Lamborghini made before the firm was sanitised by the corporate might of Audi. Heaven may not approve but this is one devil worth worshipping. – Thomas Falkiner (Pics: Kevin Sutherland)