Between 1986 and 1992, Lamborghini built 300 LM002s, two of which remain in the factory's collection to this day. The right-hand drive golden (oro) example displayed in the Museum at Sant'Agata is an earlier carbureted model, while Lamborghini's black (nero) SUV is one of the just 157 fuel injected LM002s, retained from the final production year.
Chassis #12231 was restored by Polo Storico in 2016, which probably makes it the best Rambo Lambo in the world. Yet before hopping into the driver's seat, let's recap how the LM002 came to be. It should get a movie.
Ferruccio Lamborghini was done dealing with his struggling business long before the Countach went into production. He sold the brand to Swiss businessmen Georges-Henri Rossetti and René Leimer in 1972, and retired to his estate at Lake Trasimeno. Due to both the oil crisis and its infamous build quality, and despite having a fresh, Gian Paolo Dallara-designed V8 to power less expensive models, Lamborghini continued to lose money. Then, when BMW commissioned Sant'Agata to produce its first mid-engined model, the M1 for homologation purposes, the Swiss pair thought that financing a wild U.S. defense tender with the German cash would be a smart business plan. The result was the Cheetah prototype, powered by a rear-mounted Chrysler V8.
The Cheetah wasn't really a Lamborghini. The president of US based defense contractor Mobility Technology International, Rodney Pharis, handled the design. It was built in San Jose, California, and it looked rather similar to competing FMC's XR311 prototype. Due to its unfortunate weight distribution, it also handled terribly. Not that it would matter, since the U.S. was never going to buy foreign.
Lamborghini only built seven M1 prototypes before BMW of the project in April 1978. The bankrupt company was then bought by the Mimran brothers, who made their money in the food industry and had a better understanding of their investments. The Lamborghini V8 soon got tweaked by Maserati's Giulio Alfieri, who also revised the Cheetah project with the 1981 LM001.
This still rear-engined prototype was followed by the front-engined LMA concept, and since the Mimrans also launched the Countach with the 5.2 Quattrovalvole V12 in 1984, there was no question what to put into the production LM002's nose.
Lamborghini's civilian SUV was first presented at the 1986 Brussels Auto Show, and the world has never seen anything like it before. Rolling on 17-inch 345/60 Pirelli Scorpions, the LM002 offered 450 horsepower close to the redline. Those giant tires were mostly designed to float on sand, which was important given the SUV's weight of over 5700 lbs. Most of the weight came from the drivetrain and the acres of leather inside, since the LM002's tubular chassis was covered with an aluminum and fiberglass body, built in Spain.
With its all-wheel drive and three self-locking differentials, Lamborghini claimed it could conquer 120 degree gradients, or 125 mph on flat land, after sprinting to sixty in 7.8 seconds.
Now, 33 years later, chassis #12231 remains in remarkable condition, thanks to a team of seven dedicated employees at Lamborghini's Polo Storico. Standing on a frozen lake next to the strictly summer-only LM002, they told me that while restoring the Miura SVJ demanded some hand-hammering, the year-long work on the black SUV was a fairly straightforward affair. In fact, having retooled for a number of discontinued parts, their biggest challenge was respraying it, since the LM's surfaces are so large and flat, paint just wants to run.
Jumping into the cockpit of this wild 4x4 is a rare treat, yet if you've ever driven an Italian luxury car from the eighties, its gauges and switchgear will be familiar. Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Fiat used the same parts bin as Lamborghini. Of course the leather, the wooden trim and the Nardi steering wheel puts the LM002 well above a period Range Rover, or any other SUV for that matter.
Turning the key wakes the fuel-injected V12, with a promised peak at 6800rpm. There's a pair of tempting leather-wrapped Personal transfer case shifters right at hand, but for a run up the wet and cold tarmac, they aren't needed. The most important thing to remember is that the LM002 has a dogleg gearbox and a clutch that demands dedication.
Once you master the five-speed, there's not much to worry about. The steering is accurate enough considering the giant run-flat balloons you turn, and the V12 has torque at any revs. But not much power. In fact, those claimed 450 horses feel closer to 150 as the LM soldiers on, being both substantial and surprisingly small on its feet, ready for a long journey with its 45 gallon fuel tank.
Next to the engine's muted rumble, the LM's drivetrain makes similar noises to a ladder-framed truck from the seventies. Pushing hard, fourth gear can be engaged briefly before the Italian Alps throws you its next hairpin. The seating position is a throwback to when nobody cared, visibility is somewhat compromised by the giant hood scoops, but others shall take notice.
Engine temperature is normal, the alternator works, there's sufficient oil pressure, and the fuel is indicated to be somewhere between fumes and full. Lamborghini trusted me with the best LM002 in the world, and it was every bit as hilarious as I imagined. Even if much slower.
The LM002 came eight years after its initial concept, and by 1992, it must have felt hopelessly outdated. Yet coming from the only supercar company that had a go at building tractors, cars, marine engines, motorcycles, helicopters and a Formula One engine, it managed to sell in the hundreds, just before Chrysler started to look into ways of selling the whole circus.
Three decades on, there's no substitute for the Rambo Lambo.