As Lamborghini reveals plans for a new SUV, Matt Saunders revisits the big, bellowing V12 LM002, the firm’s first stab at a luxury 4x4

There’s something deeply sinister about the sight of a Lamborghini LM002 rolling to a stop at a petrol pump.

As if the angry rasp and spit of its old-school V12 engine weren’t foreboding enough to make you recoil, the car’s incredible bulk and science-fiction-mutant styling certainly will – in protection of your internal organs, mainly. In situ at the trough, spluttering away at idle, with superminis and family hatches fleeing in all directions, this thing looks like a cuckoo chick in a robin’s nest: fat, noisy, wild for a feed.

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Owner Jane Weitzmann has already fuelled it once this morning, but there’s still room for £100 of premium unleaded without any sign of it approaching the neck of the tank. It’s quite a tank: 290 litres, 64 imperial gallons, a £400 fill. There must be petrol stations with less capacity. And that’ll last you just 500 miles in an LM002 – if you drive like a night-shift private hire hero with an unusual fixation for coasting. Today, given the opportunity to drive one of the automotive sphere’s most intriguing curios, I’m not planning on doing that.

This opportunity is something I never should have had – not on the road, at least, and not without 14 weeks’ training by the Royal Armoured Corps. Because the LM002 was a military project gone wrong. Really, it was designed to wear three-inch plating and roar across war-torn terrain with a machine gun bolted to the roof. It just so happened that, by the early 1980s, neither Ronald Reagan nor Muammar Gaddafi was inclined 
to put in a bulk order, the US preferring the even bigger and more butch Humvee. And so Lamborghini bosses the Mimran brothers, who had taken control of the company while it was in receivership and were desperate for pragmatic routes to recovery, turned the failed army special into a road car.

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The LM002 had an eventful gestation. Originally dubbed the Cheetah, earliest versions were powered by a rear-mounted V8 engine whose location resulted in a weight distribution so problematic that it caused the US army to inadvertently roll its only prototype into a very small, very heavy ball – or so the story goes. The car was also the subject of a legal action by the US’s FMC corporation, which believed it to be a carbon copy of its XR311 – another would-be military vehicle. Combined, the two controversies led Lamborghini to abandon the rear-mounted V8 for a front-mounted V12 and pretty effectively killed its hopes of making a success of the Cheetah as a specialist forces machine.

By 1986, however – fitted out with wood and leather and as many in-car gadgets as the world really knew about at the time – the ‘civvie’ LM002 was launched. It had a 444bhp 5.2-litre Countach engine, a tubular steel spaceframe and all-independent suspension. Its Pirelli Scorpion tyres were designed to support the car’s 2.7 tonnes when almost flat. It could crack 60mph in less than eight seconds. At the time it must have seemed less like a normal 4x4 than an extra-terrestrial planetary exploration buggy from a comic book.

Which is pretty much what it looks like now. Weitzmann’s car is one of only a handful in the UK; the LM was left-hand drive only and never officially sold in Britain. Built in 1993, it’s an ‘LE American’, one of the last 60 off the line, and – says Weitzmann – with a Diablo-spec engine and a few interior upgrades. Amazingly, it’s not even the strangest car in her custody. Weitzmann is the curator of a collection of unusual metal available for hire to the TV and film industry (jhwclassics.com) and also looks after an Aston Martin Lagonda, a three-wheeled Carver One and an Amphicar 770.

Weitzmann, a former competitive trials off-roader, admits that she’s drawn to big, purposeful-looking cars. “I do appreciate that you have to be a bit odd to really want an LM002,” she says. “But I like the weird and wonderful.”

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Question is, in this outrageous case in particular, does the wonderful outweigh the weird? Climb up into the LM002’s angular, leather-heavy cabin and you’ll find it not so much spacious as just about spacious enough. There’s room up front for big adults, but you’ll struggle in the back if you’re the size of yours truly. The wide centre console runs across both rows, making the car a strict four-seater, and highlights of the fascia include a preposterously small three-spoke supercar steering wheel and rows and rows of chunky, square 1980s switchgear.

Driving the car at low speeds takes physical effort. The luxury 4x4 was still in its infancy when Lamborghini locked in the design and specification of the LM002, which may be why, in reference to big, plush, modern SUVs, the car seems so demanding. Its steering is heavy, the clutch pedal heavier still and slow of action. The engine is truculent and easy to stall, which isn’t a helpful trait in a proper off-roader. And it needs to be courted and cajoled before all six of the Weber carbs will work in unison and power will flow freely at low and medium revs. If the original Range Rover had been this hard to drive, the car wouldn’t have lasted 40 months, let alone 40 years.

At bigger speeds and on open roads, where it’s a little less tiring to punt along, the LM002 is certainly no 1980s Cayenne Turbo. It can be fast – every bit as quick as you would want it to be, in truth – but there’s too much imprecision in that chassis, too much movement in those enormous tyre sidewalls, to take much fun from a hurried pace. Keeping the car on line, in the right gear and generally under control is a testing enough 
task on a British B-road at a decent clip; the brakes aren’t exactly 
awe-inspiring, either. But storming along paved country lanes wasn’t exactly what the car was designed for. The intended end user was never really you, or me, or even Sly Stallone; it was supposed to be GI Joe.

Which is why Lamborghini’s new SUV won’t be remotely like this. It’ll be comfy, luxurious, accommodating, relatively easy to use – all the things the LM isn’t. But Sant’Agata can take something forwards from this unlikely, grotesque, growling monster of a car: that a Lambo isn’t a Lambo unless it’s utterly distinctive and bombastic, and bristling with an ostentatious sense of occasion.

A handful it may be, but the LM002 looks and sounds like nothing else as it thunders off into the distance. And if we can say the same of the forthcoming Lamborghini SUV in another 25 years’ time, we’ll know that its creator did something right.

This article was first published in April 2012 

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