This article originally appeared on MotiveMagazine.com on May 23, 2008
The Lamborghini LM002 is a creature of automotive folklore, the four-wheeled equivalent of Bigfoot (and if you’ve seen the tracks left by its nutty 345/60VR17 Pirelli Scorpions, that comparison is even more apt). Only a handful of people have spotted an LM in action, even fewer have driven one, and the masses would probably be shocked to learn that Lamborghini even built this 6780-pound, V12–powered origami monster. Fortunately one of the finest examples of the 60 LM002 sold in America — one so excellent that Lamborghini President Stephan Winkelmann declared it “better than the one in our museum” — lives in Woodstock, Illinois, not far from our editorial offices. We’ve even got the (un-doctored) pictures to prove the sighting.
But first, a bit of history. The first LM002 American, as US models were called, arrived midway through 1987, but the history of the “Rambo Lambo” began a decade earlier, back in Sant’Agata Bolognese, where its story interweaves with that of BMW’s ill-fated M1. The two unlikely bedfellows wound up in Lamborghini’s boudoir at the same time. The M1 was proposed as a marriage of BMW’s inline-six and Lamborghini’s mid-engine chassis expertise. Meanwhile, the LM was beginning life as its earliest iteration, the open-cockpit 1977 Cheetah. Construction of an early prototype for military supplier Mobility Technologies International distracted Lamborghini from the BMW deal, causing it to go sour at about the same time the Pentagon threatened legal action against MTI and Lamborghini for stealing design elements from a US government project code-named XR311. The XR311 would become the military HMMWV, or High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle — the antecedent of today’s Hummer. After losing both contracts, cash-strapped Lamborghini nearly reverted to farming fields as a small tractor company.
Fortunately, Lamborghini lived on — and so did the LM. A concept named LM001 made its debut at the 1981 Geneva auto show. A year later, the LMA002 took a step closer to production, eschewing the previous two concepts’ mid-mounted American V8s for a front-mounted Countach V12. In 1986, Lambo produced the first LM002, retaining the Countach-sourced V12 up front, four-wheel independent suspension, and a steel tube frame wrapped with fiberglass and aluminum panels. All of it sat atop the aforementioned Pirellis, which also featured a large lip on the sidewalls to allow for better sand surfing.
The timing was perfect, with the LM002 arriving on our shores just as Range Rovers, Grand Wagoneers, and Land Cruisers evolved into the ultimate man-mobiles of wealthy sportsmen types. After driving the first US model, Car and Driver declared it, “The most sensationally outrÃ© vehicle to hit the road since the Bugatti Royale. . . Whatever it takes, you simply must have this Lambo, because it has suddenly consigned all other automotive status symbols — Porsches, Ferraris, Countaches, Rollers, you name it — to the trash heap of social obsolescence.” Not everyone agreed. Time would later include the LM in its list of the fifty worst cars of all time, while Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson quipped that, “If you can find a soldier small enough to fit in this driver’s seat, he’s not going to be strong enough to push the clutch pedal down.”
Interior space isn’t actually that terrible, it’s just that Lamborghini managed to build a truck with the cabin volume of a Cadillac Fleetwood but the usable seating area of a Honda Civic. And honestly, what would engineers used to designing Countaches have done with that extra space — upped the number of bucket seats to six? Then there wouldn’t have been room for some of the most wonderful details, like the wood on the center console. The large expanse of oak looks like a dining room table screwed down at each corner. Then there’s the gold grandfather-style clock on the dash, a $15,000 option when the truck was new. Or the check engine lights — yes, there are two of them, one for each cylinder bank — that light up dice-sized red blocks identifying which side of the massive V12 has a problem. As outrageous as the LM002 might look from outside, it’s these details that ultimately make one question what’s in the Sant’Agata water supply.
For the majority of its production run, the LM002 used a 5.2-liter V12 with six Weber carburetors. While the 444 hp that engine produced was plenty to outrun the fiercest enemy, Lord help you if the carbs drift out of tune. That’s why for 1992, the last year of LM production, the then-new Diablo’s injected 5.7-liter was fitted under the hood. Larry Forbes, owner of the red LM you see here, owns one of the few with the Diablo’s 492-hp engine, mated to a five-speed manual with a dogleg shift pattern.
Performance numbers weren’t published for the updated engine and the idea of slapping a performance box to the windshield and asking Forbes to wring the thing out right into the red fades quickly after he informs me that, “Last I checked, a replacement Diablo engine was running for just around $90,000.” The earlier cars would run up to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds before clearing a quarter mile in 16.0, and this one doesn’t feel any faster. Oh, what a feeling it is hearing an Italian V12 at full bore as you watch a V6 Camry nose by in the next lane.
No, the LM doesn’t breathe fire and shake the ground like a Panzer tank as I’d anticipated. It goes against everything I’ve ever known about V12 Lamborghinis, producing more engine noise than exhaust noise. The cacophony, which evolves from a coarse low-end grunt to a high-pitched wail over 5000 rpm, is louder for passengers than for bystanders. But of course, this is a pseudo-military vehicle. Good luck conquering your neighbor’s villa when he can hear you ramming his front gate. “Ready my hunting rifle, Jeeves.”
This isn’t to say that the LM002 is a rational, practical purchase, but only that rare Italians like this benefit from myth and hyperbole. “I owned a Hummer H1 Alpha for two days,” Larry tells me while we pass the Woodstock Opera House, where Orson Welles got his start and outside of which the film Groundhog Day was filmed. “That thing was too big — I almost clipped a highway construction worker because it’s so wide. But I think I’d sell my Diablo before this.”
The LM does share one key element with the Hummer, and that’s its flat, fully covered underbody. A stout and complicated four-wheel drive system shares space with passengers, resulting in the deceptively small cabin space and sprawling center console noted earlier. Underneath, all the suspension components seem three-halves scale and inside the front coil springs you’ll find more coil springs. At the rear, two coils sit side-by-side in each corner. How else but with such liberal overbuilding could Lamborghini squeeze over three and a half tons of steel into the footprint of a BMW X6?
Those slab sides, high ground clearance (11.6 inches, to be exact), and wild bulges make the LM002 look huge in photos, but you read right — while it’s a half-foot taller than the X6, the LM measures just tenths of an inch wider and longer even as its front and rear wheels are 2.6 inches further apart. What seemed as big as shoulder pads and Stryper’s hair in the ’80s is just another mommymobile-size conveyance today — provided your mom is Linda Hamilton.
More than anything, the LM002 is an outrageous time capsule of ’80s excess. Visually, it does so much with little more than a simple block. Mechanically, it does so little with so much. Its $120,000 price tag, corrected for inflation, would buy two Porsche Cayenne Turbos today, each producing more power while weighing 1600 fewer pounds, using half the fuel, accelerating to 60 mph three seconds quicker, and holding an extra passenger. But that isn’t the point, is it? Only 301 LMs were produced worldwide and that number is falling. Twenty years on, this Bigfoot of automotive history can still push other status symbols to “the trash heap of social obsolescence.”
We would like to thank Larry Forbes of Woodstock, Illinois, for allowing us to experience the LM002. Forbes, in turn, would like to thank Lonnie’s Autobody of Huntley, Illinois, for making his truck more presentable than the ones that rolled out of the factory twenty years ago. Forbes has put over 8000 miles on the LM in his time with the truck but hopes he’ll never have to think about how to replace tires that haven’t been in production since the early ’90s.”