Out of the Shadows After years of being outshone by the Countach, it’s time for the Lamborghini Silhouette to be given some limelight of its own
With just 53 made – only one in this colour – the Lamborghini Silhouette forever lived in the Countach’s shadow. We plot a multitextured test route to see if it deserves a fairer share of the limelight
‘I feel like I should be displaying much larger hair and wearing my finest Huggy Bear attire’
The car sitting outside Lamborghini specialist Colin Clarke Engineering was Sant’agata’s effort to lure overweight, combover-sporting American businessmen – apologies, if you find yourself thus afflicted – away from the exotica produced by Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati, De Tomaso et al. Unfortunately it wasn’t particularly successful at doing so.
The good news is that the Silhouette is all mine for the day. By gad, just look at it. Resplendent in Rame Colorado paint and with complementing Perlgold five-cylinder Campagnolo alloy wheels – handed down from the Bravo prototype – it could only have escaped from one decade, and one decade alone. The Seventies.
It’s pure Cadbury’s Caramel Bunny in automotive form. The shape may be familiar, yet the name perhaps less so; not surprising with only three sold in the UK and just 53 in total, making it the rarest classic Lambo.
Lifting the targa lid off is easier with two, and as we manoeuvre it Colin Clarke explains that this example is well-known to his company – when it was imported to the UK in 2010 he rebuilt the V8 engine and undertook a full mechanical re-commissioning. The current owner still has the car serviced here and my luck’s definitely in, as he’s been persuaded that it’s a good idea to let me loose in it.
The roof panel stows surprisingly neatly behind the seats and is secured by Velcro. There’s plenty of room because, unlike the preceding Urraco P250 and P300, it doesn’t have the token plus-twos in the back. Mr Clarke shepherds me into the driver’s seat of the baby Lambo, sensing that my eye has been caught by the low-slung derrière of a silver Miura just visible under a half-opened shutter, and that we’ll lose several hours if I make it inside.
The interior is as glorious as the outside, trimmed as it is in a British Leyland fetishist’s fantasy combination of browns, tans and beiges. In fact I feel decidedly underdressed, as if by the very nature of the colour combinations at play I should be displaying much larger hair and wearing my finest Huggy Bear attire.
Seat characteristics linger somewhere between Eames Lounge chair and Le Corbusier Chaise, but the position is marginally less compromised than other Italian supercars of the era thanks to that deliciously dished small-rim steering wheel. I pump the accelerator a couple of times and, keeping a little pressure on, turn the key. There’s a low rumble as the engine catches, which turns to a baritone bark as all eight cylinders fire – even when starting a junior bull, there’s a distinct sense of theatre.
First on the dogleg gearbox engages positively with a bit of heft and a metallic clack, and I’m off. At low speeds it’s a distinctly manly, physical affair; the steering is heavy, clutch pedal ditto and gearbox double-ditto. It’s instantly clear that oh boy, does this engine like to rev, and even after this short distance the clack-roar, gear-throttle routine is becoming devilishly comforting.
After a couple of miles it’s clear that the car is engendering two types of attention: the dropped-jaw ‘what the hell is that?’ variety, caused by its striking looks and period-colour combo; and the ‘how dare he!’ kind elicited by Hyacinth Bucket types in response to the multitude staccato bangs and pops on the overrun. Unfortunately for proponents of the suburban tranquility, it’s not a car that encourages restraint in the driver.
Why resist? Let’s see what this thing can do. I pootle down through the lush green outskirts of Chorleywood and pretty soon I’m on a launch pad to the M25. With a top speed of 162mph I’d be remiss not to get it out into a higher-velocity environment.
The exhaust note is hard-edged and sonorous, and battles gloriously with the throaty quartet of Weber carburettors located just behind your head – if the sound of a 308 GTB is heavenly, the Silhouette’s inhabits the underworld. But it’s clear we have a problem. The V8 is such a lusty spinner that it’s still pulling right up to the 7500rpm redline, and if I don’t curb my enthusiasm it’d be easy to cause considerable damage – to powerplant or driving licence, take your pick.
The layout of the instruments in the dashboard doesn’t aid matters – the most important section of the rev counter remains hidden behind the steering wheel. It’s a case of developing feel for the engine revs, or a Pavlovian reflex whereby an instinctive head nod accompanies the tail end of any prolonged acceleration.
Stopping power is excellent, with ventilated ATE discs all round and a twin-circuit servo system that ensures there’s no discrepancy in the balance of performance. And now that we’re up to temperature, the effort required for changing gears has eased from gargantuan to merely Popeye – with fourth to fifth being a particular comedy choice. But then you only really select that when you require a breather.
I head west on the M40, settling into middle-lane cruiser mode. I swear the looks on the faces of passengers in passing cars are getting wilder by the moment. But it’s not something that I’m going to spend too long contemplating, because the temptation to
‘Such is its traction that once it “goes”, no lasso big enough yet exists to rein this little bull back in’
drop a cog and obliterate surrounding traffic is always there. I’m in damage-prevention mode, remember.
That’s enough motorway for now, although the A404 south doesn’t result in any less hectic driving approach. At Burchett’s Green roundabout I circumvent Temple Golf Club and head towards the centre of Henley-on-thames. Despite the adrenaline-pounding drive and expected straight-line performance so far, the surprise is how tractable and well-behaved the Lambo is in town. Yes, the lack of assistance ensures it’s hard graft, but it’s perfectly live-with-able, especially given the positive trade-off in feel.
Once parked up on the riverfront, I nip across to The Chocolate Theatre Café for a takeaway double espresso. The return trip gives me my first opportunity to appreciate the sheer expanse of rubber at the Silhouette’s rear. I’d momentarily forgotten that chassis wizards Giampaolo Dallara and Franco Baraldini had designed the car around Pirelli’s brand-new P7 tyre, in hefty 195/50 front and monstrous 285/40 rear 15-inch flavours, giving Bertone – under the guidance of Gandini at the time – certain styling prerequisites. These necessitated the defining squared-off wheelarches and provided the Silhouette with that striking back end – paint this thing black, and you’d almost have the prototype for Batman’s Batmobile in the The Dark Knight.
It’s not only coffee that’s brought me to this waterside spot. I pull out my copy of a 1976 promotional flyer produced by the then-sole UK Lamborghini importer, Berlinetta Italia of Whyteleafe. It’s a little gentler in imagery, even if there are definite soft-core undertones. In the photograph is a Lamborghini Countach LP400 in the same location as our Silhouette, with a forlorn, demure Princess Di type on one side and two ‘okay-yah’ rowing gents on the other. It’s certainly a strange rendezvous; perhaps they were trying to emphasise the clash of cultures.
Never mind; I’ve placed the car almost perfectly with Henley bridge as a backdrop and have my snap for posterity, so time to get out of here. There are no regatta shenanigans today but you never know when one of those chaps may happen along and commission a pair of trousers based on the Lambo’s paintwork.
Heading north, I’ve passed back under the M40 in no time and find myself tickling the Chilterns. I can’t help expecting this fat-tyred supercar to struggle on narrow country lanes. Not a chance. This is no later Countach or Diablo, cars that could seem like downright overkill up here in the glorious winding countryside. Where a V12 feels like it’s barely ticking over at 70mph, the quad-cam V8 is wondrously flexible and gives you the choice to either work the revs hard in the lower gears, or keep it in third and let the torque take the strain. As a fan of free-revving Italian four-pots I take the former option and it rises aurally to the challenge, both Ansa tailpipes singing harmoniously from my chosen hymn sheet.
Charge into corners and the level of grip is prodigious; epic, even. The steering – heavy initially, becoming lighter at speed – is spot-on under these conditions, responding instantly. Today, I’m far from the car’s limits so it’s neutral through corners; period road tests suggest it to be a fairly benign and controllable beast, but such is the level of traction generated that when it goes, I’ll bet it doesn’t half go. At that point, no lasso big enough yet exists to rein this little bull back in.
All the ingredients are certainly there; brutal looks (the 308 GTB is definitely prettier, but can’t match the Silhouette’s presence) sonorous engine, tenacious roadholding and the first use of those monstrous tyres. So why did it fail?
Lamborghini swung pendulously from financial crisis to fiscal calamity in the late Seventies; the Urraco project had over-extended its resources and sales didn’t meet expectations. Factor in foment in the workplace – Communist Party unions, worker unrest and frequent strikes – and the fact that the 3.0-litre V8 failed to meet California emissions regulations, and the Silhouette was left to die a natural death when the company entered bankruptcy proceedings. If not stillborn, the baby Lambo was definitely in its infancy.
Which is a shame, as it’s a morethan-capable junior supercar, and the longer I spend in its company the more I like it. Thanks to the Urraco’s existing rigid platform chassis, whipping the top off hasn’t overly affected the structure even though the body wasn’t strengthened. And despite my enthusiastic use of speed, there’s been very little wind buffeting.
At Aldbury I stop for a can of refreshment, and even the postmaster of this quaint village can’t resist coming out for a quick look. Then it’s off up to Ivinghoe Beacon National Trust car park to take in the view, and devour my carbonated wares.
As I’m doing so, I become aware of a car skidding to a halt and then reversing. It parks up and the occupants come walking over. The gent has an almost feverish look in his eyes – much as Colin Clarke must have seen in my own just a few hours earlier. ‘Oh man, I thought it was a Lotus, but it’s not – it’s a bloomin’ Lambo. I just caught the front end.’ Despite being reticent at first, at his wife’s command he stands next to the car and has his picture taken, before getting in it for the same. There then follows one of
the most bizarre conversations I’ve had in a while, in which the lassie explains she’s the cousin of latest singing young thruster Jack Savoretti and we enter informal discussions to have the Silhouette included in his next music video. It’s just that kind of classic car.
The remainder of the trip back to Colin Clarke’s is a lazy, relaxed drive, punctuated by a quick stop to fuel up – it seems the heavy right foot does come at a price. While doing so, I receive three comments of ‘nice car, has it broken down?’ to which I withdraw from under the bonnet and reply, explaining the fuel filler location.
During that time I noticed a curiosity that has my mind buzzing for the last ten minutes. Colin appears outside just as I pull up at my destination. Before I forget and enter into the joys of the car, I shut the engine off, pop the bonnet and ask him if he can explain. ‘What, the space-saver spare wheel?’ he asks. I nod affirmatively.
I unstrap it and hold it up against the Campagnolos. ‘The car’s on 15-inch wheels, the Countach was on 14s at the time, Jarama and Espada 15s,’ I say. ‘So why is there an 18-inch spare under the bonnet? It looks like it wouldn’t even fit under the wheelarches?’
Wrong wheel is his considered opinion, before he disappears inside for a couple of minutes. ‘Nope, it’s the same as mine. Lamborghini in the Seventies, what can you say?’
It’s a statement of acceptance from a man who knows these cars inside out, and knows their strengths and weaknesses. Funds were tight for so many years that many design and build elements can seem primitive, laughable even, for cars that in so many other ways were so complex.
‘We’re approached and asked if it can be borrowed for a music video – it’s just that kind of car’
‘The clientele has definitely changed now,’ he states, as he finally shows me round his understated workshop. ‘It used to be predominantly enthusiasts, but now it’s closer to 50-50 with investors. A lot of our customers have owned their cars since they were worth several thousand pounds, and they’re worth more than their house now; so if someone offers you the money, then to some it’s a no-brainer… you cash in.’
That change is mirrored in the balance of work, which now veers more heavily to the restoration side. ‘Previously, you’d be fixing cars to keep them on the road. If your engine went bang, it cost much more than the car was worth to fix it. Now the value is in them, owners will get the problem fixed, but when they’re restored to this standard they disappear back into collections so you don’t see them for a couple of years.’
The silver Miura and green Miura SV draw the eye, but tucked away in a corner is an Islero restoration project, a car Colin holds in particularly high esteem. ‘I don’t know why, but every Islero we’ve ever restored has just felt that little bit better than other models.’ However, at the minute, pride of place goes to a restored 1956 Lamborghini DL 30 tractor. ‘I saw it on ebay and thought I must have it. It was in Somerset and was rusty and horrible, but we did it bit-by-bit. It didn’t take too long – there’s not much to it.’ On taking the leaking engine apart Colin’s first concern was where he was going to get parts for it, but incredibly he found that the crank seal sizes were the same as those on an Espada. ‘It’s my monoposto Lamborghini.’
He puts a lot of the process of fixing these cars down to intuition. As I take my leave it’s clear that he’s still putting this hardearned intuition to good use, as today’s Silhouette drive demonstrates.
Ultimately Lamborghini pulled funds to focus on the Countach S, BMW M1 and Cheetah/lm off-road projects, ensuring the Silhouette’s rarity. It would re-appear slightly revised under the Jalpa name a couple of years after the Mimran brothers’ 1980 buyout, but for me it’d have to be the widehipped, P7-tyred original every time.
It may not have made it to its target market, but nevertheless – overweight, wraparound-haired American businessmen types, I can only salute you.
Can you help? If you know any of the car’s history from when it was sold new in Germany in December 1977 – the only one made in Rame Colorado – please get in touch via email@example.com
It lives in the shadows of the Countach V12, but the Silhouette’s V8 deserves daylight
Colin reckons he’s worked on 75 Miuras on total – including the Shah of Iran’s
Ross recreates a rather curious Seventies scene
Marque specialist Colin proudly shows Ross his ‘monoposto Lamborghini’