Written by Kevin Jennings
When people think of Lamborghini, they generally think of luxury sports cars. The idea of trying to break into the military all-terrain vehicle market may seem like a strange pivot for the high-end car company, but Lamborghini was no stranger to sudden shifts into radically different markets.
Ferruccio Lamborghini grew up on a grape farm, and the first vehicles he would manufacture were tractors. His tractor business was so successful, that he was able to afford the ultimate sign of wealth for an Italian: a Ferrari. Unfortunately, he found the Ferrari underwhelming due to the inferior clutch constantly breaking.
Lamborghini took his complaints directly to Enzo Ferrari, claiming that the clutches in his tractors were far better than those used by Ferrari. These complaints were brushed off as being the ignorant ramblings of some country bumpkin, and Lamborghini was sent on his way.
Undeterred, Lamborghini realized that if no one else was going to build the proper luxury sports car then he’d do it himself. Replacing the clutch in his Ferrari not only fixed the majority of its performance issues, but it made him come to an incredible realization. Not only could he build a higher quality sports car than existed on the market, but by using his tractor components for much of the inner workings of the car he could make triple the profits of Ferrari. With that decision, the feud between the men Lamborghini and Ferrari would become a feud between their companies.
Lamborghini would go on to sell his company in 1974 so that he could begin his early retirement, a decision that not so coincidentally lined up with the beginning of the oil crisis leading into a recession. With the company now under new ownership and high powered sports cars being in low demand due to economic downturn, it was time for Lamborghini to follow their founder’s example and pivot the business in an entirely new direction.
As the economy continued its downward turn through the 1970s, Lamborghini tried to plug the leaks of their draining finances by accepting outside contracts. One such contract was with BMW to build the chassis for their M1 supercars, but this contract was secondary to them.
There are few businesses that enjoy inelastic demand, demand that remains constant regardless of price or other economic factors. Prescription drugs, tobacco products, and utilities are among the short list of things with inelastic demand. Demand for luxury items is far from inelastic, but Lamborghini was given an opportunity to ensure a consistent stream of revenue through one of their other contracts. No matter the state of the global economy, you can always count on the United States military to continue spending billions without impediment.
The US military had issued a contract to Mobility Technology International to design and build an all-terrain vehicle. MTI designed the vehicle and contracted Lamborghini to build it for them. If the prototype proved successful, they stood to win a lucrative government contract for the continued production of these military vehicles.
The prototype was given the name Cheetah. It was a low-profile, 4×4 vehicle, initially featuring a lightweight, fiberglass body. The fiberglass was replaced with steel before the final prototype for fear that the fiberglass could become damaged when driving over various types of terrain or obstacles.
A Chrysler 5.9 liter V8 engine delivering 180 brake horsepower was installed in the rear of the vehicle and attached to a three-speed automatic transmission. The engine was also waterproofed so that the Cheetah would be able to drive through water up to three feet deep. In keeping with the all terrain nature of the vehicle, it was fitted with low-pressure tires that would be better suited for sand and other loose terrains. In the event these tires burst, they had a high pressure inner tube that would allow the Cheetah to remain mobile until it arrived somewhere where the tires could be safely changed.
In 1977, Lamborghini would unveil the Cheetah at the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland. This was where they would meet the first of their problems. Unbeknownst to the Italian car manufacturer, the designs submitted to them by MTI were extremely similar to the designs for FMC’s XR311 prototype military vehicle that first debuted in 1970. The designs were so similar that FMC sued MTI and Lamborghini, though they likely settled privately as there is no information regarding the outcome of the suit.
It goes without saying that plagiarism is bad, but there’s something even worse than copying someone else’s work: copying the work of someone who already failed the assignment. The US military had already passed on the XR311, so pitching a near identical copy was not a recipe for success.
The Lamborghini model was also slightly heavier and with slightly less horsepower than the XR311, meaning the performance would be degraded. Indeed, performance of the Cheetah was lackluster at best. The rear-mounted engine threw off the balance of the vehicle, resulting in poor handling. It was also an underpowered engine for the size of the vehicle, both of these problems only being exacerbated once the Cheetah was filled with four soldiers in full military gear. Thanks to these issues, Lamborghini’s supposedly all terrain vehicle could barely navigate paved roads properly, despite their promotional video depicting the prototype Cheetah traversing all sorts of terrain.
Following the FMC lawsuit, BMW pulled out of their deal with Lamborghini. They wound up selling the single existing prototype of the Cheetah to Teledyne Continental Motors, though TCM wouldn’t have any better luck.
The military contract was eventually awarded to AM General and their Humvee, a contract worth $1.2 billion.
In 1978, Lamborghini declared bankruptcy, being placed in receivership two years later. However, their dream of building an off-road vehicle was not yet dead. Thanks to an influx of investor capital, they were able to build a new prototype of a light tactical military vehicle.
It was named the LM001, with LM standing for Lamborghini Militaria. The design was similar in style to the Cheetah, though the engine was upgraded to an AMC V8 engine for the prototype. Their intention was to fit production models with their propriety V12 engines used in the Lamborghini Countach, but this production would never take place.
The first prototype LM001 was revealed at the 1981 Geneva Auto Show, and it was the only LM001 ever produced. Despite trying to improve the design, this vehicle had the same issues found in the Cheetah related to performance and handling. With both prototypes the problems were finally traced back to the rear mounted engine. Lamborghini still wasn’t going to give up, instead going back to the drawing board.
Rather than tweaking the design of the Cheetah again, this time they did a full redesign. The new model was to be called the LMA002, and to start the engine was going to go in the front to fix the performance issues. They were also finally going to use the Countach V12 engine for the prototype rather than await approval. Beyond those already major changes, the LMA002 still required a major redesign.
With the engine in the front, it freed up enough space in the back to increase the vehicle’s capacity from four passengers to eleven. It was a heavier and sturdier vehicle than the previous prototypes, but also much more powerful. The V12 engine produced 332 brake horsepower, nearly double that of its predecessors. The prototype was revealed at the 1982 Geneva Auto Show.
Though the LMA002 failed to catch the attention of the US military, it did catch the attention the attention of the Saudi military. At the time it was reported that Lamborghini had won a Saudi military contract for 500-1000 of these vehicles, but the order never came through and the prototype remained the only LMA002 ever produced.
Lamborghini’s dream of producing a military vehicle was dead, but that didn’t mean that they’re off-road vehicle had to be. The prototype underwent extensive testing and modifications, and was rebranded as the LM002. This civilian luxury model was first introduced at the 1986 Brussels Auto Show, and was quickly dubbed the “Rambo-Lambo”.
The production model included full leather trim, power windows (still not a standard feature on most cars at the time), and a state of the art stereo. Pirelli was commissioned to manufacture special Pirelli Scorpion tires for the LM002 with two different tread designs, one for normal use and one for use in sand only. These tires were designed to handle the intense desert heat, and could be safely driven on until they were almost entirely bald.
The LM002 retailed for roughly $120,000, the equivalent of $325,000 today, so it’s no surprise that in its seven year production run there were only 328 produced. But for those who could afford it and felt that the vehicle wasn’t powerful enough, they were also sold with the option to replace the Countach V12 engine with Lamborghini’s L804 marine V12 engine that was normally found in powerboats.
These cars were not only expensive to purchase, but actually using one as your everyday vehicle could bankrupt the average person. The LM002 had a 45 gallon gas tank, a bit of a necessity as it only averaged about 8 miles per gallon. Original parts for the vehicles are also extremely rare and expensive, the ones that even exist, and few mechanics have the knowledge and desire to service them. Today, to replace a busted tire with one of the original Pirelli Scorpion tires would cost a staggering $5,000, provided you could even find a seller.
Though no military ever purchased an all terrain vehicle from Lamborghini, there was one instance in which a military made use of one. In 2004, American soldiers turned the LM002 that had been in the private collection of Uday Hussein into a car bomb. They knew nothing about the car or its rarity, and it was already falling into disrepair; it would have resembled a typical, beat up Hummer by this point.
The car was stripped of its seats, packed full of explosives, and placed next to a concrete wall. They weren’t just blowing up the late Uday’s cars out of spite, they were testing to see if the wall, similar the ones surrounding their base, could survive a blast from such a car bomb. The wall did indeed survive, but the LM002 had been packed with so many sticks of explosives that the only thing remaining after the explosion was the engine block. This means there are now at most 327 LM002s.
What Happened to the Cheetah?
Our story began with the prototype of the Lamborghini Cheetah, but what actually happened to that car? We mentioned that the prototype was sold to Teledyne Continental Motors, but where is the prototype now?
Well, we’re not 100% sure. We know that Lamborghini made the original prototype and sold the design and rights to TCM. We also know that TCM began work on making four more prototypes, three of which were allegedly destroyed and never completed. It was widely believed and reported that the original prototype was damaged beyond repair during military testing, but whether or not that’s actually the case is less clear.
In 1989, TMC sold a prototype Cheetah to one of its employees, a fact that had remained almost entirely unknown until 2016 when a luxury car dealer posted pictures of the fully restored Lamborghini Cheetah to his Facebook and Instagram pages. It’s possible that the original prototype made by Lamborghini was in fact destroyed in testing and the one that has recently resurfaced was the fourth prototype made by TMC. However, for decades it was believed that all of the prototypes were destroyed, so with one resurfacing the question remains: could there be a second?
In the years prior to the Cheetah resurfacing, images of a dark coloured Cheetah prototype manufactured by TCM appeared. It is unclear when the pictures were taken and the dark prototype does appear to be incomplete, but with the records of this vehicles being so nebulous, it doesn’t seem impossible that at least one more of the Lamborghini Cheetahs could still exist.
The Future of Lamborghini Off-Roading
After a 25 year hiatus, Lamborghini returned to the market of off-road vehicles with the Lamborghini Urus in 2018. However, this time they were not trying to get the military’s attention. The Urus was designed as a luxury SUV, and this time the company finally seems to have found its mark.
Designing a vehicle primarily for military use and then converting it to a civilian vehicle may not have worked out, but designing specifically for the civilian market has yielded much better results. The company has sold over 20,000 of its SUVs in only four years, making it Lamborghini’s best selling model in the shortest amount of time. We’d love to say that part of the success of the Urus is because it is Lamborghini’s cheapest model on the market, which is true, but with a price tag of $225,000 it is hardly what most people would call affordable.
Of course, it’s still a Lamborghini, so you’re getting more than just brand name recognition for that price, at least in theory. The Urus’s engine produces 641 horsepower and is capable of going from 0-60 mph in only 2.97 seconds with a max speed of 190 mph. Those numbers seem impressive, and it is in fact the fastest SUV on the market, but those numbers far exceed the performance needs of your average SUV owner.
By contrast, the Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat can go from 0-60 mph in 3.4 seconds with a max speed of 180 mph, and it can do all that with a price tag of only $81,000. Whether or not the extra $124,000 investment is worth it to save less than half a second each trip is something that we’ll leave to you to decide.
The Urus does feature impressive off-road capabilities and has upgrades available to handle even more types of terrain effectively, so there is one thing we can say for certain. Had Lamborghini’s Cheetah been able to perform at anywhere near the level of its glorified soccer mom car, they may have been able to win over the US military all those years ago.