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The Lamborghini Diablo Was the Craziest Car of the 1990s

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author photo by Doug DeMuro June 2017

I recently had the chance to drive the single most wildly styled, crazily built, unusually designed automobile of the 1990s. It was a Lamborghini Diablo 6.0 -- and while the one I drove was technically from the early 2000s, it was the last gasp of a car that really came to represent the exotic-car world in the 1990s.

For those of you aren't up on your Diablo knowledge, let's briefly discuss this thing. The Diablo debuted in 1990 or so, just after Lamborghini was purchased by Chrysler, and not long after they went bankrupt. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it surely is: The early Diablo models were the craziest of the lot, with the least user-friendly controls and (reportedly) the most issues and problems.

Lamborghini's story takes many more turns soon after the Diablo's launch, as Chrysler sold Lamborghini to a Southeast Asian investment group in 1994 -- and that firm in turn sold Lambo to Volkswagen in 1998. That means the Diablo was built and sold under three different owners during its 10-year production run.

All Diablo models used a V12, and the car got more refined as the various new owners tried to massage it into something people could actually drive. The initial cars used a 485-horsepower 5.7-liter V12, but various changes were made over time: A VT version with all-wheel drive came out in 1993, an "SV" model was launched in 1995 with 510 horses, a convertible-top Roadster came out in 1996, and my personal favorite Diablo -- one of my all-time favorite cars -- was the SE30, which debuted in 1994 and commemorated the company's 30th birthday. Most SE30 models were painted purple, and I swear a well-kept purple SE30 is probably the most breathtakingly-styled car of all time -- though it's more bold than beautiful.

By all accounts, the Diablo 6.0 is the best of them all. It debuted for the 2000 model year -- just before the Diablo went away after 2001 to herald the arrival of the Murcielago. The 6.0 is the one I drove, and it's an interesting car. It still has all the typical Diablo absurdity (which I'll cover in a second), but it was also clearly commissioned by Audi to be more user-friendly and reasonable, following Volkswagen's takeover of the company. And it boasts extra power: By enlarging the engine to 6.0 liters, the Diablo's horsepower rating was boosted to 550. That means this is the most powerful Diablo aside from the track-only Diablo GT.

So let's talk about that absurdity. Much of the Diablo's craziness is exactly what you'd expect: You can't see much when you're inside it, getting in and out is a bit of a chore, the car is massively low compared to other vehicles, and the sound is tremendously loud on the inside. That stuff is a given, and you kind of know those things will be true, regardless of whether you've driven the car.

But as you start to examine the details, you get a sense of just how absurd Lamborghini really was in the 1990s. For instance, there are four buttons near the gated gear lever that cover suspension firmness. Look up those buttons in the owner's manual, and it provides the following definitions:

1 = Soft Setting
2 = Medium Setting
3 = Medium Setting
4 = Setting

Yes, that's right. Number four is labeled only "Setting." And that isn't the only immediately obvious typo: On the airbag warning, underneath the sun visor, which informs you that "death or serious injury may occur," Lamborghini misspelled "serious." I'm not kidding. Also, in the front trunk, where most manufacturers place a label with the paint code printed on it, Lamborghini's label ... is handwritten.

So I was expecting the worst when I took the Diablo out to drive, and yet I was pleasantly surprised. The clutch isn't as punishing as I was thinking it would be, and the pedal box isn't as narrow. The driving position is a bit odd, and visibility is rough -- especially since the car I drove had a rear wing -- but nothing was so difficult or taxing that you'd have trouble using the car. Most importantly, the seats were reasonably comfortable and the air blew cold the entire time I drove the car. The whole thing was surprisingly normal -- and I'd like to drive an older one soon to see exactly how much of that "normal" was based on Audi's influence.

More memorable was the Diablo's performance. Although it's hard to get it out of your mind that Diablo values are shooting up lately, meaning you may not want to jam down the throttle and steer hard, I still enjoyed several minutes of high-performance driving. The car doesn't handle with the precision of the latest exotics, and it doesn't accelerate like them either -- but it's still quick, somewhat tossable and (maybe most importantly) loud. But make no mistake: The most exciting part of this car comes when you get out, and you look back, and you're absolutely stunned by the fact that the conveyance you're seeing has actually brought you somewhere.

Indeed, the Diablo is nice to drive, but not truly amazing; the truly amazing part is on the outside. In the end, I kind of wonder if, when you see a Diablo on the street, you're getting a better treat by looking at it than the person who's actually behind the wheel. That's especially true if they have the car in the harshest suspension setting, number four, also known as "Setting."

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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