Lamborghini Islero S road test and Tony Baker

Lamborghini Islero S Miura pace, MG practical. Versatile supercar: this Lamborghini’s been with the same owners since new. Life and times of an Islero. It has done trackdays, hillclimbs and transcontinental touring in the careful hands of just one family. The only Lamborghini you’ll ever need.  James Elliott tells the amazing story of this unique Islero S – one of just five right-hookers built – that’s been with the same family from new. Photography Tony Baker.

The Lamborghini Islero – named after the bull that spiked Manuel Rodríguez in 1947 – is a bit of an anomaly. It doesn’t really look like anything else, it isn’t specced like anything else and it has no obvious period rival – either mechanically or aesthetically. Here is a car so out of step with its time that it seems a quisling even within the Lamborghini ranks, let alone in the broader idiom of the late-’60s 2+2 GT. Neither the concurrent Espada nor the Miura bore much more resemblance to their contemporary brethren, of course, but it is the Islero that still confounds classic-spotting enthusiasts today.

Lamborghini Islero S road test

1968 Lamborghini Islero S road test

We’ll say nothing of the car-park lurker on our photoshoot who likened the profile to a Reliant Scimitar SE4, but there is no question that this car could just as comfortably wear a slightly quirkier badge, such as Monteverdi or Intermeccanica, without raising eyebrows.

It is easy to forget, however, that this is really only the fourth car that Lamborghini had come up with and, thanks to the equally outlandish nature of both Miura and Espada, only the second that even paid lip-service to the conventions of the time. Replacing the curvaceous, twin-lamp 400GT, the Islero used much of its predecessor’s equipment but on a slightly shortened tubular steel chassis, with a wider track and carrying nearly 150 fewer kilos.

First shown at Geneva in 1968, its shape is the deceptively angular futuristic dream of Milanbased Touring refugee Mario Marazzi.

Regardless of whether it was shaped on the confidence generated by the maelstrom that greeted the Miura two years previously or the untrammelled self-belief of such a young manufacturer, the sheer boldness of the avant garde result was breathtaking. Sant’Agata had come up with a GT whose distinction was its discretion – a car for furrow-browed businessmen rather than playboys, just as Ferruccio had ordered.

Such discerning customers were similarly catered for with disc brakes, all-independent suspension and a plush interior, plus virtually all the performance of a Miura in a far more civilised package. Initially in 325bhp guise, the four-cam, 4-litre all-alloy Bologna V12 that had been designed by Giotto Bizzarrini and finessed by Giampaolo Dallara propelled the Islero to 60mph in a little over 6 secs. It went on to a top speed of over 160mph, allegedly offering a great deal more high-speed stability than the Miura as it did so. After only 125 cars and 12 months, the Islero was uprated to S spec, boasting an extra 25bhp and recognisable primarily by the air scoop on the bonnet (to help cool the passengers rather than the engine), flared wheelarches and a revised dashboard.

After another year and a further 100 units (including the only five right-hookers, of which just two came to the UK), the Islero was gone, replaced by the better-selling but nowhere near as well-resolved, US-compromised Jarama.

It is a surprise that it did not appeal more. After all, it was ‘cheap’ by Lamborghini standards at less than £8000 in the UK, undercutting Miura and Espada by £2k or more. Even a roster of high-profile drivers that included not only Ferruccio himself and brother Edmondo, but also Brigitte Bardot could sear it into public consciousness. If the Islero has any profile today it is largely thanks to it being the steed of Harold Pelham’s raffish alter ego in the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself. In fact, when C&SC’s Martin Buckley drove the actual Islero S from that movie in July 2008, Lambo veteran Del Hopkins – 31 years with the firm in the UK – recalled: “One British-based Islero was owned by the Governor of the Bahamas and regularly went back to Sant’Agata for rebuilds.”

He’s not quite right, but Hopkins was talking about this very car. A very special car. As a right-hand- drive UK 1969 Islero S, chassis 6435, engine 50140, it is pretty rare in itself, but what makes this example truly ‘one of one’ is the fact that it has been in the same family since new.

The first Sir William Garthwaite built up a commercial fleet and received a Baronetcy in 1919 for his role in developing Q ships in WW1. Having set up a Lloyds-based marine insurance company, he retired to the Bahamas and died in ’56, passing his title to William ‘Bill’ (born 1906). Despite being colour blind, he conned his way into the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve and flew in the first strike on the Bismarck as well as earning two Distinguished Service Crosses. He bought his first “proper” car, one of the earliest E-types, in 1961 to complement the family Fireball- engined Buick 8 ‘Peardrop’.

By the end of the decade, his taste for exotica (there is talk of a Facel Vega earlier in life) had developed and he travelled to Italy to buy an ex-demonstrator Islero S direct from the factory. There was a problem, though; the factory could sell cars only via its official agents. Since he held both British and Bahamian passports, Sir William on the spot became Lamborghini’s agent in the Bahamas, sold himself the fully loaded Islero for £7000 plus $5000 (6,000,000 lira) on 22 October 1969, registered it in Nassau and drove it home to Matfield House in Kent. He used the car a lot, including regular sorties to Le Touquet and its casino, plus a trip back to Sant’Agata each year to have it serviced.

Later in life he had a well-established annual routine. With one of his children accompanying him, he would drive to Paris for a stop at The Jockey Club then on to Italy, leaving the Islero for a service while heading to Venice, then picking up the car a few days later and driving home. This remarkable habit allowed him to count Valentoni Balboni and Bob Wallace as friends, and even to specify which room he wanted to book in Modena hotels – ‘on the quiet side, by the chapel’. Once, after finding the clutch less than satisfactory on his drive home, rather than have it sorted in Britain, he arranged a return trip to Italy two months later and drove all the way back there, still struggling to find first and second.

When Sir Bill died aged 87 in 1993, the next Sir William, who goes by Mark and rarely uses the title, bought out his three brothers to take ownership of the Lamborghini, and he has had it ever since. In his ownership it has been hillclimbed, done track days at Snetterton and Brands, had a respray to Giallo Sole from the original Bianco, had engine and gearbox rebuilds, but always continued to be driven by Mark and his wife Vicky just as his father intended.

From the start, it has not been plain sailing. “Because he had registered it in the Bahamas, more or less the first thing I had to do was pay over £2500 import duty to register it in the UK,” he says. “That was just a portent of what was to come.” He looks guilty as he admits that he has added up the bills – including major works at Straight Eight and Colin Clarke Engineering – and they come to more than £100,000 in his ownership alone. Yet he wouldn’t swap his many experiences with the car for any amount of money. The Islero has won a concours at the Hurlingham Club, lined up under a VC10 with four others – the UK’s greatest ever showing – at Italian Car Day at Brooklands in 1999, and attended a Marcel Wallenburg-organised meeting of 12 examples in The Netherlands in 2010.

All of which would have met with Sir Bill’s approval, just as he would applaud the way the car is often seen being driven around south-west London. Mark says: “My father was fascinated by Mr Lamborghini because he built tractors and, among other things, he was a farmer. He also liked the idea of someone out-Ferrari-ing Ferrari and just trying to build the best sporting road car possible, without the distractions of racing or feeling that customers were an inconvenience.”

You see all sorts of different types of devotion to classic cars in this job, but Garthwaite’s is different. It’s hard to put your finger on, but we’ve rarely seen anyone derive so much pleasure from someone else enjoying his classic. There is a reason for that, but later, there is work to be done. An Islero to fall in love with.

Despite preconceptions, there is nothing bland about the Islero’s appearance. Even with eye-catchingly high placement of the bumpers, the model is certainly discreet compared to some more conspicuous, dare we say vulgar 2+2 GTs, but it still screams special – especially in this vivid hue. In fact the styling is as underrated as it is understated, with its pop-up headlamps, kinked BMW-esque C-pillar and short, square boot, it is hard to think of anything that better fits the long-bonnet-short-tail sobriquet. Yet, what you don’t notice is how this superficially perpendicular shape is packed with subtle, classy detail. The spacing of the all-hanging pedals is slide-rule exact; no engine has ever been placed so neatly and symmetrically in its bay.

Also, all the modernism aside, from the plump driver’s seat – plenty of support for your plutocratic posteriore – surrounded by slim pillars and a panoramic glasshouse, the defining styling feature is those pinched crests that run the lengths of the flanks and help you to guide the missile. Their creased peaks are very conspicuous on the road and, while there is something almost Corvettish about them, the mental sensation their presence gives the driver is all of the jet-age styling exercises of a decade earlier. Think Nardi Blue Ray or Alfa Disco Volante.

The interior is an interesting mix of traditional and modern, both in materials and style. Some argue that, with its faux-wood fillets and Fiatsourced rockers instead of toggles, the dash is less of a delight than the earlier cars’, but it seems more appropriate to something with such a clean shape. A trio of dials is visible through the chunky, wood-rimmed three-spoke wheel: a small oil-pressure gauge dead centre flanked by Jaeger 190mph speedo and 10,000rpm rev counter. To the left of the driver is a long bank of auxiliary instruments above those rockers, while a third of the dash is taken over by the optional (at a cost of £250 in 1969!) Borletti aircon unit.

Sadly, the anticipated Blaupunkt Blue Spot has been replaced by a more modern Sony unit, but that doesn’t matter because such trivial concerns as supplementary noise soon cease to register. Three pumps on the throttle, then turn the key and, after a few seconds of churn, the throaty V12 fires and settles to a steady idle at a (wrongly) indicated 1200rpm that feels more like 800rpm. Caress the pedal and, as that sextet of Weber 40s (sidedraught, to keep the line low) under the leather-backed bonnet feed that glorious V12, you can actually listen to its emissions tumbling quadrophonically out of the exhausts.

The clutch has a long travel but the stubby lever sprouting out of the wide tunnel is perfectly placed. The noise rises and the Islero reveals itself to be surprisingly easy to drive at low speeds, the steering nowhere near as heavy as expected. Neither is it as slow as you would think with 4½ turns lock to lock, nor is the turning circle half bad. In fact, it is almost as if it has two stages, when you eventually find full lock it feels like you have turned the Campagnolo magnesium wheels square and you can watch those rabbit-eared spinners glinting in the sun.

Once on the move, the gate is broad-shouldered, with first and second on the five-speed ’box a long way away from the driver in a right-hooker, making it easy to wrong-slot on a down shift and for a moment kill the revs as the car stumbles. But then that mistake also brings its tractability into play; you boot the throttle and listen to it whomp like an ancient gas boiler firing up before regaining its equilibrium. You don’t abuse such torque, though, because the five-speed ’box is so delightful, offering short, firm throws and easy balance with the throttle, that you prefer to play with it and keep revs high.

Any harshness in the ride is compensated for by the thickness of the seats and the Islero corners flat, with only a hint of understeer at road-sensible speeds. Even though it can handle them with aplomb, this car is not really about the twisties anyway, it is about lolloping effortlessly across Europe at 21mph per 1000rpm in top, with a window powered down (or the aircon going) and a 2:30pm meeting in Köln to get to.

Denied such a mission, we spend the day downchanging and booting it just to feel that shove and hear that intoxicating roar. Simple, but effective pleasures. This Islero is as nicely set up as any V12 Lamborghini we have tested and that is a big part of how engaging it is. Within minutes you can be treating it as casually as any modern, always with the option of those sophisticated thrills on tap. As a model the Islero ticks so many boxes and is in such a rarefied position in being substantially better to drive than both its predecessor and its successor, that after little more than an hour at the wheel you can understand how it could become part of anyone’s family.

That makes it all the more crushing to think that Garthwaite and his car must eventually be separated, especially when our conversation takes a depressing turn. That unhappy day has been approaching ever since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and surrendered his driving licence a couple of years ago. Since then a small network of family and friends have ensured that he still gets his Islero fix, Colin Clarke or Luke Edwards taking him out for a drive and having the satisfaction of watching his joy with every reunion and every burst of the throttle. “It’s a terrible realisation, but, lovely though it is, I couldn’t pass it on to the next generation,” he explains. “Even if there were the interest in it, I more than anyone know that it is also a liability – I simply couldn’t lumber them with that sort of financial burden!”

Despite the inevitability of the sale, talk of such unpleasant things is fleeting and its owner is soon back to regaling you with his plans for this summer’s grand European tour in it with his son (William, obviously). That’s better.


From top: first owner, the second Sir William at Matfield House in Kent; at the Lamborghini factory; Islero would give a Miura a fright in a drag race. From top: S had updated interior with rockers instead of toggles, plus dash fillets; original bill of sale from Sant’Agata; Bahamian driver’s licence helps to explain original registration; symmetry of engine bay is beautiful; all right-hand-drive Isleros left the factory to S spec. From top: Borletti aircon was a fiercely expensive option in period and is well blended in, but covers a lot of dash – apparently it is very effective; vent seems anachronous with sharp packaging; doorhandles are unusually low being just below the belt-line – like the high rear bumpers. Clockwise, from right: entire flank is a stylish arrow head; tackling Prescott’s Pardon hairpin – Islero has also run at Snetterton and Brands Hatch; Mark Garthwaite with the car he has run since 1993; body stripped to bare metal, waiting for paint at Straight Eight.


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Additional Info
  • Year: 1968-1969
  • Engine: Petrol 4.0-litre V12
  • Power: 350bhp at 6800rpm
  • Torque: 299lb ft at 4300rpm