The Silhouette is the rarest Lamborghini of the classic era – and that’s a shame, reckons Mark Dixon after driving a superb survivor Photography Tim Andrew.
OUT OF THE SHADOWS LAMBORGHINI SILHOUETTE
An unfairly forgotten V8 delight from Sant’Agata
‘It had the unreal quality of a dream. That strange hyper-cleanliness, that dazzling intensity of colour, that haunting feeling of being suspended in time, and even in motion; sitting there with the speedo reading in excess of 160mph and two more gold Lamborghinis drifting along ahead.'
The opening paragraph to one of the most famous automotive drive stories of all time. Early in 1977, journalist Mel Nichols helped deliver three brand-new Lamborghinis - a Countach, a Urraco and a Silhouette - from Sant’Agata to London. The resultant story was published in Car magazine and instantly became an inspiration to a generation of enthusiasts for both its passion and its poetry.
‘The Silhouette is at the sportier end of the GT spectrum, closer to a Pantera than a 308’
How ironic, then, that such a well-remembered piece should have featured one of the least-familiar Lamborghinis. With just 52 production cars made between 1976 and 1979, plus a couple of prototypes, the Silhouette is the rarest of the company’s classic canon (there have been a few billionaire limited-editions in recent years). When you look at the car in these pictures, that seems an awful shame.
It’s also a shame that our photoshoot has to take place in Buckinghamshire rather than the Swiss Alps, but at least the sun is out and setting fire to the Rame Colorado metallic paint of Richard Head’s 1977 Silhouette. It’s the same colour that was chosen for the Bertone Stratos Zero concept, and Richard Head’s car is reputedly the only Silhouette to have been so painted. Complemented by the Perlgold deep-dish alloy wheels, it looks stunning and would have made the perfect subject for a Matchbox model.
Lamborghini was in trouble when the Silhouette made its debut. So was the whole of Italy, in fact, riven by worker unrest and left-wing radicalism - Mel Nichols mentions drily that the Silhouette he was due to drive back was still being painted when the Car delegation arrived, but on the following morning ‘the third strike of the day was over and the serious business of building Lamborghinis was under way once more’.
‘The car sounds best from the outside. You only really get the full V8 palette of sounds if you’re an onlooker’
In fact, at that very moment the new co-owner of the company, Swiss businessman René Leimer, was away courting BMW for what would become the E26 M1 project, Ferruccio Lamborghini having sold up in 1974. By 1978, the firm would be bankrupt. But it was doing its best to stay afloat, and the Silhouette was the continuation of a trend towards smaller Lamborghinis that could be sold in greater numbers and which had begun with the 2+2 Urraco in 1972. Hoping to pick up some of the customers that Porsche and Ferrari were winning in the USA with targa-top models, Lamborghini’s rationale for building the Silhouette, another compact GT alongside the Urraco, was that it would also have a targa roof, with a removable panel that could be stowed behind the seats.
The Silhouette was therefore based on a lightly modified Urraco chassis and, although it looked quite different from its sibling, some of the body pressings were carried over – notably the rear wings, which were disguised with boxy wheelarch extensions. As with the Urraco, the new car was styled by Marcello Gandini at Bertone, and those squared-off arches and the deep-dish ‘telephone dial’ alloy wheels are its signature features. They give it a concept-car look that is more outlandish than the Urraco or even, indeed, Gandini’s 1974 Bravo show car, which had very similar wheels, and the Silhouette could easily be mistaken for an ’80s design.
Those Campagnolo alloys were only possible thanks to the work of Pirelli, which had just developed its P7 low-profile, wide-footprint radial tyre. We think of the Countach as having fat rear tyres, but on the original LP400 they were comparatively skinny – 215/70 x 14 as opposed to 285/40 x 15 on the Silhouette. The same P7s, albeit in a different size, would also be fitted to the BMW M1 that Gianpaolo Dallara and Lamborghini were helping to develop at the time.
Richard Head’s car was dispatched on 17 December 1977 to the Hubert Hahne dealership in Germany (Hahne being an ex-BMW racing driver). By the mid-80s it had migrated to the USA and remained there in a private collection, little used, until being sold in 2007 and three years later arriving in the UK. During its US sojourn, it was repainted in ‘retail red’ (sigh) and retrimmed, but soon after he acquired it in 2014 Richard had it resprayed in the original Rame Colorado with tan trim. For which he deserves recognition by whatever is the Italian equivalent of the National Trust.
You’d never guess now that the trim has been redone, and the seats are works of art in themselves, swooping Space Age buckets with contrasting brown centre pleats – this was the 1970s, remember – and, get this, dual radio speakers built into the headrests to deliver a form of stereo sound from the Alpine CM-620 radio-cassette (one of the first Alpine units to be fitted to a car). I have no idea whether the floormats are the originals, but I certainly hope so – they appear to be made of multi-coloured hessian and have a slightly hippy vibe that perfectly suits the far-out interior.
The steering wheel is what most grabs your attention: it’s maybe ten inches in diameter and almost as deeply dished, reminiscent of the one in the 1968 Alfa Romeo Carabo. It works ergonomically, though, the perspective of the wheel spokes – which, at the hub end, are visually less obstructive because they’re further away – giving a clear view of the instruments, the wheel rim neatly dividing speedometer and revcounter from their flanking auxiliary gauges. It’s almost reassuring to note that the bank of toggle switches to the right have labels that are neatly obscured when each switch is depressed.
The Silhouette’s 3.0-litre V8 was carried over from the Urraco. It started life as a twin-cam 2.5-litre V8 in the Urraco P250, but for 1975 was re-engineered as a four-cam 3.0-litre (for the Urraco P300) with the camshafts driven by chains rather than belts, which had a habit of snapping. Both the engine and the five-speed gearbox were of Lamborghini design, under the great Paolo Stanzani, and mounted transversely amidships. One of the Silhouette’s quirks is that the fuel filler is under the engine cover, so be careful where you splash that petrol when the V8 is nice and hot. Fire it up and select first gear. As with its rival, the Ferrari 308GTB – or, more accurately, the GTS – the Lamborghini has a gearlever that’s tall, spindly and chromed, and operates through an exposed metal gate. It’s not as satisfyingly precise as a 308’s, however, although you do get that rewarding ‘clack’ every time the lever hits home.
The V8 is also quite different in character from Ferrari’s. I drove Richard’s Silhouette the day after seeing a Spitfire doing low passes over Goodwood House, and in my notes about its V8 I wrote that it has a similar kind of throbby pulse at lower revs. That may sound fanciful but I’ve since discovered an evo road test of this very car that states: ‘If you’re standing on the verge as it goes past, there’s something of the low-flying P-51 Mustang about the experience.’ We’re also agreed that this car sounds better from outside and behind than it does in the cockpit; yes, the driver is treated to a musical, mechanical blare (albeit less fizzy and crackly than Ferrari’s showmanship), but you only really get the full V8 palette of sounds if you’re an onlooker, when the retreating exhausts deliver a mid-range resonance that’s more race than road car.
Being relatively small in capacity, the V8 can’t deliver supercar acceleration, but that’s a good excuse to work it hard and not shift up until the revcounter needle is nudging 7000rpm, still 500 short of the red line. Conversely, if you’re in no hurry, there’s ample torque and the engine pulls in linear fashion from way down the rev-range. Mel Nichols, in his 1977 drive story, describes cruising for long stretches of deserted autostrada at 140mph, with occasional bursts up to 160mph, which is – to use Rolls-Royce’s famous adjective – ‘adequate’ for a Grand Tourer.
That said, the Silhouette is definitely at the sportier end of the GT spectrum. Dynamically, it’s closer to a De Tomaso Pantera than a Ferrari 308: as with the Italian-American hybrid, it has a more raw, less insulated feel on the road. The unassisted steering is sharp and super-direct; the ride firm and less supple than a 308’s. The net result of that combination is that you can practically feel every piece of road grit being telegraphed through the steering wheel. At times there’s also noticeable scuttle shake, something that worries modern road-testers but was less of a concern to journos brought up on 40 a day and long, liquid lunches.
Much more dangerous than a hint of flutter through the bulkhead and screen pillars is the appalling over-the-right-shoulder blindspot that you discover when pulling out of an angled junction, thanks to the broad B-pillar and reflections in the glass divider behind you. And equally irritating is the way that the nearside wheelarch in this left-hand-drive car intrudes into the footwell; I found the only way to prevent my size 12 left shoe from jamming under the bottom of the firewall was to remove it and operate the clutch through my sock. Not so stylish.
Such concerns count for little, though, if you have the privilege to be driving a Silhouette – especially one in metallic copper-orange with gold wheels. At the time it was a sales flop because Lamborghini couldn’t get it through emissions legislation for the all-important Californian market, which scuppered sales in the US; only ten Silhouettes were built to US spec. Now, however, it’s something of a ‘sleeper’ classic, like the Islero, a forgotten Lamborghini that’s appreciated by a knowledgeable minority. With so few on the market, values are hard to pitch but Richard Head suggests it should be on a par with a Ferrari 308 vetroresina – of which many more were built, and which were not open-roofed – and that sounds reasonable. So, shall we say about £130,000-150,000?
And if you’re still doubtful, then consider these words from Mel Nichols’ drive story for Car: ‘Mont Blanc loomed ahead; the sun was low and dropping fast, and the air was getting cold. The heater, full-on, warmed my legs and chest while my face froze. But what an evening – flowing so quickly and effortlessly up that mountain and finding that the Silhouette and its Pirellis had more grip than I might have imagined. Alone again in a real sports car; a sports car, what’s more, with the power to eat those bends and catapult past the trucks. For I know not how long I endured perfect pleasure.’ How do you put a price on perfect pleasure?
Right The first open-top Lamborghini, the Urraco-derived Silhouette is one of the rarest of Lambos, with just 52 sold in three years of production. Styling was by Marcello Gandini. Above and right Cockpit is very much of its time - and all the more fun for it; intrusion of wheelarch into the footwell not so amusing. Three-litre V8 with chain driven cams shared with Urraco P300.