Cars That Time Forgot

Cars That Time Forgot: Lamborghini Silhouette

by Richard Dredge
19 April 2024 4 min read
Cars That Time Forgot: Lamborghini Silhouette

Lamborghini has a history of building some unforgettable models. Most of us remember the Urraco, and the Jalpa that came after is pretty familiar, too. But what many people forget is the car that linked those two – the Silhouette. The Silhouette was the work of the late Marcello Gandini, who died in March, and it deserves a wider audience.

Conceived when Lamborghini was at its lowest, in some ways it’s a miracle that any Silhouettes were made at all. The Italian firm went bust after the car had been introduced, and during its evolution Lamborghini teetered on the precipice; the only reason the Silhouette saw the light of day was that it was an evolution of an existing product, rather than a clean-sheet design.

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Lamborghini Urraco saved by Mike Brewer
The 2+2 Urraco, introduced in 1972, would give way to the Silhouette.(Richard Heeley)

The car that sired the Silhouette was the Urraco, which Lamborghini had introduced in 1970 as the P250, with a 220-hp, transverse-mounted 2.5-liter V-8. By 1974, there was a Europe-only P200, powered by a 182-hp, 2.0-liter V-8, as well the P300 with its 3.0-liter V-8 making 265 hp. As the first V-8–engined car from Sant’Agata, the Urraco was created to increase production volumes at Lamborghini; as a direct rival to the small cars of Maserati and Ferrari, it was consequently more affordable, if not exactly cheap. Pitched squarely against the Ferrari 308 GT4, the Urraco used the same template, with its Bertone design, mid-mounted V-8, and 2+2 seating configuration.

The problem with the Urraco was that its 2+2 seating layout made it rather less glamorous than a strict two-seater, and with Ferrari having launched the 308 GTB (and then the targa-topped 308 GTS), Lamborghini really needed something to compete. The solution lay in commissioning Bertone to get out the tin snips and turn the Urraco into a targa-topped two-seater. The Silhouette was the result, and it was revealed to the world at the Geneva Salon in spring 1976, to sell alongside the Urraco.

Lamborghini Silhouette front 3/4
(Lamborghini)

Essentially an updated 3.0-litre Urraco, the Silhouette was Lamborghini’s first production open car. Although it carried over the Urraco’s engine and bodyshell, this wasn’t immediately apparent, because the back end was redesigned with flying buttresses and an upright rear window (just like the 308 GTB/GTS). Where the back seats used to be, the detachable glassfibre roof panel could be stowed, and to distance the Silhouette from the Urraco, the wheelarches were squared off for a much more aggressive appearance. Beneath those mouldings were bigger and wider Campagnolo wheels shod with the latest Pirelli P7 tyres (195/50 up front and 285/40 at the back), and to top it all off there was a deeper front air dam that provided greater stability at high speeds.

Most of the mainstream car magazines of the time gave the Silhouette no coverage, but CAR had been a fan of Lamborghini since its earliest days, and on no fewer than four occasions the mag published drive stories on this transitional model. First up was Ron Wakefield in summer 1976. He wrote: “This is the sort of car whose limits are so high you can’t get near them on a public road with the margin of safety I like to have, and to be thoroughly familiar with the Silhouette’s behaviour I’d like to have an hour on a race track somewhere. I was told that the car had matched a Group 4 Pantera’s lap times in testing at Varano.”

The prototype that Wakefield drove was poorly made so he reserved judgment on the build quality; just a few months later, Mel Nichols drove the first Silhouette to land in the UK. His more extensive review didn’t mention how well screwed together the Silhouette was, so presumably this early production car was finished to a rather higher standard than the prototype. But he ruminated plenty on the driving experience, which he thought was something special.

Lamborghini Silhouette front 3/4

Nichols commented: “The Silhouette feels very different compared with the Urraco. Not harder and sharper as you might expect, but softer and even more supple; tamer… I travelled fast in the Silhouette, and I travelled fast so very easily. The wheel is turned and the car answers. Impeccably, precisely, unquestionably. The responses do not seem significantly better than those of the already superb Urraco, but the grip of the Silhouette once the manoeuvre has been undertaken is unmistakably stronger. You are endowed with even greater facilities for cornering, with reserves so huge that I sit here now after thundering along motorways at upwards of 160mph, after whipping up mountains and charging down them, with no idea of where the limits of the Silhouette really lie… The Urraco hasn’t been overshadowed; it has been complemented. Magnificently so.”

Less than a year later Nichols was back at Sant’Agata, bringing the final Silhouette back to the UK, with Lamborghini teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Production was running at little more than one car each week; it didn’t help that North America, the world’s biggest car market, was out of bounds, because Lamborghini couldn’t supply enough cars to make it worthwhile for its importer, so it provided none at all. By June 1978, Lamborghini’s Type Approval paperwork for the UK had expired, meaning its importer could no longer sell any cars, even though there was the demand for about 60 each year.

Lamborghini Silhouette rear 3/4

Thankfully Lamborghini was saved by brothers Jean-Claude and Patrick Mimran, but it was a long drawn-out process that took several years, and by that point the Silhouette’s time had been and gone. The final Silhouette was built in 1979 (the same year that the last Urraco was built), its production tally just 55 examples, the last one of which would become the Jalpa prototype. That car was launched in 1982, with a 3485cc version of the V8 engine first seen in the Urraco and carried over to the Silhouette. More than 400 would be made, in a run that lasted from 1982 until 1988, by which time the Silhouette had all but faded from collective memory.

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